For those of us who are of a certain generation, it’s hard not to start humming the old Boney M song, “Rivers of Babylon” when we read this Psalm. Their comparison between the exiled Israelites and the enslaved peoples of Africa is one that has been made many times throughout history, and is a common feature of spirituals and early gospel music.
The psalmist describes a pleasant location, by the river Euphrates and its canals in Babylon, but although their surroundings may have been beautiful, the Israelites could not take pleasure in them because their hearts were broken over the destruction of Jerusalem.
“How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” the psalmist laments. They hung their harps on the poplar trees and could not sing at all.
Yet we know that the Israelites were in Babylon because the Lord had judged them for their sin and rebellion after many years of warnings and patience on God’s part. Generation after generation had worshipped idols and turned against God. What happened to them was devastating, but it could have been avoided if they had only listened to the Lord’s prophets and remained faithful to him.
The Israelites were experiencing God’s discipline, and it was hard to bear. Yet the writer to the Hebrews says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.” (Heb 12:7-8).
If we find ourselves under God’s discipline, it is proof to us that we are truly his sons and daughters. With God, there is always a reason to praise.