Psalm 137 - What Is My Highest Joy?

INTRODUCTION: Since the opening verse of this psalm speaks of captives who were in Babylon, it was clearly written about four centuries after those psalms written during the reigns of David and Solomon. The consideration of when most psalms were written, and a brief historical review of alternating revival and decline of worship, leading up to the complete exile of Judah, can be helpful in contemplating through the verses of this psalm. Chapter 36 of 2 Chronicles gives the history of a rapid final decline of faith in Jerusalem that continued over about 22 years after the death of King Josiah in battle with pharaoh Neco of Egypt. Josiah had brought about the last revival of true worship in Jerusalem. Neco deposed king Jehoahaz, Josiah's son, after just three months. He made Eliakim his brother king over Judah and Jerusalem, changed his name to Jehoiakim, and required tribute of him for about eight years. Jehoiakim "did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh his God." Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, took territory from Neco of Egypt including Jerusalem, and after three years of being under tribute, Jehoiakim was carried bound in fetters to Babylon. "Nebuchadnezzar also carried of the vessels of the house of Yahweh to Babylon, and put them in his temple at Babylon." Jehoiachin the son of Jehoiakim reigned in his place for just three months, and he "did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh." "Nebuchadnezzar sent, and brought him to Babylon, with the goodly vessels of the house of Yahweh, and made Zedekiah his brother king over Judah and Jerusalem." In the eleven years he reigned, Zedekiah "did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh his God; he didn’t humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet speaking from the mouth of Yahweh. He also rebelled against king Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God: but he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart against turning to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Moreover all the chiefs of the priests, and the people, trespassed very greatly after all the abominations of the nations; and they polluted the house of Yahweh which he had made holy in Jerusalem. Yahweh, the God of their fathers, sent to them by his messengers, rising up early and sending, because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: 16 but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets, until the wrath of Yahweh arose against his people, until there was no remedy. Therefore he brought on them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or gray-headed: he gave them all into his hand. All the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of Yahweh, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. They burnt the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels of it. He carried those who had escaped from the sword away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: to fulfil the word of Yahweh by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. As long as it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfil seventy years.”

NOTE: Scripture passages are from the World English Bible [WEB].


A - Worship musicians were captives in Babylon

“1 ¶ By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows in its midst, we hung up our harps. 3 For there, those who led us captive asked us for songs. Those who tormented us demanded songs of joy: "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

COMMENTS: The psalmist and his companions hang up their musical instruments on the willow trees, and probably with almost overwhelming resignation, sit down by the waters of Babylon. This may have been just shortly after their arrival and before they were dispersed to whatever labors they would be assigned. This could be the case as they had hung their instruments on trees, and "those who led us captive asked us for songs." Since they had carried their instruments on the long journey from Jerusalem to Babylon, they were likely among the skilled musicians who had ministered at the temple. Considering the violent overthrow of their beloved Jerusalem, the place of honor for the Lord, only brought tears to their eyes, and removes all desire to make music. The psalmist does not reveal whether this was an early captivity when Jehoiakim was deposed, after temple worship had already been trending in decline at least in the office of the king. During Zedekiah's reign conditions greatly worsened, and those years would not seem to provide very joyful memories of Jerusalem and of temple worship. At the end of Zedekiah's reign, many more Jews were killed, the palace and the temple were destroyed, and many more were carried into captivity.

Singing with joy before the LORD had been the commission for all those appointed to this service beginning about four centuries earlier in the time of King David, when the Ark of the Covenant was in a tent before the temple was built by Solomon. 1 Chronicles 15 "16 David spoke to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brothers the singers, with instruments of music, stringed instruments and harps and cymbals, sounding aloud and lifting up the voice with joy." Fervor for the LORD had waxed and waned as many different kings reigned in Judah. King Hezekiah promoted a great revival of true worship to the LORD even as the northern kingdom fell to Assyrian domination. But the next two kings Manasseh for 55 years and Amon for 2 years, expanded heathen worship grievously, even in the courts of the temple. Then the great revival during the 31 years reign of Josiah was the last period of revival for Judah and Jerusalem. It is not possible to be certain of the motivation of the Babylonians who wanted to hear a song, but from the words used by the writer of the psalm, he looked upon their demands to be in terms of taunting and mocking.


B - Can we sing praise in a foreign land?

"4 How can we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you; if I don’t prefer Jerusalem above my chief joy."

COMMENTS: If the psalmist had some period of reflection after the taunting that is described in the first three verses, it may have created a different perspective before he wrote the psalm that is before us. There may have been a space of time that allowed the psalmist to begin to consider whether he and his companions would want the circumstance of captivity and the mocking of their captors to remove from them all joy in the Lord, as they have been removed physically from the city they loved. If they had served very long in providing temple music, they probably would have many psalms committed to memory. Songs of praise can become an ingrained part of our thoughts that renew our spirit in various periods of changing circumstances. This may be an even stronger emotion for those with musical talents that need to be expressed. The psalmist seems to be realizing this when he says his just penalty for forgetting Jerusalem would be to lose his skill to play his instrument, or to be unable to open his mouth in song. He is telling God that he wants all that Jerusalem has meant to him, to remain the highest among all joy he can have. Perhaps he was beginning to recall certain Psalms applicable for his situation, and we would do well to do the same in our difficult times.

As we consider some of the following that the psalmist may have known, is our own highest joy in God's word, or in having material comforts?

Psalms 43 "5 Why are you in despair, my soul? Why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God! For I shall still praise him: my Saviour, my helper, and my God."

Psalms 25 “1 ¶ «By David.» To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul. 2 My God, I have trusted in you. Don’t let me be shamed. Don’t let my enemies triumph over me. 3 Yes, no one who waits for you shall be shamed. They shall be shamed who deal treacherously without cause. 4 Show me your ways, Yahweh. Teach me your paths. 5 Guide me in your truth, and teach me, For you are the God of my salvation, I wait for you all day long. 6 Yahweh, remember your tender mercies and your loving kindness, for they are from old times.”

Psalms 79 “8 Don’t hold the iniquities of our forefathers against us. Let your tender mercies speedily meet us, for we are in desperate need. 9 Help us, God of our salvation, for the glory of your name. Deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake. 10 Why should the nations say, "Where is their God?" Let it be known among the nations, before our eyes, that vengeance for your servants’ blood is being poured out. 11 Let the sighing of the prisoner come before you. According to the greatness of your power, preserve those who are sentenced to death. 12 Pay back to our neighbours seven times into their bosom their reproach with which they have reproached you, Lord. 13 So we, your people and sheep of your pasture, will give you thanks forever. We will praise you forever, to all generations.”

The prophet Jeremiah saw much of the devastation firsthand as he remained in Jerusalem as others were carried away. Jeremiah 1 “2 to whom the word of Yahweh came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3 It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, to the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, to the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.” Jeremiah needed more than once to rebound from depressing circumstances to a point of praising the LORD, and he wanted the captives to hold onto their faith as they waited on the LORD, even through seventy years of captivity. Jeremiah 17 "7 Blessed is the man who trusts in Yahweh, and whose trust Yahweh is." Jeremiah 17 "13 Yahweh, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be disappointed. Those who depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken Yahweh, the spring of living waters." The waters of Babylon were not the living water of the LORD, and the prisoners needed to consider the future. Jeremiah 31 "17 There is hope for your latter end, says Yahweh; and your children shall come again to their own border." Jeremiah also recorded in Lamentations these thoughts of hope. Lamentations 3 "24 Yahweh is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him." Lamentations 3 "26 It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh." If being a Christian, we have received the gift of eternal life by the grace of God, the appropriate question in difficult times should be "how can I not sing (or speak) praise to my Savior even in a foreign land?" Christians our temporarily in a foreign land regardless of where they may be on this present earth. Philippians 3 "20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from where we also wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will change the body of our humiliation to be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working by which he is able even to subject all things to himself."


C - Wait for the Lord to repay his enemies

7¶ Remember, Yahweh, against the children of Edom, the day of Jerusalem; who said, "Raze it! Raze it even to its foundation!" 8 Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be happy who rewards you, as you have served us. 9 Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.”

COMMENTS: This may seem like a very harsh thing for God to bring about, and for those who separate his love from his righteous justice, it can easily cause some level of rejection of God's absolute authority over man. Moses recorded the words of the Lord as an early indication of the Lord's inescapable vengeance to his enemies who have rejected his grace. Deuteronomy 32 "39 ¶ "See now that I, even I, am he, There is no god with me. I kill, and I make alive. I wound, and I heal. There is no one who can deliver out of my hand. 40 For I lift up my hand to heaven, And say, As I live forever, 41 if I whet my glittering sword, my hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to my adversaries, and will recompense those who hate me. 42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood. My sword shall devour flesh with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the head of the leaders of the enemy." 43 Rejoice, you nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants. He will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will make expiation for his land, for his people."

The Chaldeans had visited Jerusalem during Hezekiah's reign, and King Hezekiah had sowed all the palace and temple treasures to them. The prophet Isaiah told Hezekiah that they would eventually return and spoil all the treasures, but not in the king's lifetime. Their return was in fact some ninety years later. Isaiah had also prophesied the eventual punishment for the Chaldeans for their devastation of Jerusalem, and that was even further into the future. Based on the next verse, Isaiah's period of writing his prophecies did not go past the reign of Hezekiah. Isaiah 1 "1 ¶ The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah." Here is part of what Isaiah wrote about Babylon, and it includes the brutal description contained in verse 9 of Psalm 137. Isaiah 13 “16 Their infants also will be dashed in pieces before their eyes. Their houses will be ransacked, and their wives raped. 17 Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, who will not value silver, and as for gold, they will not delight in it. 18 Their bows will dash the young men in pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb. Their eyes will not spare children. 19 ¶ Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride, will be like when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Jeremiah was guided by the Holy Spirit to specify in his writing that the Babylonian captivity would last seventy years, which set a general time frame for the invasion of Babylon by the Meads and the Persians that had been predicted in Isaiah's earlier prophecy. Jeremiah was also guided by the Holy Spirit to record that the LORD would bring vengeance upon Babylon. Jeremiah 51 “1 ¶ Thus says Yahweh: Behold, I will raise up against Babylon, and against those who dwell in Lebkamai, a destroying wind. 2 I will send to Babylon strangers, who shall winnow her; and they shall empty her land: for in the day of trouble they shall be against her around. 3 Against him who bends let the archer bend his bow, and against him who lifts himself up in his coat of mail: and don’t spare her young men; utterly destroy all her army. 4 They shall fall down slain in the land of the Chaldeans, and thrust through in her streets. 5 For Israel is not forsaken, nor Judah, of his God, of Yahweh of Armies; though their land is full of guilt against the Holy one of Israel. 6 Flee out of the midst of Babylon, and save every man his life; don’t be cut off in her iniquity: for it is the time of Yahweh’s vengeance; he will render to her a recompense.”

The fall of Babylon happened after king Nebuchadnezzar's son had assumed the throne. Before that however, king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to this conclusion after the LORD had humbled him and drove him away from his palace and into the wilderness for some time, and then restored him to the throne. Daniel 4 "35 All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and he does according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or ask him, What are you doing?" If the LORD can bring a pagan king to the point of making such a declaration, should it take nearly as much in my life, to humble me before the one who is my Savior, so as not to question his perfect and righteous justice?


--- Reflections in prayer ---

Lord Jesus, I admit before you that in times of disappointment I may fail to draw upon your word that I might praise you without waiting for conditions to change as I would like. I want to be in your word so routinely that virtually any circumstance that might come upon me would remind me of a parallel in the experience of one or more of the saints whose stories are recorded in the history of scripture. There is also a huge resource of guiding passages in both the Old and New Testaments that can be a source of comfort, and even engender praise to you when they apply to a personal period of difficulty for me. I truly believe Lord Jesus that you have secured eternal life for me through the grace of your death, burial, and resurrection. My hope is therefore in the faith you have given me to believe that I to will be resurrected to a new life that will give me eternal freedom from the power of sin in the flesh. This psalm has assured me that you established your truth in the distant past, and it is confirmed by those things already fulfilled in the New Testament record, and those that will be fulfilled at the end of time. As long as I have breath may I remember to always return to give you praise. Amen and Hallelujah!

Published 20 May 2012