The historical background of Psalm 137 is very sad. The people of God failed to heed centuries of warnings and found themselves living with the consequences of disobedience. While God had not removed His fellowship—He loved the people of Judah as much as ever—He stripped them of their covenant blessings. No longer did they live in the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. No longer could they worship in the temple in Jerusalem.
Their experience, enduring the lasting consequences of wrongdoing, has much to teach us about our walk with God.
Few songs in Scripture begin with stronger emotions. The composer feels absolutely dejected! He remembers the bitter humiliation, the stinging sarcasm he and his companions had suffered. He even reminds us of a particular occasion when a representative of Babylon marched those Jews along a river and pummeled them with insults.
By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” (137:1–3)
Can’t you imagine that scene? With their heads hanging low, their shoulders slumped and tears streaming down their cheeks, those Jewish captives sat silent and gritted their teeth. Talk about a daily grind! This was the pit of pits. I can just hear the taunts of the Babylonian guard as he looked out over those downcast, depressed people of Judah: “Hey, how about all you Jews joining in on one of those good ol’ hymns of the faith! Let’s hear it for that great, big God of yours! Sing it out, now . . . and as you sing, remember Zion!”
Oh, how that hurt! It hurt so deeply the writer remembered the precise words of his tormentor.
The scoffers and critics of Christianity never stand any taller or shout any louder than when God’s people publicly fall into sin and are forced to suffer the consequences of disobedience. All Satan’s hosts dance with glee when believers compromise, play with fire, then get burned. We’ve seen a lot of that sort of thing in recent years, haven’t we? The secular media have a field day as God’s people are forced to take it on the chin. Those captives were getting just what they deserved, and they knew it. There was no more singing, no jokes, and no laughter in that embarrassed Jewish camp on foreign soil. One man describes the scene quite vividly:
This is the bitterest of all—to know that suffering need not have been; that it has resulted from indiscretion and inconsistency; that it is the harvest of one’s own sowing; that the vulture which feeds on the vitals is a nestling of one’s own rearing. Ah me! This is pain! There is an inevitable nemesis in life. The laws of the heart and home, of the soul and human life, cannot be violated with impunity. Sin may be forgiven; the fire of penalty may be changed into the fire of trial; the love of God may seem nearer and dearer than ever and yet there is the awful pressure of pain; the trembling heart; the failing of eyes and pining of soul; the harp on the willows; the refusal to sing the Lord’s song.