Psalm 137: The Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.

–Psalm 137:1-2 (ESV)

"By Babel's streams we sat and wept..."

“By Babel’s streams we sat and wept…”

Sandwiched between two joyful psalms of unrestrained praise, Psalm 137 is shocking in more ways than one.  It gives voice to the passionate emotions of the faithful exiles of Israel as they pine over the ruin of their nation.  The psalmist vows never to forget Jerusalem (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!”), and pours righteous imprecations upon the godless nations (“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”).  In the midst of these vehement words, we find the key to the entire psalm in verse 4: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

Today we consider Psalm 137 as versified in the blue Psalter Hymnal.

285, “By Babel’s Streams We Sat and Wept”

Although the 1912 Psalter (the source for much of the Psalter Hymnal) has a notorious tendency to dull the powerful language of the imprecatory psalms, “By Babel’s Steams” is an impressive exception.  The text errs on the poetic side, but still carries the original meaning and flow of Psalm 137 surprisingly well.  The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas particularly stand out to me:

Not songs but sighs to us belong
When Zion’s walls in ruin lie;
How shall we sing Jehovah’s song
While in an alien land we die?

O Zion fair, God’s holy hill,
Wherein our God delights to dwell,
Let my right hand forget her skill
If I forget to love thee well.

If I do not remember thee,
Then let my tongue from utterance cease,
If any earthly joy to me
Be dear as Zion’s joy and peace.

What should be done with Psalm 137:9 is a matter of some debate.  Is the imagery of infants being dashed against the rocks un-Christian, unworthy of our lips?  I’m not sure I have the answer to this difficult question, but I am more than satisfied with the synopsis given in the sixth stanza of this setting:

Remember, Lord, the dreadful day
Of Zion’s cruel overthrow;
How happy he who shall repay
The bitter hatred of her foe.

The tune of number 285 is a poignant lament associated with the Good Friday hymn “’Tis Midnight, And on Olive’s Brow.”  When playing OLIVE’S BROW, be sure to bring out the harmonies, which are much more varied and interesting than the chant-like melody line.  Playing this tune too fast would be an atrocious crime.  Most importantly, think of (and, if possible, sing) the solemn words of this psalm as you play.  Consider this beautiful arrangement of “By Babel’s Streams” combined with another versification of Psalm 137 from the 1912 Psalter.  (Note that for the last stanza the choir just sings “Ooo”—a nice stylistic touch, in my opinion.)

You may still be asking, “But how does Psalm 137 apply to the Christian life?  Can it?”  Indeed, I believe it can.  Perhaps an extreme example would be the situation of believers in overtly anti-Christian nations.  How it must grieve these brothers and sisters in the Lord to be tortured, imprisoned, or just prevented from the possibility of worship!  These saints have set God’s Church above their highest joy, and are willing to sacrifice their liberty and even their lives for its sake.

Even in countries like our own, where Christianity (though mocked) is still tolerated, Psalm 137 speaks to the believer.  Are we reminded as we interact with our secular culture that we are indeed in an alien land?  Does it grieve us when circumstances prevent us from worshiping with God’s people on Sunday, or are we instead quick to forget Zion?  Psalm 137 ought to serve as a vivid lesson in living in the world, but not of the world.  Furthermore, we can take comfort in the knowledge that all wickedness is “doomed to be destroyed,” that in the end the God of peace will crush Satan under our feet (Romans 16:20) and give his Church the complete victory.  All glory to his Name!

O Zion fair, God’s holy hill,
Wherein our God delights to dwell,
Let my right hand forget her skill
If I forget to love thee well.


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