Ezra 4-6, Psalm 137: Sad Songs

Psalm 137 asks the question, “Why should I sing songs of joy in sadness?”

The context of Psalm 137 is the Babylonian exile. The people of Israel are cut off from their home, Jerusalem is destroyed, and the temple has been torn down. These are dark days. Out of these dark days came this 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!

The people of God were asked to sing the joyful songs of God, but they would not. They were in mourning. They were deeply distressed by their predicament and downcast in their souls. They did not sing “The Lord’s Song”. They sang this song, a song filled with turmoil over the loss of Jerusalem, a song that honors their past and finds its meaning through remembrance.

Does this Psalm, which is divine Scripture, contradict 1 Thessalonians 5:16 (“rejoice always”)? Are these people just being gloomy? Are they forgetting that God calls all of us to rejoice in the midst of trials?

No. They are exhibiting the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes “there is a time for mourning.”

Rejoicing always does not mean being happy all the time, it means being continually filled with the joy of the Lord.

The Israelites hit it on the head:

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!

They had joy, it was found in the city of their God, and in God Himself, and to sing cheaply of salvation and comfort in the midst of affliction is dishonoring to deep and lasting joy. God calls us to find our joy in Him in all things. In hurts and pains. In affliction and persecution. in loss and distress.

This means that sometimes, we will sing sad songs. But these songs are not without joy, they point to true joy, the joy that remains unshaken in the darkness. This is the joy of the Lord, it is our strength.

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