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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Believers pray about two cities
Text:Psalms 137 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's return

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 13

Psalm 40:5 (after the law)

Psalm 68:1,2

Psalm 137

Psalm 68:12

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 51:1-14, Obadiah, Revelation 18:1-10

Text: Psalm 137

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

Our text is what we call an imprecatory Psalm.  There are a number of these.  Psalm 58 is a good example.  In verse 6, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;”  Verse 8, “Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.”  These psalms have harsh words.  And we have some of those harsh words in Psalm 137 as well.  We call these imprecatory or cursing Psalms.

Through the history of the church, many have dismissed these Psalms as being unsuitable for New Testament believers.  People find these curses to be incompatible with the love and kindness taught by Christ and the apostles.  C.S. Lewis in his book Reflections on the Psalms called these Psalms “devilish” and “diabolical.”  He wrote about them, “The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.”  A well-known evangelical commentary series speaks in the same way, “…these Psalms are not the oracles of God.”  Many Psalters either delete the imprecatory Psalms or water down their language so as not to be offensive.  Our Book of Praise is one of the few Psalters that attempts to accurately give the language of the imprecatory Psalms – and we’ll see this later when we sing Psalm 137. 

So, what about us?  Can we stomach these imprecatory Psalms?  What are we supposed to do with Psalm 137?  Can New Testament believers really make these words their own, sing them and pray them?  Let’s try and answer those questions. 

Our starting point has to be the inspired character of God’s Word.  Sure, the Lord used people in bringing that Word, but yet it is still God’s Word.  Second Timothy 3:16, speaking about the Old Testament, says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”  So, in Psalm 137, we have the Word God breathed out.  If we don’t like what it says, our problem is with God. 

Psalm 137 is God’s Word.  It came to us from people who had been sent into exile in Babylon.  Because of their sins, the people of God had been removed from the Promised Land and the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.  So, Psalm 137 is a divinely inspired song of people in exile.  And as we go through this Psalm together, we’ll see that they sing and pray about two cities.  So, I preach God’s Word to you with that theme:

Believers pray about two cities.

In their prayer there is a:

  1. Passionate love for Yahweh and his dwelling place.
  2. Righteous hatred for Yahweh’s mocking enemies.

It often happens that we get misunderstood.  We intend to say one thing, but someone else understands something completely different.  That possibility is also there when we read this Psalm.  One might read this Psalm and conclude that the person who wrote it was a hate-filled nationalistic bigot.  But that way of reading does no justice to its inspired character or its context. 

Let’s talk about the context.  We’re especially interested in the historical context.  This Psalm doesn’t have a title, so we have to look for clues in the body of the Psalm.   The first clue comes at the beginning when it speaks of the rivers of Babylon.  Right away we think to the history of the Old Testament and remember that God’s people had been exiled there.  So, this is late in the Old Testament.  In fact, Psalm 137 is probably one of the last Psalms to be added to the collection.  The second verse speaks about hanging harps on poplars.  The Levites were the musicians of the temple – notice that twice Zion is mentioned in the first verses – this calls to mind the temple.  So, the person who wrote this Psalm was in all likelihood a Levite in exile.  Living in Babylonia, what we today call Iraq.

Verse 1 tells us that it was alongside the rivers and canals of Babylon that the exiles sat down and wept.  They were most likely drawn to these locations because of the ritual cleansings required by God’s law.  As they remember Zion, tears come to their eyes.  They had been cut off from the worship of God.  They had been cut off from the land of promise.  The land of Babylon was green and well-watered, but it may just as well have been a desert wasteland.  It wasn’t the land of milk and honey promised to their fathers.  It wasn’t the place where you’d find the dwelling place of Yahweh, the LORD. 

The harps or lyres had their place in the temple.  But they didn’t really belong there on the riverside in Babylon.  There was no reason to make joyful praise music in exile.  So, the instruments were hung up on the poplar trees which still today grow along the rivers and canals of Iraq. 

The third verse elaborates on the reason for the deep grief of the exiles.  The Babylonians mocked them and asked them for songs of joy.  They asked them to sing the joyful Psalms they would have sung on Zion, God’s holy hill.  That term “song of Zion” refers to any number of Psalms that would have been sung in the temple.

And what was the main issue here with this mocking taunt?   Basically, it was the humiliation of Yahweh.  The Babylonians had been victorious against the people of Yahweh – in the minds of the Babylonians, this meant that Yahweh was powerless to help.  Their mocking was a way of saying, “You used to praise this God.  Now what!?  Is he dead?!  Why aren’t you singing to him now?”  You see, the Babylonians were not just mocking the exiles, they were attacking God.  The issue here was not music as such, but faith and the one who was the object of Israel’s faith:  Yahweh.

The exiles don’t keep silent or ignore the taunts of the Babylonians.  Verse 4 gives their response:  “How can we sing those songs of Zion apart from the temple?  In fact, how can we sing those songs of praise to our covenant God, when we’re in a foreign land because of our unfaithfulness to him?  We played the harlot back home, we used our lyres for parties, and now you want us to sing?”  To do this would diminish the gravity of the situation.  It would be absurd for people who’ve come to realize their sin to do such a thing.  It would make light of God’s wrath on them.  They were beside the water for ritual cleansing, but yet these words show that they still felt themselves to be very much unclean.  They were unclean people in an unclean land being asked to sing God’s songs to an unclean tormentor.  Something just didn’t fit in that picture. 

It’s also worth noting that the Psalmist uses the expression “in a foreign land.”  Babylon cannot and never will be home for the exiles.  Home will always be the land of promise, especially Jerusalem with the temple complex.  Now when Cyrus later allowed the exiles to return, some decided to stay behind.  But from Ezra and Nehemiah we know that the vast majority, if not all, of the Levites returned to Jerusalem.  That would only make sense because they were commissioned to serve in the temple.

Now up to this point, the Psalm has been in the first person plural.  It uses “we” and “us.” The Psalmist speaks of the collective grief of the Levite exiles.   But then in the fifth and sixth verses there’s a shift to the first person singular, “I” and “my.”  The Psalm becomes more personal. 

If he forgets about Jerusalem, he curses his right hand to forget its skill.  This is connected back to the playing of the harp.  He is never going to play the harp again if he loses sight of the holy city.  And that thought continues with verse 6 where the Psalmist adds a curse to his tongue and mouth.  He’s never going to sing again if he fails to make Jerusalem his highest priority, his greatest happiness in life.  Basically, the words of verses 5 and 6 amount to the Psalmist cursing himself with a stroke if forgets Jerusalem.  This curse is what we call a self-imprecation.  So, this is an imprecatory Psalm in more than one sense. 

Now this love for Jerusalem was not about a nationalistic love for one’s hometown.  For the faithful people of God, there was no separating Zion from everything it stood for.  Jerusalem stood for the covenant, the temple, the presence and kingship of God, atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation.  You see, the focus here is not on Jerusalem as such, but on Jerusalem in its relation to God.  This is further emphasized when the Psalmist writes about Jerusalem being his highest joy.  Elsewhere, the Psalms speak of God as being our exceeding joy.  So, in this Psalm, Jerusalem is being closely identified with Yahweh.  It sounds a lot like Psalm 69:9 where David says “zeal for your house consumes me.”

And where have we heard those words before?   After our Lord Jesus cleansed the temple, we read in John 2:17 that his disciples “remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.”  And again, just as with Psalm 137, it’s not so much the temple, but its connection to God.  Repeatedly, we find that Jesus in his earthly ministry portrayed the passionate love for Yahweh and his dwelling place that we see in this Psalm.  As another example, think of Luke 19 where we’re told of how the Lord wept over Jerusalem.  Christ perfectly fulfilled this love for God and his dwelling place. 

Of course, that Jerusalem fell under God’s judgment in 70 A.D.  It’s out of the picture.  The temple is gone too.  The temple is now among us, individually and collectively as God’s people.  Today, our Lord Jesus continues to have a passionate love for God’s dwelling place.  He went into the exile of God’s curse for us, as our great high priest he willingly bore God’s wrath for our sins and made the ultimate sacrifice.  Why?  Because he remembered us.  Because his people are his highest joy!  Christ is the bridegroom who loved his bride so much that he gave his life for hers. 

All this has been to reconcile us to God.  In principle, we’ve been brought back from exile, so to speak.  We’ve been welcomed home into the family of God.  Now it is true that we’re still waiting for the full reality.  What’s here in principle isn’t totally here on the ground, in practice.  We still live in the world, but as pilgrims.  Our status allows us to sing God’s songs in a foreign land.  Because, unlike the exiles, we are no longer under the curse.  Jesus Christ has taken the curse for us.  We can and we will sing songs of praise to our Redeemer. 

And we’ll also be filled with his love, the love that he had for Yahweh and his dwelling place.  Since we’re in him by faith, our lives begin to reflect in greater measures what he’s like.  Now if we’re going to see that at work in our lives, think about our attitude to the church.  Are we filled with a love for the church, the place where the Holy Spirit dwells?  Do we pray for the church, this local congregation, this temple of Jesus Christ?  And when our children hear us talking about the church, what kind of words do they hear us saying?  Do they hear people who have a high regard for the church and its place in our lives?  Or do they hear complaining about this or that?  And what about you children, young brothers and sisters?  When it’s time to go to church, what kinds of words are on your lips?  What kind of thoughts are in your heads?   You shouldn’t be going to church just because your parents make you.  You ought to want to be here, to love to be here, meeting with God and his people.   Brothers and sisters, Psalm 137 calls you today to reflect on your attitude towards God’s dwelling place.  Because you are in him, your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. 

Now, as I mentioned earlier, usually churches which sing the Psalms have a modified version of Psalm 137.  These modified versions have the first part straight.  After all, people have no problem singing about love for God and his holy dwelling place.  But hate is another matter.  For us too, hate just doesn’t play very well.  As Christians, we’re taught to love. 

So quickly we forget that our God hates.  He hates Satan.  He hates sin.  There are Scripture passages that even speak of God hating the sinner – Psalm 11, for example.  Therefore, hatred itself is not a wrong or sinful thing.  It becomes wrong when it is set in the wrong direction.

We need to keep those things in mind when we come to the last three verses.  Verse 7 is the only one in the Psalm that’s directly addressed to the LORD.  It’s about the Edomites, the descendants of Esau.  They played an active role when Jerusalem was destroyed, so the Psalmist asks God to hold it against them.  The word “remember” in verse 7 is written in a special way in Hebrew which shows Yahweh is being asked to lay his judgment upon the Edomites.  That was because through their role in the destruction of Jerusalem, they showed themselves to be enemies and haters of God.  They weren’t just attacking any old city and tearing down any old temple.  It was an attack on Yahweh. 

This is confirmed in the book of Obadiah.  That entire book is a prophecy against the Edomites.  They had repeatedly attacked God’s people and Obadiah announced God’s judgment against them.  You have to notice this.  Listen:  Psalm 137 is simply echoing what God himself had already said in the book of Obadiah.  Obadiah had said judgment would come and the Psalmist prays for the fulfillment of that prophecy.  And not only that prophecy – there were others as well – both Ezra and Jeremiah had also brought God’s Word of doom against the Edomites. 

All of this has to be understood in the context of the history between the descendants of Jacob and those of Esau.  God chose Jacob and rejected Esau.  Later in Malachi 1, God said he loved Jacob, but hated Esau.  Repeatedly through history, this opposition was there.  It was still there in the time our Saviour was on earth – King Herod was a descendant of Esau.  Do you remember how he was pursuing the child Jesus to kill him?  So, the Psalmist is simply pleading for God’s justice to be delivered against these enemies who are dead-set on destroying everything that has to do with God and his promises for salvation. 

But the sharpest edge of the Psalm is saved for Babylon.  Verse 8 begins by speaking of the “Daughter of Babylon” – that’s just a way to personify it, it happens more often in the Old Testament.  And when the Psalmist says Babylon is doomed to destruction, those are words with a prophetic tone.  Judgment is coming for Babylon’s attack on Yahweh and his dwelling place.  She showed herself to be an enemy and hater of God.  So the one who gets to be the instrument of God’s justice is to be envied among men. 

Now it should be emphasized that just like verse 7, these words don’t fall out of the clear blue sky.  The Psalmist didn’t suck this out of his thumb.  He’s using the prophetic language about Babylon found elsewhere in the Bible.  For instance, we could think of Jeremiah 50 and 51.  In those chapters we read the words of God about Babylon.  After Jeremiah had written down these prophecies, he gave them to Seraiah, a staff officer.  Seraiah had to take the scroll and read it in Babylon.  When he was done reading the scroll, he had to tie a rock to it and then throw it into the Euphrates river.  So now the Psalmist on the banks of the river is simply echoing the words of the scroll on the bottom of the river.  He’s praying for God to fulfill his promises to judge the wicked – this is a prayer of faith. 

So these words don’t come from a person with a sinful axe to grind.  These are the very words of God himself.  The words challenge us, for sure.  Can you accept a God who executes justice?  Will you worship the God who reveals himself in his Word in this way? 

Those questions challenge us even more when we get to the last verse.  Literally in Hebrew, it reads like another beatitude.  “Blessed shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”  This is a further elaboration on verse 8.   Understandably, we get squeamish reading this.  However, when Ancient Near Eastern cities were sacked this was a common practice – we find it mentioned in a number of other Bible passages as well.  Isaiah 13 and 47 mention it directly in connection with Babylon – and again, those are indisputably the very words of God himself.  You have to see:  it is God himself who pronounces the beatitude of doom found in Psalm 137.  God pronounces total destruction by making war, even upon the next generation. 

Babylon was doomed.  It was invaded by Cyrus and conquered.  God’s Word came to pass.  But what does that say to us today? 

We have to look to the last book of the Bible.  In Revelation 18, Christ reveals the doom waiting for Babylon the Great.  And the language and tone of Psalm 137 is echoed there.  For instance, listen to verse 6, “Give back to her as she has given; pay her back double for what she has done…”  Babylon in the book of Revelation becomes a symbol of what Babylon was in the Old Testament.  She was a sworn enemy of Yahweh and his Anointed One.  A sworn enemy of the Kingdom of God. 

It’s in this way that this Psalm can and must be sung by the Church today.  Brothers and sisters, there’s no contradiction between this Psalm and teachings of Christ to love our neighbour.  It was Christ himself who gave the Revelation to John.  It was Christ who taught us to pray for the destruction of the devil and all those who follow him and every conspiracy against God’s Word.  Psalm 137 falls in line with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  This Psalm speaks about those who are God’s sworn enemies, those who blatantly and self-consciously mock him and seek to destroy his work in the world.  About those, we can say with David in Psalm 139:21-22, “Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate you?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”  That same David then goes on in the next verses to ask God to search his heart and see if he could find any wickedness there.  The Bible has no qualms about righteous hatred for God’s sworn enemies and neither should we.   Above all, that means we should long for the destruction of the evil one.  We should pray to see him fall along with all his minions.  God’s kingdom cannot come without Satan’s kingdom being destroyed.  God’s will cannot be done on earth without the destruction of evil. 

This means that there may be concrete manifestations of Babylon against which the church today may and must sing and pray Psalm 137.  We can’t identify those manifestations carelessly, we have to be careful to follow the contours and teachings of Scripture.  We’re speaking about God’s sworn enemies.  This is about institutions whose stated purpose and goal is to destroy the church, to mock God and his work in the world.    When we make those identifications, we can and must pray and sing Psalms like Psalm 137.  After all, these are the words of God against those who self-consciously rise up against him.  It is God who puts these words on our lips. 

Perhaps this is a bit too much for you to swallow.  But reflect on your love for Christ.  How deeply do you love him?  How deeply are you committed to him?  The depth of your love for him should be matched by the depth of your revulsion and hatred for Satan.  Furthermore, when the Lord taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves, did he mean to include Satan and his forces?  Is Satan our neighbour?  Hardly!  God does not want us to love Satan or his forces.  Satan is the enemy extraordinaire.  We are to hate with all our heart – hate as the LORD God hates, hate righteously and perfectly. 

See, this Psalm presents us with a challenge:  Where is your allegiance?  With which city?  Jerusalem or Babylon?  You cannot have a foot in both cities.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or else you’ll be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot love both Yahweh and Satan.  So, brothers and sisters, reflect on the two cities, but more than that:  pray about them.  Pray for God’s kingdom to come and conquer, in your life, in the lives of others, in the world.  Pray for Satan’s kingdom to be destroyed.   Then God will be all in all and peace will reign forevermore.  AMEN.     

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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