1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Up to this point, we’ve been looking at favorite, well-loved and well-known psalms that provide comfort and inspiration to our souls. Psalm 137 is not, at first glance, one of those psalms. Any psalm that begins with weeping and ends with dashing children against rocks probably requires some explanation.
This psalm is short enough (just nine verses) that we can actually go through it verse by verse. I hope that in the process, I can convince you that within the words of this psalm, there is indeed comfort, inspiration, and a deep poetic beauty.
So. To begin with, there’s no preface at the beginning of this psalm, as we’ve seen with others. No dedication, no attribution, no instructions for singing. That’s likely because this psalm was not connected at all with worship in the Jewish Temple, for reasons that become pretty apparent right in the first verse: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
In the year 587 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon invaded and completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killing most of its inhabitants, or else carrying them back to Babylon as slaves.
When Psalm 137 was composed, there was no longer a temple in Jerusalem. There was no longer any Jerusaelm, or Zion, at all, save only in the memories of the Jews in exile. And because of this, memory–the act of remembering–becomes critically important in Jewish culture (right down to the present day).
Verse two: On the willows there, we hung up our harps. The harp, or כִּנּוֹר (kinnor) was the instrument used for worship in the temple, and this (along with the next two verses) gives us a clue that the author of this psalm was probably one of the temple musicians. There’s also a metaphorical aspect to this verse: The harp is a national symbol of Jerusalem, while the willow tree is a national symbol of Babylon. The hanging gardens of Babylon are attributed to King Nebuchadnezzar II and the scientific name for the weeping willow is the Salix Babylonica. Hanging up one’s harp on the willow tree indicates a refusal to sing and play anymore, but also (symbolically) the total surrender of Jerusalem to Babylon.
Verse three: For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” Obviously, the reputation of the psalms and those who sing them is well-known outside of Jerusalem. There’s a poetic play on words here: the word “tormentors” in Hebrew is תוֹלָלֵ֣ינוּ (tolalenu). The word “hanged” in the previous verse is תָּ֝לִ֗ינוּ (talenu). There are several other words throughout the psalm that continue this almost rhyming/rapping insult of the Babylonian captors. Those captors “ask” the musicians to sing one of the songs of Zion, but ask is probably an overly-polite translation, or else a bitterly sarcastic one. This is a command the musicians cannot ignore, despite it’s difficulty. And the difficulty is not just an emotional one–we’re depressed and angry so we can’t sing a happy song–it’s actually a theological problem, a logistical problem…
This becomes apparent in verse four: How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Notice that the Babylonian captors ask for a “song of Zion” (שִּׁ֥יר צִיּֽוֹן) but the psalmist refers to it as a שִׁיר יְהוָ֑ה (song of Yahweh). In other words, the psalms are not nationalistic in nature, even when they sing the praises of Jerusalem. They are religious. They sing the praises of Jerusalem because that’s where God’s house is. Or rather…was. What makes something a song of the Lord, is the simple fact that it is sung in the Lord’s house (something that would be very useful for us to remember in this age of “tradtional vs. contemporary music). For the psalmist, there is no longer a Jerusalem, no longer a Zion, and no longer a temple. So it stands to reason that any song they sing would not, could not be a song of the Lord.
But still they must sing. Their captors demand it. What to do? And it is here the Psalm shifts in its tone, from despair to resolution. From paralysis to an impassioned call to action. In my mind, I imagine they pick up their harps and begin to sing…in Hebrew, a language that (fortunately for them) their captors cannot understand. What do they sing?
Verse 5: If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand (in other words, my harp playing hand) wither and die. Wither, like one of the leaves on that willow tree.
And verse 6: Let my tongue (my singing, praising tongue) cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
The word “joy” (שִׂמְחָה) is the same word used in verse 3, “our tormentors asked for mirth.” For the Babylonians, joy comes from the song itself, but the psalmist knows that the true joy of the song, the highest joy, comes from its purpose, and the memory of Jerusalem. Here I think “Jerusalem” is meant to represent all that goes with it: Zion, the temple, and the true worship of the Lord.
The last three verses are where things take a turn for the violent. Here I think it’s important to remember that although we often call the Bible the “Word of God” it was written by people–human beings with the full spectrum of emotions ranging from sadness to anger and a bitter desire for vengeance–emotions we are all capable of, although they are not, in the end, God’s plan or desire for us.
Verse 7: Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” Wait a minute…Edomites? I thought we were mad at the Babylonians? Babylon is to the East of Jerusalem, and the land of Edom is in the opposite direction, to the West of Jerusalem. So how do they play into the picture?
According to Jewish tradition, the Edomites are descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob (also known as Israel). In other words, the Edomites were our brothers. And in our darkest hour, we looked desperately to our brother Edom for help. Another book in the Bible, Obadiah, describes what happened: “On the day that you (Edom) stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you too were like one of them.” Not only did you not come to our aid, you turned against us. Nothing stings quite like the betrayal of a brother.
But we’re just getting warmed up in our anger. Verse 8: O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! The desire for payback or vengeance is normal and understandable, even if it’s not, in the end, useful. I remember noticing in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, most of our national energy (and conversation) seemed directed not so much at preventing this from happening again (that came later) but at responding in kind–finding those responsible and punishing them. And in our darker moments, when we couldn’t find them, punishing anyone (other countries, Muslims in our midst) might do.
That’s the problem with violent retribution–it rarely solves anything. In fact, decades of studies of inner-city gang violence have shown that it often has the opposite effect: Revenge and retribution lead to an escalation of violence. It leads to dehumanizing extremism, as is evident in the final verse of Psalm 137.
Verse 9: Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! To be fair, there’s a reasonable chance that the psalmist watched this very thing happen to his own children or the children of his people when Jerusalem was destroyed. Anger is one of the five stages of grief. It’s understandable that the psalmist would direct such passionate anger at the ones who caused his grief. Once again, it’s probably a good thing the Babylonians don’t speak Hebrew.
But something has happened in these final verses, another shift. Twice the Psalmist says “happy shall they be” followed by what amounts to a curse. Happy. Joyful. In the span of a few short verses, the Psalmist has forgotten the chief source of his highest joy, and replaced it with another. We do this too, when we let our sense of loss itself overwhelm the memory of what (or whom) we have loved.
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock. There’s an interesting plot twist in the story that hopefully puts this last verse in perspective, and highlights the folly of such violent wishes. I suppose when the Psalmist thought of Babylonian little ones he’d like to see dashed against the rock, none would have appealed more than the child of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King. That child, who was not dashed against the rocks, was named was Avel-Merodach, and when he grew up, he succeeded his father as king. In the book of Jeremiah, chapter 52, we read that this Avel-Merodach, “in the year he began to reign, showed favor to King Jehoiachin of Judah and brought him out of prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the seats of the other kings who were with him in Babylon.” This gesture of peace and freindship would never have happened if the Psalmist had gotten his wish.
The average lifespan of a weeping willow is fifty years. Fifty years after the musicians hung their harps on the willow tree, and wept by the rivers of Babylon… the Babylonian Empire came to an end. Another King and another Empire rose in its place. Where Nebuchadnezzar’s policy had been to enslave those he conquered, and assimilate them into his kingdom and culture, the new King (Cyrus of Persia) adopted a policy of respect and tolerance for the cultures and religions of people under his rule. With his blessing, the Jewish exiles in Babylon returned to Jerusalem. They rebuilt their city, rebuilt the temple, and the songs of Yahweh filled Jerusalem once more.
But somewhere, buried deep among those joyful temple songs, Psalm 137 remained, with all its tragic mourning, its defiant grief, its sarcastic obedience, its bitter anger, and perhaps most importantly, its call to remember Zion. Its call to remember the source of our joy in the midst of our sorrow–something which even the psalmist found easier said than done.
To me, Psalm 137 is a powerful reminder of our humanity: We all experience love as well as loss, anger as well as joy, loyalty and betrayal alike, opportunities for violence and retribution, as well as opportunities for kindness and reconciliation.
Psalm 137 is also a powerful reminder of God’s providence: Even when we walk in a foreign land, we do not walk alone. Even when our present is bleak, God is calling us into a future with hope and purpose.
No one knew this better than the prophet Jeremiah, who was called the “weeping prophet.” Jeremiah was in Jerusalem when it fell. He witnessed firsthand the devastation of the Jewish people as they were killed and carted away. He saw (and later described in great detail) the destruction of the temple, where his father had served as a temple priest.
It wouldnt be unreasonable to assume that Jeremiah knew the temple musicians; perhaps he knew the author of Psalm 137. Certainly they shared much in common, and one of the books attributed to Jeremiah (appropriately named “Lamentations”) reads like a full-length extended version of Psalm 137.
Jeremiah, unlike the psalmist, was exiled in Egypt. But while there, the Lord spoke to him and gave him a message for the people exiled in Babylon. I like to imagine that somehow, that letter may have found its way to the temple musicians, and to the author of Psalm 137, still seething in his bitterness and grief.
In many ways, the letter forms a fitting epilogue to Psalm 137–God’s response to the heartfelt cry of God’s people.
As we conclude this morning, I’d like to share some of that letter, that response, with you.
Speaking of Babylon, the city of captivity, and the focus of Psalm 137’s anger, Jeremiah 29 says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
The letter goes on to say that after the days in Babylon are completed, “I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
People of First Presbyterian Church:
No matter how far away from the Lord you find yourself
No matter how far into exile life and this world take you
May you always seek the Lord with all your heart
And may the the Lord always bring you safely back home.