Reflections from the Other Side of Exile - Psalm 137

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All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

This is what we believe about Scripture, that it is the Word of God and that it is profitable – every part of it. And yet there are parts of the Bible that we may be tempted to move past quickly. There are some parts that are hard to understand. And there are other parts that make us uncomfortable. There are still other parts that seem unrelated to our daily lives. For many, Psalm 137 may fall into all three of these categories.

And yet, Psalm 137 is a passage of Scripture that tells us much about God and about ourselves. It’s a psalm that exposes us to the seriousness of sin, calls us to a deeper devotion to God and reminds us of the reality of the judgment and justice of God. 

Historical Context

Psalm 137 is unique in how closely connected it is to an identifiable historical event. This psalm was most likely written just a short time after the return of the people of God to their land following the Babylonian captivity. It’s clear that the psalmist lived through the exile, and yet he writes after its conclusion, looking back on that experience.

A prayer of lament (vv. 1-4)

  • The difficult experience of discipline – The psalm opens with the psalmist remembering what it was like to go from living in the Promised Land to living as a captive in a foreign land. And yet, his lament is not only because of where they are, but because of why they are there. God allowed the Babylonians to defeat and take His people into exile as a judgment on them for their continued unfaithfulness.
  • Remembering Zion – Zion (Jerusalem) is the city of God and represents the presence of God and His relationship with His people (Psalm 122:1-7). It’s a city that the people of God sang songs about as they celebrated the power and presence of God. And yet after seeing the city destroyed, they now find themselves in a place where they are mocked and the singing of their songs seems impossible.
  • The necessity and reality of God’s discipline – The Babylonian captivity is a reminder to us of the seriousness of sin and the lengths that God will go to in order to get our attention and bring us back to Him. As we read Psalm 137, we should think of the consequences of sin and of our need for repentance. 

A prayer of devotion (vv. 5-6)

  • A renewed devotion (I must not forget) – While not all responded the same way, for the psalmist the exile and this discipline from God resulted in a renewed and resilient devotion to God (Job 1:21). 
  • The joy above all joys – As he expresses his devotion the psalmist declares that Jerusalem (and the God of Jerusalem) is his highest joy. Even in the difficulty of exile his God remains his greatest joy.
  • If I forget let this be done to me (two things) – Along with his commitment remember and not forget, the psalmist adds some consequences for himself if he should fail to keep his word to his God. He expresses that he would rather lose his ability to play an instrument or sing rather than to play or sing for the praise of anyone or anything else apart from God. 
  • Responding to discipline – The psalmist gives us an example of the correct way to respond to the discipline of God; allow God’s discipline to lead you to repentance and to greater devotion (Hebrews 12:5-11).

A prayer for justice and judgment (vv. 7-9)

  • God’s promise of judgment – Throughout the Old Testament we have record of God’s vow to judge the Edomites and Babylonians for their brutal mistreatment of His people. His judgment will be in a manner equal to and greater than their brutality (Ezekiel 35:5-15; Obadiah).
  • A call for God to do as He has promised – In these final verses the psalmist is calling on God to be faithful His word and to vindicate His name and His people through just judgment.
  • How should we pray for our enemies? As we think about the message of Christ and the hope of the Gospel our prayer should be that all people would repent, believe and receive forgiveness. At the same time, we should long for the glory of God’s name, and we know that God can be glorified through just judgment. So, while He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) and wishes that all would reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9), God will be glorified in the just judgment of the wicked.