Singing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land

This is a psalm of sadness and pain.

The Psalmist is not only weeping, but he reached to hang up his lyre on the branch of a willow tree somewhere along the Tigris or Euphrates River in this cradle that gave birth to the ancient civilization (137:2). The Babylonians, his captors, wanted to hear him sing a song of Zion. But the Psalmist could not bring himself to comply.

 

Derek Kidner once remarked of Psalm 137 that “Every line of it is alive with pain.” The psalmist starts weeping in verse 1 and continues lamenting on through to verse 9 and the call for ultimate justice against those who raised their hand against God’s people. This is not a Psalm of joy, not a Psalm of thanksgiving.

The first three words of the Psalm are promising: “By the waters.” In the agrarian world of the psalmist water meant the difference between life and death. Throughout the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament water often symbolizes God’s blessings freely poured out. But here in Psalm 137 we soon learn that this is not the Jordan River. This is not the Kidron Brook running through Jerusalem. This is not a stream in the desert. These are the waters of Babylon, the mighty nation that laid siege to Jerusalem, overtook the city, and led tens of thousands captive. And one of those captives was a musician who wrote the 137th Psalm.

The Psalmist is not only weeping, but he reached to hang up his lyre on the branch of a willow tree somewhere along the Tigris or Euphrates River in this cradle that gave birth to the ancient civilization (137:2). The Babylonians, his captors, wanted to hear him sing a song of Zion. But the Psalmist could not bring himself to comply.

Derek Kidner was right. This is a psalm of sadness and pain. Such depth of sorrow is felt vividly in the wrenching question asked in verse 4:

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

When Israel first arrived in Babylon, the degree to the which the land was foreign was striking. We know from the book of Daniel, for instance, how idolatry ruled the land. How foreign was that place from Jerusalem and from the Temple and from the land of the Lord their God. The psalmist calls the Babylonians not only his captors, but also his tormentors. The foreign-ness of that place was palpable. It threw the Psalmist off balance. How could he sing? In fact, so foreign was that place that the Psalmist makes extreme vows so as to steel himself against the possibility of forgetting Jerusalem. May his right hand, the hand that skillfully plays the lyre, fail him and may his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth (137:5-6).

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