The Church’s Lament & Imprecation
Against God’s And Her Enemies

a brief study of Psalm 137, adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 2 Feb 2012

 

The book of psalms is like a great river of praise meandering down the course of redemptive history and experiences. The water of this river has many different sources. There are the waters that nourish the trees of righteousness planted by the river; there are the still waters that quench the thirst of weary sheep and lambs; there are the streams that make glad the city of God; there is the fountain out of the Rock of Ages; and there are the cascades of joyous praise. But there is yet another prominent source that must not be overlooked, namely, the rivulets of tears streaming down the sad faces of God’s people under extreme trial.

Psalm 137 is a case in point. It is a very sad psalm of imprecation, which ironically is made famous in our generation by the world of pop music. Even more ironically, many churches would not sing it at all. Indeed, the only time I heard it sung in a traditional church, it was the sacrilegious pop version that was sung.

Why is this psalm so unpopular? It is so unpopular perhaps because of the very strong statement of imprecation that concludes: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (v. 9). Apparently, these words are so disagreeable to modern Christian senses that they are actually omitted in many popular Psalters used by some churches. The Psalms & Hymns of Reformed Worship (Wakeman Trust, 1991) used by many Calvinistic Baptist Churches in UK do not have the verse in both versions of the psalm found in it. Similarly, it is not found in the two versions of Psalm 137 found in the Psalter (Eerdmans, r. 1965) used by many English-speaking Continental Reformed Churches.

Now, we don’t have sufficient time in this brief study to explain fully why we need Psalm 137 in its entirety. For those who are interested, I would highly recommend the excellent treatment on the subject by Michael LeFebvre in his must-read book “Singing the Songs of Jesus” (Christian Focus, 2010; p. 118-131). Suffice to say that this Psalm is given by the Lord Jesus the King of the Church for us to sing in union with Him to express deep outrage and grief towards those who have committed terrible crimes against God’s people. It is a psalm by which we are given the assurance that the Lord understands how we feel, and by which we are encouraged to wait upon the Lord to judge our enemies and to vindicate us in His time.

We may entitle this psalm, “The Church’s Lament & Imprecation against the Lord’s & Her Enemies.”

It was perhaps written towards the end of the Babylonian exile. We don’t know who wrote it. Some suggested that it was Jeremiah the weeping prophet. But Jeremiah was not carried into exile. Perhaps it was Ezekiel who was carried captive in 597 BC before the temple fell in 586 BC. We don’t know. We do know that he was a Levite.

In any case, this psalm has three parts. The first part, verses 1-4, gives us an expression of the exasperation and sadness that God’s people feel when oppressed by our enemies. The second part, verses 5-6, contains a vow by God’s people not to forget Jerusalem. The third part, verses 7-9, contains the imprecation against God’s enemies.


1. Sorrows of God’s People

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. 3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.   4 How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?

We don’t know exactly when this psalm was written. Someone suggested that it might have been towards the end of the captivity period when the Medo-Persians were conquering the Babylonians. It was opined that the Jews were perhaps reminded of how they much worse the Babylonians treated them when they saw what the Medo- Persians did to the Babylonians.

Around 587 BC, the army of Nebuchednezzar marched into Jerusalem. They razed the city, including the temple and the palace to the ground. They plundered the homes, killed and tortured the men, raped the women, slaughtered the children and burned everything down to the ground. It was a time of great confusion, and indescribable pain and horror.

Many people who survived lost loved ones and property. They would have wept torrents of tears. And to add to their sorrow, many were rounded up and sent into exile in Babylon.

There they were camped by the rivers of Babylon. Whether it was Euphrates or Tigris or Ulai or Chebar, is not important. But what happened was most exasperating and humiliating for God’s people.  For there, the soldiers who carried the Jews captive taunted them by requiring of them to sing the songs of Zion to entertain them (v. 3). But how could they sing the Songs of Zion to entertain the enemies of God’s people in a strange land (v. 4)? So they refused. Instead, they hung their harps upon the weeping willows (Salix babylonica) by the river (v. 2); and they sat down and wept as sorrow flooded their soul at the remembrance of Zion (v. 3).

Today, we may not be in exactly the same situation as the Jews of old, but let us remember that the psalms are not only given for us to sing in times of peace and prosperity. It is also given to us to sing in times of persecution and torment; and unless we learn how to appreciate them in good times, how will we sing it in times of great distress?

Shall we not sing it today with sorrows in our heart as we think about how Christian worship in so many circles has degenerated into worldly entertainment? But especially, shall we not sing it with sympathy for our brethren around the world who are persecuted for faith? And let us sing it with a resolution that we may not forget Jerusalem, the city of our King, even the Church redeemed by His blood.


2. Resolution of God’s People

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. 6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. 

Psalm 137 is an imprecatory Psalm. But take note that it is not just an imprecation against God’s enemies. In fact, the first imprecation in this psalm is an imprecation that God’s people pronounce against ourselves, for verse 5-6 is really a vow, and a vow contains an imprecation or a curse.

When we make a vow, we are making a promise to God and calling upon Him to judge us and to chastise us if we fail to keep our promise.

Here in verses 5-6, each one of us who sing by faith in union with our Lord, take upon ourselves individually an oath to remember and to love Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a symbol of the church. By this vow which we are making, we are promising to remember the church, to see to it that she remains our chiefest joy and our chiefest concern of all the things that delight our soul in this world.

To express how seriously they take this resolution, our fathers in the faith called upon the Lord to deal with them severely if they forget Jerusalem. They would have Him see to it that they forget how to play the instruments they enjoyed (v. 5), and to make their tongue cleave to the roof of their mouth that they cannot sing ever again (v. 6).

Today, it may not mean so much for us to be able to play the harp or to be able to sing. But shall we not use the same words in union with our Lord that we may express what ought to be our attitude towards the church in our heart of hearts.

Oh beloved brethren, how many of us have left off our first love? How many of us have forgotten Jerusalem? Upon what does our chiefest joy lie? Is it upon Jerusalem? Do you grief at the trials that the church experience? Are you saddened by the troubles that occur in the church? We must, beloved brethren, learn first to love the church local if we are to be able to love the church universal of Christ. All who claim to love the Church Universal but love not a true church of Christ local, speak in hypocrisy.

Oh shall we not come before the Lord in contrition confessing the hardness of our hearts?

But as we love Jerusalem, so let us express our deep anguish against the enemies of the church and of Christ…


3. Imprecation Against God’s Enemies

7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

In the day the Babylonians marched into Jerusalem, Edom, their next door neighbour and close relative, stood by only too happy that Jerusalem was being destroyed to the foundation. They lifted not a finger to help God’s people, but rather encouraged the conquerors on in their wicked deed.

Our fathers in the faith sitting by the rivers of Babylon felt a deep sense of exasperation and betrayal against the Edomites. The Spirit of Christ in the prophet gave them this song to express their anguish in an acceptable way as they call upon the LORD to remember the wickedness of the Edomites.

Likewise, they address the people of Babylon, and called a curse upon them.

8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.   9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.


Babylon had committed great atrocities against God’s people. The hurt was too deep to be healed with the passage of time. The people needed to express their grief. They needed not just to call upon God to judge them. They needed to express their desire to see ultimate judgement against the Babylonians. Justice cannot be served unless Babylon suffered the same pain and sorrow as they inflicted upon Jerusalem. This is why they sing: “happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us” (v. 8). This is why they gave the example: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (v. 9). These are terrible words. But they are intended to be terrible so as to match the reality of what happened. For this is what the Babylonians did to God’s people!

The Jews, you must remember, are not saying that they will be happy to dash the children of the Babylonians against the stones. That would be vindictiveness and to repay evil with evil. No, no; they are really calling upon God to judge the entire nation as their entire nation was destroyed by the Babylonians.

With what sentiments should we sing this psalm today? No, no; I do not think that we should be thinking about the nation of Israel or the nation of Iraq today. Rather, we should be thinking of all the atrocities that has been and are being committed against God’s people throughout the ages and throughout the world.

We think of the persecution against God’s people by the Assyrians and Babylonians and others in Old Testament days.

We think of the persecution against God’s people by the Jews and the Romans in early New Testament times.

We think of the persecution by the Roman Catholic Church, by the Muslims and Hindus and by atheistic governments such as those of the USSR, North Korea, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, etc.

We think of how Christian churches and Christians are often tormented in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, China, etc.

We think of how Christianity and Christians have become the target of attacks by some in academia and by many in the entertainment industry.

What shall we do when we think of the great sorrows and destruction that has been afflicted upon the church of Christ, which ought to be our chiefest joy? Shall we not join in with the church through the ages and throughout the world to sing in union with our King of our desire for final justice and judgement? Nothing in this world will give us peace and satisfaction in our heart in the way that singing the songs of Jesus befitting the occasion will do.


Conclusion

This is Psalm 137. Oh may the LORD grant us a better understanding of this psalm that we may sing it heartily and meaningfully. Oh may we remember the words so that when persecution and atrocities come upon our land and we be too grieved for words, that we may have the words of Christ in our hearts and upon our lips to sing with Him. Ame
n. W