Weds 25 May - 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.
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Meditation on Psalm 137
There are some tough things written in many of the psalms but perhaps this one leads the way when you come to the end of the psalm.
We can put some context into this psalm because it is set in the time of exile when the people of Judah are in Babylon, having been taken there by Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.
In 597 BC Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian empire.
Large numbers of Judea’s citizens had been forcibly removed to Babylon.
The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC.
The psalm could have ben written during the exile or as a postscript to the exile once the people of Judah had returned from their captivity.
Not only can we arrive at a particular period in history, we can also identify a place in Babylon.
Verse 1 gives us the clue – ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat…’
Jerusalem doesn’t have any rivers but Babylon is served by the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates, along with a canal system that. We first meet these rivers in Genesis 2:10-14. Ashur is an ancient capital city of Babylonia. The Euphrates is the longest river in western Asia – about 1,700 miles long. It is the boundary between Israel and the enemies of Israel, Assyrian and Babylonia (Genesis 15:18).
We also note, in passing, that Ezekiel was with the exiles by the Kebar River (Ezekiel 1:1)
‘…we sat and wept’ There was a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and fear.
Remember that the people of Judah were in exile because of their sin. 2 Kings 17:19-20 tells us that ‘even Judah did not keep the commands of the LORD their God. They followed the practices that Israel had introduced.’
The people of Israel had already been taken into exile in Assyria – 2 Kings 17:7-18. They would be there for 70 years but, as Jeremiah records, God promised that He would bring His people back home from exile – Jeremiah 29:10-11
‘….we sat and wept as we remembered Zion’.
What was so important about Zion that brought about this reaction?
Mount Zion is the place where Yahweh, the God of Israel dwelt – Isaiah 8:18; Psalm 74:2.
Mount Zion is the place where God is King – Isaiah 24:23.
Psalm 48 is a song that focuses on Zion.
One commentator has summarised the importance of Zion in these words:
‘Zion’s significance can be enumerated into four statements:
- It has physical significance whereby it is the city outside of Jerusalem or Israel or Temple of the Mount or the Western Hill.
- It is the City of David, the descendant of Christ.
- It is also the City of our God and the location of Christ’s rule on earth.
- Lastly, it is a spiritual location and an eternal Jerusalem.’
Little wonder that the people were sat and weeping. They couldn’t even play a mournful tune on their instruments. As Isaiah says, ‘the joyful harp is silent.’ (24:8)
They put their instruments on poplar trees. They didn’t hide them but they couldn’t play them.
They didn’t destroy them but hung them there as a reminder that there is a song waiting to be sung but, in the present situation, how can we sing the LORD’s songs?
Who are we to judge the people for their reactions?
In effect, they were being asked to perform as their tormentors ‘demanded songs of joy…songs of Zion.’
Would we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?
Perhaps we need to think about how we react to the daily news of wars, rumours of wars, nations rising against nations, pestilences, persecution, famines, earthquakes, wickedness and such things.
Jesus reminds us that into these situations “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Don’t let us give up on ‘singing the songs of the Lord’ wherever we are.
Don’t let us forget where God reigns – He is the Sovereign God who reigns over all the earth.
The exiles didn’t want to get caught up in singing the songs of the LORD in case they forget their roots back home where Jerusalem, the city of God, was their joy and longing. They got to the point where they would rather lose their ability to play and their ability to sing, than to ’forget Jerusalem … to not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.’
The people were making a pledge not to forget the holy city where God is enthroned.
As we come to church week by week, we are coming to that place where God is enthroned – not in the building but in the people as we come to bring our praise and worship to our God. We come to that ‘place of joy’.
Of verses 4-6 Van Gemeren says this: ‘the godly could not forget Jerusalem and everything it stands for covenant, temple, presence and kingship of God, atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation. They vowed never to forget God’s promises and to persevere, waiting for the moment of redemption.’
We come to what may be some of the most difficult version in the Bible. Firstly, the psalmist asks the LORD to ‘remember what the Edomites did…’
The Edomites were descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother but they showed their true colours in their behaviour towards Jerusalem. As fellow Jews, they should have sided with their brothers when Nebuchadnezzar took the people of Judah into Babylon but they didn’t and they were party to the atrocities committed by Nebuchadnezzar. They were some of the loudest voices shouting, “tear it down, tear it down to its foundations.”
The word ‘foundations’ imply the physical foundations of the building but also the very foundations of the LORD’s rule on earth.
In response, the psalmist is committing any action of judgment to the LORD who is the Judge. Remember what Abraham said, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right.’
And finally – what a finale! The psalmist doesn’t mince his words about Babylon whom, he describes, as ‘doomed for destruction.’
We read a summary of the fall of Jerusalem in 2 Chronicles 26:15-21.
Knowing that, the psalmist concludes, firstly, with a blessing on ‘the one who repays you according to what you have done.’
But then the psalmist concludes, secondly, with what is, at face value, a harsh statement in verse 9. He seems to be giving a blessing to those who give the Babylonians a taste of their own medicine.
Nigel Wright in his commentary says, ‘how can we consider these statements worthy of a place within the canon? Whether we think them worthy or not, they are real. When Jerusalem was being destroyed, the neighbouring Edomites joined in the plundering and defiling the city. Such actions were clearly treacherous. No wonder Judeans were bitter – and bitter people hope for revenge even if they should not. The best that can be said is that it is better out than in. It is better to express bitterness to God than to suppress it. God can deal with it.’
Paul makes it clear in Romans 12:19, ‘do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’
As the chorus puts it – ‘God is still on the throne’ and one day all the kingdoms of the world will become ‘the kingdom of our God and of His Christ and He will reign for ever and ever.’
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