Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Pain That Points to a Glorious Future

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Leslie Basham: If you’re in the middle of a painful circumstance, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth offers you hope.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Your pain, whether it’s pain that’s in the distant past, or pain in the immediate present, your pain, my pain, our pain leads us—if we’re children of God—to a grand and glorious future.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Gratitude, for Monday, April 22, 2019.

Nancy: I had a woman come up to me at church not too many weeks ago after the service. I was asking her how her family was doing, and she shared with me some things that her grown children, young adult children are facing out in the world.

One of them works for a mega-company—if I were to name it, you would all know what the company is—and he’s facing some issues there where it’s hard to practice his faith in that context. And she said to me, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a foreigner in the land as I do today.”

Have you ever felt that way? If you’re a child of God, you have a sense of not belonging in this world. Right? A sense that this world is not your home. And this is the sense that is expressed by the people of God in the psalm we’re going to be looking at over the next several days—Psalm 137.

So if you have your Bible—if you’re in your car driving, listening to this, then you might not want to turn there in your Bible—but if you’re where you can do that, let me encourage you to open your Bible to a psalm that you probably have never heard a message on before—Psalm 137.

This is a short psalm, just nine verses. It’s one of the psalms in the category that we call lament psalms. We have psalms of thanksgiving. We have psalms of contrition. We have different kinds of psalms, but there are psalms in the Scripture called psalms of lament, lamentation, weeping, grieving. And this psalm is a lament psalm. It is filled with pain, with pathos.

Now, let me give you a little bit of the background and the context that will help the psalm make more sense before we read it.

In 587 BC, Jerusalem, which was the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah, was overthrown by the Babylonians. The Babylonians were a fierce people. They were taking over the world, and the Jews from Jerusalem were deported from Jerusalem to Babylonian. They were sent into exile.

Now, we know from the Scripture that this happened because they had rebelled against God. They had forsaken God, and so God was chastening them. He sent them into the Babylonian captivity, but He told them that He would have mercy on them and that 70 years later they would be released from captivity. And sure enough, 70 years later they returned to their homeland, but not before they had been through a whole lot of heartache and hardship.

Now, Psalm 137 was written shortly after they returned from exile in Babylon. They returned back home to Jerusalem, but they couldn’t forget what they had been through all those years. So in this psalm of lament, they’re remembering. That’s a key word in this psalm—remember. They’re remembering the ordeal that they had been through.

Now the Psalm falls naturally into three stanzas. Let me give you an overview, and then we’ll read it, and you’ll see how it fits together.

In the first four verses, God’s people are pining in Babylon. They’re longing for Zion, for their homeland.

Then in verses 5 and 6, God’s people are pledging. They’re promising to remember Jerusalem, to not to forget.

And then in verses 7 through 9, the third stanza, God’s people are pleading. They’re praying to be avenged of their enemies.

So first they’re pining in Babylon. Then they’re pledging or promising not to forget Jerusalem. And then they’re pleading, praying to be avenged of their enemies.

So let’s read the psalm. God’s people pining in Babylon, verses 1 through 4, longing for Zion:

"By the waters of Babylon (many of your translations will say “By the rivers of Babylon”), there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. (Some of your translations say “we hung up our harps.”) For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'"

And then verse 4, the central verse of this psalm, the heart of this psalm:

“How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?”

And then the next two verses we have God’s people pledging, promising to remember Jerusalem. Verse 5:

"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 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!"

And then the final stanza, verses 7 through 9, God’s people are pleading, praying for justice, for revenge, for vindication against the enemies of God. And this is the stanza that makes this psalm what one commentator has called, “perhaps the most troubling of all the psalms in the Psalter.” Verses 7 through 9:

“Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, ‘Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!’ O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

End of the psalm.

Now, this is one of several psalms in the Psalm book of the Scripture that are called imprecatory psalms—imprecatory psalms. They don’t tend to be our favorites. You don’t tend to hear a lot of messages on them, and sometimes, over the last several weeks, I’ve been wondering why in the world I picked this psalm to meditate on for weeks and to teach for five days. But I think you’ll see that, as with all of God’s Word, this is powerful. It’s God-breathed. It’s God-inspired. And it’s profitable for doctrine, for correction, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness.

An imprecatory psalm—this is a psalm where the writer invokes the wrath of God on an enemy. In this case, the enemy is Babylon.

Now these are difficult passages. You have to wrestle with them. They’re not easy. And you have to ask yourself, “How do we reconcile a passage like this with the New Testament teaching on loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us?” Well, we’ll tackle those kinds of questions when we come to this stanza later in the series.

That’s what that mother was wanting to know when she spoke to me after church several weeks ago. How do you sing the songs of Zion when you’re living in Babylon?

This psalm, this lament psalm, is in stark contrast to the two psalms that preceded, and to most of the psalms in this section of Scripture. If you think about the last psalms in the Psalm book, how do you think of those psalms? They’re joyful. Many of them say, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” These are Hallel—hallelujah—psalms.

And the two previous psalms, Psalms 135 and 136, are filled with praise for God’s faithfulness, God’s steadfast love. If you read those psalms before you read this one, you think, Can these even be in the same book? They’re so different. The two previous psalms rehearse and celebrate the works of God in leading His people, in redeeming and rescuing them from their enemies, giving them the land of Canaan.

Look at Psalm 136, just across the page. The first verse and the last verse of Psalm 136 are the same. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” Does that sound anything like the next psalm, Psalm 137? Psalm 136 is the kind of psalm we love to sing. Those are the kinds of days we love to have. Right?

Not so much with Psalm 137. But here’s the deal: Even as the Israelites rejoiced in God’s goodness, celebrated in many other psalms, like 136, they had not forgotten their painful past, how they had lost their land, how they had suffered unbelievable atrocities at the hands of the Babylonians. And they describe their experience in Psalm 137 in raw, honest terms, and the memory is still fresh as if it were just yesterday.

You see, God didn’t expect His people to forget their pain. In fact, He didn’t want them to forget their pain, because what was the purpose of the pain? To bring them back to Him. This is why you want your children to remember painful consequences when they’re disobedient because you want them to be obedient. You don’t want them to forget that sin has consequences.

So God didn’t expect them to forget their pain, the heartache, the years in exile, the devastation that the enemies of God had caused to their beloved Jerusalem, the disobedience that had led them into this exile, it was all part of their story. And it was part of God’s story, the redemptive story that God was writing in their lives and through their lives for us today.

God is always writing a story in your life. And it’s for you. And it’s for the person sitting next to you. And it’s for your family. And it’s for the next generation. So God doesn’t want you to forget your pain, even as you celebrate His goodness and His grace. It’s not wrong to go back and remember, remember, remember the hard times.

Now, when you take this in the context of all of Scripture, that’s not where we want to live. You don’t want to fixate on that. You don’t want to stay there forever. But you want to remember because it’s part of your story, and God wants to use it. God wants to meet you there in the difficult, painful parts of your story.

You see, your pain, whether it’s pain that’s in the distant past, or pain in the immediate present, your pain, my pain, our pain leads us—if we’re children of God—to a grand and glorious future where God will be magnified as the great redeeming God who makes all things new and makes all wrongs right.

So let’s look at the first verse—and we’re going to take this Psalm apart piece by piece, word by word, phrase by phrase, over the next several days.

Verse 1: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

The waters of Babylon—again many of your translations will say “the rivers of Babylon.” There was in Babylon an intricate system of canals that spread across the Babylonian plain. And you can Google and find artists’ depictions and renderings of what these canals might have looked like. Ezekiel talks about “sitting by the canal Cabar” while he was in exile in Babylon. That’s where he received visions of God, Ezekiel chapter 1. So, “by the waters of Babylon,” by these canals, by these rivers, “we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Now, throughout this short psalm you see a contrast between Babylon and Zion. Zion is also called Jerusalem. Those two terms are used synonymously—Zion or Jerusalem. You find them three times in this psalm. And it’s the theme throughout Scripture—the contrast between Babylon, so to speak, and Zion, or Jerusalem.

They’re the literal cities of Babylon and Jerusalem, but there’s also symbolic or spiritual Babylon that you read about, referred to, for example, in Revelation chapters 17 and 18. And there’s the heavenly Jerusalem, also known as the Holy City. There’s a literal and a figurative sense in which these two cities are used.

One of the first people to talk about this difference was Augustine, who was a third and fourth century theologian and philosopher. And one of this most important works was called, “The City of God.” Now, the original title for this book was, “The City of God Against the Pagans.” Two different groups of people—the City of God and the pagans. Throughout this work, Augustine contrasts what he calls “the earthly city” or “the city of man,” and he contrasts that with “the city of God.”

From Genesis to Revelation, and throughout history, we see this conflict between these two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem; the earthly city, the heavenly city; the city of man, the city of God. Two cities. Two systems. Two world views. And they could not be more opposite of each other.

There’s a contrast in Augustine’s book. He talks about those who reject God, who belong to the city of man, or the earthly city, and those who love God, those who belong to the city of God. The difference between the world and the church.

And Augustine talks about the wide, vast difference between their ultimate destinies. Those who belong to the earthly city, the city of man, are destined for eternal punishment and damnation, doomed to be destroyed, as we see later in this psalm. But the citizens of the city of God—what’s their ultimate destiny? It’s eternal joy, eternal happiness, for the city of God is where God lives. And where God is, there is joy, there’s abundance, there’s life eternal.

Now as you read verses 1 through 4, you see nine times pronouns like “we,” “us,” “our.” This is a corporate psalm. There’s a corporate lament. There’s a corporate response to what the people of God had been through. And I see in this first verse a three-fold response to what was going on in their hearts.

First, they said, “we sat down,” and then, “we remembered,” and then—what? “We wept.” We sat down. We remembered. And we wept. Let’s talk about those for a few moments, and then talk about some take-aways for our own lives, our own time.

1. “We sat down.” Ladies, there’s a time to be active. There’s a time to stand up. There’s a time to be in a hurry. (I don’t think it’s quite as often as we are in a hurry.) There’s a time to work. But there’s also a time to stop. A time to be still. A time to contemplate, to reflect, to sit down.

Some of us don’t really get insight into what God is doing in our day and how to sing the songs of Zion when you’re living in Babylon because we’re in too much of a hurry. We get caught up in the pace of Babylon. Don’t we? Sometimes we just need to sit down, to be still.

2. And then, “we remembered.” Again, a key word three times—verse 1, verse 5, and verse 6. In verse 1 here, it says, “we remembered Zion.”

Now, ancient Babylon was an advanced civilization. It had stunning beauty and wealth and prosperity. The hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Babylon was the envy of the whole world. But it wasn’t home to God’s people. They were in exile in Babylon. They were captives, the Scripture says. They were tormented by those who despised the city of God, who despised Jerusalem. Babylon, for the Jews—it may have been lovelybut it was a foreign land. That’s what it says in verse 4.

In Babylon, they spoke a different language. They sang a different song. Babylon may have been sophisticated and advanced, but it was corrupt. It was godless. It was anti-God. It’s not where God’s people belonged. It wasn’t home.

So the people of God longed for home, for freedom. They longed to worship Jehovah in His temple. Now, isn’t that interesting? For years they had forgotten the worship of God. But when they lost it, it helped them remember what they had lost, what they had had. “We remembered. We remembered Zion.”

Ladies, this world we’re living in is the city of man. It’s not home for those who are children of God. It’s not where we belong. It’s a foreign land. Peter says in 1 Peter 2:11 that we are aliens; we are exiles. We don’t fit here.

That’s what this woman was saying to me at church. She said, “I’ve never felt like so much of a foreigner in the land as I do today.”

This world is not where we would choose to be. It’s not where we want to be. We’re captives, in a sense. We’re mocked. We’re scorned by those who despise the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God. This place is corrupt. It’s godless. If you’re a child of God, you can’t feel at home here in this world. That’s because our citizenship isn’t here. Our citizenship is in Zion. That’s where we belong. That’s the country we love. That’s the country for which we long.

You can’t expect Babylon to be like home. And, therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when the people and the customs and the laws and the worldview of Babylon are way different than those of Zion. We shouldn’t be surprised when Babylon rejects and opposes those who claim another citizenship. You can’t expect Babylon to be like home.

And in the process of living in Babylon, it’s important that we not forget Zion, that we remember Zion, our true home—Jerusalem. While we’re living in Babylon, we want to keep remembering Zion. That’s where our citizenship is. And that means we’re not supposed to blend in. We’re not supposed to fit in. We’re not supposed to assimilate into Babylonian culture and ties and traditions. We’re not supposed to accommodate to this world.

I think one of the challenges of this lament psalm is, don’t get too comfortable in Babylon. Don’t put your stakes down, your roots down too deeply. Don’t get settled in here. You have a different passport. You have a different identity.

Now, let me remind you: The children of Israel were exiles in Babylon—for how many years? Seventy. That means there were children who were born during the Babylonian captivity. How were they supposed to remember Zion? How? Their parents, their grandparents had to tell them, “This is what it was like. This is what we had. This is what happened there. This is how we sinned.”

Someone has to tell the children being born in Babylon how to remember Zion. Moms, Grandmoms, those who work with children, those who minister to young believers, don’t ever get tired of telling others what Zion is like so they can remember it, too.

“We sat down; we remembered; and . . .

3. “We wept.” That word expresses deep grief, wailing and lamentation. There’s hardly any word, perhaps no word in the Hebrew language that speaks more of the wailing type of grief of this weeping. What do they weep over? Well, they wept over their sin that resulted in the exile to Babylon. They were being chastened by a God who loved them too much to let them stay in their sin, and they wept over their sin.

They wept over the memory of what they had forfeited, what they had lost, what had happened to their homeland, what had happened to the temple of God that had been sacked.

Let me say, it’s okay, while you’re living in Babylon, to feel sad, to weep because this world is not as it should be. We are not as we should be. We are not where we should be.

What causes you to weep, to grieve, to wail, to make lamentation? Is it your sin? Do you grieve when you see the Church of Jesus Christ coming under attack in Babylon? Well, as you weep, remember this: We’re not home, but we’re headed back home, to a place where there will be no more weeping. “Weeping may endure for a night,” Psalm 30 tells us. But what comes in the morning? Joy—“joy comes in the morning.”

Now, when this psalm was written, the exiles were finally back home in Zion looking back on their years in Babylon. Today, as we’re studying this psalm, we’re sitting in Babylon longing for Zion. But one day we will finally be home in Zion looking back on Babylon. So we can anticipate with joy what lies ahead in our eternal home, the city of God.

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth will be right back.

In a lot of ways, you and I are living in a foreign land. Maybe you see evidence of that mounting lately. Maybe you can sense growing opposition to living out faith in Jesus. Psalm 137 gives us a lot of insight into living in this kind of situation, and Nancy will be unpacking this passage for us all week in a series called, “Singing the Lord’s Songs in a Foreign Land.” It’s part of our monthly theme on Revive Our Hearts, Tackling Tough Issues.

When we’re in a foreign land, we need to be teaching our kids how to ground themselves in God’s Word rather than leaning on worldly wisdom. So we’re excited to let you know about the National Bible Bee summer study. Now is the time to sign up and get ready for an eight-week journey of memorizing God’s Word.

Your kids will get a Discovery Journal to help them study the Bible and put verses to memory. This would be such a meaningful project to take on this summer. And who knows, maybe they’ll even end up on stage at the National Bible Bee later this year! What’s most important is they’ll be studying and memorizing God’s Word.

You can get 10% off of the Discovery Journal when you use a promo code just for Revive Our Hearts listeners. The code is ROH19. For more details and a link to the National Bible Bee, visit our website, ReviveOurHearts.com.

How can you sing songs of joy when the world is so dark? Tomorrow Nancy will answer that and remind you of the amazing joys that are still to come. Now she’s back to pray, based on what we’ve learned today in Psalm 137.

Nancy: Thank You, Lord, for passages of Scripture that make us sit down and remember and weep. Would You give us insight in these days as to how we can sing the songs of the Lord when we’re still living in Babylon? And for that, we’ll give You thanks in Jesus’ name, amen.

Leslie: Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is reminding you that your citizenship is in heaven. The program is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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