Read Psalm 137.
In a time of despair, joy can be especially sharp. Pain has a way of transforming even the smallest measure of cheerfulness into a special burden of torture. Just ask anyone who’s gone through a bad breakup right before the holidays. Or talk to someone who’s had to perform after receiving news backstage that a loved one has passed away. Sadness is sad enough without happiness trying to get in the way.
Such is the scene by the riverside in Babylon described in Psalm 137. The people of Judah have been taken from their homes and led away to a foreign land. Jerusalem has been burned, and the temple of God—the place where His presence lived among His people—has been destroyed. It’s a time for mourning, for stillness, for soaking up the sorrow.
But the Babylonians will not let the Jewish captives be. They insist, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (v. 3). Amuse us! Entertain us! They see the exiles before them as little more than a jukebox for their listening pleasure.
Those songs of Zion? They aren’t meaningless jingles designed to pass the time away. They’re reminders of God’s special love for His people. They echo His promises of security and protection. They proclaim the power and goodness of the true King of all creation. And they would taste especially bitter in a place where the story of redemption seems to have unraveled. “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” the psalmist asks (v. 4).
But the songs are still true, even when everything around us says otherwise. The psalmist knows this, so even in the midst of his pain, he prays. It’s the sort of prayer one would expect from someone swimming in anger and despair. It’s raw and unsheathed. He holds nothing back.
After praying that God would remember the inaction and outright glee of Israel’s longtime frienemies, the Edomites, during the siege of Jerusalem (v. 7), the psalmist then sets his sights on Babylon with a thought that doesn’t seem to belong in the mind of someone who loves God. It doesn’t even seem to belong in the Holy Bible: “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (v. 9).
That’s it. That’s the final word on the matter. That’s how the psalm closes.
The notion is abominable to modern minds—the murder of innocent children, no matter whose children they are. It was an abominable thought to the psalmist too, as it wasn’t actually his idea. It was the cruel Babylonians who threw down the children of Judah against the rocks first. We know this because the psalmist tells us, “Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us” (v. 8). The Babylonians have selected their own measure of judgment; the psalmist is asking God to dole it out.
The Babylonian Empire is long gone, toppled by the Persians who took up their mantle as rulers of much of the ancient world. The Persian Empire is gone too. And the Greeks. And the Romans. Empires come and go. Blood is shed, lives are ruined, and a new world order comes to pass. Each has its turn.
But what doesn’t change (without Christ) is the human heart. So “Babylon” continues to this day. In fact, it is not until the book of Revelation where the psalmist’s prayer is truly answered: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!” an angel announces (Revelation 18:2). “Rejoice over her, you heavens! Rejoice, you people of God! Rejoice, apostles and prophets! For God has judged her with the judgment she imposed on you” (v. 20).
If cruelty and violence reigns, that’s Babylon. If greed overtakes compassion, that’s Babylon. If the poor are oppressed and the rich are above the law, that’s Babylon. If evil is called good and good called evil, that’s Babylon.
The early Christians knew they were living in the shadow of Babylon, a name they often used as a label for Rome (see 1 Peter 5:13), but they also knew that Babylon’s days were numbered. In that, they rejoiced, even as they experienced the pain and persecution of Babylon’s malice. They were able to sing songs in the midst of their exile because they recognized that a better kingdom had come. Their sorrow could not turn their joy into bitterness. Not anymore.
God’s final judgment is coming against Babylon the Great. Our tears on the riverbanks of life have been answered in Jesus, and we can sing the songs of Zion in God’s presence, because we have become walking and talking temples of the Lord. Though we are exiles, the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is the answer to the psalmist’s rhetorical question, “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).
No matter where our captors lead us, no matter what they do to us, they cannot steal our joy.