Psalm 137 is not for the faint of heart. It's a sobering lament and it's a song of resolve and it's a song of curse. It's set in the context of I think what is fair to say the most traumatic event that the Old Testament church ever experienced. The exile to Babylon simply sucked the air out of the life of the Old Testament people of God when it happened. They were utterly unprepared for it. They’d been warned by God's prophets for a century that judgment for their sin was coming, but when it came and how it came simply took their breath away. And you feel that in this psalm. This is a Hebrew lamenting the exile that the people of God now experience, apart from the temple, apart from Zion, the city of David, the capital of the worship of God in this world, the place wherein He manifested His special presence and nearness to the people that He had chosen, called out of darkness and into His marvelous light. This psalm rehearses the torments of the captors of Israel. It expresses a resolve to stay faithful to God and to His people no matter what. And then in chilling lines, every syllable of which jar our bones and disturb our hearts, a curse is called down upon the oppressors of God's people. Let's give attention to God's Word and let's look to Him in prayer before we read it.
Heavenly Father, this word of Scripture too is Your Word, inspired, inerrant, infallible, profitable. The lament we perhaps readily identify with, the resolve we long to have too, but the malediction, the curse, the imprecation, chills us. We are afraid of the motives of our own hearts to take its words up on our lips. Yet in this too there is a vital and continuing message for the people of God, so grant us the courage to look it square in the eye and to learn and to sit under Your Word, not judging it but being judged by it, being edified by it, and even being comforted by it. We pray this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God, hear it in Psalm 137:
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, ‘Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!’ O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
There are three parts to this psalm and there are three things that I want us to see tonight. The first part is in verses 1 to 3 and it speaks of pain. The second part is in verses 4 to 6 and it speaks of resolve, even defiance. And the third part in verses 7 to 9, well it records a curse. Pain, defiance, curse. I want to look at these three things with you tonight.
THE PEOPLE OF GOD’S PAIN
First off, beginning in verses 1 to 3 – in verses 1 to 3, the psalmist is recording the pain of the people of God. What has happened? Israel is in exile. Israel has been sent into exile because of her own sin. This is a just judgment of God against the wicked indifference and the idolatrous adultery of the people of God – going after other gods, making forbidden alliances, not worshiping the one, true God according to their word. After prophet and prophet and prophet have been sent to the people of God and they have not listened, they’re sent into exile. And now the psalmist speaks of Israel in exile in mourning and in remembrance and in despondency and enduring the mockery of captors. Here is Israel, exiled for her sin, in Babylon. Babylon, a picture of the most worldly, the most pagan, the most ungodly empire on this earth, and the people of God are scratching their heads and in this psalm in particular, they are in pain. Derek Kidner says this: “Every line of this psalm is alive with pain, the intensity of which grows each strophe, all the way to the appalling climax.”
What do we learn from the pain that's recorded in verses 1 to 3? A lot, but I want to draw your attention to this tonight. God's people are often called to great suffering. You remember one of the Old Testament principles is this: Judgment begins in the house of God. Judgment begins in the house of God. And the judgment which is recorded in the first verses of this psalm is not ultimately against the nations, it's against God's own people, and they are experiencing a crippling and enormous pain because of a deserved judgment. They have abandoned God and God has given them what they deserve. He has driven them from their land, He has put them in captivity, and they are in great suffering. Their sins, their national sins, have brought here a dire calamity.
What do we learn from that? Well, first of all we learn something about the dreadfulness of sin. It is a truth that we will never in this life know the exceeding sinfulness of sin. We just will not. Even when we stand before the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit see our own sin as clearly as we have ever seen it, we will not have scratched the surface of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. William Plumer, the old southern Presbyterian commentator who I've had as a constant companion through the Psalms, says this. “There must be something exceedingly dreadful in sin else so sad consequences could not flow from it in time and eternity. This world has always been under the government of the kindest being in the universe. And so when we see sin punished like this, we must be witnessing just judgment against something that is dreadful at a magnitude beyond our capacity of explanation.”
And so when we look at this psalm and we see the pain of Israel, what should it do? It should press us to confess our own sin. Isn't that the response to the pain of Israel under judgment that we ought to have in this passage? When Daniel is in captivity because of the sins that sent Israel into Babylon and he stumbles across the scroll of Jeremiah and he finds out the depths of God's plan of judgment against Israel for their sin, what is his response? It's recorded in Daniel 9. His response is to confess his sin, to beg for God's mercy, to own the wickedness that Israel has perpetrated against her Lord. No, confessing our sin is the right response as we see the pain described here in Psalm 137 verses 1 to 3. When we are suffering the effects of personal and national sin, we should recollect with a godly sorrow the mercies we have forfeited and our sins by which we have lost them, and then in repentance and prayer, seek deliverance, redemption, and restoration of our privileges and our comforts. That's exactly what Daniel does in Daniel 9. Israel, by that time, had been in captivity for almost seventy years and the pain was intense, but Daniel's prayer speaks more of their sin than their pain. Does Psalm 137 drive you to a consideration of the sinfulness of your own sin?
The second thing we ought to do as we look at the pain of Psalm 137 verses 1 to 3 is this. Recognize the privileges that we enjoy under God's hand of blessing. Dickson, the old Presbyterian commentator of The Westminster Confession of Faith, says this, “Those who do not esteem the privileges of Zion when they have them will be forced to acknowledge their worth when they don't.” You know, Psalm 137 verse 1 says, “We wept when we remembered Zion,” but when the children of Israel were in Zion before this exile, they weren't remembering Zion. They weren't thinking about Zion at all. And because they did not value the blessings of God when they had them, they had to lament them when they didn't. And so when we're confronted by this pain in the history of redemption and in the people of God under the old covenant, we ourselves ought to appreciate the blessings and the privileges of Zion that the Lord has given to us.
One last thing. Look in verses 2 and 3. The pain here is not only the pain of exile, the pain of loss, the pain of remorse and regret, it is the pain of torment. Captors and tormentors require the people of God to sing their songs and be joyful in this strange land, mocking them with the words, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” But taunting the miserable is the employment of the damned. And I'd invite you to go home tonight and take a look at Isaiah 14 and see what Isaiah 14 says will happen to these captors who have mocked the people of God. They will regret their mocking. It reminds us that those who are miserable are to be pitied, not tormented and mocked. And we, last of all, should be their tormentors. So in response to the pain of Israel we say first, confess our sin.
THE PEOPLE OF GOD’S DEFIANCE
Second, if you look at verses 4 to 6 we see a resolve, even a defiance. Having been told by their captors and tormentors to sing one of the songs of Zion, not only have they hung their lyres up on the tree, verse 2, “I'm not going to play; I'm not going to play for you. You’re not going to tell me to dance. You’re not going to tell me to sing. I'm hanging my lyre up on the tree,” but we see these words of question and resolve. The question is in verse 4; the resolve is in verses 5 and 6. The question is, “How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” It's a cry, it's a lament, but it's a very serious question and it's one that we’d do well to pay attention to even in our own land because this land is becoming stranger and stranger to us and we forget all the time.
So how do we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? Jeremiah, the prophet that wrote to the exiles, told them how to do this. Turn with me in your Bibles — I wish I could read the whole chapter — but look especially at Jeremiah 29 and look for verses 7 and 13. Jeremiah is speaking to the captives in Babylon and he is explaining to them what they ought to do. And just be looking for verses 7 to 13. I'm going to read some verses around it. I’ll pick up in verse 4:
“’Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; takes wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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 welfare. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in My name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.
‘For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you My promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will hear you. You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’”
Now there is a mound of truth and grace in that passage but I want you to see just a couple of things. There are prophets, nationalistic prophets that are saying to the children of Israel, “Don't worry about this. It's going to be really short; it's going to be really brief. You’re going to go down to Babylon; you’re going to be back like this. Weeks, months at the most — don't worry about this. God's not going to let this be a permanent arrangement.” And Jeremiah's saying, “They’re lying. You’re going to be there for two generations or more. You’re going to be there for seventy years, so you’d better make it your home. And I want you to do two things — I want you to seek the welfare of the city in which you now dwell.” “Babylon? Our enemies? Our captors? The most ungodly people we know?” “Yes, seek their welfare. That's how you’re going to sing the Lord's song in a strange land — seek their welfare, for in their welfare you will find welfare. And then secondly, verse 13, seek Me. You weren't seeking Me in Zion, you weren't seeking Me in Jerusalem, you weren't seeking Me when you were in your own comfortable homes. So when you’re there and you think everything's been taken away from you, seek Me and you’ll find Me and I’ll hear you and I’ll answer and I’ll be there with you and I will not abandon you. And in fact, I will gather you from the lands.”
Now just remember this, friends, you hear me quote Psalm 107 regularly on Sunday morning — “Oh gives thanks unto the LORD for He is good, His lovingkindness is everlasting! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom He has redeemed from trouble and gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” That is answering to precisely what Jeremiah promised in Jeremiah 29 and which God did! Jeremiah says, “That's how you sing the Lord's song in a strange land. You seek the welfare of your neighbors and you see Me and I’ll put a song back in your heart and I’ll bring you back home to Me.”
And then there's this resolve. And here's the resolve responding to that answer that they've been given to the question — “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill, let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don't remember you, if I don't set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” This is a resolution to treasure God, to treasure His people, to treasure His promises above everything. They hadn't been doing that in Jerusalem. And now in exile they've finally seen clearly what really matters. And there's a defiant resolve. “I'm not going to treasure something more than God. I'm not going to treasure something more than His worship. I'm not going to treasure something more than His means of grace. I'm not going to treasure something more than His people and His presence. I'm not going to treasure anything in this life more than Him.” Don't you see how in our own affluence we are tempted to the very sin that sent them into exile? For we find our treasure in all manner of things higher than our treasure in God. Israel had to learn that lesson in exile. By God's grace let's not have to go there, friends. Let's not have to go there to treasure Zion more than anything.
A CURSE FOR BABYLON
So there's pain, verses 1 to 3, there's resolve in verses 4 to 6, and then there is this imprecation, this imprecatory prayer, this maledictory prayer when a curse is called down on Babylon. What in the world do we do with this? Here, Israel appeals to the just judgment and vengeance of the all holy God to settle accounts with the Babylonians and with the Edomites who have been their accomplices in the final destruction of Jerusalem before this captivity. It comes to us white hot; it's not toned down in any way. It speaks out of enormous suffering. Chances are, chances are, you don't know many if any who experience this kind of suffering, speaking out of this kind of suffering. And ultimately it is a prayer that God will render to every man his works. If you look at Isaiah 14 when you go home tonight, you will find the description of what Babylon had done to God's people and what God was going to do to Babylon because of what they had done to His people. You remember Pharaoh who sought to destroy the sons of Israel? What was the final plague that Pharaoh reaped? The destruction of his firstborn son. As Babylon killed pregnant women and crushed infant children in carrying off Israel into exile, Israel is in this psalm, calling for recompense. Now what we do with that really would take a lot of time for us to do full judgment to all the testimony of Scripture, but I want you to think about this. What is being asked for here is in fact strict justice. Judgment for what Babylon has done.
Derek Kidner says this: “This psalm takes its place in Scripture at an impassioned protest beyond all ignoring or toning down, not only against a particular act of cruelty but against all comfortable views of human wickedness, either with regard to the judgment it deserves or the legacy it leaves and not least in relation to the cost of God and man of laying its enmity and bitterness to rest.” Do you understand that Babylon becomes the symbol of all that is opposed to God and His people? Take a look at Revelation 18. We’re not quite there in our readings on Sunday morning but we're getting there. That's the passage when we hear the angels say, “Babylon is fallen! Babylon the great is fallen!” The ones who oppose God and His people most have fallen. And he's saying it's dreadful, it's dreadful to call upon God to reign down that kind of justice upon people. Doesn't that make Him a monster?
Well I want to leave you with this picture. Pharaoh kills the boys and tries to kill the boys of Israel and in just judgment his firstborn son dies. Babylon kills the children of Israel and in just judgment the curse is called down on their children. On a hillside in Judea, two thousand years ago, God's own Son, the Firstborn of creation, cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” and listen to me closely, and in His mercy, God cuts Him down. Just think what I just said. In His mercy God cuts Him down. What do you mean, Ligon? What are you talking about, in His mercy He cuts Him down? Because in cutting down His Son, He brings many sons to glory. You see, the wickedness of man trying to cut down the people of God reaps what? A whirlwind of God's judgment. And in God's mercy He says, “I'm going to give My Son what you deserve Me to give you so that by My grace you may receive what only My Son deserves.” And in His mercy, He cuts His Son down. You may complain that that God is too merciful, but you cannot complain that He is unjust. You cannot complain that His judgment is too severe unless you simply don't understand how wicked sin is. That's why in that conversation that Derek so often quoted to us from Anselm's great book, Why God Became Man, the young monk can't get his head around why Jesus has to die on the cross, and Anselm says to that young monk, “You do not perceive the sinfulness of sin.” What did it cost the Father to redeem us from the just judgment that is recorded in verse 9? You understand that verse 9 is what we deserve? It's what we deserve. How deep the Father's love for us? We just sang it. How vast beyond all measure. The Son bears the cost. You a wretch, receive His treasure, and Psalm 137 points us to that too.
Our Lord and our God, the mysteries and the truth and the grace of Your Word boggle our minds and restore our hearts. For all who come tonight bearing pain, I ask, O Lord, that You would minister to them. For all who come tonight needing resolve, I ask that You would minister to them. For all who wonder if there is or ever will be justice in this world, show them the cross and the portent of the final judgment and bid them flee, by Your Spirit in faith, to Jesus, in whose name we pray, amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing and then we’ll try and sing this song as a round one more time?
Peace be to the brethren and love with faith, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, until the daybreak and the shadows flee away.