By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down, yea, we wept When we remembered Zion. 2 We hung our harps Upon the willows in the midst of it. 3 For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, And those who plundered us [requested] mirth, [Saying], “Sing us [one] of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song In a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget [its skill]! 6 If I do not remember you, Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth–If I do not exalt Jerusalem Above my chief joy. 7 Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, “Raze [it], raze [it], To its very foundation!” 8 O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! 9 Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!PSALM 137:1-9
There aren’t too many bright and happy thoughts to this Psalm today. There is no joyful kick-up at the end to remind us of how God makes a way for His people. Instead the last sentence we read gives us a haunting image of gross violence carried about the most innocent members of society. If you read it aloud, the words just hang there in a haunting silence.
This psalm goes back to a time when Israel was taken into captivity by Babylon. The had been forced out of their homeland, the promise land, and caused to live as strangers in a foreign land filled with gross idolatry. They weren’t slaves, but many weren’t too much better off.
Along the way their captors, their enemies, the ones who had forced them to abandon their ancestorial homes, farms, and villages were now making light of them. Like a kid who has caught a critter and keeps poking it with a stick, the words of their enemy were vicious and cruel. They want the Israelites who are properly mourning the events that have taken place in their world to sing their songs of worship to their God. They want to mock Israel and they want to mock their God!
The Israelites obviously didn’t feel like singing a praise song in such a way as to make a mockery of God or their people. So it’s like under their breath they said, “you want a song, we will give you a song!” and they wrote this psalm that speaks of their lament, but also the just judgement of God to visit the sins of their captors upon their own heads.
Many of the Israelites had seen their children murdered in front of their own eyes simply for the offense of crying in the midst of confusion, or even to cut off a generation from becoming powerful enough to overtake their enemies. This sin against Israel seemed to embody the tragedy and depravity of the whole situation. Their captors had no mercy, shown them no quarter, taken advantage of them in every way, stripped them of their dignity, and even murdered their children before their very eyes. The Israelites knew that when they sang their songs to God, they were like prayers. They weren’t calling out to a worthless idol who was powerless, but they were calling out to Almighty God the maker of heaven and earth. He could and would avenge every injustice.
So the Praise in this song to day is calling out to God for justice. Notice they aren’t praying for revenge but rather for vengeance. Revenge is something you take your own hands. This psalm does not say, “We’ll be happy when we bash your children on the rocks.” They are calling out to God (v. 7) to avenge the wrongs done to them and warning their captors that the evil that was so willingly poured out on Israel by Babylon will come back on the daughters of Babylon one day.
This Psalm is filled with tragedy but it also carries an air of prophecy. The daughters of Babylon will see their own children destroyed one day by those who are all to willing and smile as they do it.
The real tragedy is that it doesn’t even need the trappings of war to work that sort of evil against infants. There will be fathers who murder their own children in the name of happiness worshipping false gods.
So Israel sang a song. Not a happy worship song, but a worship song none the less. In the midst of this imprecatory psalm we find the voice of the psalmist still calling out to God for justice simply because God is just. Through hot and heavy tears the psalmist utters words from a broken heart but a trusting heart non-the-less.
So what do we take away from this “devotional” reading of Psalms this morning?
- We can pray to God through tears of injustice the injustice that we have suffered and know He hears our prayers.
- We can trust God for ultimate justice.
- Sometimes we want to appease our sense of justice by taking matters in our own hand, but the psalmist wisely teaches us to place vengeance in the Lord’s hands (See also Romans 12:9).
- There is a penalty for our sins, both personally and corporately and someday we will answer for our sins.
- We can trust that even when we have suffered injustice, we haven’t been completely abandoned by the LORD.
I think the words of Paul in Romans 12 pair well with this passage today.
[Rom 12:17-21 NKJV] 17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but [rather] give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance [is] Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Father, I confess that it was uncomfortable to read this Psalm at first this morning. But as I reflected I couldn’t help but note that we are no less deserving of your wrath than those this psalm was inspired by and written against. Yet rather than having our children’s heads bashed against the rocks, you chose to send your son to die in my place so that I might be justified, redeemed, forgiven, and adopted into your family. I am grateful for the gift of reconciliation and the opportunity that I have to show it to others. I am grateful that you are a God of justice and that every injustice will one day be settled either by Just retribution or through being justified in Jesus Christ. Thank you again for my salvation and the great grace I learn more about every day. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
I’m reading and blogging the Psalms Through The Summer. I’d love for you to join me. You can find out a little more here.