Thanks to the “band” Boney M, Psalm 137 may be one of the best known psalms in pop music. It seems somewhat ironic that Boney M, a group of mostly Jamaicans who fronted a band run by a German producer (the same man responsible for Milli Vanilli’s debacle) where only a couple of the people actually sang and the rest just pretended to sing or were covered in live performances by backup singers, is responsible for the popularity of Psalm 137 around Europe. “Rivers of Babylon,” based on Psalm 137 and 19, is the only song of Boney M that was popular in the United States, and it was their most popular song all over Europe (though they did at least have other hits there) .
Psalm 137 is part of the group of psalms known as the “imprecatory psalms.” Many people find it to be a troubling psalm because of its extremely harsh language towards the people of Babylon. For this reason some overly refined people wonder why such a harsh song deserves a place in the inspired Word of God. Nonetheless, if we view Psalm 137 as not only having historical value to the Babylonian exile but also commenting on God’s hatred of the whole Babylonian system of religion and culture, the hatred of the Bible for the people of Babylon and what they stand for makes a lot more sense.
First, though, let us look at what Psalm 137 actually says: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For here those who carried us away captive asked of us a song. And those who plundered us requested mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth–if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, “Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!” O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!”
There is no denying this is a fierce psalm. Nonetheless, it may take some effort for people to see the ferocious sentiments of this hymn as consistent with a God of love. But though we know God (and Jesus) are full of love, they are also full of justice, and this song has plenty of both love and justice in ways that ought to be understandable to anyone who understands God’s sense of justice. If we combine the understanding of this psalm with that of the book of Habakkuk , we may understand the point better. We know that Judah was judged for its own sins, and that Jerusalem was destroyed because of the wickedness of both its rulers and its people. However, in Habakkuk God also condemned the sins of Babylon, promised its destruction, and also promised that he would come to judge the earth. Psalm 137 is part of this narrative, expressing the judgment of God against a wicked system.
But, from the words of this psalm, why might the Judean exiles spoken of in this psalm be so hostile to the request of Babylon’s rulers to sing songs of Zion. Judging from what we know of the psalms, many of the singers (and writers) of the Psalms were either members of the Davidic royal line (like David and Solomon) or they were Levites (Moses, Heman, Ethan, Asaph, and the sons of Korah). In addition, the temple and tabernacle singers were Levites. So, given the contextual clues of the fact that the people being asked to perform songs of Zion (presumably other parts of the psalter) were harpists and singers, it is likely that they were Levites from the temple musicians in captivity.
The fact that the Babylonian captors want the temple servants of God, godly Levites (who are weeping over the destruction of their city), to sing them the songs of God for mirth suggests the lack of moral seriousness of the Babylonians themselves. If we are familiar with the book of Daniel , a similar request from Belshazzar to use the temple’s vessels of gold for mirth in a party with his wives and concubines led to a prophecy of immediate destruction against his rule that was fulfilled that night. Likewise, the similar request of the Babylonian captors for the Lord’s song as mirth also prompts a harsh request for judgment against those who treat with lightness the seriousness of God’s word, even its songs.
In the request for the Babylonian captors to hear song of Zion for their amusement and in Belshzzar’s use of the goblets of the temple for his drunken banquet we see a disrespect for that which belongs to God. We see an attempt by the rulers of Babylon to claim a superiority over God because of the destruction of God’s people due to sin. There is the refusal to recognize that Babylon won because God was judging His people first, not because Babylon or its ways were superior, and for Babylon to forget its role as punisher and to think of itself as the ruler able to order the people of God to do its bidding was itself an act of rebellion against God that merited decisive and painful judgment.
As an aside, Psalm 137 connects not only with Habakkuk, which shows how the judgment of Judah precedes the judgment of Babylon, which precedes the judgment of the world as a whole connects with the book of Revelation. Here we see the last hurrah of the Babylonian world system, with its destruction, and then the return of Jesus Christ to take over the world and bring godly government over the world for the first time ever. Here too we see the list of sins of Babylon, its sorceries and its slave trading and its luxury and moral corruption, besides its religious failings. Happy is He who will destroy such a system, who will destroy the bastard children of the whore of Babylon and bring the ways of God to be enforced on a rebellious planet, against whom the nations of the earth have warred for thousands of years.
As another aside, Psalm 137 also relates to the book of Obadiah, which promises judgment on Edom for their hostility to Judah. Judah’s wickedness (amply described in books like Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles, among others), did not mean that Esau was privileged to sneer at its fall, considering Edom’s own sins (see Amos, for example). Rather, the judgment of Judah meant that judgment, having first fallen on God’s rebellious and disobedient people, would then fall on the rest of a disobedient world.
And therefore it is entirely proper that the Levite temple musicians should be so harsh against those who flippantly and disrespectfully treat the servants and music of God’s own temple, whatever the unworthiness of the priests or rulers or people of Judah themselves. To attack or ridicule God’s servants is to disrespect their Master, who is just and strict and willing to avenge. After all, it is clear from Psalm 137 that these Levite musicians were deeply loyal to Jerusalem, considering its well being higher than their own chief joy, and placing curses upon themselves if they forget the word of God or the city of God in their lives. Clearly, the people responsible for writing Psalm 137 were themselves godly people pronouncing a prophetic judgment on a wicked and disrespectful and rebellious nation. Their judgment remains, until Babylon and all of its bastards are dashed against the rock and God’s rule obliterates even the memory of Babylon and its ways from the whole world. Ultimately, that will require a new heavens and new earth, and a lake of fire to burn up the unrepentant wicked. God’s justice sometimes requires very harsh judgment. May we be blessed enough to repent and avoid such judgment on ourselves.