Psalm 137 is a sad dirge that records the Israelites’ lament in exile. They had been torn from their homes, their infants ripped from their arms; they had watched in horror as those homes were torched and those babies were dashed against stones.
After that horrible trauma, their captors had the audacity to taunt them, asking them to sing a song of Zion. The reader can imagine the captives, shoved and stumbling along, finally allowed to sit when they reach a Babylonian river. There the captors sit back and relax, but the captives sit down and mourn (Psalm 137:1-3, ESV):
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Forced to sing a song of Zion for their captors, the Israelites determined never to use those desecrated harps again and left them hanging on the branches of the Babylonion willows beside those Babylonian waters.
Israel had been sent into exile as punishment for national sin. The next few verses seem to indicate not only a feeling of national loyalty, but also a renewed awareness that God must be their highest joy (4-6):
How shall we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
The Psalm concludes with an imprecation against the captors who destroyed the Israelites’ city and children (7-9):
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
What can we learn from this imprecatory lament? Certainly we are reminded that sin will be punished. We are also reminded that God must be our chief delight, a concept beautifully conveyed in the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
We can also feel empathy with the persecuted church in every age, including our own, which has seen the most martyrs of any time in history. We can know that all the anti-Christian forces that array themselves against the Most High will be surely and thoroughly brought down.
There may be ways that we feel as if we are in exile; that we feel as if our captors have taunted us and demanded a song. Psalm 137 reminds us that Israel’s exile eventually ended and ours will, too.
Although the Israelites were so certain they would never again sing that they left their harps hanging on willow branches, a remnant was restored to their own land. They once again dwelled in Jerusalem; they again sang the songs of Zion.
May God soon restore you from your personal exile. May you dwell again in Jerusalem and sing the songs of Zion!