To me, Psalm 137 is one of the saddest psalms written. It speaks of Judah’s captivity for seventy years in the land of Babylon.
The psalm uses words like weeping beside willow trees. Hanging stringed instruments on branches because the joy to sing no longer existed. Whether they felt like singing or not, their captors, their tormentors, required the captives to sing them happy songs of Zion.
How could they sing happy songs in this foreign land away from all they knew? All they held dear? Apart from the temple? How could they sing joyfully when their hearts broke?
The captives pleaded with Jehovah not to forget to repay those who razed Jerusalem and burned it to the ground when Babylon, that evil beast, entered their city.
In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet warned Judah time and time again to turn from their wicked ways of idolatry and follow God’s commands. The people refused. Jeremiah warned them if they didn’t repent and turn back to God, God would send his servant, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon to the city. God promised when that happened, all of Judah would become a desolate wasteland. For seventy years after that, the people would be forced to serve the king of Babylon.
Like the prophet Habakkuk, I often wondered why God used the Babylonians to conquer his people. As Habakkuk said, “We are wicked, but they far more! Will you, who cannot allow sin in any form, stand idly by while they swallow us up?” (Habakkuk 1:13 TLB)
As LeVar Burton said on Reading Rainbow, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.” I suggest you read Jeremiah and Habakkuk to see what happened.
Anyway…the Israelites’ captivity was a consequence of their choices and activities. Although the people refused to turn back to God, God never turned away from them. He never stopped loving his people.
Between the lament at the beginning of the psalm and the fiery passion against his tormentors at the end, the psalmist declared if the day ever came when he forgot Jerusalem and God’s covenant with his people, may he also forget his musical skill. If he failed to love Jerusalem and God more than his highest joy, may he also never sing again.
As God promised, seventy years after the people of Judah were taken into captivity, Persia destroyed Babylon. The once mighty conquering nation was conquered. The land became an everlasting desolation, and God’s people were allowed to return to Jerusalem.
In our life there may be times we find our self weeping beside the rivers of Babylon. We hang up our harps. We can no longer sing a happy song. Life is just too hard. Our tormentors require us to sing, but we can’t. Not now. And we wonder if we ever will again.
Yet, with the conviction of the psalmist, we can remember everything our Lord has brought us through. We can remain convinced we will sing again in the land God promised us after our captivity ends.
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Weeping, we sat beside the rivers of Babylon thinking of Jerusalem. We have put away our lyres, hanging them upon the branches of the willow trees, for how can we sing? Yet our captors, our tormentors, demand that we sing for them the happy songs of Zion! Psalm 137:1-4 (TLB)
I wish you well.
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