Back to Sermon Index Page/
Back to Index Page
When the Heart Has Lost Its Song
An Expository Study of Psalm 137

by Robert L. Cobb
-Administrator, News For Christians Dot Com

1 ¶ By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2  We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3  For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4  How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?
5  If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6  If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 ¶ Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8  O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9  Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

This is the psalm of the backslider. It paints one of the saddest pictures in the Old Testament.  The children of Judah were taken captive by the Babylonians around 587 BC.  The prophets had warned them continually that God would judge their sins in this way.  Now it had happened.

The term "backslider" is used very often in our present day, but it is purely an Old Testament word.  The word itself is not used in the New Testament.  We speak of those who do not live according to the tenets of our faith as "backsliders."  The word, in scrip- ture,  is a word reserved for national Israel.  However, the backslidings of Israel reveal some basic principles that we can use in our lives today.

The Christian life is a life of the Spirit.  When we walk in the Spirit, our desires are spiritual.  When we fail to allow the Spirit to have pre-eminence in our lives, we begin on the journey of "backsliding."  The spiritual life is a life that brings a song to our hearts.  Even in opposition and trouble, the Spirit makes real a song in our hearts.  Only sin can steal that song.

Matthew Henry said, "What we love, we love to think of."  When the Judeans were safely in their homelands, they did not consider God and His principles very important.  Now, captive in Babylon, they weep with homesickness for their land and their old lives.  When the heart song is required from their captives, they find that they cannot "sing the Lord's song in a strange land."  Let us examine this psalm in an expository study, and see the parallels with the Christian life today.

I.    THE SAD REPROACH    v. 1-2

1.  A Meeting               ...we sat down...
2.  A Mourning              ...we wept...
3.  A Misery                 ...hanged our harps...

Babylon is known for it's rivers.  There are at least four major rivers that ran through the kingdom.  The rivers were their equivalent of our major highways.  They were places of transportation, commerce, and leisure. They were also places that much slave labor was required.  These Jews were probably near the places of their forced labor, maybe even resting from that labor.

They "sat down."  That is they purposefully assembled as a group. The Jewish slaves had a common heritage and common interests.  It is natural that they would congregate together.  They "wept," which carries with it a bewailing and a lamenting.  Their weeping was not the silent, private kind.  It was a grief that overcame them.  The verb is in the perfect mood, which tells us that they wept until they could weep no more.  They cried themselves "out."

They "remembered" Zion.  They remembered their past lives of freedom and happiness.  They had misused their freedom and disrespected God.  In the past, they did not honor the God of Zion, nor did they obey Him.  They took for granted the great blessings and benefits that Jehovah had bestowed upon them.

How much are we Christians guilty of the same?  We subconsciously feel entitled to God's blessings.  At the slightest hint of trouble or trials, we ask "why me?".  The farther we are from God, the more entitled of his mercy we feel.  The closer we are to God, the more unworthy and unfit we feel.

A transformation is in progress here.  The backslider was taking his place as the reproached sinner.  Memories of past blessings now overwhelm them and Zion seems very far away. 

The Jews were known as a joyous and happy people.  Their singing and worship style was unparalleled in the ancient world.  Their worship was real because their God was real.  The harps were instruments of worship in the temple services.  The intent was to worship God.  Their tears had revitalized their patriotism.  Someone began to play.  But there was no use.  It is impossible to worship God when you are out of His will.  God desired repentance, not worship.  Like the New Testament's prodigal son, the Jewish captives have come to emptiness and poverty of spirit.


1.   A Powerful Captor           ...they required of us a song...
2.   A Persecuting Demand       ...they required of us mirth....
3.   A Penetrating Question       ...how can we sing......

The reason that their sadness was so overwhelming was that they felt they were being maligned and mocked by their captors.  The Babylonians had seen their little gathering and seen the instruments.  A crowd gathered to hear the song that the Jews would sing.

It is unclear the intentions of the Babylonians.  We cannot tell by the wording if they were sincere in their desire to hear the songs of Zion or if they were mocking them.  It matters not.  God's intentions were being fulfilled by the request.  Suddenly the Jews felt far from home.  The sins that brought them to this place seem so foolish and silly now.

They that "wasted" them required "mirth," that is, merriment and gladness.  Songs of worship are not dark and foreboding.  They are happy and rejoicing.  The writer of the psalm takes special care to mention his captors in a negative light.  The Jews had not forgotten what the Babylonians had done to them and their land.  The scene here reminds on of Samson after his great fall grinding corn like an ox while the enemies of God laugh at his powerlessness.

In verse four we find a rhetorical question that is seemingly asked to nobody and everybody at once.  "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"  It is a question that has no answer.  In fact is is almost a statement in itself.  The book of Ephesians gives us the New Testament counterpart to this question. Chapter 5 and verse 18 tells us,"And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;" Verse 19 then tells us the results of such a filling.  "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;"

There can be no heart songs for the Christian who is living in the flesh.  He, like the Jewish captives, has forfeited his ability to sing on the altar of the world and the flesh.  I John tells us,"...if any man love the world, the love of the father is not in him."  They did not REFUSE to sing, they COULD NOT sing! See also John 15:18-21.



1.   A Promise             "If I forget thee..."
2.   A Preference           "If I do not remember..."
3.   A Pre-eminence         "...if I prefer not Jerusalem..."

In verses 5-6, the Jews are back home in their land.  This psalm is designed to remind them of the senselessness of their past captivity and the importance of true worship.  There are three great "ifs" in these verses that reveal the depth of feeling that these Jews shared.

"If I forget..." means to cease to care, or to ignore.  That is exactly the condition of heart that caused God to judge them.  They ignored and ceased to care about the things of God.  The temple worship was not important.  The idolaters, who had their places of sacrifices in the "high places," were of no concern to them before the captivity.  But now, the psalmist promises not to forget.  "Let my right had forget her cunning."  He means that he will lose the steadiness of his hand before he forgets Jerusalem again.  Steadiness of hand was imperative in a man's warring and working.  He would be useless without a steady hand.

"If I do not remember thee..."  means to consciously bring to remembrance.  It means to keep in remembrance as keeping a memorial.  This is a deeper promise than the first.  Not only does the psalmist promise not to forget, but now he promises to consciously remember the things of God.

"...if i prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy"  is a promise to keep God preeminent in his life.  Here we have the secret to a holy and spiritual life.  "Prefer" here means to ascend, to go up, to excel, to follow after.    The word "chief" means the choicest or the best. Do you see what he is saying?  The service of God will not be a drudgery or a boring exercise.  It will have his full attention in both mind and heart.

Dear Christian, what is your "chief joy?"  Is it a job, a hobby, a wife or child?  Is it even a ministry of some kind?  Our chief joy should be Christ Himself.


1.   A Remembrance       v. 7
2.   A Reward                v. 8
3.   A Restitution               v. 9

The liberal theologians and preachers have a hard time with these verses.  Religionists today want easy answers and nice, neatly wrapped, little nuggets of truth to dispense to their followers.  These verses do not allow for a universal brotherhood of man or an alternative salvation.

In verse seven, the children of Edom are considered.  They were the neighbors of the Jews.  The psalmist entreats God to remember their shouts of encouragement to the captors as they laid waste to the city.  The Judaeans expected no help from the Edomites, but were probably somewhat shocked when they turned into a Babylonian cheering section.  "Rase it, rase it," they said.  This means to "lay bare, to utterly destroy.

The children of Edom were the descendants of Esau.  They had a common heritage, but the Edomites had denied both God and God's people.  These Edomites correspond with the liberal and modernist today.  We have common ancestors, but the religious liberal refuses the God of the Bible.  They attempt to destroy the truths and principles that historic Christianity was built upon.

In verse eight, we see the Old Testament principle of "Do unto others as they have done unto you."  The "eye for an eye" principle.  This is not to be our attitude in our personal dealings today, but God will take vengeance on those who do harm to His children.

The "daughters of Babylon" correspond with today's world system.  Babylonians had nothing in common with the Judaeans in their worship.  They were idolaters who worshipped a variety of false gods, including their leader.  Our world system today is comparable.  There are no standards for most people today.  There is no "right" and "wrong."  Notice the psalmist says, "...who art to be destroyed..."  We need to keep in mind that this world "passeth away."

Verse nine is one of the most unsettling verses in the Bible.  It is actually a looking forward to a fulfilled prophecy.  Isaiah 13:16 says about Babylon, "Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished."   The Babylonians had done this to the little Jewish children and the sight of it had naturally horrified the Jews.  The Medes fulfilled this prophecy and did exactly what this verse says to the Babylonians.

There is a divine justice, a divine retribution with God.  In this day of compromise and "brotherhood," this message is not welcome with the average religionist.  We are not at home in this world, whether we realize it or not!  It is truly no friend of grace.

We live in a cold and cruel world.  It is natural for us to want to co-exist, to "get along."  But we are admonished, as Christians, to never take pleasure in the things of this world. 

A great Christian hymn says, "I have a song that Jesus gave me, it was sent from Heaven above; there never was a sweeter melody, Tis a melody of love."

And another equally great hymn says, "This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through; my treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue.  The angel beckons me, from heaven's open door; and I cant feel at home in this world anymore.

Take care that you do not lose your song!

Back to Index Page


E-Mail the Editor