In 586 BCE, Judah was taken captive to Babylon. Losing their homeland and temple was a traumatic experience for the Israelites. The Babylonians added insult to injury by mockingly requesting that they sing songs of Zion (Psalm 137:3) as the Israelites struggled to learn to worship God in a foreign land without the benefit of the temple (Psalm 137:4).
Not unlike in our times, a psalmist penned a sad song to document the sorrow. Psalm 137 is an untitled community lament that poignantly captures the feelings of that dark period in Israel’s history. It begins:
By the rivers of Babylon,Stanley L. Jaki (1924-2009) sympathizes:
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion. (Psalm 137:1 NASB)
Exile, even if it is not a concentration camp, is a hardship in many ways. For the Jews exiled to Babylon their oppressors’ request that they entertain them by singing the “songs of Sion” was a last straw. It prompted the composition of this psalm, which eventually became the classic song on the lips of Jews in the Disapora, old and new. (Jaki, Praying the Psalms: A Commentary, 224)The specificity of the psalm’s setting is highly irregular. James Luther Mays (b. 1921) notes:
Unlike all other psalms, this one refers to particular times, places, and events. It identifies a specific historical setting. It looks back on the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and its Edomite allies, on a time of residence in the foreign territory of Babylon, and on the experiences of a captive, deported people. The psalm seems to be the voice of exiles who have returned to live in the ruins of a Jerusalem not yet rebuilt. The memories of their humiliation by and in Babylon are fresh, and the account with the treacherous Edomites still unsettled. The composer may have been one of the temple musicians carried into exile with harp and repertoire of temple music. He and his guild of Levite singers would have been the special targets of their captor’s cruel humor. (Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 421)S. Edward Tesh (1911-1999) and Walter D. Zorn (b. 1943) concur:
Psalm 137 was written by one who had been a captive in Babylon. We say, “had been,” because he nows says, “There...we sat and wept (Psalm 137:1). He is in Jerusalem, relating his experience, addressing the city by name (Psalm 137:5). Who he is we are not told, but reference to harps is a likely indicator he was a Levite, one of the group to whom the music of the temple was entrusted. If so, his family would have had the privilege, before the exile, of taking part in the worship services of the temple, singing and making music before the LORD. (Tesh and Zorn, Psalms: Volume 1 (The College Press NIV Commentary, 466)The psalm vividly recalls the Babylonian exile as both posture and location are recounted. The Israelites weep while sitting on the banks of a waterway. Though most translations use “rivers” (ASV, CEV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) the more traditional “waters” (ESV, RSV) is likely more correct given Babylon’s geography.
Robert Alter (b. 1935) explains:
The first Hebrew noun, neharot, generally means “rivers,” but because the more probable reference is to the network of the canals that connected the Tigris and the Euphrates, “streams” is a preferable translation here. (Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, 473)Either way, the topography indicates that the Israelites are clearly not in Jerusalem anymore. John Eaton (b. 1927) comments:
The scene is put vividly before the Lord to show the love and loyalty of the worshippers towards his sanctuary. The characteristics of the Babylonian plain, so different from Judah, are well recalled – the great river and its lesser streams and canals, the trees (Euphrates poplars, resembling willows) literally ‘in her midst’ – not in distant woods. The exiles are glimpsed sitting down by the waters, weeping and wailing – an act of mourning, perhaps a formal commemoration (sites by water were favoured for prayer-gatherings, Acts 16:13). (Eaton, The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation, 454-55)Their homeland only a memory, the Israelites grieve with tears running beside running water.
Where have you sat and wept? Why do they weep by the waters? Where do you go to cry? How necessary is crying to the mourning process? Have you ever written a dirge? Is it significant that they are not standing for this hymn? Is collective mourning a proper response to their situation? When have you cried publicly? When has America collectively wept? Why are they crying?
The Israelites position on the banks of Babylon is significant because it is the very reason for their tears. The Israelites are displaced. Whether in Babylon or a Jerusalem that is only a shell of its former glory, they are not where they want to be. In losing their land, they fear they will lose their identity.
This hymn of homesickness has found its way into worship for centuries. While on the surface the concept of exile may seem foreign to most Americans, it is a sentiment all can relate to.
M. Basil Pennington (1931-2005) explains:
We sit in this our land of exile. And we have cause for weeping. Our exile is not so much geographical as, a state of being, caused by our sin. God’s plan was a garden that opened out into Paradise. But our forebears chose to decide things for themselves. And the result was disaster. And we all suffer the consequences. But let us not be too hard on them. We all fail again and again, choosing our own ill-conceived plans rather than God’s plan, which is the only sure way home. (Pennington, Psalms: A Spiritual Commentary,140)Joni Eareckson Tada (b. 1949) expands further:
It is always the exiles who remember home. The Israelites, captive in a foreign land, remembered their true country when they mourned in Psalm 137:1: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”...Like the Israelites, I carry in my exiled heart a hunger for my heavenly country, my soul’s true home. (Tada, Heaven: Your Real Home, 99)Where do you feel most at home? Have you ever felt exiled? Are you where you want to be? If not, have you taken the desires of your heart to God?
“In my Babylonian moods keep the vision of Jerusalem alive in my heart and teach me new songs of praise.” - Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932), Praying with the Psalms: A Year of Daily Prayers and Reflections on the Words of David, p. 56