It is straightforward to see when the psalm was composed. At some stage during the captivity in Babylon a psalmist wrote a sad song for his people to use. Clearly, it was a difficult period to live through if one was a believer in God. The cause of God had been crushed by Babylon, a seemingly unstoppable enemy, and God’s people, instead of being conquerors, were captives. What does a believer do in such a time? He sings a lament to God.
The waters of Babylon were the streams connected to the great rivers Euphrates and Tigris. Some of the streams were redirected as canals to provide places of rest and refreshment for the inhabitants as well as providing water for agriculture and industry. Yet it is obvious that was not why the psalmist and his friends gathered together in those locations. His words give the impression that the seeming omnipresence of the waters reminded them of the great dominance possessed by Babylon. But the achievements of Babylon brought no admiration from their hearts. Instead they remembered another city and as they did so they wept.
The other city was Zion, but what kind of tears did they shed? Were they merely the tears of a Jewish nationalist who was devastated because his people no longer lived in their own land? Or did their tears indicate that something more important was taking place within them? After all, why were they now suffering in Babylon? They were captives in Babylon and away from Zion because they as a people had departed spiritually from God. Their physical exile was caused by their willing departure from God, of their giving their hearts to all kinds of idols. So now they had tears of regret, but it was the kind of regret that accompanies repentance. Living in exile was a good place to reflect on how one arrived there, because it led to repentance.
Life was hard in Babylon for those who wanted to serve God. One difficult aspect was the ongoing taunts of their captors who wanted to be amused by hearing a song of Zion? They had no interest in worshipping the God mentioned in those songs. So the exiles refused to sing them in such a manner. It was an act of corporate courage to hang their harps on the willows. Strangely, those exiles remind us that courage is also seen in what we do not do as well as in what we do.
I doubt if they were suggesting they should never sing during the exile. But maybe they realised the inappropriateness of singing now about what had happened at the temple before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. After all, no sacrifices were offered in Jerusalem during those long years. Whether they sang or not, we should be thankful that we don’t face such a predicament because the remedy for our sins remains constant even when the church is on the sidelines. Yet when we sing, perhaps we should check to see if our words are accompanying a bad memory and wrong priorities. Because it is possible to sing the right words in such a manner that reveals we actually are quite happy to be where we are.
It is almost absurd to imagine that those Israelites crying at the riverside were a threat to the mighty power of Babylon. But they were, and the reason why they were was because they prayed for complete vindication and deliverance. If those requests about Edom and Babylon were only cries of revenge, then we could suggest that the Jews had overstepped the mark. But their requests were linked to prophecies that God had given elsewhere about the complete destruction of Edom and Babylon.
Difficult though the closing verse is to understand, we should not miss the point that the greatest threat to the dominant evil power came from those who prayed for its demise. Their petitions, which were based on what God had predicted would happen, were instrumental in bringing about a global change. Here in this unusual song, which recommends not singing at certain times, we see a group of despised people who were world changers. And in that are they not a great challenge to us to be the same as them?