Psalm 137 - El Roi, God Knows Our Grief
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
Psalm 137 NLT
Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.
We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees.
For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”
But how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.
O Lord, remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem. “Destroy it!” they yelled. “Level it to the ground!”
O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!
We look at the last verse and wonder how anyone could sing that... “Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!” But that's the song the Psalmist sang about his captors. Can we imagine the Psalmist enjoying the sight of someone smashing babies? No. Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies? Yes, but contrary to how the Psalmist should feel as a child of God, he felt otherwise.
We can understand this psalm when we learn its history and backdrop.
During Jehoiachin's reign, the officers of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up against Jerusalem and besieged it. As the LORD had said beforehand, Nebuchadnezzar carried away all the treasures from the LORD's Temple and the royal palace. He stripped away all the gold objects that King Solomon of Israel had placed in the Temple. King Nebuchadnezzar took all of Jerusalem captive, including all the commanders and the best of the soldiers, craftsmen, and artisans - 10,000 in all. Only the poorest people were left in the land. (2 Kings 24:10-14 NLT)
Under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem in 597BC. This led to the exile of the Judahites. King Jehoiachin, his family, skilled craftsmen, warriors and about 10,000 captives were deported.
Nebuchadnezzar then installed Zedekiah as king of Judah. When Zedekiah revolted against Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians attacked again in 589BC.
By July 18 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah's reign, the famine in the city had become very severe, and the last of the food was entirely gone. They captured the king and took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah, where they pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. They made Zedekiah watch as they slaughtered his sons. Then they gouged out Zedekiah's eyes, bound him in bronze chains, and led him away to Babylon… burned down the Temple of the LORD, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. (2 Kings 25:1-12 NLT)
Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of hunger. Starving, they waste away for lack of food from the fields. Tenderhearted women have cooked their own children. They have eaten them to survive the siege. (Lamentations 4:9-10 NLT)
The Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, and the Judahites starved for 18 months (some scholars say 30 months). They saw their children die of hunger and some mothers cooked their dead children for food to survive. After that, the Babylonians ransacked the city. Homes were burnt to ashes, and love ones slaughtered before their very eyes. Those that didn't die were mostly captured and brought to Babylon, nearly 900 miles away.
Having gone through such devastation and horrific experiences the Judahites “sat and wept” as they “thought of Jerusalem”. But the Babylonians tormented the Judahites further. They didn’t do it by sword, but by forcing the Judahites to sing a “joyful hymn... “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”’
The Psalmist vowed that he would never forget Jerusalem, and even gave a curse upon himself if he did, “let my right hand forget how to pay the harp” and “May my tongue stick to the roof my my mouth.” He was determined to remember God’s Holy City, and God’s promises to the people despite all the destruction that has befallen his city and his people. What gives him so much faith in God, to trust in God even after such suffering?
The Psalmist knew that God loved him still, despite what’s going on around him. When we go through pains, even to the extent that we can’t sing joyful songs anymore, God knows our allegiance to Him. God knows our suffering. God knows our determination to be faithful to Him. God knows. Today, I am under siege, I am hard pressed at all sides with issues troubling me, whether it is at home or at work. Stress is a norm in my life. I may not be singing out loud, but my allegiance with God is deep within my heart.
But the Psalmist was extremely troubled by the actions of the Edomites. He asked God to “remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem”. He was filled with anger at what they did; they cheered for the Babylonians, “Destroy it... Level it to the ground!"
The Edomites were their neighbours and the descendants of Esau – they shared the same ancestry in Isaac. These were their brothers! For years, they could not see eye to eye and had fought each other, but it was utterly terrible to cheer for their common enemy as Jerusalem was destroyed.
In response to the enemies' demand for a joyful song, he sang out a song of curse. I can imagine the Psalmist saying, “You want a song? Here’s a song”... “You will be destroyed... happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!”
This psalm is not prescriptive, but descriptive. It does not prescribe or condone us wishing bad to befall our enemies. But it describes what the Psalmist felt in his heart.
The Psalmist sang a very sad psalm, expressing his sorrow and anger. We may look at his curse on the Babylonians and self-righteously judge him for wishing terrible violence on his enemies. But understanding what he and his people had gone through helps us appreciate his faithfulness despite the grief he was experiencing. Do you judge his “bad attitudes” towards his enemy or appreciate his faith in God despite all that happened?
We may be quick to judge and accuse someone who is grieving and thus not behaving the ‘right’ way. But who are we to judge if we have not experienced the trauma they’re going through? If God wants to hear his sorrow so should we.
God hears our grief and understands our reactions. This psalm also teaches us to sympathetically understand the underlying reasons for a person’s outburst, instead of jumping to conclusion and passing judgments on his behaviour.
Andy is the head of compliance for an international bank and is happily married, with three daughters. He became a disciple of Christ three decades ago, and studies God's Word passionately. He desires to be constantly led by the Spirit.