Psalm 137 is a psalm that I personally have struggled with more than any. The Lyrics shocked me and I found the ferocity of the emotions portrayed in it hard to deal with, particularly the last line. I also found it hard to see how I could sing this and see any relevance in it for me. What follows is the residue of my coming to terms with and learning to appreciate this psalm.
This song harks back to the lowest period in the history of the people of God: the Babylonian captivity. Jerusalem suffered a cruel defeat under the Babylonian Army (605-586 BC). The city was laid waste and those who were not killed were taken into exile. It was a common practice of conquering nations in the Ancient Near East to prevent against nationalist uprisings in conquered territories to deport the large proportion of conquered peoples far away from their home land. The idea was that after some time their identity and faith would be lost as the people were assimilated into the foreign culture. Judah remained in exile for 70 years and in this time the flame of the covenant faith continued to burn. However the very experience of being in Babylon was a painful one for a people whose whole identity was caught up in their nationality, faith, and the glory of Jerusalem and the temple which stood at the centre of Jewish life. God had sent them away and had allowed them to be captive to a foreign nation just as they were in Egypt. In the biblical typology the land of Canaan (with Jerusalem and the temple as its heart) was like a second Eden, though Isaiah had made it clear that this was only provisional until the new heavens and earth was created (Isaiah 65:17) ‘ the new Eden. Eden, in biblical thought, is the place where God dwells in harmony with his people. Because Adam and Eve sinned they were cast out of Eden. When God began his process of redemption with the covenant with Abram (Read Gen. 12:1-3; Gen. 15) he included, with the promise of blessing, the promise that he would give Abram a land; the promised land. The promised land was to be a new Eden, a place where God would again dwell in harmony with his people. But the story of Genesis 3 repeated itself in the history of Israel. The people sinned and so God cast them out of the land. Read 2 Kings 17:7ff for the account of this.
While the people had been sent away from God into captivity there is a sense in which God still went with them. Read the book of Esther to see how God prevented a near genocide of the Jewish people during this time under the Persian king and also the Book of Daniel to see how God still blessed and protected his people even though they were suffering in captivity. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army had been a devastating one. Read the book of Lamentations which is a vivid description of the destroyed city by Jeremiah who had warned the people many times before this event came. The defeat was a cruel one. Moreover it was bought about to the great delight of the neighbours of Judah, such as Edom, who applauded the cruelty along.
The Psalm, then, recalls the people’s grief as they lived in captivity amidst the system of canals that spread throughout the Babylonian region (vs.1). Musical instruments were generally associated with rejoicing and so when the Babylonians asked for a demonstration of their renowned music ability they refused (vss.2-4). The gesture of putting away their instruments was symbolic of the fact that there is no joy apart from God. The vow to never forget Jerusalem was a vow of utmost piety and a gesture in defiance of the enemy’s attempt to try and squash their faith by taking them so far away from their home. The psalmist wishes all kind of calamities upon himself if he ever forgets Jerusalem, if he starts to feel at home in the foreign land and if he becomes content with his life in captivity (vss.5, 6). These calamities are like those described in the curses of Deuteronomy 28:15ff for those who forget God. In other words the Psalmist says, ‘may God do to me all that He has said He will do if I forget Him.’ In his zeal to remember and delight in Jerusalem above all things the psalmist remembers the jeering and cursing of the Edomites over the destruction of the sacred city (vs.7). Then he turns his anger upon the Babylonian empire who did these things. The anger of the words that follow match the zeal of the writer. What must be borne in mind for understanding verses 8-9 is the covenant promise that those who curse the covenant people will be cursed (Gen. 12:3). Psalm 37:15 invokes this principle when it says that the sword of the covenant enemies will slay those who wield it. They will fall into the pit they have dug (Psalm 9:15). The Babylonians did terrible things to the people of Jerusalem. Those who were not deported were killed ‘ this included children ‘ even those in the wombs of their mothers. This was prophesied by Hosea (if you feel brave you could read Hosea 13:16). The practice of killing infants in the ancient times represented the absolute destruction of a people. Progeny were seen as the continuation of a person’s life so the destruction of children was like rubbing a person’s name out from existence ‘ it was the worst of all curses. According to the principle of the Genesis 12:3, then, the psalmist, in his righteous indignation, declares the curse back on the heads of those who did these things.
The Relevance of Psalm 137 for the Christian lies first of all in the spiritual solidarity that all God’s people share. Abraham’s children, said Jesus and Paul, are those who have the faith of Abraham. These belong to the great family of God. Psalm 137 remembers one of the most significant times in our history. The psalm carries an important lesson for us. Lest we are tempted to stray from the faith into which we have been called we should remember that there is no joy when we are far from God. But for the Christian there is an even deeper significance in psalm 137. Our promised land is heaven ‘ the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21) ‘ the new heavens and earth (Isaiah 65:17ff) ‘ the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:28,29; 14:15ff; 22:14). If we forget the Kingdom of God (and Jesus told us to seek first the Kingdom of God ‘ Matt. 6:33), may God chastise us severely lest we become assimilated into the world and our identity and faith is lost. If we forget the New Jerusalem, that is, if we become satisfied with our life here on earth in captivity to the corrupt nature of our mortal bodies (Rom. 7:24b cf. Gal. 5:17), if our sojourn here (Hebrews 11:13; 1Peter 1:17) becomes too settled, if we are not continually longing for the coming of God’s kingdom (Rom. 8:23), may God bring upon us such chastisement that we will be bought to our senses. The forces of evil in heavenly realms wage war against the Kingdom of God (Eph. 6:12). They delight in the downfall of the Christian and they work tirelessly to take us captive and to snuff out our faith and hope. But may God bring about their own downfall as he has said he will do. May God cut off the memory of the evil one from the earth and may that destruction be absolute. This is the way we understand the reflection and prayer of Psalm 137.