Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Dec 8 2019 - Psalm 137 – By the rivers of Babylon

Psalm 137 takes us back from the time of Esther and the Persian Empire, to a time shortly after the people of Jerusalem and Judah were taken off into captivity in Babylon. Their captivity may have been entirely their own fault – a consequence of their lack of faithfulness to God – and they may have been warned time and time again by the prophets, but when they were hauled away from their homes and settled in a strange land it must have been unimaginably traumatic. Not only had they witnessed the destruction of their homes, they also felt that the Lord their God had abandoned them. This psalm expresses their sorrow and anguish.

The psalm has all the vividness of personal experience. The psalmist and his companions, perhaps temple musicians and singers, are sitting by the river in Babylon, weeping with distress as they remember Zion – thinking back to the temple and its worship in which they had played an active part. They are unable to sing the temple songs – the psalms – as they sit there in tears and so have hung up their harps as a symbol of their inability or unwillingness to make music. Those who had taken them captive taunted them by asking them to sing them the songs of Zion, but they could not: "How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (v. 4). They will not allow their songs of worship of the living God to be ridiculed by those who worship idols.

But though they cannot sing, neither do they wish to forget their songs and their music making:

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
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, (vv. 5-6)

Their skills may not now be used, but they do not want them to be lost. They long for the day when they will be back in Zion, playing their music again and lifting their voices again in praise of God.

But right now, all they can think of is the way in which Jerusalem was destroyed. Not only had the Babylonians laid siege to the city and finally broke through its walls, what added to their pain was that the Edomites, descendants of Jacob's brother Esau, came to gloat over the destruction and to egg on those who were tearing down Jerusalem's buildings (v. 7, see also Obadiah 10-14). As this picture comes vividly again into the mind of the psalmist, he calls on the Lord also to remember the atrocities that had been committed. This is not to suggest that these things have slipped God's mind; the call for God to remember is a call for him to take action. He had said through the prophets that he would punish the nations he had used to discipline his people – punish them for their arrogance and cruelty. So, as the psalmist remembers how the conquering Babylonians had seized infants and dashed them against rocks he declares, "happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us" (v. 8, see also v. 9). The psalmist considers that person "happy" or "blessed" because they would be acting in accordance with God's declared word.

I am sure that we find such language difficult and repugnant. But we need to recognise that these are genuine expressions of how the psalmist felt and which, rather than turning into vengeful actions of his own, he brings to God in a cry of pain and prayer. This is how he felt and he knows that God can deal with it. He does not hide his genuine feelings behind an outpouring of pious words when he comes before the Lord. And nor should we. It is good to be careful of what we say before others, particularly those young in the faith, but before God we do not need to hide anything – he knows our hearts completely. We can be honest before him in prayer and pour out our pain to him just as we can, and should, pour out our praise.

Living God, help us to be honest before you in our prayer and to be attentive in listening for your response. Help us to bring our pain to the foot of the cross and to know that our crucified Lord has suffered for us and suffers with us. Help us to know his risen power at work in us that we might be lifted beyond our pain to glimpse glory. Turn our pain to praise.

Peter Misselbrook