Towards An Understanding of Psalm 137 Sjirk Bajema

There are many Christians who have asked a lot of questions about Psalm 137. Perhaps you will have some questions too, when you read it in the box below. There is one thing we cannot question about this psalm, however - it is full of passion! This psalmist leaves us in no doubt about what he feels, and why he feels that way. A feeling that certainly is not a happy one - he is sad and angry.

It is because of his strong writing about this - a writing which is framed in a special poetic rhythm - that many believe it doesn't really belong in our Bibles today. One theologian wrote about it, and other psalms like it, “The ideas in...them the Lord made obsolete; the temper...is quite definitely unchristian ...Christian lips should never utter [them] in the presence of God.”

This is what so-called Christians are saying about part of the Word of God! They cannot reconcile it to what they think Christianity should be, and so they delete it altogether!

That does not help, though. To simply wipe part of the Word of God is to throw doubt on all of the Word of God. If this is legitimately part of Scripture no one can take it away. It has to stay.

It is actually the strong passion of the psalmist which helps us to see just how much this belongs in God's Word. A passion that is definitely godly - as God Himself in Jesus Christ will show.

Where You Are Not At Home

Let us consider then the first three verses. The situation there is the Babylonian exile. The LORD's people have been punished for their sin by being exiled to this distant foreign land. It was all as the LORD had said back to His people through Moses, just before they entered the Promised Land. And how much does not this psalmist miss the Promised Land! This really is a classic case of, ”You don't know what you've got `til its gone!”

Listen to his deep sadness of his song, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. Talk about being home sick! This place didn't look anything like Palestine. Here there were the large rivers which crossed the long flat landscape - rivers from which canals had been developed. It is by one of those waterways that he thinks about how different this all is.

A difference the verses 2 and 3 develop in showing that he cannot worship the LORD in freedom. He is told he has to sing, because that was part of what slaves did then - especially the slaves which were prisoners of war. It cannot be in him, however. I mean - how can he? He is away from Jerusalem - the only place for him where he can freely sing. That is the place where the temple of the LORD is, for His people to worship Him according to His will.

We must not forget that this is a song of the old covenant. And here is a believer zealous for his God. So zealous, in fact, that he cannot forget where he ought to be. He knows that his present situation isn't the way its meant to be. And he knows that it is as a result of his people's own disobedience.

But how much he longs to be restored again - for the future promise of restoration by the LORD to come true right now!

This situation, however, of that belief that he cannot be at home here, draws in more than only the psalmist and God's people then. It is also very much for us today. So, when do you think you would not be at home because of your faith? The New Testament Church has her Babylonian captivities also. While God's people then were physically removed from being able to worship Him according to His Word, today that may happen when the Church is spiritually taken away from God's blessing. If it was Babylon then - a mighty earthly power - what is it today when the attack is particularly spiritual?

To make it personal - have you ever been in a situation where you are not at home spiritually? How about the last time you visited the family in Holland? Perhaps you went to the church or the denomination you grew up in. It was different. Maybe it was so different that you just knew you were not at home. You found your relatives believing some strange things. You began watching what you said because they do not quite believe the same anymore - to some of them there is no hell, the bible is not all true, the apostle Paul had a problem with women, and so on. When the transvestite minister shared his message for the day - something about loving each other despite whatever they did - you were not just uncomfortable with the colour of his handbag!(This is apparently a true story.)

When the church is unbelieving there is still punishment too - a spiritual exile. And the faithful cannot escape its effects. It affects everyone. Then, like the psalmist, we need to be open about our position. It is not right. And just as much as those captors in Babylon could not see where the songs of Zion really belonged, so we may meet that situation too spiritually.

You Cannot Make It Your Home

The verses 4 `til 6 sees the psalmist become quite defiant. What may be thought of as homesickness from verse 1 is something much deeper. He is not simply missing the special presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, he cannot live without knowing that he has to go back there! This is not to say that it was against the Law to sing the psalms there in Babylon, because they were sung during the exile, and even new ones - like this one - were added to them. It was the temple worship, the whole way of worshipping the LORD, which could not be done anywhere but in Jerusalem. The altars, the incense, the priests with their trumpets and the music of the Levites, that could not happen there.

This was a homesickness that was also a penitence. Without realising their sins the people of the Exile would not be going back. Then they would simply become pagans, and their fate would be the same as those of the northern kingdom who disappeared after their exile to Assyria. When this psalmist cries out, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill,” he arms himself against that temptation to forget God and so become like those whose memory has long before become obliterated. And when he cries out, “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,” he is digging deep into his heart to show how high God's place must be!

The imagery of his ability to play and his being able to sing being taken away shows how much he is zealous for the cause of the LORD. He knows that he cannot use what God has given him, to do something which God has not told him to do. There can be no blessing there!

The temptation is still there. Just to make life a little easier we could just skirt around God's Word a bit. Perhaps that is in your work place, it could be where you play sport or pursue a hobby, or it might even be in a group with other Christians. We do not have a Jerusalem in a physical country anymore. We do not have to wait to get to a certain place to meet with God in the fullest possible way. He has come and done that Himself - in His Son!

We cannot make this earth our home. And we need to show that that is what we like. With the psalmist we are focused on the LORD - we have got our hand on the plough and we are not looking back. That is what we mean when we believe that Jesus Christ did not only come to be the Saviour but also to be the Lord. That is what the early New Testament church meant with their confession to His Lordship.

It meant persecution for them because it meant they were at war with the world. In Acts 7, before being stoned, Stephen confessed what he saw about the glory of God and Jesus standing at God's right hand(v55f). That same historical book says at its end about the apostle Paul, “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ (28:31.)”

There was no way they were making this earth their home. In the words of Hebrews 11, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one.

For Your Heart Has A Home!

We come now to the part of the psalm that really does come home! And that not least of all with the reactions to it! Just think of what a reaction this is first of all! The theme begun in verse 1 has flowed through to its fullest expression here. This is where the term `imprecatory psalm' is clearly illustrated. To imprecate means to call down or invoke a curse. Not terribly loving - is it? And that is all which many think.

Consider, however, who is being cursed? Why are they being cursed? And how are they being cursed?

The `who' is right there in the verses 7 and 8. There are the Edomites. They are the descendants of Esau. In other words, they are related - extended family. You would not imagine it, though, from what they were doing when Jerusalem was conquered and carried off. What they did to Judah then was the most terrible thing.

Obadiah details that scene further. He points out how the Edomites were far from innocent bystanders. They openly boasted against Judah, they stole her wealth, they murdered her refugees, and they handed over the survivors. Their treachery stank to the highest heaven! The psalmist knows that He in heaven will judge that. He trusts Him for that. All His enemies will be completely destroyed. For where is Edom and her citizens now?

This is how the psalmist comes to Babylon herself. The title, `Daughter of Babylon,' is simply the Hebrew way of saying, `the people of Babylon.' A people who are doomed to destruction. That's the word of the LORD also confirmed in Isaiah 13. While the Babylonians had been the LORD's arm of punishment to His covenant people, she herself would be judged for her atrocities.

The punishment upon Babylon takes the form of a blessing on the one who pays her back for all she has done. And the psalmist already knew who that would be. It will be someone called `the messiah' - a man anointed by God Himself to execute both His judgment and restore His people. We think naturally of THE messiah - the Lord Jesus Christ. But Isaiah prefigures the Saviour's work by describing Cyrus, kings of the Medes, as a messiah (Isa.45:1-17). It is Cyrus who is happy, which means being blessed.

There is, though, an anomaly at the end of this psalm. For while we can see this is a prophecy against those who set themselves up against the LORD God, and His people, it does not seem to have been literally fulfilled with the Babylonians. Cyrus conquered them with little bloodshed. He even continued Babylon as a kind of second capital. Eventually it declined in importance, until it was abandoned altogether. But you could not say that it was punished in such a way as, say, Sodom was.

This is where the psalm very much applies to us today. For Babylon is pictured in Scripture as a reflection of the anti-God spirit which God will ultimately wipe out in `the day of the Lord.' That was clearly shown in Revelation 18, because it is not that we will be taking vengeance into our own hands. Just as Cyrus was the LORD's anointed executing the LORD's vengeance (Jer.50:15,25; 51:10,56), so Jesus, the true Messiah, will judge the world in righteousness. What Babylon had done when it had annihilated other nations, including such crimes as dashing the babies on the rocks, will be repaid - whether it was done physically or spiritually!

We cannot sit comfortably with the evil of this world. That is why we pray for the Lord's righteous rule. This is not the way it should be. So why should we be surprised that these prophecies will come true? There is a battle out there - and in here! The battle that is the good fight of faith.

In the words of Cornelius van der Waal, “Psalm 137 is not `below' the level of the New Testament. It would be more accurate to say that the New Testament continues the lines begun in the Old Testament - including the line of thought in Psalm 137.” The prayer of Psalm 35, “Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me,” is our prayer today too. Our hearts have a home and that is where we are going - home!

This makes sense of those imprecatory psalms. David's words in Psalm 139, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,” are our words too. For while the struggle may not be physical anymore, like the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2 we must hate false doctrine and all which is set against the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is found throughout the New Testament. But will it be found throughout you? Can it be said of you that your heart has a home? Then you know that you are on the way home! Then you can say the phrase the Jews use, when they say goodbye. They say, “Next year - Jerusalem.” And next year, or next month, or next week, you could well be in Jerusalem - the heavenly city!

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