The Book of Psalms

Tuesday: By the Rivers of Babylon


Theme: Sadness in a Strange Land
In this week’s lessons, we are reminded of the need to trust God in the midst of great hardship and difficulty, and to wait upon him for help.
Scripture: Psalm 137:1-9
We begin with the pathos, for that is what the opening stanza contains. Here the Jews who have returned from the exile recall those sad moments when they were sitting by the rivers and canals of far-off Babylon, far from their beloved mountain homeland, and were asked by their captors to sing one of the songs of Zion. Some writers suggest that this was demanded in a mocking tone: “Let’s hear you sing about that land you will never see again.” But there is no reason to imagine such cruelty, even though the psalm speaks of “tormentors” in verse 3. Speculation adds nothing to the pathos. 
“We were asked to sing about Zion,” they say. “But how could we sing about our homeland when we were so depressed because we were far from it? Singing should lift one’s spirits and promote an atmosphere of joy. But how could we sing when there was nothing to be joyful about? To be joyful in Babylon would have been treasonous for those who belong to God’s city.” The fourth verse summarizes their sadness in two wonderfully poetic lines:
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land? 
The circumstances and words are sad enough without any commentary. But here are three details that might help us appreciate the psalm’s pain better. 
1. The poem’s sad sounds. The English words are sad, even mournful, but it is interesting to know that the words have an even sadder sound in the Hebrew language. This is because verses 1-3, which lead up to and explain the pathetic question of verse 4, contain a ninefold repetition of the pronoun ending nu (meaning “we” or “our”) which sounds mournful. It is like crying “ohhh” or “woe” repeatedly. 
2. The contrast with Psalms 135 and 136. Again, we might feel the people’s pain more when we notice that the words follow two psalms that have celebrated God’s gift of the land to his people. Both speak of God’s having “struck down the firstborn of Egypt” (Pss. 135:8; 136:10), having overthrown “Sihon king of the Amorites” and “Og king of Bashan” (Pss. 135:11; 136:19, 20), and as having given the land of these kings as “an inheritance…to Israel” (Pss. 135:12; 136:22). Psalm 135 even ends by calling on all who fear God to “praise the LORD…from Zion” (v. 21). But in Psalm 137 the people are no longer in the land and mourn the loss of it. 
3. The “songs of Zion.” An even more poignant note is struck when we think about the songs of Zion themselves. These are some of the loveliest compositions in the Psalter, like Psalm 84:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God…. 
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked (vv. 1, 2, 10).
Think how painful it would be to sing a song like that while in exile. 
Study Questions: 

Describe how the psalm’s sounds add to its sadness. 
How does the psalm’s position in the Psalter contribute to its theme? 
What is the content of a song of Zion? How does this contribute to Psalm 137’s pathos? 


Recall times God used beautiful hymns to lift you up when circumstances were bleak. 
Have you been placed around people who mock God? How do you handle that? 

Application: Memorize portions of Scripture to fall back on when you undergo hard times.

Study Questions
Tagged under
More Resources from James Montgomery Boice

Subscribe to the Think & Act Biblically Devotional

Alliance of Confessional Evangelicals

About the Alliance

The Alliance is a coalition of believers who hold to the historic creeds and confessions of the Reformed faith and proclaim biblical doctrine in order to foster a Reformed awakening in today’s Church.

Follow Us

Canadian Donors

Canadian Committee of The Bible Study Hour
PO Box 24087, RPO Josephine
North Bay, ON, P1B 0C7