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Sermon, August 30, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church

Sojourners
Sermon Series: 
Psalms 137-138
John 15:12-27
Date: 
Sunday, August 30, 2020

Psalms 137 and 138

Sojourners

We continue our study of individual psalms, and today we’re going to look at another pair of psalms, psalms 137 and 138. For the last two weeks we looked at a pair of psalms, 42 and 43, and we paired those up because they were so similar, in fact, sometimes they were written down as a single psalm. Well today the two that we will consider are wildly different. They are completely unlike each other in tone, in mood, and the emotional situation of the writers are miles apart.

One of the psalms is written out of an intense sadness and grief, without context it even sounds vengeful, and the other is overflowing with joy and confidence. Like we’ve said before, the Psalms are full of the various seasons of the life of a Christian. They give us prayers that we can pray in all these situations. So why, if they are so different, are we looking at both of them today? But, we’ll see as we look at them that despite all of those differences, they have a very similar message, a similar moral of the story for us and how to live our lives. Because it is the life of a sojourner. Let’s read now these two psalms, Psalm 137 and 138. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.

137 By the waters of Babylon,

    there we sat down and wept,

    when we remembered Zion.

2 On the willows there

    we hung up our lyres.

3 For there our captors

    required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

 

4 How shall we sing the Lord's song

    in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

    let my right hand forget its skill!

6 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!

 

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites

    the day of Jerusalem,

how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,

    down to its foundations!”

8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,

    blessed shall he be who repays you

    with what you have done to us!

9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones

    and dashes them against the rock!

 

138 I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;

    before the gods I sing your praise;

2 I bow down toward your holy temple

    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,

    for you have exalted above all things

    your name and your word.

3 On the day I called, you answered me;

    my strength of soul you increased.

 

4 All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord,

    for they have heard the words of your mouth,

5 and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord,

    for great is the glory of the Lord.

6 For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,

    but the haughty he knows from afar.

 

7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble,

    you preserve my life;

you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,

    and your right hand delivers me.

8 The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;

    your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.

    Do not forsake the work of your hands.
 

The Word of the Lord.

A friend of mine from college who is now a pastor once remarked that perhaps our hymnal is too happy. He made that comment noting the overall difference between the Psalms, which in so many ways is the hymnal that God gave to us, that he provided for us, and what we typically find in our hymnal. If we take the Psalms together—we’ve seen many different kinds—there is a mixture of overwhelming praise and ebullience, like we see here in Psalm 138, but there is also a significant portion of the Psalter that feels a lot more like Psalm 137, or even Psalm 42 and 43 like we looked at the last two weeks. So his comment was that when our collected songs in a hymnal don’t include much if any of that kind of text—the more pained and grieved ones—we may not be singing our way through the entire Christian experience, that we’re missing something.

There’s a lot more that could be said about that, and I’m not sure I agree that we need to intentionally write a huge pile of hymns that sound more like this first psalm than the second, but it is true that the Psalms do feel a little different than our hymnal. Since we have been singing Psalms in our liturgy for the last several years, perhaps you double-take every once in awhile when we sing one that pronounces a judgement on someone. We call them “imprecatory” psalms, these ones that feature a curse or judgement on something, usually some nation. And I will admit that I can’t think of any in our hymnal that feature a similar tone. It might be hard to find similar sentiment paging through our hymnal. Maybe the final verse of “Rejoice the Lord is King,” where it says “our Lord the Judge shall come,” but that’s about as close as we get.

I would suggest that perhaps it is appropriate for our hymnal to be balanced toward joy because the hymns in it, unlike the Psalms, were written not before but after Christ. We serve a triumphant Savior who we have seen, who has conquered death, and who has delivered us even more promises beyond those that we find in the Old Testament prophets. We have a clearer picture of salvation and the future than the writers of the Psalms did.

However, I think there may be some truth to what my friend’s comment implied, that we may be not be singing much about a real part of the human experience, of the Christian’s experience, if we don’t live in these kinds of songs, songs and prayers that God has specifically gifted to us. And it’s not a small number—of the 150, there are about 20 that are usually put in this category, with Psalms 69 and 109 at the top of the list.

So what might we be missing? Let’s look closely at Psalm 137 and see what it is expressing and how that relates to our own experience here and now. It begins with a desperately sad scene.

137 By the waters of Babylon,

    there we sat down and wept,

    when we remembered Zion.

2 On the willows there

    we hung up our lyres.

3 For there our captors

    required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

 

This is a recording of history. The final defeat of Judah, the fall of Jerusalem, and the exile of the people of Judah to Babylon. I don’t know if you’ve seen or had one, but there are bibles that have been published that arrange the texts chronologically, jumping from book to book, chapter to chapter so that all of the time-related things in Scripture are next to each other. If you’re interested, there are bible reading plans available that do the same thing. And that would be a little helpful here so we could get the proper context for this psalm. In a way, this psalm is the record of the emotions of the people of Judah during the events described at the very end of 2 Kings, the very end of 2 Chronicles, and during the end of the time of Jeremiah’s prophecy.  

The Psalm shows the Babylonian captors dragging the Judeans away from their homes, away from Jerusalem, and bringing them all the way to Babylon—if they made it to the rivers of Babylon, as it says, they’re speaking of the Tigris and Euphrates, so they’ve traveled already well into the land of Babylon. And they’ve been weeping the whole journey. And their captors are mocking them, saying “go on, sing us a song! Sing us a song of your God, the one we just defeated!” And so the people hang up their lyres in the trees as they ask in desperation, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

What did they just witness? What happened in Judah before this march into exile? It’s recorded for us here in 2 Kings 25:

And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem and laid siege to it. And they built siegeworks all around it. 2 So the city was besieged till the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.

That’s the city of Jerusalem, under siege for well over a year!

 3 On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. 4 Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king's garden, and the Chaldeans were around the city. And they went in the direction of the Arabah. 5 But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him. 6 Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and they passed sentence on him. 7 They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon.

So first the Judeans, literally starving, survive a breach in the city wall, the army goes out of the city and is overtaken and scattered, and their king, Zedekiah, his entire family is slaughtered in front of him and he is blinded. Then, a month later:

8 In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. 9 And he burned the house of the Lord and the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. 10 And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. 11 And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. 12 But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen.

The same event recorded in 2 Chronicles 36 shows even more of the brutality of the Babylonians when they came and finally destroyed Jerusalem, in verse 17:

17 Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand. 18 And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. 19 And they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its palaces with fire and destroyed all its precious vessels. 20 He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword.

And all of this was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah. So when we see the imprecation here at the end of Psalm 137, it takes on even more meaning. Starved, destroyed, shown no mercy, and they say at the end of the psalm:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,

    blessed shall he be who repays you

    with what you have done to us!

9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones

         and dashes them against the rock!

That closing is perhaps the harshest curse we hear, that the infants of the Babylonians would also be destroyed, and there is plenty of evidence that that is precisely what they had just done to the Judeans, they are asking for a repayment of exactly the same. Such were the horrors of ancient warfare.

So these are the people requiring of them a song. Surely they were weeping all the way from Jerusalem to Babylon. But for all of the personal and physical pain that each of these Judeans must have felt individually, the pain that is expressed in the psalm is corporate, not individual, and we can learn from what they are most mournful about in the psalm that they sing. What is it? They say

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

    let my right hand forget its skill!

6 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!


What the Judeans are weeping for most, what pains them in this psalm more than anything else, what they say is their highest joy, is Jerusalem. Not because Jerusalem was a great city that is now destroyed, not because of the physical things that it represented, but because there, in the temple, was where God dwelt among his people. That is what they were mourning. The temple destroyed, the holy things taken away. If I forget Jerusalem, if I forget the joy of God dwelling with his nation, his people, then there is no purpose to my songs, the psalmist says. Let my right hand forget how to play. Let my tongue stop working. Weep over a loss of fellowship with God.

That brings up the question, what is Old Testament Jerusalem? Just like many things, especially people that we read about, they are a shadow of things to come. In the Old Testament we read of many flawed people, but many are seen as a type of Christ. There is a specific study in theology called typology where we see Christ pre-figured, albeit incompletely and with flaws, in the heroes of the Old Testament. We see Christ in these people. Similarly, in the nation of Israel, the holy city of Jerusalem pre-figures the coming of the New Jerusalem, the perfect Jerusalem coming down from heaven in Revelation 21, at the end of all things. Jerusalem was where God lived with his chosen people in the Old Testament, and the New Jerusalem is where God will live with his people at the end. So when the people weep over the destruction of Jerusalem in this Psalm, they are mourning a separation from God, an exile from their home, their home with God.

There are others that are currently exiled from their home with God. This room is full of such people, is it not? The Hebrews, exiled in Babylon, knew from the prophet Jeremiah that the exile would last 70 years, until Jerusalem, until the land had had, as we read in 2 Chronicles, its Sabbath rest. The land was to lay desolate for a Sabbath, and that would be 70 years.

We too are currently in exile. We are in the world, but not of the world. Our true home lies elsewhere, and in the future, does it not? We live here, but we are citizens of heaven already. We’ve been taken out of the world, but we’re still in the world. This is Babylon. We addressed this before when we were studying Philippians last year—the big question we asked during that study was, “What does it look like to live like a heaven-citizen while we’re still here?” That was the big question, that was what Paul was instructing the Philippians about, as he did in so many other letters as well. We are currently the chosen ones scattered throughout the world, waiting for our true home to arrive, amen!

Just as Judah and Israel were scattered in foreign lands during their exile, and kept away from their homes, so too are we scattered throughout this foreign land. That image of being scattered, that word is used all the time in scripture to describe our condition, our situation as God’s people. We are scattered and exiled in Babylon, waiting to go home.

So we are to feel a longing to go home, are we not? This is the anguish expressed in Psalm 137, that deep longing to once again see the holy city of God rebuilt. But this is where Psalm 138 comes in. Where Psalm 137 is expressing grief, Psalm 138 looks forward to the end of that process, when all will be restored and renewed. David, in Psalm 138 is answering a lot of the questions brought up by Psalm 137. I don’t think it’s any accident that that 138 follows 137 in the Psalter, even though 138 was written about 400 years earlier! Psalm 138 shows us a Christ-follower, David, looking at the same situation, that of expectantly waiting for all of those great things to come, but recognizing that he is still, as he says in verse 7, “in the midst of trouble.”

David is waiting, reveling in the promises of the things to come. And from his standpoint, he doesn’t have nearly as clear a picture of God’s promises as we do, but this is how sure he is of the goodness of the God that he serves, hear it again:

138 I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;

    before the gods I sing your praise;

 (and by gods there, he means those with earthly authority granted to them by God)

2 I bow down toward your holy temple

    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,

(there’s another reference to the chesed of God, his love that endures)

    for you have exalted above all things

    your name and your word.

3 On the day I called, you answered me;

    my strength of soul you increased.

 

4 All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord,

    for they have heard the words of your mouth,

5 and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord,

    for great is the glory of the Lord.

 

Fear not, those of you in Psalm 137, because you can look forward and see this. You can rest in the fact that you have a God that keeps his promises, and he has great things in store for you. In verse 4 he says that “all the kings of the earth shall give you thanks,” he’s looking forward to when God’s glory will be fully manifest in the earth, and no one will be able to deny the awesomeness of God. Every knee will bow, every tongue will one day confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s comforting, for sure! But this is us. We are living in Psalm 137, but we’re also living in Psalm 138. Like I said, we are exiles, and there are seasons of our lives where we feel our status as a sojourner, as a foreigner in this world more acutely than others. When I feel our American culture pressing in on me more and more and more with each new abandonment of truth, I’m feeling Psalm 137, I really feel like a wandering exile. Which is why Psalm 138 is there, because even though we are scattered, even though we are persecuted, there is a world of promises waiting for us that have been given to us by a God who has chesed, steadfast, unfailing love for us.

So as Psalm 137 ends with a violent picture of the coming judgement of Christ on Babylon, and it is coming, Psalm 138 ends with a great encouragement, verse 7:

7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble,

    you preserve my life;

you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,

    and your right hand delivers me.

8 The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;

    your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.


Though we walk through Babylon, he preserves us, and he will prevail against our enemies and deliver us, and he will fulfill his purposes in us. And one day, he will bring us, his sojourners, his scattered sheep, he will bring us to our true home. 

Jeremiah is the one who delivered the awful message to Judah that they would be carried off, that Jerusalem would be destroyed, and they would face this trial as a nation. But after 28 chapters of nothing but bad news for Judah, that Jeremiah had delivered to the last kings of Judah, the Spirit inspired Jeremiah to write a letter to the exiled people in Babylon, and in it are the most comforting words in the entire book, including the one verse known so well and often taken sadly out of this context. Jeremiah was writing to the exiles, but through him God was writing to us as well. Jeremiah wrote to them, chapter 29:10:

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare[b] and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

And two chapters later, he says “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.”

Good news, God wins. The end of the story is written. We will not be in exile forever. We can pray Psalm 138 with boldness knowing that we serve a God who has chosen a people to be sojourners here, a people to whom he will be faithful. If this is not your story, if you’ve never known the comfort of the risen Savior Jesus Christ who is calling you to join his family, to be in the flock of the great shepherd, repent and believe. Because the great day is coming. The creation lies in wait for the final redemption of Jesus Christ, just like the land of Jerusalem laid waiting for 70 years in its Sabbath. But at the end of the exile, we will not simply be rebuild a city, a Jerusalem, like the Israelites did. No, he’s promised a new one.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

So don’t hang your harps in the willows. Pick them up and lift a joyful song to praise your Great and ever-faithful God, because when he finally gathers his sheep, his flock, from throughout all time and within all nations, he says that:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

Amen. Let’s pray.

Dear Heavenly Father,

When the world looks to us to be out of control, when we feel more like exiles than like citizens of heaven, send us the peace that passes all understanding. Send us peace as we lift our voices to praise you, sustain us with your Word and Spirit as we journey through this foreign land. And we await, not with grief but with joy, the day that you have appointed to bring us home, through the work of your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose mighty name we pray, amen.

 

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