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? 

And so, verse  asks the very question we must ask, how can we praise God when all seems lost? How can we praise God when God seems nowhere to be found? How can We praise God when all we feel is pain?

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. - Psalm 137

Just wow. The intro and discussion around this Psalm is almost universally trying to explain away a mortifying statement. And as, “Most psalms are cherished by Christians; this one is not. Its closing verses strike us as unimaginable cruelty.”[1] Remember that the Lord is seen not simply as a sacrificial lamb but a conquering king, a warrior, a mighty tower, a jealous, and mighty God.

We come to worship the God of scripture to know him, to see who He is, rather than imagine the form and substance of Him we see and know His character and rationale through scripture. We see most explicitly through this psalm that our God, that God, is one who makes wrongs right. God is one who delights in the triumph over evil and one that understands that pain is mortifying, disaster destroys, and that those that break what He cherishes will themselves be unquestionably broken.

We may not be able to appreciate the depths to which these deaths and pains happened. We see through TV and read in the paper about abductions and are mortified, aware of, and on the defense for those who do a semblance of what is described here. But, there was not an Israelite who was not personally affected or did not personally know someone whose family was ravaged by the exile.

Actually, while the Israelites were twice a nomadic tribe (Pre-Goshen and in the wilderness) they eventually became settlers but were a people of war. There was rarely a time of peace in the history of the Bible. Actually, the only time in the history of Israel that we see a semblance of peace was during the time of Solomon. Outside of the that the Israelites were surrounded by and found consistently in war with either the threat of oppression or being found in oppression.

These wars were not distant wars fought on far battlefields by men we may have known about. Rather than distant it was close to home. Israel was never much bigger than the state of Nebraska. Yet, it was pivotal in position. It was the gate between the competition of the Northern and Eastern power houses getting to Egypt the other super power.  

This was, and still to some degree is, a country defined by war. It was taken by war, by Joshua and the people of Israel, and it was defended by them from the ancestors of those they did not kill and those abroad for a millennium after.

So, as you read the depth of pain and trust in this psalm, please do not forget the desperate cry of the people who wrote this Psalm.

These psalmists were the people who had either survived being ripped from their homes or were remembering the tales of their parents and grandparents about the loss of their own families. The cries of the infants of Judah and Israel when they were conquered were still ingrained in their lives much like the death of the infants in the time of Moses. 

This Psalm may not be your standard or go to Psalm. This is not the Psalm that many would normally picture yourself picking up and singing, let alone one that you would imagine Jesus singing. But, it was a Psalm Jesus in all likelihood sang. The Israelites at that time were oppressed by a tyrannical emperor that considered himself a god and a Jewish stooge, Herod, who had killed numerous infants in Bethlehem trying to kill Jesus.

Psalm 137 is part of Book V in the Psalms a book that is full of praise Psalms. This Psalm in particular is part of what some call the Exodus Collection. The Exodus collection recognizes both that of the Egyptian Exodus and the return from Exile in Babylon. What is most glaring is how a song of lament and cursing is mixed in with songs of praise.

The heart of this Psalm is not that of the final and distracting curse on those who had harmed the people of God. Rather, the psalm is one of confidence in despair, mockery, and the lowest of stations. The psalmist wrestles with how when life is at its worse, how can we stop praising God? The finality of life will be determined by God and so will every other moment, those who have been wronged will find things made right.

This psalm is remembering what it is like to have had everything that defined your life or a semblance of your life, identity, and strength stripped from you. The psalm starts by opening a deep wound. It starts by showing how the very thing that should cause you to worship God is the object that causes you sorrow. What’s more is how you are to be reminded of this loss and confusion continually.

Life as God’s people can put you in a place of utter despair.

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!” - Psalm 137: 1-3

We have almost all been there. We have endured great pain and great loss. A sickness that has brutally stolen your life or maybe the life of someone you love. You may have been attacked at work or school and had friends, a job, and or your reputation destroyed.

Zion itself was more of an idea of God’s presence it was a place to go to in order to truly worship. The psalms about Zion were sang with confidence in the power and the faithfulness of God. It was the place that you knew God would never forsake because it was special to him just like His people.

Yet, the Zion they knew was gone. The hope of God’s unending faithfulness to His chosen home and chosen people should have been an idea of the past. They were separated from Zion and God’s presence. The Chosen people of God were not only separated from their homes they were separated from their God and their confidence in His holy place, and thus, “’Psalm 137 transforms the Zion-song into the Jerusalem lament.’”[2]

And so, like many of us when our very lives, identity, and our perspective of hope, strength, and trust have been shattered we give up on it. The psalmist puts his lyre up. He no longer can praise God especially not publicly. His hopes have been dashed and his confidence has been proven foolish. His God is not the God of Zion or of him.

How often have your hopes been not simply tarnished, but destroyed? You knew that this or that should work, not hoped but knew, and yet it failed. You knew that God was always there, you knew that God always provides, and you knew that He has a plan. So why does His plan seem to smell worse than a cow pie mixed with the sewage treatment plant and an decaying carcass?

Not only can you see the uttermost disgrace that you endure, you are also reminded of it. Kate and I had a miscarriage when we first were married we called it Baked Potato because all Kate wanted to eat was baked potatoes from Wendy’s.

The pain of finding out we had a miscarriage was traumatic, the dread of telling everyone that knew Kate was pregnant was tantamount to a horror film moment, and yet the worst part happened years later at a friend’s memorial service for their still born where another friend mocked the service saying, “This is stupid who really cares…”

And, with that statement the memories of hurt, despair, and confusion came rushing back in the form of fury and anger at my foolish unknowing friend.

How much more would the chosen people of God having their children their ripped from them, their homes decimated and pillaged, their very persons shamefully pulled from their place of identity, and the secure promise of God’s presence with its implied impenetrable protection not be immensely disturbed and distraught at the continued reminder of their loss? The continued jabs from the people in their conqueror’s city both Babylonians and other residence mock you for your faith in the might of God referring back to your loss time and time again.

Sing for joy because you have lost all that you hold dear. Sing for joy about your God who has let you be destroyed. Sing for joy you will never see all that you treasure again. Sing for joy.

Find the will to praise God in all circumstances.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? - Psalm 137:4

And so, verse  asks the very question we must ask, how can we praise God when all seems lost? How can we praise God when God seems nowhere to be found? How can We praise God when all we feel is pain?

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. - Psalm 137:5-6

We sing songs of joy and praise through all circumstances because we do not forget who God is. We remember who God is, what He has done, and what He promises to do. We consider closeness to Him our greatest joy. Our highest joy is not in our circumstances or even the people around you, for those who seek the Lord the highest joy is knowing the Lord. That is the premise of Psalm 1, happiness is found in knowing God and His way.

The psalms are rich with psalmist delighting in being with the Lord forever. Forever is found in nothing else but salvation and joy in the Lord. The Lord is both our aim and glory in life and death. There is no other. And so, if God is our greatest joy than how can we not sing for joy in all circumstances, because if I have God and nothing but miserable conditions I have the same highest joy when everything is a fecal matter filled around me.

The Lord has been around a while and His track record of faithfulness and greatness is pretty outstanding. His mercy and forgiveness are abounding and more than that His unwavering commitment to making wrongs right is paramount. His faithfulness to justice and steadfast love are what define Him.

Rejoice that God will bring justice.

 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. - Psalm 137:7-9

And so, as a response to the earlier plight, hardship, and mockery from the tormentors these verses of the Psalm are as if he is dragging himself up from the muck and the mire saying to his captors and tormentors, “I will not sing you a merely religious song, but I will sing you a song of defiance, a promise that I will never forget my homeland, and that there will one day be a reckoning for what you have done.”[3]

The psalms are rooted and built upon the idea of parallelism or repetition in different forms often contrasts. The ending to the psalm contrasts the beginning while fulfilling the request of the Babylonians and tormentors request for song of joy a song of Zion.

The contrast is that the Babylonians mocked the believer’s faith in the Lord. While the people of God turn with confidence say joy will come from those who make wrongs right and who repay to Babylon and its mockers what they did to those whose faith is in the Lord. Zion, the presence of God will be felt by you tormentors and you would be conquerors. Isaiah before the exile gave this warning to Babylon.

1“Go down, sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, queen city of the Babylonians. No more will you be called tender or delicate. 2 Take millstones and grind flour; take off your veil. Lift up your skirts, bare your legs, and wade through the streams.3 Your nakedness will be exposed and your shame uncovered. I will take vengeance; I will spare no one.”

4 Our Redeemer—the Lord Almighty is his name— is the Holy One of Israel.

5 “Sit in silence, go into darkness, queen city of the Babylonians; no more will you be called queen of kingdoms. 6 I was angry with my people and desecrated my inheritance; I gave them into your hand, and you showed them no mercy. Even on the aged you laid a very heavy yoke.

7 You said, ‘I am forever— the eternal queen!’ But you did not consider these things or reflect on what might happen.

8 “Now then, listen, you lover of pleasure, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.’9 Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day: loss of children and widowhood. They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells. – Isaiah 47:1-9

C.S. Lewis portrays an important part of scripture in the fact that, “hatred did not need to be disguised for the sake of social decorum or for fear anyone would accuse you of a neurosis.”[4] This was because, “Their hatreds are the reaction to something.”[5] The pain and hurt of the people of God were because of something real, something tangible, and not something far or distantly removed through a story or a screen.

And, in these verses you see the God of reality appreciate the depths of pain that His people had to endure. He does not think little of the pain that people endure. He does not let the attacks and the slights that happen to those He loves go unresolved. Instead He makes things right in time.

17 See, I will stir up against them the Medes, who do not care for silver and have no delight in gold. 18 Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants, nor will they look with compassion on children.

19 Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah. 20 She will never be inhabited or lived in through all generations; there no nomads will pitch their tents, there no shepherds will rest their flocks. – Isaiah 13:17-20

Remember also the previous Psalm that said, 10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever. 11 and brought Israel out from among them His love endures forever. 12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; His love endures forever. – Psalms 136:10-12

Try not to let the familiarity of the historical moment cloud your vision of what is being praised. This final plague is reminiscent of what Pharaoh had done to all the babies born around the time of Moses. God was making right the wrong that had been done to His people, similarly this verse is crying out for the same course of action. God make right what has been wronged so that we can praise you and be glad.

God is unchanging what He has done He will do again.

In the midst of all of this, two of the most important things that must be said about this Psalm are how, “We moderns should not impose upon the Psalms our assumptions that individual, private experience is to be valued more highly than the experience of God reflected in a corporate identity.”[6] These Psalms are written for the sake of the community against an entire nation not a person. Like Jericho there is hope for a person to repent, Rahab, and even a city to repent of their wickedness like the capital of Assyria when Jonah called them to repent.

That’s the link to the second important point to remember. Our goal is still to forgive. God will make the wrongs right. God will bring about justice, but people still have the opportunity to be forgiven. The people who have wronged you, the countries that insult and attack us, the business that ruined your life in the name of the bottom dollar, and the dozens of other hurts and attacks you have endured are paid for through the cross.

Do you extend that grace to each of them? Because, the wrongs can be made right through the punishment put on Christ. The greatest moment of victory in our lives is understanding that the greatest sins against us can be made right through grace by the God who is the judge!

The commentator Goldingay quotes a well-known German believer who endured great suffering for his faith and for sharing grace during World War Two when addressing this Psalm, “Bonhoeffer comments, only people who have not sinned against their enemies can leave vengeance in God’s hands…. ‘As a sinner I too am under his judgement.’”[7]

How can you balance your prayers for justice and your desire that every person know the God who has unleashed His wrath on Himself in order to be just in giving grace?

It is invaluable for you to rest and take joy in the knowledge that no matter what harm that comes on you, whether deserved like the Israelites in exile or undeserved like that of Job, God will make the wrongs right.

[1] Robert L. Jr. Hubbard and Robert K. Johnston, “Foreword,” in Psalms, ed. W. Ward Gasque, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 479.

[2] John Goldingay, Psalms - Volume 3, Psalms 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 602.

[3] John Goldingay, Psalms - Volume 3, Psalms 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 606.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Reflections On the Psalms (New York: Mariner Books, 1986), 23.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Reflections On the Psalms (New York: Mariner Books, 1986), 25.

[6] Robert L. Jr. Hubbard and Robert K. Johnston, “Foreword,” in Psalms, ed. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 4.

[7] John Goldingay, Psalms - Volume 3, Psalms 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 606.