Summary: Psalm 137 begins with heart-breaking pathos and ends with shocking hostility.
Psalm 137 begins with heart-breaking pathos and ends with shocking hostility. The children of Israel were taken by force from their homeland, a place given them by God. In captivity they sat by the edge of the Euphrates and wept, overcome with despair. Anyone who has suffered a significant loss can understand this pain.
Eugene Peterson calls this lament “The Babylonian Blues”. We could compare it to the spirituals sung by African slaves. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept.” Sitting on the ground was a sign of mourning and misery. They mingle their memories and tears.
In verse 3, the intensity of their sorrow makes singing impossible, absurd. Nonetheless, their insensitive captors ask for an Israeli song. The Psalms of David were well-known to them, but this request is really a taunt: “Sing us a song of Zion”…the place you no longer possess. The enemy asks for a song so they can ridicule the Jews. But all the music has been knocked out of them. They were not ashamed to sing of their faith, but they were cut off from the Temple, and unable to render proper worship to God. Silence was their only dignity. To sing in this pagan place, for the amusement of ungodly people, would be sacrilege. Songs of praise must only be sung to the One worthy of our praise.
A modern example of this is “Gospel Brunches”, where people who don’t go to church enjoy a nice breakfast spread while Gospel singers perform for their enjoyment. The downside of sacred music is that at times it is regarded as mere entertainment. Babylon didn’t deserve to be entertained with psalms of praise. So there will be no “folk festival” of Hebrew tunes in Babylon. Exiles don’t sing; they weep. Their hearts were out of tune. They put away their instruments in sorrow.
The torment of being uprooted is underscored with an achingly-touching response, verses 4-6: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill”, or “lose its power”, its artistry, the capacity to form chords. The singer adds an oath--if he fails to remember the sacred city of God, he may as well be mute, silenced. What use is there for our voices if we do not exalt God?
Even those born in captivity did not regard Babylon as their “home.” In spite of their comforts (they were treated more like colonists than captives), they remained foreigners, strangers in a strange land.
We need to remind ourselves that we too are exiles. We may feel contented here, yet our true citizenship is in Heaven (Phil 3:20). Children of Zion can never comfortably settle down. Hebrews 11 tells of restless people, longing for a better country--a heavenly one. God has prepared a city for them. When we feel restless and alienated, let’s remember: we’re not home yet. C.S. Lewis put it, “If nothing in this world satisfies me, perhaps it is because I was made for another world.” We need to be homesick for our true home.
Don MacLean set the opening verse to music, in an appropriately minor key, as a lament. Had he completed the Psalm, he might have shifted the tempo to an abrupt, stormy finale.
Our sympathy for these oppressed exiles is shaken by their passionate cry for vengeance. This is an “imprecatory” psalm, demanding that God strike down the enemies of Israel, a cry for justice. It is one thing to ask God to resolve conflict with those who oppose us…it’s entirely another to pray for their destruction. Yet even the 23rd Psalm speaks of God’s provision while enemies look on.
This song expresses a benediction over those who implement God’s justice. The song does not express desire for Babylon’s doom but merely predicts it. The song states what will happen to the wicked. Those who gloated over the fall of Jerusalem will suffer; those who cursed Israel will be cursed.
I’m sure many of us might like to revise the language of this disturbing psalm, which has been called “the scandal of the Psalter.” Nothing in verses 1-5 prepare us for the raw hate of verses 7-9. I’m not surprised that Don MacLean didn’t finish the psalm. I can’t imagine singing the rest.
The psalmist points out that Babylon is “doomed to destruction”, verse 8. In the original Hebrew the past tense is used, to convey the certainty of the coming ruin. It is as good as done. Those who sow evil will reap evil. There will be a day of reckoning. C.S. Lewis observed that, “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that is hateful to God.”
By the tone of the psalm we can feel the adrenaline of the psalmist as he concludes with the grisly final verse. This is not a divine blessing; it expresses the attitude of a people devastated by captivity. This is the cry of an abused victim of atrocities, filled with venomous outrage. It is an honest prayer, more honest that most of our polite prayers.