Howard Wallace's home page

October 3, 2010
Psalm 137

Psalm 137 is likely familiar from various musical renditions, even in popular music. It is one of the very few psalms which can be linked with a particular historical setting. The psalm is clearly speaking about the exile, coming either from the very time of captivity in Babylon, or shortly after. The pain of the experience of exile in Babylon is not forgotten; it is very sharp indeed. We feel the pain of the psalmist through the words of the song.

The psalmist remembers the distress of that experience (vv. 1-6). It was a time of tears (v. 1). Musical instruments, things that provide entertainment as well as connecting a people with their past and ancestors, were hung up, not to be used in that context. This is both a sign of despair as well as an indication that such captivity raises questions about one’s identity and tradition. Songs of Zion, songs of faith and of the places that are at the core of the national identity, seem out of place in the context of captivity. Moreover, their captors taunt them asking for the very things that cannot be said or sung (v. 3).

Central to the psalm is the question in v. 4: ‘How can we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land’. The psalmist would rather suffer disability than forget Jerusalem. The use of the word ‘foreign’ carries with it a couple of implications. Clearly it underlines for the psalmist the inappropriateness of singing songs of Zion in captivity. Songs of Zion belong, or recall, Jerusalem, their home. Such does not belong in a foreign land. But beyond this, the word ‘foreign’ is rare in the Psalms occurring elsewhere only in Pss. 18:45-46 and 144:7, 11 (cf. Ps. 81.10 ‘foreign god’). The infrequency of the word in the psalms means that as well as voicing the bitter experience of exile Psalm 137 anticipates the question of continued foreign domination after return from exile.

The psalm cannot be left without some comment on the final verses, vv. 7-9. Such sentiments as contained in the last verse in particular are abhorrent to most people, people of many different faiths. A few comments at least are warranted. First, and by way of content, the reference to the Edomites may seem odd, given that the exiles find themselves in Babylon. Why not curse the Babylonians or seek vengeance on them? This is a puzzle but there are a number of passages in Scripture from the time of exile which mention the Edomites in negative ways. They suggest that the latter actually aided the Babylonians as they overran the Judeans (cf. Obadiah). Secondly, not all Scripture is given to us to be followed unthinkingly. While we might take some passages like the Ten Commandments or even some of Jesus’ beatitudes as positive injunctions for action, there are other passages which we are meant to ponder, question or even argue against. Verses 7-9 are not meant to be emulated in any way. Thirdly, if we are honest there are times when circumstances lead us all into terrible thoughts and occasional action. We are all sinners and even the most ‘righteous’ among us will have thoughts of which they may feel ashamed. Such things are always open to God. To express such thoughts in prayer to God is a way of dealing with them. It leaves us honest in God’s presence. The important thing is to realise that we leave such thoughts with God who alone can deal with them as they should be. Fourthly, we ought not to forget that there have been and are people who have experienced such horrible things as captivity and exile, who have seen their families killed, their homes destroyed and who have been forced undertake long journeys to strange places and left to survive if possible. Such circumstances might lead any of us to feel like taking vengeance on the oppressors. Such prayers as Psalm 137 remind us of those people for whom we should be praying, those whose life experiences are beyond what anyone should experience. So while the psalm presents us with a difficult set of verses, let us not leave them aside too quickly but ponder what they point to in our world beyond our own more comfortable lives.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Psalm 137 is so specific and so violent in its wording that it is difficult to see how it might be used in our prayers. The preacher could use the psalm as a text for the sermon dealing with issues of vengeance or highlighting the plight and the deep feelings of those who are forced into the life of a refugee in our world, or those kidnapped and traded (virtually) as slaves.

For other prayers for the service we could turn to the alternate psalm, namely Lamentations 3:21-26. The words of that poem, with some slight modification, could be used either to introduce the declaration of forgiveness, as illustrated below, or the final blessing in a service.

Call this to mind, and therefore have hope:
the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is God’s faithfulness.
The LORD is your portion, therefore hope in him.
The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
It is good to wait as we hear the words of Jesus:
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
Thanks be to God.
Old Testament reading: Lamentations 1:1-6

Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page