1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars 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 NRSV)
Key Observation: Sacred memory serves as a light to sustain us even in the darkest moments of our lives.
Psalm 137 teaches us that there is no experience out of bounds for our prayer life. As we’ve read Israel’s historical psalms, we’ve encountered despair and defeat, but Israel’s darkest hour included the destruction of Jerusalem (including the temple), the loss of the Davidic kingship, and the exile to Babylon. These realities serve as the backdrop for Psalm 137.
The psalm opens memorably with a portrait of life in exile (vv. 1–3). The psalmist recalls times when God’s people sat and wept thinking about their losses. Their sense of loss centered on Zion. The city and its temple were now past history. This memory was painful. The biting cruelty of their captors only heightened the pain. It was not enough to simply destroy the institutions that gave meaning to their lives. It was not enough to drag them hundreds of miles from their homeland. On top of this, the Babylonians added mocking requests for God’s people to sing their religious songs about Zion and the greatness of their God (e.g., Psalms 46 or 48). These opening verses show the depths to which the Babylonians went to heap further humiliations upon Israel. These are blatant and excessive acts of evil by the powerful over the powerless. The forlorn among God’s people cry out, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (v. 4).
Yet God’s people find a counter testimony to proclaim a different reality. It is at the very pit of their pain that this psalm takes a dramatic turn. Instead of deeper despair, Israel finds hope because the memory of Zion is real and God cannot be erased by destroying buildings made by human hands or even by afflicting his people with violence and humiliating indignities. In verses 5–6, the psalmist pivots to a renewed faith and a poignant prayer of resistance in the face of the pain of exile. For the Israelites, Jerusalem/Zion served as the locus for their trust in the Lord. By answering the abuse of the Babylonians with vocal memory of Zion, God’s people found renewed strength. Verses 5–6 serve as an oath to never forget Jerusalem and keep it as their highest joy.
Psalm 137 invites us to reflect on the deepest tragedies of our lives while affirming that we cling steadfastly to the living embodiment of Jerusalem/Zion, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) who suffered yet triumphed in resurrection.
Questions for Reflection
- What have been some of your darkest moments in life? What challenges did they present to your understanding of faith?
- How does sacred memory help the psalmist in the midst of the chaos of exile?
Are you interested in learning more about the Psalms? Consider taking a deep dive into the book with a dynamic teacher, Brian Russell. The book of Psalms is often quoted and clichéd, but much less often contextualized. When we understand the Psalter relative to the circumstances in which it was written, we find a rich resource for God’s people. Through these prayers, God both speaks to us and models how we might speak back to Him. At its core, the book of Psalms is an instructional guide to a moment-by-moment walk with God through the world. We have three separate Bible studies & videos on the book of Psalms. Get the books and accompanying videos in our store here.
In these pages you’ll:
- Discover how the psalms of the Bible can translate to your daily life
- Allow the psalms to help you find words to express yourself to God when you are unsure of how to pray
- Learn the historical context in which the psalms were written, adding to their richness