Psalm 137 is a corporate lament, a prayer that gives voice to a sense of collective disorientation and it was sung by the nation of Israel as they mourned exile and captivity.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
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.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.”
The nation of Israel (God’s people in the Old Testament) had been forced by enemy invaders to leave their homeland. Their city and temple (the place of worship around which their whole culture was organized) had been ransacked. Circumstances seemed to be heading the opposite direction from what God had promised – that they would be a people in specific locale spreading blessing to the whole world.
Instead, they were deeply grieving their geographical separation from the temple at Jerusalem because that was the place where God’s presence dwelled. They were reeling with shock and trauma from everything they had experienced and they longed for God to make things right – but it seemed like the opposite was happening. If we look closely, we can see how this psalm invites us to lament the injustices and griefs we are experiencing now.
In 2020 we, too, find ourselves mourning. We fight the anxieties of an uncertain future and carry the burden of being unable to connect and enjoy each other’s physical presence the way we used to. It’s difficult to care for friends or family members who are sick or living alone. Socially distant church services, online worship, zoom hangouts, and reducing friendships to our those in our “bubbles” or learning pods all severely limit us. I connect with my neighbors and others in my small sphere and I have even deepened a few friendships in this season, and I am thankful for that. But I also find myself deeply grieving the freedom of being in the presence of my church family without constraints. I miss hosting groups of friends in our home and serving meals and hugging and talking face to face. I miss hanging out in a jam-packed lobby in between services at church, literally bumping elbows squeezing through narrow spaces to get to the coffee bar or that one friend on the other side of the room. God designed us for life together and there is something sacred about togetherness that I, at least, often took for granted. When God’s people gather for corporate worship, God draws near. We embody God’s presence for one another in a mysterious and powerful way, particularly during times of grief and struggle. He created us as relational beings and it feels as though something of God’s presence is being withheld from us as long as we are physically unable to gather.
In this Psalm, the people of Israel have been kidnapped and carried far from their homes and far from everything associated with God’s presence. So indeed, lament was appropriate. The Psalm appears to have been written by (former) temple musicians because they refer to their songs and harps (vs. 2, 3, and 4). They were ancient worship leaders whose job had been to lead worship in the temple. But now, in the midst of their grief, their kidnappers say, “Sing songs of Zion”! This was a mocking request for joyful songs while they were grieving. It poured salt into their wounds and quite literally added insult to injury. They responded by saying, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?…May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth and hand forget how to play if I forget Jerusalem as my greatest joy!” I’ll get to why the physical location was so important to them in a minute, but mostly they are emphasizing how inappropriate joyful songs would be under the circumstances.
To ancient Israel, Jerusalem represented the pinnacle of God’s presence. Zion was the name of mountain where the temple was built, and the temple housed the Most Holy Place – the place God chose for his presence to inhabit. So when Psalms or other Old Testament texts refer to Zion, it’s usually a metaphor for God’s presence. But here in this Psalm, God – their highest joy – could no longer be accessed in the ways they knew. Jesus, the Messiah and ultimate Promised One, had not yet been revealed, nor had he sent the Holy Spirit to indwell his people in the ways we now experience. It felt like they’d been expelled from God’s presence.
But God had a purpose in their suffering and had not forgotten them or reversed his promise and verse 7 is where we see find evidence that they are clinging to hope in an unexpected way. In it, they remember the destruction they experienced when Jerusalem fell to the enemy invaders. But on some level, they still believed it wasn’t really the end of everything for their nation because verse 8 goes on to say Babylon (the enemy capital) is “doomed to destruction.” And then (in what is to us a confusing, crazy twist) they said, “Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.” What?? This seems weird and out of place and pretty disturbing when you think about it. It sounds vengeful and sadistic. I mean, why are godly people singing about the killing of children?
But I don’t think that is the point. What we have here, is a call for justice. They were staking their hopes on the reality that God will not let the wicked go unpunished. Terrible actions have terrible consequences and it’s “happy” because we long for the injustices in the world to be made right. We cling to hope that one day God will set all the wrong things right. The existence of evil is the very reason Jesus had to come. He didn’t come just to forgive our individual sins, but to undo the Curse. Sin polluted all of humanity and creation itself with a curse. Case in point, when Jerusalem was attacked, the Israelites experienced unspeakably horrific things. And the righting of wrongs necessarily means judgment on evil (Revelation 21:5-8). When Jesus returns he will right all wrongs once and for all and this righting of wrongs is the ultimate climax to which time is building. The lamenters in this Psalm were looking forward to that day: the day God would close the gap between our hopes and reality. So these singers weren’t personally seeking vengeance, but they were longing for injustices to be set right in the terminology they knew. They were responding by like according to what they had witnessed and experienced.
What does this have to do with us? Perhaps the experience of being separated from other believers gives me empathy into the Israelite’s grief during exile, but as I’ve reflected on the grief we see in this Psalm, I am struck by how different their experience was from ours. We don’t have a temple and our city doesn’t represent God’s presence. We haven’t had our homes ransacked or been carried away as slaves. Also, we know the promises God made to Israel have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ – he is the true Israel, the true priest, the true King. Significantly, we have the blood of Jesus atoning for our sin – we don’t need to make sacrifices in the temple. We have the presence of the Spirit with us continually, empowering us for holy living as citizens of God’s kingdom.
But there ARE applications for us. We STILL live in a world that’s full of injustice and strife, sickness and death. We still battle our own tendencies to look to comfort, escape, success, relationships, and countless other things, and so often expect those things to fill our needs rather than God! Every time we are doing that, we are like the people of ancient Israel who so often turned to the false gods of harvest and fertility that their neighbors worshipped. Instead, we can use this season of uncertainly and loneliness, to ask God to show us places where our heart worship needs to be realigned. If you’re like me, you already have had a lot of those places revealed to you this year.
But more to my point, we are separated from the physical presence of our fellow believers. Perhaps not completely, but certainly in many aspects. We know we are the Church, yet we long to worship as one Body. So it is right that separation and constraints bring grief. I have a friend who lives alone and per her doctor’s orders, she spent many months last year not touching or being in close contact with another human being because of particular health concerns. No one is designed to live that way. People have died alone in hospitals and cannot be corporately mourned in funerals and memorials. My own grandmother was not allowed to have family visit her residential care facility for around six months and it was a deep grief to our family to not have those months with her. It is right that we feel torn and broken because this is not how we are meant to live. It is appropriate for us to lament. Instead of Babylonian invaders, our enemy is a microscopic virus, large-scale disagreements, and countless modern forms of injustice. But we can take comfort in the fact that God is with us, too, even when we feel alone. None of this has surprised him and he is still working. One day he will make things right for us, too.
The Israelites looked to a future Hope. That same hope is ours, too, and we know a lot more about it than they did! One day, people from every nation, tribe, people and language will gather together in a group so large it cannot be numbered. All our diseases will be healed and we will stand before the throne of God, in his very presence and worship together. A loud voice will cry, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4).
And then we will all feast together. It’s what Revelation calls “the marriage banquet of the lamb” – the final consummation of Jesus and his bride – the Church. And the greatest separation – death, the last enemy – will be completely done away with.
So until then, we continue to lament. We grieve our hardships and agree with God that the world is broken. We continually realign our wayward hearts by seeking first God’s kingdom and not our own ideals. We do our best to love the people in front of us in whatever opportunities we have – whether it’s our next-door neighbor, that client or coworker over zoom, or the people we live with. We fight for joy and cling to hope and trust that each time we do, God’s kingdom is more fully present in us and in our circle of influence. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Collins, John C. Study notes on Psalms. In ESV Study Bible, 1114-1115. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Kidner, Derek. Psalms 73-150. Kidner Classic Commentaries. 1975. Reprint, Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Longman, Tremper III. “Lament.” In Cracking Old Testament Codes, by D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr. 197-213. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1995.
Longman, Tremper III. Psalms. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Volumes 15-16. Ed. David Firth. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2014.
Miller, Paul E. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World. 2009. Reprint, Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2009.