Painful Memories – Worship When It’s Hard

Psalm 137

Most people in right mind don’t volunteer to experience pain. Some will for shock value, to impress friends, but usually is short-term event. The long-term life situation kinds of pain are ones most often try to avoid. Especially ones that are emotionally or spiritually painful. People do number of things to try and deal with the pain – much of time things that really are not appropriate… helpful…. or successful. Can be particularly challenging when painful circumstances are somehow connected with worship – knocking the scab off wound just starting to heal, time after time. Can lead to individual avoiding worship or those closely connected with it in hopes pain will subside. Can also contribute to less than healthy attitude toward worship and other worshipers.

Specific author unnamed and unknown; however, written from perspective of one who experienced life and worship in Jerusalem and exile in Babylon. One of broadest ranging psalms, spanning emotional range from profound sadness to righteous anger. Is next to last of imprecatory psalms, prayer for judgment on evildoers. And a pretty graphic prayer, too! Makes this psalm one of the most difficult ones to process, difficult enough that v.9 left out of some Psalters.

Perhaps written during period following Belshazzar’s defeat by Cyrus and first group of Jews returned to Jerusalem in 536 BC and rebuilding of temple in 516 BC. Psalm looks in both directions, back to time of exile and forward to time of retribution. Poet deals with topics of pain, promise and payback, all of which leave us with a problem.

A. pain v.1-4

memories in exile, memories of exile

were genuinely hard years for those who remembered Zion, the Holy City, before Babylonian army destroyed it – breaching wall in numerous places, burning the wooden doors in the gates, removing every last shred of value from Temple and treasury

returning to Jerusalem not easy, daily confronted with reminders of all that had been lost… and who was responsible for it.. and that prompted memories of life in Babylon

Jews in exile didn’t have to deal with same kinds of hardship as in Egypt 900 years earlier, but life wasn’t easy either – remember stories, circumstances of Esther and Daniel

then there were people who tried to make them remember: sing a song from the old country! sing us some of your music

music has great evocative power – sticks in our minds, brings things to mind – songs from old country inseparable from memories associated with old country

additional association here: “songs of Zion” equals “the Lord’s song” – wasn’t just the folk songs, popular music of the day… was church music being requested

ouch! powerful reminder that not only could they not worship according to conscience because of geography, they couldn’t even if in Jerusalem… no Temple, no altar, no certainty of God’s presence

pain of separation and destruction

hard for us to really relate to Jews in exile: they were people of the land, with ties to particular piece of land, accustomed to worshiping in one special place

we are highly mobile society, moving not only place to place but between countries, worshiping wherever is most convenient

they had been forcibly separated from place of their roots, prevented from worshiping in God’s presence (so they thought), even if they could go back, they couldn’t go back – would never be another Solomon’s Temple

pain of faltering hope

when were forced into exile, had good intentions – planned to carry on traditions including regular worship along with singing – took their harps with them

when came time to actually sing worship music, couldn’t do it – simply too painful to sing that music in a foreign land

seems more from lack of ability and hope and courage they hung up instruments… not because they lacked the desire to please God

certainly had no obvious guarantees they would ever experience presence of God again as they had before, and if they did, could they enjoy it or would it be too difficult and painful?

couldn’t sacrifice, couldn’t bring themselves to praise God because of their circumstances – was really an important piece of exile experience

if they could just carry on, what value then their exile? God made his point loud and clear: Jews, who had played with idolatry for a millennium never went back to their old gods after the exile!

pain and separation and failing hope helped cement in their minds just how important what they lost really was – took it for granted while they had it, different perspective when had to do without it

side note: Jewish exiles got something that is missing in our entertainment culture – music that is suitable for worship not suitable for entertaining unbelievers

“How tragic it is today when music stars use “Amazing Grace” or “The Lord’s Prayer” to entertain pagan crowds that know neither the Lord nor His grace.” Wiersbe

also grasped something else: denial doesn’t make pain go away or easier to deal with; need to face it head-on, work through it with God’s help, allow time and Jesus to heal broken heart

B. promise v.5-6

never would they forget the Holy City

memories fade if not kept alive – at least have to keep revisiting the memory to keep fresh; works lots better to revisit the place

if written by one of former exiles who had returned to Jerusalem, his meaning could be: if I ever forget how important you and all you represent are, may my right hand forget what to do

iow, right hand = means of support, doing his job, perhaps necessary for service in church – can’t play lyre w/one hand

only takes one “snow day” to be reminded how central regular worship of God is to life of believer; is only true when worship is regular

take my life if I don’t put the Church first

important to recognize psalmist not talking simply about city plundered by Babylonians – has in view what it stands for, in particular the central place of worship and God’s residence

was making strong commitment to keeping God central in life and worship as the thing at top of list that never gets bumped

think about things that give you joy, especially what gives you most or highest joy – that must be in second place behind God and regular exercise of religious duties

if tongue sticks to roof of mouth, nearly impossible to speak or eat – means life not worth living if Jerusalem/the Church is not chief joy, in first place

“Never let us find jests in the words of Scripture, or make amusement out of holy things, lest we be guilty of forgetting the Lord and his cause. It is to be feared that many tongues have lost all power to charm the congregations of the saints because they have forgotten the gospel, and God has forgotten them.” CHS

C. payback v.7-9

prayer for God to deal with evil and evildoers

Edomites should have been friends with Jews – were cousins, after all, descended from Esau; instead treated Jews shamefully

in latest altercation, Edom had conspired with Babylon in Judah’s overthrow, encouraged Babylonians to completely destroy Jerusalem

Babylon was God’s instrument used to discipline the Jews but… in conquest of Jerusalem they went over the top in brutality

two things to remember

enemies of God’s people are enemies of God – true of Jews in psalmist’s day, true of God’s people regardless of ethnicity always

those who are enemies of Christ’s church are enemies of Christ – take on Christ’s people, would take out hostility on him if they could reach

prayer is for God to take action, not asking for permission to deal with enemies personally – God used agents, the Medo-Persians, but was God still in charge

the righteous will rejoice at triumph over evil

Bible makes it plain that God will judge evildoers, and righteous should rejoice when God keeps his promises

is important for God’s people to get upset at injustice and evil, to give thanks when righteousness prevails

let’s put into modern context: WWII, both Germans and Japanese carried out great atrocities against Jews and others; great rejoicing on VE Day, VJ Day – why? great evil and injustice was brought to an end

D. problem

how should we respond to the way God addresses evil?

with mixed emotions – is tension that exists between joy and sadness: joy that evil doesn’t go unaddressed, sadness about the results

should always rejoice when evil is stopped, injustice is punished, wrongdoing and harm to others no longer tolerated

should always be sad when evildoers meet their ultimate condemnation, that nothing short of God’s judgment has desired effect

how should we pray for God to address evil?

we can safely follow psalmist’s example – pray for God to keep his promises as they are given in his word, trust him to do it in way that is righteous

God has promised to subdue his enemies, to overthrow evil and evildoers, to bring about full and final justice – is absolutely right to pray that he do that

how God chooses to subdue his enemies is up to him – he has two options open to him: judge and put them in prison, eternally; or… convert them from enemies to friends

our preference, especially when they are friends or family, that God would convert them; but… should not be disappointed if God chooses otherwise – remember, either way… in justice or in mercy… God will be glorified

Ultimately, regardless of personal circumstances, have cause to rejoice because… God is in charge, of all, and will have the last word.


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