Psalm 137

Psalm 137

(1) By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
(2) There on the poplars we hung our harps,
(3) for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

(4) How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
(5) If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
(6) May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

(7) Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. "Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!"
(8) Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
(9) Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137 is a sharp contrast to the last few psalms. No more Song of Ascents, no more “praise the Lord” or “His love endures forever” here. This song is a remembrance of war and destruction, grief and loss, sadness and hopelessness.

Titled- How Shall We Sing the LORD’s Song? (ESV); Longing for Zion in a Foreign Land (NKJV); An Experience of Captivity (NASB); and Lament of the Exiles (HCSB), among others.

Psalm 137 is a beautiful piece of poetry, filled with deep emotion. And sadly, what is written here is an actual account of what happened to God’s people.

For 70 years, somewhere around the year 597 BC, the Jewish people were taken captive by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II and Jerusalem was destroyed, thus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy (Daniel 9). Terrible things happened to the Lord’s people during this time in history, the temple was destroyed; the people were abused, killed, and taken captive; and all of the sacred and important things carried away from Jerusalem.

And the people who survived wept. They felt abandoned by God. The city they loved, the Promised Land, their families and homes, the place they worshiped the Lord- all gone.

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: "Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!" But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a pagan land?
Psalm 137:1-4 NLT

The ones who survived the battle in Jerusalem became captives far from home. Psalm 137 paints a vivid picture of a Jewish musician being mocked by his captors as he mourns for the loss of his home, his culture, his people, his family, and his freedom. As he stood before one of Babylon’s mighty rivers- the Tigris or Euphrates- he feels lost, alone, and broken.

In the days of her affliction and wandering Jerusalem remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old. When her people fell into enemy hands, there was no one to help her. Her enemies looked at her and laughed at her destruction.
Lamentations 1:7 NIV

This musician is done with music. His harp is hung up on the branch of a tree. He stands beside a river he does not know, in a land far away, without his loved ones beside him. And the people near him chide him, knowing his sadness, to sing about the place his heart longs for. They don’t do it because they want to hear a song about the Lord, they do it to cause him more pain.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp. May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don't make Jerusalem my greatest joy.
Psalm 137:5-6 NLT

The sacred city must ever be first in their thoughts, the queen of their souls; they had sooner be dumb than dishonor her sacred hymns and give occasion to the oppressor to ridicule her worship.

Charles Spurgeon, English preacher, 1834-1892

In the book of Ezra, the prophet lists the Jewish exiles as they are freed to return home to Jerusalem. Ezra 2 lists the tribe or head relative, their job within the community, and how many of each. Verse 41 says this about how many musicians returned home to Jerusalem after being in exile in Bablyon:

The musicians: the descendants of Asaph     128
Ezra 2:41 NIV

Maybe Psalm 137 is written by one these musicians who finally got to go home. He would be a very old man now as he walked through the gates into the city- the ruined city. Or maybe sadly, the author of Psalm 137 died in captivity and other singers remembered his song.

While in captivity, the Israelites did not want to lose sight of their “greatest joy,” also known as “home.” Truly God was with the Israelites when they were in Babylon, but worship and fellowship with other believers was not the same. They were not in the place their people had worked so hard to establish, the place of their ancestors with the temple and the ark of the covenant. All of these things were essential to the faith of the Israelite people. They things were now gone, and the people were living amongst the Babylonians who had very different beliefs. Thus, their deep desire to keep Jerusalem as their “greatest joy.”

Do you think God allowed His children to be broken so that they would see His faithfulness in a foreign land? He made them uncomfortable- very uncomfortable. He took away all the things they thought they needed, maybe so that they would look to Him again. So that they would remember His faithfulness.

And as some time passed, they returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild. As the builders laid the foundation of the new temple, all the people gathered around to praise the Lord. There was weeping and rejoicing- a bittersweet joy:

With praise and thanksgiving, they sang to the LORD:
"He is good; his love toward Israel endures forever."

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard from far away.
Ezra 3:11-13 NIV

The vow to remember Jerusalem was a painful blessing. An unattainable memory to the captive. A bittersweet vision to the one who made it home again and began the long and difficult process of rebuilding.

O LORD, remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem.
"Destroy it!" they yelled. "Level it to the ground!"
O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!
Psalm 137:7-9 NLT

Fierce was the heart of the Jew who had seen his beloved city the scene of such terrific butchery. His heart pronounced like a sentence upon Babylon. She should be scourged with her own whip of wire. The desire for righteous retribution is rather the spirit of the law than of the gospel; and yet in moments of righteous wrath the old fire will burn; and while justice survives in the human breast it will not lack for fuel among the various tyrannies which still survive.

Charles Spurgeon, English preacher, 1834-1892

The singer now calls upon God to remember what happened, to serve His justice.

Remembering Jerusalem was painful, but the city and its people were on this singer’s mind. He vows to remember the city. He vows to remember the songs. He will not sing them now, but he will not forget them. And likewise, he will not forget who caused his people to suffer.

The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s (Israel) brother. They were Israel’s long-ago relatives and neighbors within the middle east. But the Edomite people banded together with the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and take away her people.

Rejoice and be glad, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz. But to you also the cup will be passed; you will be drunk and stripped naked. Your punishment will end, Daughter Zion; he will not prolong your exile. But he will punish your sin, Daughter Edom, and expose your wickedness.
Lamentations 4:21-22 NIV

Because of Edom’s involvement in the destruction of God’s people, Edom is gone. Babylon and Edom are lost in history.

Yet Jerusalem- although battle-worn and often tittering on the edge of war- still stands to this day.

Finally, the description of soldiers hurting children is a horrible reminder that all suffer in times of war. The man who weeps at the river in Babylon is haunted by traumatic memories of what most certainly happened in Jerusalem, and he calls upon the just hand of the Lord to respond.

The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s words in regard to the future of Babylon in Isaiah 13. The whole chapter is God’s promise of retribution, it’s not easy to read. But the Truth is that God is always good, even we don’t understand why things happen the way they do or why innocent ones have to suffer.

Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Isaiah 13:19 NIV

There is so much is this beautiful little poetic psalm. So much sadness and grief. But mixed in with all of that is a belief in the power of God, the importance of waiting for God, and trusting in His faithfulness.

Psalm 137 is a reminder that God will avenge wrongs done. It is His place, not ours. And it is also His promise. He will do it- in His perfect time.

It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.
Deuteronomy 32:35 NIV

Psalm 137 is also a reminder that God is faithful, even in darkness and times of grief. God was faithful when the people were making Jerusalem their home. He was faithful when Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people were captives in Babylon. And He was faithful when they set to rebuilding the temple yet again.

God is faithful today. He has watched over His children always, and He will continue to do so. He is a good Father. Always present. Always faithful. Always good.

When you doubt if God is listening or if even cares, remember these stories. He was faithful. He will be faithful.

The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.
Exodus 14:14 NIV

Father in heaven, thank you for this sad psalm and for the reminder that you are faithful when we feel lost, abandoned, and far from home. You are faithful to avenge the wrongs done to your children. Help us to leave this in your capable hands. And help us when we struggle to trust in you. Thank you for your unfailing love that is not dependent upon us being good enough. Give us strength to face the new day and enough love for those around us. Amen.


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