Zion in Babylon: Reflections on Psalm 137

Zion in Babylon: Reflections on Psalm 137
Anna Vander Wall

 C.S. Lewis wrote a story called Till We Have Faces. In this story, there is one character who always fixes her gaze on the mountains, the place where the gods dwell. She longs to be there, especially when she is happiest and experiences the love of her friends. She tells her sister that, “It was when I was happiest that I longed most…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.”[1]

In the same way, every Christian longs for heaven. We have a sense in our daily lives that this life here is not our true home. Sometimes we know this most clearly when we are happiest because we catch glimpses of heaven in earthly joy. But this awareness that we’re made to be with Christ is even more powerful when things aren’t going right in our lives. When we’re unemployed for several months and just can’t find a job, when our parents are fighting or divorced, when things just don’t go as we plan, we know with certainty that this world is imperfect, and it is not what we were made for.  We feel this longing when we’ve hit rock bottom. It is the longing Adam and Eve felt when they were exiled from the Garden of Eden. It is the longing for paradise lost that echoes through every story we read and every movie we watch, and it is a loss we all feel every day.

This longing is embodied in Psalm 137. In my tradition, we pray Psalm 137 every year before Lent, a time when Christians pause to reflect on our true Heavenly homeland. Psalm 137 was written during Israel’s captivity in Babylon, and it is first and foremost a lament. It is a lament for the disobedience that led to Israel’s captivity in Babylon, the city of sin. It is a lament that the city of Zion, once so glorious and beautiful, has been taken away from the Israelites because they rejected God to pursue sinful passions. It is a lament for our sin and a plea for God’s help. It is, on a grand scale, an epic hymn for every Christian who longs for their true home. It is our song of sin, repentance, and salvation.

The very first verse reads:

          By the rivers of Babylon,
                 There we sat down, yea, we wept
                 When we remembered Zion
                                       (Ps 137:1 KJV)

Babylon is constantly referred to in the Bible as the city of sin,[2] whereas Zion is the place in which God dwells. Sinful rivers flow through the land of Babylon, while rivers of holy tears flow down the faces of the captives. The Israelites weep because they remember the sin that led them to enslavement in Babylon. They are captives to their own sin, and only when the promised land is taken away from them do they realize the true beauty of their home with God. This psalm expresses the sorrow we all feel because we live in a world of sin where we know we are not at home.

We too have glimpsed the joy of Zion, whether we have seen it in the beauty of the stars or in a church service or in a long-lasting friendship. And it is precisely because we have known the joy of Christ’s presence that we feel so estranged in the sinful city of Babylon. The psalm continues:

          We hung our harps
                 Upon the willows in the midst of it.
          For there, those who carried us away captive asked of us a song,
                 And those who plundered us requested mirth,
                 Saying, ”˜Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
                                                                                  (Ps 137:2-3)

Here the Babylonians invite the exiled Israelites to join in their sinful mirth and even taunt them to defile the holiness of Zion by exposing its beautiful songs to mockery.

And what is the psalmist’s reaction? He says,

          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!
          If I do not remember you,
                 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth””
                 If I do not exalt Jerusalem
                 Above my chief joy

The Israelites “hang their harps” because Babylon is not worthy to hear the joyful songs of Zion. All Babylon craves is sinful revelry, or what they call “mirth”. But Zion has true joy, that is, the joy of experiencing God’s presence. This true joy is something that quenches our every thirst, whereas the false pleasure of Babylon is only a mirage. Babylon promises water, but it never materializes. The psalmist recognizes the difference between true and false joy. He therefore says that he wants his right hand to forget its skill and his tongue to cling to the roof of his mouth if he forgets true joy. In other words, he wants to do nothing and to say nothing. Finding anything more pleasing than Zion would mean he has forgotten and betrayed his true home.

For us, too, everything in our lives that is estranged from Christ is Babylon. Anything we delight in more than Christ is an idol that cannot really satisfy us. Whenever we ignore Christ and chase after a fleeting pleasure, a fiery moment of passion, an opportunity to bask in our own glory, a chance to humiliate an adversary, we are choosing Babylon instead of Zion. But once the fleeting illusory joy of sin has faded, we find ourselves weeping by the murky, polluted waters of Babylon, longing for the pure, living waters of Zion. And this is where you and I are today, longing for our true home and lamenting the sin we find ourselves entrenched in.

Our song of lament sounds a lot like Homer’s Odyssey because it also is the story of a man trying to get home. He has been gone for several years fighting a war, and when it is finally time to go home, he realizes that he will have to fight his way through many temptations and hardships. Yet he always remembers that his home promises more joy than anything he will encounter on his travels, so he never gives up hope. At one point he has to sail past sirens. For those of you familiar with mythology, you know how nasty sirens can be. A siren is a seductive sort of femme-fatale that lures sailors to their deaths with enchanting music. This is rather unpleasant, but fortunately the hero of the story knows of the dangers sirens present beforehand. The sailors plug their ears and our hero ties himself the mast to resist the sirens’ bewitching music.[3]

Ulysses and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens

Now Israel’s situation in Babylon is just like this. The Babylonians promise pleasure to ease their captives’ pain, but the Israelites know now that these pleasures will destroy them. Remembering the joy that awaits them in Zion, they are holding out for a greater joy, a more perfect joy, an everlasting joy that reveals Babylon’s pleasures are merely passing shadows.

Dear to Christ, our Savior speaks a word to us today. We pray Psalm 137 today as a lament, a lament for our brokenness, a lament for our sin, a lament for our isolation and estrangement from God. But this lament is prayed with the hope that, however long we must toil in captivity, joy will come in the morning. The good news is that Christ, our joy, has come into this world.

The home that we long for today is not a piece of real estate, but our God Himself: Christ is our true home. And the good news of the gospel is that with His advent in our world comes the opportunity for His advent in our hearts. If we love Christ, home is always with us, and the more we love Him and make room for Him in our hearts, the closer we will be to home every day. Perhaps the most important paradox of Christianity is that, even while we are exiles in a world of sin, we can still carry a piece of home with us in our own hearts and this piece of home, Christ, expands to touch everyone around us.

Jesus heals the demoniac (Luke 8:26ff)

A perfect example of this living gospel is the demon-possessed man Jesus heals in Luke 8:26-39. This man was literally an exile. The demons that possessed him were so powerful that they drove him to exile among the tombs. Christ arrived and commanded the demons to depart, after which He Himself took up habitation in the man’s life instead. The man was so overjoyed at this new life that he begged Christ that he might go with Him. But Christ does not oblige. He commands him to return to his own house and tell his friends and family what great things God had done for him.

Dear to Christ, we also have dwelt among the tombs and have been counted among the dead. But Christ has raised us from our sloth and idleness, and with the Psalmist we have glimpsed His beauty and exalted Him   above our chief joy. Because we have known this joy, we may long to be home with Christ without toiling through this world of sorrow, but the good news is that Christ is already with us and is already alive in this world and in our hearts, and He commands us to remember the good things He has done for us and to share the beauty of that memory with a world that dwells in darkness. This darkness may never become fully light until Christ comes again and we rejoice with Him in heaven, but until then we can come closer to home every day by allowing Christ’s light to enter our hearts more fully. Like Odysseus, we are traveling out of exile, and while we are traveling, it is the remembrance of Christ’s beauty and our assured hope in Him that will bring us home. Christ is our joy. Christ is our home.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 74-5.

[2] Especially throughout Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

[3] Homer, The Odyssey, Book XII. Robert Fitzgerald, trans. (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2001).