Psalm 137 relates to the experience of the Jewish captivity and exile to Babylon sometime between 588BC to 586BC. And if we can put ourselves back in a Jewish frame of mind, i think we can catch the pathos and empathy with which we can feel what these people must have felt as they were away from Zion by the rivers of Babylon. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” – perhaps if could go back in the history of the nation of Israel before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and remember some of the promises that God made to His covenant people, we could catch the confusion with which they experienced this exile. In 2 Samuel chapter 7 verses 10, 13, and 16 where God promises that He will bring Israel into the Land, and He will sustain them there, that He will always have a man on the Davidic throne, and that Jerusalem will stand as a monument to Himself throughout the ages. This of course was a promise to David before Solomon became king, and yet now the Davidic king has been taken in chains to Babylon. I think we can see some of the tension this caused when we look at the preaching of Jeremiah. Now, Jeremiah was confronted with false teachers who kept quoting passages from Isaiah chapters 36 and 37 where God promises to King Hezekiah through Isaiah that Jerusalem will not fall to the Assyrian invaders under Sennacherib who had already taken the northern 10 tribes on 722BC. And because Hezekiah prayed to God and trusted God, God told him He’d spare the city. That’s in Isaiah 37 where the Death Angel came and 185,000 troops of the Assyrian army died in one night, and Sennacherib went home where he met his death in the hands of his own two sons. In that context of the repentance and faith of Hezekiah and the people, in Jeremiah’s day which is about 150 years plus later they were saying, “God has promised He’ll never allow the city to be destroyed; He promised to David back in 2nd Samuel; He promised to Hezekiah back in the book of Isaiah”. And Jeremiah kept saying, “Yes that’s true, but you have forgotten the covenant responsibilities God said He would, if you would, but you you have broken the Covenant by the way you act. God’s mercy has been spurned. You have not repented, and God’s going to take you to exile”. And the people called Jeremiah a ‘false prophet’ because they said “thus saith the Lord” and they quoted the Scriptures in 2nd Samuel 7 and said, “You’re a heretic because you’re bringing a new message”. If you know the book of Isaiah, the authorities really were abusive to him, and the crowds tried to abuse him physically several times because he had a message of judgment instead of a message of deliverance. You see the Jews put so much trust in the temple. They had focused all of their covenant responsibilities to temple ritual that they were totally unprepared when God took the temple away. Now the problem has always been that even in the Old Testament, the faith of Israel had always been a heartfelt faith that was represented through the sacrifice, through the liturgy, through the ritual. But somehow the Jews had trusted in the ‘form’ instead of the ‘Giver’ of the form; trusted in their actions instead of the grace of God. They had thought that ritualistic, literalistic acts of sacrifices would make them right with God when it was always the heart that made man right with God. And so God’s only option was to take them out of the land so they’d be forced to return to Him and Him alone as their only source of help and salvation. It is at this context, at the pathos of these early exiled Jews, they wondered, “Does God still love us, does God still care, are God’s promises still valid, is the Covenant still in effect”? I think we can understand something about this drama, if we woke up one morning, and all the churches had been shut down and were in the process of being burned, and all the Bibles had been confiscated and were in the process of being burned, and all the religious leaders had been executed during the night in secret raids, something of the wonderment and bewilderment that would overcome Christians of our country may have been something that these Jews experienced; when all they hoped for and trusted in, and all they looked to for guidance, and hope, and instruction were gone.
Now, the “By the rivers of…” – ‘canals’ would have been a more appropriate translation because we learn from Ezekiel that one of those was a canal named Chebar, and there were many canals that derived from the Euphrates used for irrigation purposes. So, “By one of these canals” was where they sat down and wept. Now why would they come to a river to worship or to pray? Well, the only Biblical precedent we have is in the New Testament in Acts 16:13, where Paul and his co-workers came to Philippi, and went down to the river nearby which was the common place of prayer during that time. And he knew that, so maybe that’s an ancient tradition when there was no synagogue. they went down by the river. Someone said, it may be a place where they could perform their ablutions; that could be true. Perhaps it’s just the quiet serenity of the riverbank where they sat down. Now, of course for the Jews to sit on the floor was a sign of mourning; maybe it’s the idea here because the next verse is they “wept” when they remembered Zion. Wept is a word that means to weep loudly; to cry out in agony. This whole Psalm is almost a funeral lament in its rhythmic form. And here they wailed as they sit by the river. Zion of course is a hill in Jerusalem and it’s the idea of the whole city. The temple is not built on Mount Zion, it’s built on Mount Moriah, but Zion came to be a name to describe Jerusalem, and Jerusalem came to be synonymous with the temple or the place where God chose His Name to dwell, and that’s the idea here.
Now notice as it mentions, “There on the poplars we hung our harps,” – the verbs from verse one through verse three are in a past tense and in Hebrew. And so it seems like someone writing later was looking back on this period, and remembering how bad it was. Other translations use “willows”, however willows do not grow in the Tigiris Euphrates valley. Modern horticulturists would tell us that this is a type of poplar that looked similar to a willow that grew not only in Babylon but on the Jordan riverbanks. It is possible these very same trees are the branches that were used in the feast of tabenacles which would even intensify the grief even more. Now, the ‘harps’ here the Revised Standard Version has the word ‘lyres’, but both are similar in form and shape. This was a musical instrument either used by the Levites to sing the praises of God in the temple, or possibly also by the people to sing their religious folk songs. But whatever it is, the attitude and the atmosphere was not conducive to worship of Yahweh’s goodness because they were so dejected and confused at this point.
Now notice in verse three as it says, “For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” – It would seem that their Babylonian captors asked them to sing a religious song to kind of mock them. We must remember that during this time, all of the nations were connected to national god. The fact that Israel as a nation was in captivity showed that her God had been defeated by Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon. And so to force them to sing a religious song was in a way to show that Yahweh had been defeated, and maybe they wanted to do that to mock the Jews. Others are of the view that they weren’t so much trying to mock them religiously as they like this new form of singing. If you ever heard a Jewish religious hymn, it has a unique beat, a unique rhythm; maybe they just wanted to hear this new kind of music and this new kind of song. And i’m not sure we can know which it is. The fact the word ‘captors’ and ‘tormentors’ are mentioned, seems to support the idea of ‘mock’ but the verb ‘ask’ seems to support the idea of just “let us hear this new different kind of music”. In verse 4, “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?” – now here the ‘the LORD’s song’ is identified with the ‘songs of Zion’ which means a religious song. We must remember in the ancient world, deities were connected with geographic locations. Maybe, this is aln allusion of that, that they couldn’t sing Yahweh’s song away from the Promised Land because Yahweh’ primary land was the Promised Land. Now, i think that goes back to a false understanding that God was one among many, and we know that Judaism is a development to a pure blown monotheism which says He is the only God and the rest are simply demonic or false gods. Now, the second possibility is: these songs were religious songs, and it was simply a mockery to sing them out of the context of the temple and its faith.
Verse 5, “If I forget you, Jerusalem,…” – now, here is a series of verses, 5 and 6, that show intense faith amidst the dark time of exile and theological confusion. Though they weren’t sure God was still for them, they want everybody to know they were still for God, and so even in this darkness of this, they’re still saying, “O, we believe in Jerusalem”. “…Let my right hand forget its skill.” – this could well be translated as, …”May my right hand forget (or become numb) to play upon the harp”. So there again the thoughts to remember Zion and its happy memories continue to haunt them. Now in verse 6, “Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you; If I don’t prefer Jerusalem above my chief joy.” – the psalmist is saying, may his fitness to sing be disabled if again he sings any such festival songs, till that joyful day shall come, when they return to Jerusalem from exile. Now notice as it says in verse 7, “Remember, Yahweh, against the children of Edom, The day of Jerusalem; Who said, “Raze it! Raze it even to its foundation!” – it is interesting to note the word ‘forget’ is something negative for men; we want ment to ‘remember’ God’s goodness and kindness, but if we relate the word ‘remember’ to God, it connotes the idea of imprecation because God’s ‘remembering’ always refers to judgment. And verse 7 in context is a call on God to judge 2 different nations, Edom and Babylon, that were involved in the fall of Jerusalem. We see that God is a God who will repay heathen nations who have cruelly afflicted His elect (cf. Deut. 32:35). This really is a sign of hope for the Jews; they weren’t sure God was still in control of history, they weren’t sure God was still for them. But in the midst of this heaviness of being exiled as God’s judgment for their sins, yet this man believes God is in control. He says ‘God be just, mete to them the same kind of justice that you have held us accountable’. Now, why Edom? Why would the sons of Edom be called on here? Babylon is going to mentioned in verse 8. But why should Edom be judged? Well, from many passages, we know that Edom a relative of the Jews, participated in the fall and the attack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. You might want to see EzeK 35:5; Amos 1:9-11; Obad. 11-16, that describe Edom’s participation in the invasion and attack of Jerusalem. And so it was a violation against brotherly love that was the problem. Now that quote in verse 7, “…Raze it! Raze it even to its foundation!” – has the idea of ‘uncover, or strip her naked to the ground bottom” (cf. Lamentation 4:21-22). So it’s the idea of stripping a woman publicly to shame her is what they were doing to Jerusalem (seen as a woman, we often call her the ‘virgin daughter of Zion’) in a sense of shaming a woman used here as a metaphor. That’s the idea here.
Now verse 8 describes the judgment on Babylon. Notice as it says, “Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, He will be happy who rewards you, As you have served us.” – Jeremiah prophesied Babylon’s punishment after 70 years of ravaging Jerusalem and throwing the Jews into exile (cf. Jer. 25:12). It sounds cruel to us but it’s the Old Testament ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ justice of Deuteronomy 19:19 and Leviticus 34:20. Here’s one example of the horrors of war as an ultimate way of what they’re praying to God would do to them, because that’s what they did to the Jews, “Happy shall he be, Who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” – they would cut off the strength of the nation by killing the children by grabbing them by the heels and dash their heads against the walls. It’s unbelievable, but it was a common military practice in the ancient world (cf. Isaiah 13:16; Hos. 10:14; Hos. 13:16; Nahum 3:10) and this is a fulfillment of predictive prophecy against Babylon. I could almost quote Galatians 6:7 here and say, “Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” and that seems to be a fulfillment here against Babylon. Divine judgment against Babylon is pronounced, and nothing can prevent its execution. Cyrus king of Persia when executing the counsels of God, he entered that doomed city, and meted to them the same cruelty they had shown their captives. And as Babylon of old fell, the eschatological Babylon mystical shall meet the same destruction from the righteous judgment of God, and all oppressors of God’s people will sink as a millstone cast into the deep, and never rise again.