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The Historical Context of Psalm 137

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series

"God's People in Exile"

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Last week I began a series looking at Psalm 137. I am going to do two things with the psalm; first, I will look at the psalm, and then I would like to look through the psalm and allow it to speak to us today.

So let us begin by looking at Psalm 137. The psalm begins with the phrase, “By the waters of Babylon.” To what does this refer?

We do not know who wrote this psalm, but it was most certainly written by someone who had experienced for himself the Babylonian captivity. This may have been written shortly after the captivity ended or possibly some time into the captivity, but the early period of Israel’s captivity in Babylon is most certainly the immediate historical context of the psalm.

Historical Context

You likely know the broad outlines of this event. King David, a man after God’s own heart, had defeated Israel’s most threatening enemies and organized plans for the building of God’s Temple in Jerusalem—the center of true worship. His son, Solomon, the wisest man on earth, built the Temple and dedicated it to the Lord in a grand festival in which God visibly displayed his presence to them.

And yet during Solomon’s reign he married foreign wives who brought with them false gods—he allowed false worship to take place under his own roof. And, of course, inevitably, false worship began to permeate the nation of Israel.

This ultimately resulted in civil war after Solomon’s death, and the nation divided into two, Judah in the south ruled by Solomon’s son Rehoboam, and Israel in the north ruled by Jeroboam. King Jeroboam actually desired to bring the nation back to the Lord, and God promised Jeroboam that if he obeyed the Law, God would bless him and his royal line.

Nevertheless, once again false worship led to curse. This time it wasn’t initially full-blown idolatry, but out of a pragmatic desire to keep his people from traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was in the southern kingdom, Jeroboam made two gold calves in honor of Yahweh and made temples for Yahweh on the pagan high places and appointed priests who were not Levites, and God cursed him because of it.

And the history of the nation of Israel from this point forward is almost all characterized by religious syncretism—mixing true worship with false worship—and full blow idolatry. On occasion there is a relatively good king in the southern kingdom, but for the most part both kingdoms are characterized by false worship.

God does not tolerate false worship; because the people did not keep his commandments, God allowed the northern kingdom to be defeated by Assyria in a series of invasions until finally, in 722, Assyria completely defeated them and took the people captive.

The southern kingdom didn’t fare much better. Because of their increasing idolatry, God raised up the nation of Babylon to invade the nation, and finally in 586 the city of Jerusalem along with the Temple were utterly destroyed, and in a series of deportations the people were taken captive to Babylon. Even the Edomites, descendants of Esau, cousins of the Jews you could say, aided the Babylonians in the destruction of Judah. And so now God’s people were no longer in their land. They were in exile.

This is the context for Psalm 137. Here are God’s people no longer in their land, no longer in their holy city, no longer in their Temple.

It is a context of worship in exile. It was customary for Jews to gather for worship by a river due to the necessity of ceremonial washings—this was a practice that continued for the building of synagogues later. So it is very likely that the setting of this psalm—“by the waters of Babylon”—refers to their attempt to gather for worship in exile.

And yet instead, they sat down and wept; they hung up their lyres, the predominate instrument of accompaniment for Temple worship. Their captors mocked them, “Sing for us one of your worship songs!” But the captive Hebrews could not. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

They were God’s people in a strange land; they had no homes, no place for worship; they were a unique people with a unique identity, but they were aliens and strangers.

You see, when they were in their land, the nation of Israel existed as a theocracy, meaning that God was their ultimate ruler, and so the culture of their worship and the rest of their culture fit together perfectly under the Law of God (at least in theory!). Now, however, the Hebrews found themselves in a cultural situation that was hostile to their religion and pure worship.

Two of the most well-known stories from the Old Testament are specifically meant to highlight how difficult it was for the Hebrews to worship God as he had commanded in such a pagan setting. These are among the first stories children learn from the Old Testament—Daniel and the Lion’s Den and the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace. In both cases, the matter in view is whether or not God’s people in exile will worship him as he commanded or whether they will give into the pressure of their pagan captors and bow to false gods. And in both cases, it is the vast minority that actually follow God’s commands; as far as we know, most of the nation forsake the true worship of God. They forget Jerusalem; they forget the Temple; these are just another way of saying, they forget the true God.

Yet this is what the psalmist wishes not to do—he does not want to forget God, he does not want to forget Jerusalem, the place of God’s worship. He says that if he forgets the true worship of God, then may it be that he loses his skill to play the lyre or to sing, for he does not want to use these skills except in the praise of Yahweh.

This is the setting for Psalm 137. How can we worship God when we are so far from his place of worship? How can we worship God when we are exiles in a land that is hostile to his worship? How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Next week, we’ll consider how all of this might be relevant for Christians living in the twenty-first century.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.