With the exception of Ezekiel, and possibly Daniel, Asaph give the most complete description of Jewish captivity in Babylon.
After King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem (January 15, 588 BC). About 2 ½ years later, King Zedekiah and his army broke through the Jerusalem wall near the king’s garden and fled the city. Nebuchadnezzar pursued and captured Zedekiah.. Zedekiah was taken to Babylon and killed.
On August 14, 586 B.C., the Babylonians set fire to the temple, royal palace, and every important building in Jerusalem. The walls of Jerusalem were broken down. People who remained in Jerusalem were taken as captives into Babylon with the exception of the poorest people who were left to tend the vineyards and fields. Most Jewish captives were treated as slaves or servants in Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:20).
In Psalm 137 Asaph described the life of men as slaves in Babylonian captivity. The first stanza (first 3 verses) revealed that the captives lived near and/or worked to build canals that connected rivers and provided crop irrigation around Babylon. The captives were wretched; at times they could do nothing but sit and weep for their lost freedom and land.
Verse 2 recorded that Asaph and other Jewish captives hung their harps, used to accompany songs to God, on willow trees. Probably the men did not technically hang their valued musical instruments on willow tree branches. More likely, they set them aside or as we say today, “put them on a back shelf,” having no heart to play or sing. To further add to the Asaph’s agony, their Babylonian captors demanded the Jewish play harps and sing songs of joy about Zion. The Babylonians wanted the captives to entertain them!
The focus of Stanza 2 (verses 4 – 6) is repentance. It begins with Asaph asking how the captive Jewish men can sing God’s songs in a foreign land. In his mind, songs should praise God and reverberate through the Temple and Jerusalem, not be sung for the entertainment of a heathen people. Asaph takes a curse on himself if he forgets Jerusalem: may his right hand – the hand used to play the harp – lose its skill (become numb) if he forgets Jerusalem. Verse 6 avers: may other captives tongues cling to the roof of their mouth – never sing – if they don’t remember and consider Jerusalem their highest joy.
Stanza 3 (verses 7-9) is a petition for God to punish the Edomites and the Babylonians. The Edomonites were off-spring of Esau who was Jacob’s (Israel) twin brother. Yet, the Edomites encouraged the Babylonians when they destroyed Jerusalem. The Babylonians embraced their conquest of Jerusalem with gleeful brutality that included taking Jewish babies from the arms of Jewish mothers and beating their heads against walls and trees.
Reflection: We just came back from a visit to a large city. It is our custom to pray before meals; but I felt uncomfortable bowing my head and praying in some of restaurants we ate in. Have you ever been anywhere that seems uncomfortable, antithetical, to worship of God?
Copyright September 3, 2014, Carolyn A. Roth