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Looking through Psalm 137, Stanza 1: Worship in a Pagan Culture

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series

"God's People in Exile"

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In our study of Psalm 137 over the past several weeks, we have looked at the historical context of the psalm, the analogical relationships between the psalm and the present status of Christians, and what this psalm does aesthetically. We have seen that as pilgrims and exiles in this present world, Christians today have much to learn from this psalm of despair from God’s people in exile.

And so this is why, as God’s people in exile reading a psalm about another people of God in exile, we need to go beyond simply looking at what this psalm says; we need to look through this psalm. We need to consider our experience today as God’s people in exile through the lens of this God-centered, God-inspired interpretation of the experience of literally being in exile.

So what I would like to do is to walk through each of the three stanzas of this psalm. As we do, allow the poetry to inform you as to how you should feel as one of God’s people seeking to worship him in exile.

Let us begin with stanza 1, verses 1–4:

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Here we are, God’s people gathering together to worship him. We gather for worship, but we do so, not in Zion, not in his holy Temple, but in a foreign land. We are citizens of another place—our home is in heaven with God. But in the providence of God, we are here in exile.

The ruler of this land hates our God. The people of this land hate our God. In fact, they mock us when they see how we live and how we act. We don’t participate in their idol worship; we don’t participate in their immoral behavior. And for this we are mocked; we are scorned; we are condemned as intolerant and unloving; sometimes even our lives are threatened.

And yet some of our own people are being tempted to give in under the pressure of such scorn. The command goes out to bow down to the idolatrous values of this age, and some of our own people, people who claim to be worshipers of the true God, for fear of being mocked or perhaps in fear of their lives, some of our own people crumble under pressure and bow down just like all the pagans. And here are we few who have not yet bowed, who have not yet given in.

What can we do but weep? How can we worship God in such a situation? How can we worship him when we aren’t in his holy city, and many of our own people have begun to worship the god of this age? They have forgotten Jerusalem; they have forgotten God.

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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.