If you’re familiar with Psalm 137, it’s probably because of the difficult final words of the psalm. But it’s not fair to make this psalm all about its final imprecation. Like Will Smith wouldn’t want to be remembered only for his roles as a cop/hero in a dystopian future (though there are plenty), Psalm 137 shouldn’t be typecast as “that imprecatory psalm.” There is certainly more that we can learn from it. For example, this psalm has a word to speak to our present situation. Specifically, it teaches us the right kind of discontent.
Consider the psalmists words in vv4-6: “4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” In these verses, the psalmist expresses a holy discontent for settling. Let’s think through a few observations.
First, the context for these words is the Babylonian exile. This is made clear in v1, which says, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” The psalmist is in exile, far from the Promised Land, and quite aware of the devastation of Jerusalem. Israel’s religious life was centered on the Temple, and all of God’s people were called to gather regularly in Jerusalem to celebrate festivals and worship God. None of that was happening anymore, and so the psalmist weeps for this fracture in the religious life of his people.
Second, note that this fracture in religious life isn’t a complete break. The very fact that this is a psalm in the Bible reminds us that God’s people have been able to commune with him anywhere. Daniel is not hindered in his prayers to and experience of God in exile, and neither is the psalmist. This is clear because the psalmist shifts perspective in v7 to directly address God with this lament. So, we could say that things are not nearly what they ought to be, even if the psalmist can still pray to and worship God.
Finally, the psalmist is concerned to cultivate a holy discontent for this new normal in exile. Though access to God through prayer is still available, it is not the fullness of the gathered community around the special place of God’s presence. Thus, we read of the psalmist’s self-imprecation in vv4-6. The psalmist prays that the very skill with which God has gifted him would be snatched away if he ever got comfortable in exile. For the psalmist, there is no settling into a new normal or contentment with virtual worship.
This is the word that Psalm 137 has to speak to us today. We do well to cultivate a holy discontent with virtual worship and video conferences. Even as we make the most of the technology that is available to us, we should not get comfortable with it. As Pastor Donny mentioned in an earlier post, we need to let the shortcomings of virtual worship foster a longing for the gathered assembly of God’s people. We need to be discontent with “watching church” as my daughter has come accustomed to say and to feed the longing for “going to church.”
Let’s keep the lesson of Psalm 137 with us however long we remain separated; let’s cultivate the right kind of discontent until we can be satisfied.