On this first Sunday of June we continue our study of the Psalms as an aid for preparing for our worship on Sunday. Today we look at Psalm 137, an “impassioned imprecatory” psalm (Nelson Study Bible), set in the context of the captivity of Babylon (586 B.C.). Here we find the inspired Word of God through the psalmist:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 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.
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raseit, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
As you can see, this psalm relates the deep emotional and spiritual feelings of the people of God as they sit in captivity in the heathen country of Babylon, far from Jerusalem, the city of God. There they weep and pray over the taunts of the enemy and their own significant losses. Which, we may remark, is a good sign, because it reveals that the church was repentant. She had been removed from the land of promise and Jerusalem and brought to Babylon because of her sins against her covenant Lord. The Lord was chastising them in His love and grace, seeking to correct His own and restore them spiritually before He returned them to the land. And His grace bears fruit – as it always does – such that the people of God are weeping and crying out to the Lord.
And we may say by way of application for us today, that this is always the sign of God’s grace working in our hearts and lives, that we too repent of our sins daily and cry out to the Lord of mercy. This spiritual trait must be in us today as we prepare for worship, for the high and lofty One looks for and dwells with those who are of a contrite and humble spirit (Is.57:15). Our covenant Lord is always chastening us too for our sins,a nd so we too ought to show that His discipline is good by daily turning from our sins and taking refuge in Christ. Are we repentant sinners this day as we prepare for worship?
Another thing worthy of note in this psalm is the deep love the children of God have for God and His church. That comes out in vss.1-4 where they express the fact that they cannot sing or even play the songs of Zion while in captivity. Their hearts are heavy for her woes; mindful of the way they treated Zion, they mourn deeply now that they are removed from her.
Especially in vss.5-6 do the people reveal their strong love for God’s church. With repentant hearts they pronounce curses on themselves if they forget Jerusalem and do not remember her, or if she is not their chief joy. Why is that? Why such powerful devotion to Zion? Not because of attachment to a mere place, a physical city on a real mountain in Palestine. But because Jerusalem was the city of God, the place where He especially revealed His covenant presence and saving fellowship with His people for Christ’s sake – through the blood of the covenant! This was the one place in all the world where the throne of God was on public display, where the temple of His glory was set, and where the public worship of Him took place.
Zion was the heart and the heartbeat of the life of God’s church! O, how the true people of God loved her! Because God loved her, even from eternity! And now that they are taken away from her and her life in her, concretely and practically, and have to live in a pagan land devoted to idols, their souls are pained beyond measure! No wonder they cry out “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…!”
What about us? Is our love for God’s church that strong and that deep? Would we too cry out as we dwell in the Babylon of this world, “Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy”? Is the church for which Christ shed His blood the heart and heartbeat of our lives? Or have other things taken over? Perhaps the pleasures Babylon can afford us? Her “joys”, her toys, her songs? If so, then let these words of God’s repentant people rebuke us and restore us to pure love for God and His bride.
Finally, the love God’s people have for God and His church is manifested in the prayers expressed in vss.7-9. These are imprecations, i.e., a call for curses to be brought on the enemies of the church, something which many in the church today are uncomfortable with and even deny the NT church should make. And it is true that we must love our enemies, pray for them that despitefully use us and persecute us, and bless those who curse us (Matt.5:43ff.).
But we may confidently say too, that such imprecatory psalms are not out of spirit or order for the church today. They are prayed in the deep consciousness of what the church’s enemies do to God and His cause (see Ps. 139:19-22). Such prayers are made in the awareness that the Lord of mercy is also the Lord of judgment, and that He alone has the right to dispense these as He sees fit. In making these prayers, the church commits her way to the sovereign Lord, Who always does what is right.
And so we too may pray for judgment on our foes and on the enemies of God’s church wherever they show themselves and trouble the people of God. Also in our public prayers in worship on the Lord’s Day. For the vindication of the cause of Christ and for the honor of God’s name. And in the spirit of humility, of course, because we realize we have our own sin which makes us also deserving of such divine wrath and cursing.
Again we may ask: Do we love God’s church? Then let us show that this day as we worship!
If you desire to meditate on Psalm 137 through music, I encourage you to listen to some versifications of this psalm at the PRC Psalter page. Here is one such versification to get you started (Visit the link to hear piano accompaniment and sing along.):
1. By Babel’s riverside we sat in tears,
Remembering Zion’s pride in former years,
While on the weeping willows there were hung
The harps our grief had silenced and unstrung.
2. For they who led us there a captive throng
Required that we prepare for them a song;
Yea, there our captors asked for mirth and praise,
Required a song of Zion’s happy days.
3. O how shall we thus sing at their command
Songs of the Lord, our King, in this strange land?
O Zion, if I e’er forget thy woe,
Let my right hand its skill no longer know.
4. Yea, let my tongue, I pray, all silent be,
If I do not alway remember thee;
If I prefer not thee, though in thy grief,
Above all other joys my very chief.