We live in what some have termed a “post-Christian America.” We’ve rapidly abandoned our Christian heritage as a nation. Sincere Christians across the West might feel like exiles. But like the Jewish exiles in this Psalm, we have no one but ourselves to blame for the calamities that have befallen us. There are many symptoms that show that we are sick: addiction to debt ($38k), killing our unwanted babies, squishy self-help sermonettes in our churches, prominent seminaries publicly proclaiming that God is trans, queer, non-binary. The only way of return from such an exile is the faith displayed in this Psalm.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.Psalm 137
Summary of the Text
Jeremiah likely authored this Psalm, and sent it to the exiles to comfort them and stir them up to hope in God’s justice (Lam. 2:20, Jer. 51:24-26). This Psalm begins in an idyllic setting, but ends with a grisly scene. The first number in this “musical” is a scene of weeping exiles in the canal gardens of Babylon; weeping because of the fond memory of Mount Zion, the city of God, the mountain of praise (v1). The instruments of praise are on the shelf (v2). Their Babylonian captors make a jeering request for a Jewish folk song; and they want it sung with a smile (v3). The Jews reply that singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land is a bridge too far (v4). It would be like the person who murdered a beloved friend asking you to sing that friend’s favorite song. The memory of Jerusalem invokes grief for all that had been lost. Thus, they call down curses upon their playing hands and singing voices should they forget Jerusalem’s joys and glories (vs.5-6).
Then we come to the crescendo. The bass drum of retribution begins. First, Edom is imprecated; for they had egged on the Babylonians during the destruction of the holy city (cf. Oba. 1:15). Then Babylon herself is brought into the crosshairs of holy justice. The white-hot heat of holy anger is aimed at that wicked nation (vs. 7-9).
Sighing and Crying
The Jews were exiled because of their repeated idolatries. The prophets had warned them––time without number––to turn from this wickedness, lest all the Deuteronomic curses come upon them (Dt. 28:53-57). The prophets had echoed the horrific warnings: “Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished (Isa. 13:16)….And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them (Jer. 19:9).”
These Exiles are in the nuclear wasteland of all those warnings coming true. Now what? What should God’s people do when they see Jerusalem in ruins because of their own stubbornness, rebellion, and pride? To top it off, how should they respond when the Babylonians want a toe-tapper?
When saints––through their own sin––find themselves in calamity, three options arise. You could simply become Babylonian. Or, you could appease the world’s mocking invitation to sing little ditties of false joy. Or you could weep. Sigh and cry over the abominations that precipitated your downfall (Ez. 9:4). Weep over your sin, your family’s sin, your nation’s sin. Weep over the consequences of the sin. Then…remember.
Remember to Sing of God’s Goodness
Jerusalem was a praiseworthy city (cf. Ps. 48). The Psalms frequently rehearse the joys of praising God in His holy temple, “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness (Ps. 84:10).” But here they are in the tents of wickedness.
When you find yourself in exile you must not forget the goodness of God. In Zion is hope for salvation, forgiveness for sin, communion with God. But many people––when faced by calamity––forsake the church. If you find yourself in the wasteland of the consequences of your sin, despair often whispers, “Don’t go to church, you’d be a hypocrite, and besides, you’re not worthy of Zion’s joys.” But that’s the point. None of us deserve to enjoy God’s goodness. But in His church we find the Lord Jesus: proclaimed in Word and Sacrament.
True grief over sin never puts the instrument into the case. Notice that the exiles had hung their harps up, but then they call down curses upon their hands and voices if they failed to remember the songs of praise for the Holy City. After the Deuteronomic blessings and curses are pronounced, God promised a gracious deliverance for repentant exiles (Deut. 30:1-6) Faith runs to the Promise giver, to cry out for His promised mercy. Godly sorrow rushes back to the songs of comfort, songs of hope, songs of vengeance. Wait, vengeance?
Remember to Sing of God’s Justice
Some exegetes bend over backwards with red-faced embarrassment at the imprecatory portions of this Psalm. These are perhaps the most vivid and shocking verses in the entire Psalter. We can either try to sandpaper the text, or delete it, or we can sing it without flinching. Part and parcel of repentance is learning to love what God loves and hate what God hates. The Babylonians wanted a happy-clappy song, and they got one.
The Babylonians had mercilessly executed their conquests with savage vehemence. They had dashed babies upon the rocks, ripped open pregnant women, and ruthlessly razed cities to rubble. The wickedness which they had sown was soon to be reaped. When Darius besieged the Babylon, the Babylonians “winnowed” the city by strangling women and young children to make provisions last. The imprecation of Psalm 137:9 was fulfilled by the very ones upon whom it was pronounced. Spurgeon notes, “It came to pass that the man who had destroyed his own children thought himself happy to be rid of them that he might maintain the fight.”
So while the Babylonians had fulfilled this Psalm’s imprecation in one sense, it is God Himself Who fulfills it another sense. God is the avenger of the righteous. God will bring justice upon the heads of all evildoers (cf. Dt. 30:7). The curses which come upon God’s people because of their disobedience, will––if they repent––come upon their persecutors.
Blessed be the Lord God who through His sovereign hand rules history and avenges His elect speedily (Lk. 18:7-8). “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord (Rom 12:19).” This Psalm is an example of mature faith. Here is faith that can handle the power tools of imprecatory prayers for vindication.
You Must Sing
The world wants you to join in their song. If you refuse that, they want you to sing the Lord’s praise for the sake of their amusement. But worship is warfare. Singing is our sword. Sing we must, else the true saint will burst.
So, when in exile, will you sing of God’s goodness and His justice? Will you cling to His promise of returning to every man according his works (cf. Ps. 62:12)? Or will you faint in that season, and join in the discordant merriment of wicked men? Or settle for singing God’s songs with triteness? The irony of this Psalm is that the exiles at first refuse to sing, but the Psalm itself is to be sung!
God’s people must learn to weep over the consequences of their sin; but this must incite them to rush back to all the joy and goodness which God offers to the repentant. Then, they must learn to sing with these exiles and the martyrs under the throne: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth (Rev. 6:10)?” In other words, whether in exile or not, you must learn to sing of the cross: God’s mercy given to repentant sinners, His justice satisfied.