Strangers in a Strange Land
(1) By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. (2) On the willows, in the midst of it, we hung up our lyres, (3) for there our captors asked us (to sing) songs, and our tormenters (asked us to be) joyful (saying), “Sing for us one of the songs of Zion.” (4) How can we sing a song of Yahweh in a foreign land? (5) If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (its skill). (6) Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my greatest joy. (7) Remember, Yahweh, what the sons of Edom said on the day Jerusalem (fell): “Raze it, raze it, down to its foundations!” (8) Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, how blessed is the one who repays you with the recompense you have paid out to us! (9) Blessed is the one who takes and smashes your children against the rocks.
Psalm 137 may be the saddest of the lament psalms. Here the author portrays the Israeli exiles living among foreigners in Babylon, grieving over the loss of their homeland and pleading with Yahweh to avenge the wrongs done to them by their enemies.
Several repetitions mark the psalm. “Zion” is mentioned twice (vss. 1 & 3). The verb, “sing,” and the noun, “song,” are found five times in a tragic setting (vss. 3 & 4). “Forget” occurs twice (vs. 5). The expression, “if I do not,” also appears twice (vs. 6). The word, “remember,” is used personally by the psalmist and then in a prayer asking Yahweh to keep his people in mind (vss. 6 & 7). “Jerusalem” occurs three times (vss. 5-7). The psalm concludes with two of the most vindictive statements in all of Scripture where “blessed” is used twice to describe the one who would avenge the wrongs done to these grieving exiles (vss. 8 & 9).
I. The anguish of the Hebrew captives in their exile in Babylon (1-6)
- grieving over being deported (1-4)
- longing to return to Jerusalem (5 & 6)
II. Their prayers to Yahweh to avenge the wrongs done to them (7-9)
By turning our sinful responses to suffering into prayer, we give Yahweh the opportunity to change both our attitudes and our circumstances.
We are rightfully shocked by the last three verses of the psalm, by the ferocity of the anger and the awful cruelty described there. Some skeptics have questioned whether these verses should have a place in sacred Scripture. However, when we consider what those in exile experienced, the harsh treatment and the suffering they had endured, we can understand why they felt such animosity toward their captors. Those who underwent the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II or spent time in captivity as prisoners of war readily identify with the anger and resentment expressed by these exiles.
While the Israelites in Babylon found it impossible to sing the joyful songs of Zion, they did express the depths of their emotion to Yahweh in this plaintive psalm. At least they were praying. At least they were opening their hearts to the One who could do something about their plight instead of taking things into their own hands or allowing themselves to grow so bitter that they would become spiritually useless to God.
Those who teach others to pray will sometimes say something like, “We need to be honest with the Lord and express to him the full range of emotions we feel, even the anger and the thoughts of revenge caused by the sins of others. He certainly can take it, and he is in the best position to do something about it.” Once we have released our anger and resentment into Yahweh’s hands, we can move ahead with our lives, confident that he has promised to take care of us and vindicate all the wrongs that have been done to us.