By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the Willows
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy. – Psalm 137:1-6
The 137 Psalm is a reminder that not all the Psalms were written by the same author, in the same time period, in the same country. While King David wrote many of the Psalms, this one was written in Babylon by an unknown Israelite during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, 597-538 BC. David lived about 1000 BC.
The Psalm describes the mourning of the Israelites in Babylon. The writer describes the musicians of Israel, who had lost the heart to sing. What did they sing in Israel? No doubt they sang the Psalms and the other parts of the temple liturgies. When they tried to sing these in the distant land of their captors, they only fell into tears and mourning. The rivers, the willows, everything around them only reminded them of all they had lost. As they remembered Zion, they wept.
· They wept over the death of so many loved ones.
· They wept over the loss of almost everything they owned.
· They wept over the destroyed city of Jerusalem and her great temple.
· They wept over the agony of a forced march from Judea to Babylon.
· They wept over the cruelty of their captors.
· They wept over the loss of such a pleasant and blessed past.
· They wept over the forced captivity of their present.
· They wept over the bleak nature of their future.
· They wept over their sin that invited such judgment from God.
But they did not break their harps! They hung them safely on the trees by the river. They looked forward to a day when God would again bless them and make them able to take up their harps and sing the songs of Zion.
We have not been taken captives to a distant land. In a sense, we have been captives in our own country, isolated from family and friends. We have not lost our dear country, but we have lost precious parts of our country. We have lost over 60,000 of our countrymen. Hundreds of thousands more are hospitalized, and many of them will also die. We have lost our freedoms to move, to congregate. We think back to the way it used to be—visiting a favorite restaurant with friends, eating, drinking, laughing, and enjoying life. Now all that is on hold. We wonder whether those times are gone for good. We lament that our country will never be the same again.
Still we do not break our harps. That is, we have not given up. We pray, we repent, we receive God’s forgiveness. We hope and we look for God’s blessing. We look forward to better days and to restoration of our families, friends, churches, businesses, and freedoms.
After some sixty years in captivity, the Israelites were set free to return to their homeland. God heard their prayers and answered them. God saw their mourning and gave them reason for rejoicing. All along, the Israelites still possessed the “one thing needful” of Luke 10:42. They clung to God’s Word, to His promise of mercy, and forgiveness, and restoration.
We too have that one thing needful. We have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even during this hard time of distress and sadness, we have reason for joyful singing, though we may feel like those who hung their harps on the trees of the river. Soon we will be back together to sing with joy, and thanksgiving the songs of Zion.
One thing needful
This one treasure
Teach me, Savior to esteem.
Other things may promise pleasure,
But are never what they seem.
They prove to be burdens that vex us and chafe us,
And true lasting happiness never vouchsafe us
This one precious treasure, that all else exceeds,
Gives joy above measure and fills all my needs. ELH #182
– Pastor Anderson