"By the rivers of Babylon where we sat down, there we will, we will remember Zion..." Some of us may remember the pop song by Boney M. that topped the charts in the UK for 5 weeks in 1978. Rivers of Babylon was a hip and happy dance number whose lyrics were taken from Psalm 137. But when this psalm was first written and sung, the mood was far from happy, and dancing was the last thing the songwriter had in mind.
Psalm 137 was likely written after Israel's exile to Babylon. That was a period of immense suffering for God’s chosen people. The Babylonians had no mercy on the young and old or the women. They murdered and plundered the Jews, razed their city to the ground and burned the temple with fire. They violated the women, and smashed children to death against the rocks. If these atrocities are difficult to imagine, just think about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a modern day parallel of the Jews’ suffering during the exile.
Revisiting the Past (v. 1-3)
The Jews were brought very low when the Lord sent them into exile in Babylon. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple were completely destroyed and God's presence had left the city. God had warned them many times before that He would judge their sin but they refused to repent. Since they persisted in their idolatry and rejected God as their Ruler, He gave them into the hands of their enemies that they may know what it was to serve man instead of God. God is compassionate, but His mercy has a limit, and we should never take it for granted.
After capturing the Jews, killing their friends and relatives, and destroying their homes and property, the Babylonians demanded that they make music and be merry. How cruel to demand mirth from people who are suffering! They also demanded them to sing songs of their city, as if to mockingly say, “Where is your city now? Where is Jerusalem that you were so proud of? Where is the God you trusted in?” But the Jews were not about to sing songs meant for the Lord’s ears to entertain their pagan captors.
The psalmist was not afraid to revisit the painful past. He faced up to it, and was therefore able to learn the lessons the Lord had for him. Being honest about our past and our feelings towards it is an important step towards emotional healing.
The Bible tells us that history is given to us to learn from the mistakes of the past. Running away only robs us from these precious lessons and perpetuates the problem. As we look at the history of Israel and our own pasts, let us not be afraid to face them, but learn from them and not make the same mistakes. Israel suffered for rejecting the Lord. May we know the blessedness of making Him Lord of our lives.
Reassessing Priorities (v. 4-6)
The reason Israel was sent into exile was their rebellion against God in chasing after worthless idols and turning away from Him. Many years before, after the dedication of the temple built by Solomon, God had warned that He would forsake the temple and send Israel away from the Promised Land if they forsook Him (1 Kin 9:6-9). But after many years, Israel became complacent and started to turn away from God. God warned them through many prophets and withheld His judgment for many generations. But they would not listen. Finally God did what He had promised to do and gave them up to their enemies.
Suffering has a way of changing our priorities. We often learn to appreciate what we have only when we lose it. The psalmist realised that they had taken God and His blessings for granted, and decided that he would no longer do so. From now on, the city of God would be his topmost priority. He would rather be under the Lord’s rule rather than the rule of other men.
We do not have to suffer loss in order to appreciate God's goodness toward us. God takes no pleasure in hurting people, but He knows that pain is sometimes necessary to get us on the right track. We live in peaceful times, and many of us have enough to eat and wear. But it is in these peaceful times that we must guard against complacency and the tendency to take God and His blessings for granted. May we always make it our top priority to seek God’s kingdom first and His righteousness (Mat 6:33).
A Cry for Justice (v. 7-9)
Verses 7 to 9 may seem brutal and vengeful at first glance, but it is simply a cry for justice. Babylon was God's instrument to chasten Israel, but they went too far in their cruelty (Isa 41:1-7). The psalmist was simply asking God to repay Babylon with what they did to them. The Lord is a God of recompense; he will surely repay (Jer 51:56), and recompense simply means to repay in kind.
It is not wrong to cry out to God and hope for justice. The martyrs in heaven cry out to God for vengeance (Rev 6:9,10). While on earth, they did not seek revenge but gave up their lives. But in due time God will avenge them. God is just, and the failure to judge and punish evil would be a miscarriage of justice. We may cry to God for justice, but we must leave vengeance to Him and not take it into our own hands (Rom 12:19).