10 July 2022

Finding a Comberford
property in a lost parish
in Cheapside, London

Pancras Lane and the site of Saint Pancras Soper Lane (Photograph: Bashereyre, CCL/Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us have been to London five or six times in recent weeks, but I still have to visit the site of Saint Pancras Church, Soper Lane, a church in Cheapside that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and never rebuilt.

This long-lost Saint Pancras should not be confused with either Old Saint Pancras or New Saint Pancras, two churches I have visited and written about in recent weeks.

This Saint Pancras Church and Soper Lane are of interest to me because in the early 16th century Thomas Comberford briefly owned part of the Lee Estate, associated with both a former Lord Mayor of London and with the Church of Saint Stephen Walbrook, which two of us visited earlier this summer.

Saint Pancras, Soper Lane, was a parish church in the Ward of Cheap. The church was of mediaeval origin, and was first built in the 12th century. The church was a small building, with a tower containing five bells, and there was a chapel on the north side.

The patronage of the church belonged to the prior and chapter of Christ Church, Canterbury, until 1365, when they granted it to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The vicarage stood on the corner of Pancras Lane and Queen Street.

For a brief time in the 1510s and 1520s, Thomas Comberford owned a number of properties in Saint Pancras Parish. In recent weeks I have been trying to identify both this Thomas Comberford and the properties he seems to have owned for a brief time in this part of London.

Thomas Comberford seems to have succeeded to these properties following the death of Thomas Fyscher or Fisher. Comberford’s property in the area had passed through a number of families from the Middle Ages on.

Eventually, these properties passed to Sir Richard Lee or Leigh, who was twice Lord Mayor of London, in 1460 and 1469. Lee died on 4 March 1472, and was buried at Saint Stephen Walbrook.

His widow Lettice Lee, who made her will in 1477 – although it was not proved until 1489 – described herself as a citizen and freewoman (libera femina) of London, when she left the tenements in Soper Lane and Popkirtle Lane in Saint Pancras parish, and other properties, to the rector and churchwardens of Saint Stephen Walbrook, to find a chaplain to say Mass for the souls of herself and her husband, parents, and children, with a stipend of £7 a year.

Some of the rents, charges, and repairs of Lee’s estate in Saint Pancras parish survive in the parish records of Saint Stephen Walbrook from 1504 to 1548. In 1504 Thomas Fyssher, mercer, held the property at £9 rent, which he paid to successive churchwardens, by varying amounts, until 1511. Part of that rent was paid for Sir Richard Lee’s Mass requests, including £7 a year paid to their chantry priest. Some of the rentals were also used to pay for repairs to the properties.

Saint Stephen Walbrook received some of the rents from the properties owned by Thomas Comberford … Soper Lane was west of Walbrook (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Fysher appears to have been paying the £9 rent for a number of shops and houses together, and in 1512 or 1513 asked for allowance for several that were empty. He said that one shop had been empty for 10 years and another had been empty for five years, and he blamed this on the failure of the parish to repair the properties.

He also claimed that he had surrendered his lease, with five years remaining, on the churchwardens’ promise to repair the tenements, but they had spent only £7 in repairs. Fysher may have stopped paying his rent, and in 1513 the parish calculated that he owed £34 in arrears, but reduced this to £20, to be paid at £2 yearly, on his promise to pay the rent also.

The records are too scanty to say whether the parish undertook repairs at this period or not. But this seems to be the property that passed to Thomas Comberford within a short time.

Thomas Comberford paid £6. 15s. for three quarters’ rent in 1518-1519 and £9 for the whole year in 1519-1520. Repairs totalling over £10 were carried out in 1520 in ‘Master Lee’s lands’ in Saint Pancras parish. These included tiling, and paving the kitchen in Thomas Comberford’s house, repairs to a great oven and hearth in the tallow-chandler’s house, for which Comberford seems to have paid and been reimbursed, and making a lead gutter in the house of another of Comberford’s tenants, and a pipe in Sawnder Brown’s house.

The requiem Masses continued to be said and the chantry charges continued to be paid, and Thomas Culpeper, overseer of Thomas Fisher’s goods, paid £2 for Fisher’s debt.

Thomas Comberford disappears from the records of the parish soon after. He seems to be the same person as Thomas Comberford (1472-1532) of Comberford, a member of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, Lichfield, and a progressive farmer who, between 1511 and 1513, enclosed much of the land in the common fields around Comberford. In 1514, he secured full rights over the manor of Wigginton and lands in Wigginton, Hopwas, Coton, Comberford and Tamworth. He also acquired the manor of Watford, north of Daventry in Northamptonshire.

In 1519-1520, he served as Escheator of Staffordshire, the lawyer responsible for property lapsing to the crown or the lord of a manor when the owner died without heirs.

When Thomas Comberford died on 6 January 1532, his estates included the Manor of Wigginton with lands in Wigginton, Hopwas, Coton, Comberford and Tamworth; the Manor of Comberford; the right to hold a fair in Tamworth twice a year; the rights of fishery for a 2½-mile stretch along the River Tame from Lady Bridge, marking the boundary between the Staffordshire and Warwickshire parts of Tamworth, to Hopwas Bridge, and the right to keep six swans in the river.

Thomas Comberford’s wife Dorothea Fitzherbert was a sister of the Revd Dr Thomas Fitzherbert, Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, and the Revd Canon William Fitzherbert, Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral, while her younger sister Alice was Abbess of Polesworth Abbey, near Tamworth.

The Parish of Saint Pancras in Cheapside was small but had some wealthy residents, and the church received various benefactions. The church was presented with a monument commemorating Elizabeth I by Thomas Chapman in 1617. The renovation of the building in 1621 was financed by a group of benefactors, including Chapman, and a porch was added in 1624, paid for by Chapman’s son.

Along with the majority of churches in the City, the Church of Saint Pancras, Soper Lane, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in September 1666 and was not rebuilt. he site is now a small open space marked with a blue plaque in what is now named Pancras Lane. The parsonage house on the corner of Pancras Lane and Queen Street was leased out for 40 years at an annual rent of £2, in 1670. Soper Lane was rebuilt after the Great Fire, and was renamed Queen Street in honour of Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II.

The parish was united with those of Saint Mary-le-Bow and All Hallows, Honey Lane. The rebuilt Saint Mary-le-Bow served as the church for the united parishes, and the site of Saint Pancras was retained as a graveyard.

Today, the parish forms part of the United Parishes of Saint Mary-le-Bow with Saint Pancras Soper Lane, All Hallows Honey Lane, All Hallows Bread Street, Saint Augustine with Saint Faith under Saint Paul’s, Saint John-the-Evangelist Watling Street and Saint Mildred Bread Street with Saint Margaret Moyses.

One of the churchwardens of this combined parish is the warden for Saint Pancras Soper Lane.

Saint Mary-le-Bow … the parish now incorporates the former Saint Pancras, Soper Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some questions raised
by reading the Parable
of the Good Samaritan

An Orthodox icon of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, interpreting the parable according to the Patristic and Orthodox tradition (Click on image for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

This morning was ‘Good Samaritan Sunday,’ and in church today we heard once again the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37).

Over the past few Sundays, we have seen Christ and the disciples have set out on two separate missions ahead of him on the road to Jerusalem (see Luke 9: 51-56; and Luke 9: 57-62). He has given them advice on how to introduce people to his message and how to respond to those who reject it.

They are about to travel through a Samaritan area, when a lawyer, a man who is an expert in the Mosaic law or halakha, approaches Christ with an interesting question, has the question turned back on him, and when he asks yet another question, the response comes in this, one of the best-known parables in the this Gospel, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When the lawyer approaches Jesus, his question is not about the law. Instead, he asks respectfully: ‘Teacher (rabbi), what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Christ does not answer directly, but instead asks a pair of questions: ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’

The lawyer answers with two citations from the Law, one from the Book Deuteronomy and a second from the Book Leviticus.

The first command is: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6: 5). This verse follows immediately after the Shema, the basic, fundamental prayer of Judaism, recited constantly and twice daily. The response to hearing God’s word and believing in God is to love God.

The Jewish theologian, Professor Michael Fishbane of the University of Chicago, says this great exhortation is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. In The Kiss of God (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1996), he adds: ‘These words are also at the heart of Judaism and constitute its religious ideal’ (p 3).

In Jewish tradition, the word love stipulates loyalty and covenantal relationship. Each of these loves demands all: all my heart, all my soul and all my might. There is a progression here, moving from my heart or mind, to expanding to my soul or life force, and culminating in my might or locus of energy.

But the lawyer interpolates or enhances this verse, quoting it as: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.’

The addition ‘with all your mind’ (ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου, en ole te dianoia sou) is significant. Fishbane believes this is undoubtedly a lost midrashic reading of me’odekha (‘your might’) as mada‘akha (‘your mind’).

The mediaeval Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides describes a kenosis or self-emptying in prayer focused on the Shema that sets the mind on the course of loving God with all one’s heart (mind), soul and might. After this discipline is perfected, one is properly prepared to attend to things pertaining to the world.

So, it is consonant with Jewish tradition that the lawyer then moves to citing as the second command: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19: 18). Rabbi Avika, who lived at the end of the first and beginning of the second century CE, in the midrashic commentary or Sifre on Leviticus, refers to this command as ‘the greatest principle in the Law.’

Christ then echoes a verse in the Law: ‘You have given the right answer; do this and you will live’ (verse 28). Compare this with: ‘You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing this one shall live: I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 18: 5).

The promise of life comes not through inheritance or deeds, but through love – love of God, and love of neighbour.

The lawyer then goes on to ask: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (verse 29).

Their journey to Jerusalem is going to take Jesus and his disciples through Jericho (see Luke 19: 1) and through Bethany (see Luke 19; 29), so they are aware of the dangers they face ahead – the dangerous cost of travelling that road, where so often travellers and pilgrims have been mugged. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was fraught with danger.

Normally, we think we should identify with the Samaritan in this story. But the first listeners would have identified with the man who was on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. But everyone listening would have identified with the poor man who had been mugged, from the beginning of the story. Many pious Jews would know someone who had been mugged on this road, a close friend, a member of their own family, maybe it even happened once to themselves.

And they would have known that a priest passing by would have had to walk on the other side of the road (verse 31).

After all, this man had been left ‘half dead’ (verse 30). If a priest touched a corpse, he became ritually unclean. He would have become ritually unclean. He could no longer provide the service in the Temple that was the whole purpose of being on that road. Even if the man is half dead, the priest would have been contaminated by touching his blood. And what if the man died in the process?

In Judaism, a Cohen (כהן), a descendant of Aaron the High Priest, may not come in contact with any dead body, may not enter a building where a dead body of a Jew lays, and outdoors is forbidden to come within four cubits of a Jewish corpse or a Jewish grave. A Cohen is commanded to be in a state of purity and avoid ritual defilement by a corpse, which is ritually unclean (Leviticus 21: 1-2). Cohanim (כהנים) do not take part in a burial unless it is one of their closest relatives.

Ritual impurity was also brought about by contact with a significant amount of blood. So, everyone listening would have realised the priest was behaving properly, impeccably. He had a higher duty, he had no right to contaminate himself wilfully, or to deprive the Temple of his service and his family of their source of income.

So too with the Levite. Should he find himself contaminated ritually by contact with blood or a dead body, he could not officiate at the morning service, offer the blessing at the conclusion of the service – as a direct spokesperson for God – or called upon God in prayer in the Temple; he could longer serve in his role, assisting the Temple priests, serving as a guardian of the Tabernacle, sacrificing the Temple offerings, or performing the ritual slaughters. As a Levite, he had no rights to property or land, so if he became contaminated he would lose his income, there would be no food on the table for his children and his family.

Better let the poor man – dead or alive – to wait for a neighbour who would take care of him. And that would have been the expectation of everyone who listened to this story.

But when the Samaritan arrives, those who are listening would be aghast. Was he going to add to the victim’s distress? Mug him again? Root for his wallet or his credit card or his mobile phone?

The sting in the tail is not that Jesus is saying the Priest or the Levite should have contaminated himself. No at all. The sting in the tail is that the mugged man should accept the Samaritan’s mercy and ministrations, accept him as a good neighbour.

The lawyer recognises that the Samaritan has acted properly, yet even now he cannot bring himself to say ‘the Samaritan.’

By and large, we cannot choose our neighbours. The estate agent and the people selling a house or letting a flat naturally tell us the neighbours are wonderful. They are never going to say we are moving into a house where people on one side or the other are people we could not accept. We have to wait to find out ourselves … when it is too late.

We cannot choose our neighbours. But we can decide whether or not to accept them.

And so this parable, instead of being called the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as it is referred to in the headings in many Bibles, including the NRSV, might be better called the ‘Parable of the Good Neighbour’ or the ‘Parable of the Accepting Neighbour.’ The Early Fathers offered another interpretation of this parable.

The man who goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho is Adam, or humanity, or each and every one of us.

What does it mean that he goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho? Jerusalem is the holy city of God, the place where God is served in worship and in public prayer. It is an impregnable stronghold, but it is located in a hill country, where the soil is stony and barren. On the other hand, Jericho lies below the sea level in the Jordan Valley, in an area that is very fertile and rich in vegetation.

Jerusalem signifies the Divine Commandments. These commandments, like the walls of a city, limit us and our desires, but also create a safe living space where we can live unharmed by sin.

A man being seduced by earthly pleasures, represented by Jericho, goes out from Jerusalem, the stronghold of Divine Commandments. Here, we might think of Adam and Eve.

But the robbers control this way. Who are the robbers?

When people abandon God and seek pleasures in other places, the way of bodily desires first appears to be full of joy. But as time passes, indulging in passions becomes a heavy burden on the soul; in place of pleasure it becomes endless slavery. A man realises that he has lost his freedom and has become a captive of his passions. A soul blinded by passions and wounded by sin becomes incapable of any spiritual activity.

Before God, such a man is half-dead. On the way, the man has been stripped of his raiment, deprived of the raiment of virtues and of the cover of God’s grace and protection.

In this approach to reading the parable, the robbers are demons who act through our own passions. The man wounded by robbers represents fallen humanity before the coming of Christ.

Who then were the Priest and Levite who saw the wounded man and passed by without providing him any help?

The Priest and the Levite are ministers of God. They represent the prophets and saints sent by God from the beginning of time.

Why then is it said that they passed by without helping that man?

Did they not fulfil the ministry of preaching?

Yes, they did. They came to that place, they stopped, they saw the man and they passed by. But the wounded man remained lying on the road. Moses came and passed away, Elijah came and passed away, other prophets came and passed away, but the illness of humanity remained without being healed.

Only God who has created us can recreate us.

This is how Isaiah speaks on the incurable disease of the humanity:

Why do you seek further beatings?
Why do you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and bleeding wounds;
they have not been drained, or bound up,
or softened with oil. (Isaiah 1: 5-6)

Who then is the Samaritan who goes down on the same road?

The Samaritans were the descendants of Israelites and the nations who migrated to Palestine under Assyrian rule after the destruction of Jerusalem. They lived to the south of Judea, between Judea and Galilee. Samaritans believed in the One God of Israel and kept the Law of Moses, but developed their own traditions. For the Jews, they were heretics, and so Jews kept their distance from Samaritans.

Why then does Christ represent himself as a Samaritan?

The Pharisees mockingly labelled Christ a Samaritan, saying, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ (John 8: 48).

Christ humbly attributes to himself the name given to him by his detractors.

In addition, Greek Orthodox hymns note a similarity between the phrases ‘from Samaria’ and ‘from Mary,’ for in Greek these phrases sound similar.

The Samaritan, moved with compassion, approaches the wounded man. He binds his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. The oil symbolises mercy and the wine the true teaching of God. Then he brings the man to an inn where he can be taken care of.

The Gospel readings says that the Good Samaritan ‘put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.’ However, in traditional icons, Christ carries the man on his back. Christ in the incarnation takes on our human nature, our soul and body. That is why in the parable he ‘set him on his own beast,’ interpreted by the Early Fathers that Christ makes us members of his own body.

There is a similar image in the parable of the Lost Sheep (see Luke 15). The Good Shepherd left 99 sheep in the desert and went after the lost sheep, representing humanity. When he found the lost sheep, he put it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

The inn in the parable represents the Church. The innkeeper represents bishops and priests. Christ establishes his Church which, like an inn, accepts and provides shelter for all. The wounded man should stay here to be taken care of. The Samaritan has to leave, however. He takes out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying: ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Christ indicates his second coming when he will come not to heal our infirmities, but to judge the living and the dead, and to reward each one according to his works.

The silver the Samaritan gives to the innkeeper is the divine grace Christ gives to the Church; it heals and saves souls through the sacraments. Bishops and priests, the ministers of the sacraments of the Church, are the distributors of God’s gifts. They offer to others what they have received: the sacraments and the teaching of Christ. Are they able to spend more? What can they add from themselves to the gift of the Divine Grace? Their labour, their cares, their zeal, which Christ shall recompense them on the day of the Last Judgment.

In this interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ offers himself as the prime example of mercy and compassion. Through his compassion, he takes on our sufferings and becomes the true neighbour of all fallen humanity.

This is a reading of this parable that connects with the assertion in the New Testament reading this morning (Colossians 1: 15-20) that God through Christ ‘has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son’ (Colossians 1: 13).

The Good Samaritan … a modern icon

Luke 10: 25-37

25 Καὶ ἰδοὺ νομικός τις ἀνέστη ἐκπειράζων αὐτὸν λέγων, Διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω; 26 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτόν, Ἐν τῷ νόμῳ τί γέγραπται; πῶς ἀναγινώσκεις; 27 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης [τῆς] καρδίας σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ἰσχύϊ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου, καὶ τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. 28 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ, Ὀρθῶς ἀπεκρίθης: τοῦτο ποίει καὶ ζήσῃ.

29 ὁ δὲ θέλων δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν εἶπεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν, Καὶ τίς ἐστίν μου πλησίον; 30 ὑπολαβὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Ἄνθρωπός τις κατέβαινεν ἀπὸ Ἰερουσαλὴμ εἰς Ἰεριχὼ καὶ λῃσταῖς περιέπεσεν, οἳ καὶ ἐκδύσαντες αὐτὸν καὶ πληγὰς ἐπιθέντες ἀπῆλθον ἀφέντες ἡμιθανῆ. 31 κατὰ συγκυρίαν δὲ ἱερεύς τις κατέβαινεν ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἐκείνῃ, καὶ ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν: 32 ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ Λευίτης [γενόμενος] κατὰ τὸν τόπον ἐλθὼν καὶ ἰδὼν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν. 33 Σαμαρίτης δέ τις ὁδεύων ἦλθεν κατ' αὐτὸν καὶ ἰδὼν ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, 34 καὶ προσελθὼν κατέδησεν τὰ τραύματα αὐτοῦ ἐπιχέων ἔλαιον καὶ οἶνον, ἐπιβιβάσας δὲ αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὸ ἴδιον κτῆνος ἤγαγεν αὐτὸν εἰς πανδοχεῖον καὶ ἐπεμελήθη αὐτοῦ. 35 καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν αὔριον ἐκβαλὼν ἔδωκεν δύο δηνάρια τῷ πανδοχεῖ καὶ εἶπεν, Ἐπιμελήθητι αὐτοῦ, καὶ ὅ τι ἂν προσδαπανήσῃς ἐγὼ ἐν τῷ ἐπανέρχεσθαί με ἀποδώσω σοι. 36 τίς τούτων τῶν τριῶν πλησίον δοκεῖ σοι γεγονέναι τοῦ ἐμπεσόντος εἰς τοὺς λῃστάς; 37 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ' αὐτοῦ. εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Πορεύου καὶ σὺ ποίει ὁμοίως.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

The Good Samaritan … a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
10 July 2022 (Psalm 137)

‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. As for our lyres, we hung them up on the willows …’ (Psalm 137: 1-2) … willows by the banks of the River Cam in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time, and today is the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (10 July 2022). Later this morning, I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 137:

Psalm 137 is popularly known because of its opening words, ‘By the rivers of Babylon’, and has often been set to music and paraphrased in hymns. In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is Psalm 136. Its name in Latin is Super flumina Babylonis.

Psalm 137 is the only one of the 150 psalms set in a particular time and place. Its nine verses paint a scene of captives mourning ‘by the rivers of Babylon,’ mocked by their captors. It expresses a vow to remember Jerusalem even in exile, and closes with fantasies of vengeance against the oppressors.

This is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the people in exile, a communal lament about remembering Zion, and a yearning for Jerusalem while living in exile in the Babylonian captivity.

The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates and its tributaries, and the Tigris. After Nebuchadnezzar II’s successful siege of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, and subsequent campaigns, the people of the Kingdom of Judah were deported to Babylonia, where they were held captive until after the Fall of Babylon in 539 BCE.

In its nine verses, Psalm 137 reflects the yearning for Jerusalem as well as hatred for the Holy City’s enemies with sometimes violent imagery.

Psalm 137 was probably written after the return from exile in Babylon. The psalmist remembers the time when the people were deportees and sat down by the rivers of Babylon, which were fed by the Tigris and Euphrates. When their captors mocked them and called for songs praising Zion as the city where God dwells, they found it difficult to sing God’s praise for Jerusalem was in ruins.

Now, when this psalm is being sung back in Jerusalem and in the Temple, they can praise God. They are reminded not to forget God, Jerusalem and their joy.

Rabbinical tradition attributes the poem to the Prophet Jeremiah, and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: ‘For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity.’

In verses 1-4, the psalm describe the sadness of the Israelites in exile, while remembering their homeland, weeping and hanging their harps on trees. Asked to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,’ they refuse.

1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

In verses 5-6, the speaker turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem:

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

The psalm ends in verses 7-9 with prophetic predictions of violent revenge:

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

In Jewish tradition, this psalm is customarily recited on Tisha B’Av (6-7 August 2022) and by some people during the nine days preceding Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Psalm 137 is traditionally recited before the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) on a weekday. Verses 5 and 6 are customarily said by the groom at a Jewish wedding shortly before breaking a glass as a symbolic act of mourning over the destruction of the Temple.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church , Psalm 137 (known by its Septuagint numbering as Psalm 136) is read at Matins on Friday mornings throughout the year, except during Bright Week, the week following Easter Day, when no psalms at all are read.

Pope Gregory X quoted Psalm 137: 5 (‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!’) before departing from the Crusades upon his election by the papal conclave.

After the Second Vatican Council, the last three verses of this psalm were removed from Catholic liturgical books because of their perceived cruelty. Many lectionaries and many Anglican prayer books have also removed these verses. Many composers who have set this psalm to music also omit the last verse.

The hymnwriter John L Bell comments alongside his own setting of this Psalm: ‘The final verse is omitted in this metricization, because its seemingly outrageous curse is better dealt with in preaching or group conversation. It should not be forgotten, especially by those who have never known exile, dispossession or the rape of people and land.’

The Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests it is absolutely necessary to listen to this Psalm. It speaks with unfailing honesty about the abuse that was done, and is still done, to individuals and to whole groups of people. It is necessary to hear how it feels to suffer this kind of violence and humiliation.

So often we want to move quickly from this Psalm to words telling us to forgive. But, as Brueggemann asks in The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (1984), ‘Could it be that genuine forgiveness is possible only when there has been a genuine articulation of [anger] and hatred?’

Psalm 137 gives permission, and actually authorises the powerless who have been brutalized to vent their indignation and turn to God for justice. As Brueggemann says, ‘It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.’

Psalm 137 has long served as an uplifting historical analogy for a variety of oppressed and subjugated groups, including African-Americans. It has inspired numerous political leaders and social movements, and immigrants as varied as Irish and Korean have identified with the story.

Psalm 137 was the inspiration for the famous slave chorus ‘Va, pensiero’ in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco (1842). Gabriel Fauré wrote a Super Flumina Babylonis for mixed chorus and orchestra (1863). Antonín Dvořák set verses 1-5 to music as No 7 of his Biblical Songs (1894). The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt composed An den Wassern zu Babel saßen wir und weinten (1976, revised 1984). Psalm 137 is the central text of John Tavener's ‘Lament for Jerusalem – a mystical love song.’

The ‘Rivers of Babylon,’ based on the opening verses of Psalm 137, is a Rastafarian song that became a hit single for Boney M in 1978.

The psalm is the inspiration for Leonard Cohen’s ‘By the Rivers Dark’ on his 2001 album Ten New Songs (2001).

Phrases from the psalm are cited in many works of literature. Captain Snegiryov quotes verses 5 and 6 in The Brothers Karamazov (Book X, Chapter 7).

In the third stanza, ‘The Fire Sermon,’ of TS Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land line 182 is: ‘By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept ...’

‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill’ (Psalm 137: 5) … a painting of Jerusalem in a restaurant in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 137 (NRSVA):

1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week is ‘Partners in Mission.’ It is introduced today:

‘The USPG Partners in Mission scheme is an opportunity to join one of our global church partners in their local mission. Through the scheme, you are able to partner with one of seven churches around the world with 100% of your donations funding their vital local programmes. There are two ways to take part in the scheme, you can support as an individual, or you can join as a church to fund your chosen partner’s life-changing work.

‘We are currently in the process of launching new materials for each of our Partners in Mission churches. You will have access to a special web page for your partner church, where you can find the latest programme updates and prayer requests. You’ll be able to read stories from local people whose lives have been transformed by your donations. The web page will also contain handy downloadable resources to help you make the most of your fundraising.

If you are already a Partner in Mission, look out for an email with all the latest updates. If you would like to join the scheme and help to transform lives across the world through God’s love, you can sign up at www.uspg.org.uk/partners-in-mission.’

Sunday 10 July 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Loving Lord,
guide us as we partner in mission.
May we be sensitive and considerate
as we live out our mission alongside our fellow Christians.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org