Section three of the psalm, “Forgetting,” is, as Stowe points out, the “least used in song or liturgy but most controversial.” With its seemingly cruel language, the psalm’s call for vengeance has been largely excised from liturgical repertoires across church history. But we are wrong to do so, argues the Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf. In a conversation with Stowe, Volf insists that psalms such as these remain within the church’s worship. As Volf puts it, "they may point to a way out of slavery to revenge and into the freedom of forgiveness."
This side of the cross of Christ, however, it is not clear how an imprecatory psalm fits into the church’s speech patterns. Stowe notes, in detail, how both Augustine and Benedict interpreted Psalm 137 allegorically, while Isaac Watts excluded it from his 1719 hymnal, The Songs of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, because he judged it “opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel.”
Stowe also describes how a peculiar form of “American vengeance,” often baptized by Christians with appeals to Psalm 137, stands in sharp contrast to “theologies of vengeance,” as articulated by Volf or Reinhold Niebuhr. To say that “vengeance belongs to the Lord” (per Romans 12) is one thing. Quite another is to put on our lips the last verses of Psalm 137. Stowe asks: Is it possible to pray language of vengeance without lapsing into revenge fantasies?
A Travelogue of Exile
Befitting the work of a biographer, Stowe chooses to describe rather than opine on the subject of his investigation. What results is an often-meandering travelogue of Psalm 137’s reception by Jewish and Christian communities over the past two millennia. While the three sub-headings provide a focus for each section of the book, the contents themselves lack a coherent thread. They seem to follow instead the author’s journalistic curiosity, a point that Stowe readily acknowledges.
If a biography aims to tell a subject’s story faithfully, then Song of Exile is an examination of a psalm that fails to possess a clear enough through-line but which opens up a history of fascination and controversy around the question of exile. And while the book may be burdened with the idiosyncratic interests of its author, in some cases resulting in long-winding excursions, the gift to the reader is greater self-awareness.