“The Psalmist is not only weeping, but he reached to hang up his lyre on the branch of a willow tree somewhere along the Tigris or Euphrates River in this cradle that gave birth to the ancient civilization (137:2). The Babylonians, his captors, wanted to hear him sing a song of Zion. But the Psalmist could not bring himself to comply.”
Derek Kidner once remarked of Psalm 137 that “Every line of it is alive with pain.” The psalmist starts weeping in verse 1 and continues lamenting on through to verse 9 and the call for ultimate justice against those who raised their hand against God’s people. This is not a Psalm of joy, not a Psalm of thanksgiving.
The first three words of the Psalm are promising: “By the waters.” In the agrarian world of the psalmist water meant the difference between life and death. Throughout the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament water often symbolizes God’s blessings freely poured out. But here in Psalm 137 we soon learn that this is not the Jordan River. This is not the Kidron Brook running through Jerusalem. This is not a stream in the desert. These are the waters of Babylon, the mighty nation that laid siege to Jerusalem, overtook the city, and led tens of thousands captive. And one of those captives was a musician who wrote the 137th Psalm.
The Psalmist is not only weeping, but he reached to hang up his lyre on the branch of a willow tree somewhere along the Tigris or Euphrates River in this cradle that gave birth to the ancient civilization (137:2). The Babylonians, his captors, wanted to hear him sing a song of Zion. But the Psalmist could not bring himself to comply.
Derek Kidner was right. This is a psalm of sadness and pain. Such depth of sorrow is felt vividly in the wrenching question asked in verse 4:
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
When Israel first arrived in Babylon, the degree to the which the land was foreign was striking. We know from the book of Daniel, for instance, how idolatry ruled the land. How foreign was that place from Jerusalem and from the Temple and from the land of the Lord their God. The psalmist calls the Babylonians not only his captors, but also his tormentors. The foreign-ness of that place was palpable. It threw the Psalmist off balance. How could he sing? In fact, so foreign was that place that the Psalmist makes extreme vows so as to steel himself against the possibility of forgetting Jerusalem. May his right hand, the hand that skillfully plays the lyre, fail him and may his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth (137:5-6).
Over the decades the foreign-ness of the land subsided. My colleague and Old Testament professor at Reformation Bible College, Dr. J. Nichols Reid, tells of the numerous documentary evidence of the Israelites settling in rather comfortably, engaging in commerce. They even took oaths, sometimes to foreign deities. Sometimes Yahweh’s name would even be added to the list. Over time the foreign-ness was not so foreign. Over time they had forgotten Jerusalem.
The psalmist raises a significant question. How do we sing the Lord’s song? How do we sing the Lord’s song in a hostile foreign land? How do we sing the Lord’s song when the foreign-ness of the land is more subtle?
One of the most striking things about this question in Psalm 137 is that the Psalmist does not answer the question. He never tells us how we sing the Lord’s song. To answer that question we have to look elsewhere to the exilic and post-exilic prophets and to the historical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. When we do look at those books, we see how Daniel and his friends sang the Lord’s song. We see how Nehemiah, a highly placed public official sang the Lord’s song. We see how Ezra, the priest, sang the song.
In Nehemiah chapter 8, Israel is back in the land. No longer at the rivers of Babylon, they are gathered at the square in front of the Water Gate. In their midst, Ezra stands on a podium, a podium made just for this occasion, and he reads the Law, the Five Books of Moses, from morning until midday. Nehemiah richly textures his record of the event with detail. We see the people giving attention to God’s Word. Eyes forward, leaning in, rapt attention—this is the very Words of God that they did not hear in that foreign land. And after paying attention, the people paid their devotion. Heads are bowed and faces are to the ground, as they worship the Lord (Nehemiah 8:6).
We learn from this tragic and dark night of Israel how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. We learn of courage to stand against power. We learn of the power of earnest prayer and of a simple prayer ushered in total reliance upon God. We also learn of the centrality of the Word of God. We learn of the necessity of devotion in a foreign land.
Psalm 137 is a tale of two cities. Both Babylon and Jerusalem have a long history in Sacred Scripture. They could very well stand in for Augustine’s two cities in his famous work, The City of God. Early on in that work, Augustine tells us that “two cities have been formed by two loves.” That love is by definition exclusionary. The love of God countenances no other suitors. And so, too, Babylon, is exclusionary. The love of evil, the love of self, these exclude devotion to the Creator and to the holy God. So Babylon calls for devotion. So Jerusalem calls for devotion.
As Psalm 137 attests it is difficult to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. That, however, is our calling. So we sing the Lord’s song.
This article previously appeared on Ligonier.org, and is used with permission.