Theme: Faith in the Midst of Suffering
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
Does Psalm 137 have meaning for us? Of course, and we do not need to allegorize the psalm to feel its relevance. We need only think how hard it is to sing the hymns of the church when we are immersed in this world’s culture. It is why we escape to church to do it. Or we may think of how sad we become considering the state of the church itself when it is weak or plunged into apostasy or is in spiritual decline and when we seem unable to do anything about it.
The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote of such times, “Even thus do true believers mourn when they see the church despoiled and find themselves unable to succor her; we could bear anything better than this. In these our times the Babylon of error ravages the city of God, and the hearts of the faithful are grievously wounded as they see truth fallen in the streets and unbelief rampant among the professed servants of the Lord.”1
Distress is not despair, however. So even though we are struck by the pathos of the psalm’s opening verses, and even identify with them, we also notice that the singer’s faith in God is intact. Or to express it in terms of the psalm’s unique imagery, we notice that although the exiles were unable to sings the songs of Zion in Babylon, they nevertheless did not break their harps in pieces or throw them in the stream. Instead, they hung them on the poplars, presumably saving them for what would surely be a better day. This is what we pick up in the next section, beginning with verse 5. It is faith that is determined never to forget Jerusalem.
Why the reference to the psalmist’s right hand? For a right-handed person this would be a way of referring to his greatest skill and strength. Yet in the setting provided by the opening verses, it is referred to probably because it was the hand used to play the harp. So also with the reference to the tongue. The writer refers to it because it could have been used to sing the songs of Zion under these disloyal circumstances, which he will not do.
In this stanza the pronouns turn from the plural to the singular, from “we” to “I.” Thus, in these verses each individual pledges his or her own personal loyalty to Jerusalem. Suffering may be shared. It often is. But determination to remember God and walk in his ways is something each of us must do individually. You must do it! And so must I.
What about the future? If the psalmist is determined to forget neither God nor Jerusalem, is it the case that he is expecting to be delivered from his present evil state and be able to sing the songs of Zion in Zion at some future date? We do not know what any individual Israelite thought while he or she was in Babylon, of course. But we know that God eventually did visit his people to bring them back to their own land through the decree of Cyrus in the days of Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. In fact, it is in Jerusalem that the present psalm was written, and from Zion that the words of the psalm were first sung.
Christians endure bad times, but we do not despair in bad times because we know that God will bring us through them, sometimes sooner than we expect.
About four hundred years ago, in 1605, a French priest named Vincent de Paul was traveling from Toulouse to Marseille by sea. The ship he was in was seized by Barbary pirates, the passengers were carried to Tunis on the coast of Africa, and Vincent de Paul was sold as a slave to an apostate Christian from Nice who took him inland to work on his farm. As he labored in this man’s fields under a burning equatorial sun he attracted the interest of one of his master’s Turkish wives who asked him to sing some of the praises of his God. Vincent remembered the captive Israelites and their plaintive 137th psalm and began to sing it: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
The song touched the woman’s heart. She told her husband that he had done wrong to change his faith, and she praised the religion that the priest had explained to her. Her words revived his slumbering conscience. He left north Africa and returned to France, landing at Aigues Mortes where Vincent de Paul was set free, two years after his capture.2
1Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 3b, Psalms 120-150 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1968), pp. 226, 227.
2The story is in Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1904), pp. 205, 206, and Herbert Lockyer, Sr., Psalms: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993), pp. 703, 704.
Observation: Language in Scripture can indicate a change from the general to the personal.
Explain the imagery of the right hand and the tongue.
What is the application for Christians today of the release of the captives from Babylon?
Reflection: When have you found it difficult to sing a hymn of praise? What did you do?