Psalm 137 (Psalms on the Trail)

Psalm 137


“By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs….

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  

Psalm 137:1-3a,4

Tears are sometimes the only response we can muster to the shockingly unacceptable.  Weeping is sometimes the only sound that gives voice to wrenching loss. Never should one be forced to pretend things are going to be all right.  Therefore, to be honest with ourselves, we have no alternative but to hang up the harps and weep…for awhile.

There have  been many tears and much harp-hanging in the last months around the world.  Whether the Rio Grande, the Aegean Sea, or the banks of the Euphrates, whether mass shootings, mass migrations,  or genocide, there is no shortage of reasons to weep and hang up the harps.  Eventually though, new voices emerge, sometimes tinged with rage or curses.  (Check out the last verse of Psalm 137.)  Sometimes filling with  justice or courage or hope.  Sometimes it takes a generation or two for those new voices to find their footing.

The brightest and best of ancient Israel were forcibly marched (or died on the way) to Babylon. They hung up their harps there at the Euphrates and rightfully refused to sing…for awhile.  Eventually though, many of these captives took down their harps and began to sing again, and apparently this psalm is a result.  It’s now believed the people used the painful time of captivity to remember and assemble their beloved psalms, their stories, their prophets’ words into what we know as the Hebrew scriptures.  A new voice and a renewal of faith emerged in a foreign land.  They kept up the  singing when they returned home. Out of their descendants  Jesus of Nazareth was born.  Shaped by the very stories, psalms and prophets that had been brought back to the holy land, his own voice emerged and instigated a faith renewal, this time with an open invitation to the world—particularly those who know themselves to be captives (to whatever) and outcasts (of wherever).

He still teaches us how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.  And recently the foreign land seems to be the very culture surrounding us.  We may weep for a time with each new tragedy and injustice, but, oh, how our breaking societies need to hear our Lord’s song—peace, joy, love of neighbor, patience, generosity, hospitality and faithfulness—in the land we inhabit now!


1. Read the verses and reflect on their meaning for you.  When have your tears been wrenching?  What voice emerged out of those tears?  With what  voice does our Lord invite you to speak to the present broken world?

2. Or read Psalm 137 and see how these verses fits into the whole.

3. Or comment with a photo of your own that is a window of this psalm’s meaning for you.

The next post will be on Psalm 138.

Starting January 1, 2016, for 150 days I am posting a daily psalm verse with a photo that is a visual meditation on the text for me.  Each day a verse from the next psalm is chosen until all 150 psalms have been featured.   To participate you may subscribe to my blog at or “friend” me on Facebook and watch for the daily links to blog posts.  Disclaimer:  I am not a photographer and most of the photos are from a cell phone or small camera while hiking the Appalachian Trail or the C&O Canal/Great Allegheny Passage Trail.


  1. So many reasons to hang up the harps, both personally and globally. Yet hope keeps seeping through, showing us reasons why we have to keep singing. And sometimes it’s just us, singing without realizing why.