Singing The Songs Of Zion In Babylon

Several weeks ago my pastor, Chris Gordon, reflected briefly in his morning sermon on Psalm 137. I have been meditating on it since. The theme of the believer’s exile in this world is frequently sounded in Scripture. Abraham was a pilgrim, who was looking for a city, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10). The same was true of all the other believers in the Old and New Testaments. Our Lord Jesus did not come to build an earthly kingdom. Had he intended to do so, he would have called down legions of angels to defeat his enemies (Matt 26:53) but he did not because his agenda did not include setting up an earthly, this-worldly kingdom. He did authorize representatives of his kingdom, the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of heaven. The apostles were those representatives and they established embassies, congregations of Christ’s church. He established ministers, elders, and deacons to preach the Word, to oversee discipline, and to minister to the practical needs of the citizens of Christ’s kingdom. They did that, however, as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11).

Israel In Exile

The Psalmist, in Psalms 137, laments his pilgrim status and helps us to understand what it means to live between the accomplishment of salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ and its gracious and sovereign application in this life by the Holy Spirit, in the church, and the consummation of all things. Jerusalem fell to Edom, Esau’s descendants, in 586 B.C. The Israelites were carried away to Babylon because of their infidelity to the Lord. The Babylonians mocked the Jews and their God and thus the Psalmist laments.

How Shall We Sing the LORD‘s Song? 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? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (ESV)

It is a powerful song but not the kind of songs that we typically hear today in church. Typically the songs sung in most evangelical congregations today are upbeat, uplifting, and therapeutic. This is a brutally honest song. It is a sad song. It is a compelling song. It is a song that looks backward to those days when God’s church was in the promised land, gathering in the temple, singing the songs that God had inspired by his Spirit (i.e., Psalms thus far given). It also looks back to the destruction of Jerusalem. The sadness is almost palpable.

It is a present song. It reflects on the humiliation of the Jews and upon their frustration. How to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land indeed? Their captors mocked God’s people. They taunted them by demanding that they sing the songs celebrating God’s salvation. Doubtless they mocked them for trusting in the Lord: “Where is your God now, Jew? Sing louder, maybe he cannot hear you?”

It is present in another sense. Despite his circumstances, he pledges faithfulness to the God whom he knew to be faithful. To seal his pledge he invokes judgment upon himself if he forgets the City of David and God’s faithfulness.

It is also a forward-looking song but not in the way we might expect. It looks forward to judgment. There is what scholars call an “imprecation.” He calls for the destruction of God’s enemies, of the Edomites who had taken God’s people captive, who mocked God and his people.

Singing The Songs Of Zion

Zion is a powerful and important word in Scripture. It has multiple senses, but two of the most important are to refer to the mountain upon which God met with his people in the Old Testament and to the ultimate meeting place with God, the heavenly Zion, to which Hebrews 12 refers:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18–24; ESV)

The writer to the Hebrews was reflecting on how we, in the New Covenant, sing the songs of Zion as we wait for the new heavens and the new earth. We have not come to Sinai but to Zion. The former was frightening but it is nothing compared to the the New Covenant reality. We have come not to Sinai but to “the city of the living God.” We have come to angels, to the heavenly church, and to Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord, the songs of Zion, in a foreign land? We do so recognizing that we are in a foreign land. This is the Lord’s earth but it is not our home. There is no glory age promised in this world but there is a glorious home and there is a coming judgment, and there is coming consummation of the new heavens and the new earth. We sing them because we are exiles and pilgrims. We sing them in hope.

Now is not the time for judgment. Now is the time to announce the coming judgment and the free salvation available now to all whom the Lord gives new life and true faith. The judgment is coming but it is not here. We should be careful about identifying Edomites but we should know that the coming judgment is part of Paul’s gospel: “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom 2:16; ESV).

When the skeptics mock, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet 3:4; ESV), we have an answer. It is to point them to the past and to remind them they are not the first to scoff:

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:5–7; ESV).

The flood came and took away all the scoffers and so will it be when the Son of Man comes. Until then, like Noah, we call all to turn and to trust the Savior. When they call us to sing the songs of Zion, we do so joyfully, to give witness to the truth of salvation and judgment, even as we know that we are waiting for Zion.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    “Until then, like Noah, we call all to turn and to trust the Savior. When they call us to sing the songs of Zion, we do so joyfully, to give witness to the truth of salvation and judgment, even as we know that we are waiting for Zion.”

    Is there any evidence that Noah was ‘singing joyfully’ as he built the ark for 125 years?
    Do we ‘sing joyfully’ knowing that judgment is coming?
    What about with Christians who suffer greatly in this fallen world, do we ‘sing joyfully’ to them?

    It seems I am disconnected from this ‘singing joyfully’ call; it sounds superficial and feels like salt in an open wound.

    I relate more to ‘On The Willows There’, lamenting the suffering we have in the fallen world and calling out to God for vengeance on those who hate Him.

    • Catherine,

      There is a time to lament and perhaps this is one of those but we sing as those who have been redeemed. The Messiah has come. Babylon has been defeated. The King is coming and with him righteousness. Lament but we’re not looking back to a lost earthly temple but to the King on his cross, who died for us, to an empty tomb, because he was raised for our justification. So our lament is always mixed with joy.

  2. I can’t help thinking of Paul and Silas singing psalms of praise in the innermost dungeon of the Philippian jail in Acts 16:25-33. I wondered about verses 27 and 28; why the other prisoners did not take the opportunity to escape. Surely it was because the presence of the Lord had descended on that place as they sang and worshipped, and they were drawn to know more of the Lord who could inspire praise in the midst of humiliating suffering ! Luke makes a point that “the prisoners were listening. Praise be to God!

  3. Much better use of this Psalm than that done by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong who used it to justify abandoning the faith.

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