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?
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(Ps. 137:1-9 NIV)
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.
This is one of the imprecatory Psalms that we find difficult to understand because of the retribution that is included. There is also an element of lament in the Psalm. Life in Babylon did not have the hardship of Egypt. Jeremiah encouraged them to make the most of the time and to seek the peace of the city (Jer. 29). The harvests of food were abundant because of the system of irrigation canals. While life was good for them it wasn’t home. In a cultured city they were asked to sing the songs of Zion. By the fertile banks of the rivers of Babylon they wept because they remembered the place where the Lord had His dwelling place and they weren’t able to be there.
While life was good, they were always reminded that they were captives. Their captors demanded songs of joy, but they hung their harps on the trees because they said, ‘how can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land. Songs of lament were more appropriate, because they were not able to be in the city of God and worship at the temple. The taunts of the captors no doubt included questions about the power of their God. ‘How come if your Lord is so great that you find yourself here in captivity?’
The thought of Jerusalem brought sadness to their hearts because the city and the temple had been reduced to ruins. To sing the songs of Zion would have brought more ridicule. How could you sing of the strength of Jerusalem when it was a mere pile of rubble?
Their love for Jerusalem is great, and so they vow that if they ever forget Jerusalem they want to lose the skill of their right hand so that they will never be able to play the harp again, or that their tongues should cling to the roof of their mouths so that they will never be able to sing again. Jerusalem was their highest joy. Many of us living in England perhaps have favourite places back in our homeland that we love, but the love for Jerusalem was more than love of a favourite place, it was love for the place where the Lord’s presence dwelt. Love for Jerusalem was love for God. However, they needed to remember that it was their lack of love for the Lord and disobedience that had caused them to be taken into captivity.
The Psalmist then turns his attention to the downfall of Jerusalem. The Edomites had played their part in encouraging the tearing down of the walls of Jerusalem right to the foundations. The Psalmist also calls down a woe on Babylon for her part in the downfall of Jerusalem. Babylon and all that it represents is doomed for destruction. The person who is involved in the downfall of Babylon will be blessed. The end of the Psalm includes a shocking statement. The person who seizes the infants of the Babylonians and dashes them against the rocks will be blessed. The Babylonians had slaughtered the children and infants of the people of God. The desire was that the next generation of Babylonians would be wiped out.
Lord in these days of the Pandemic we have not been able to gather together with Your people to sing songs of worship. Lord, the thought of going through Christmas without being able to sing Your praise for the incarnation is a sad thought. Lord in mercy come to the aid of our world and enable Your people to sing the songs of joy and rejoice together because of Your great salvation. We ask this in the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.