Thursday, December 1, 2022

Freedom to Worship (Psalm 137)

"How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:4).

Many of America’s founders fled their homelands to find religious freedom. They sought a land where they could worship God, without the regulations of a state church. The desire for freedom of worship drove the Puritans of England to the New World. They considered their liberty to worship more important than their homes, their employments, their families, and even their safety.

The spirit of these non-conformists has dwelt in God’s people since the earliest days of the nation of Israel. The Puritans were not the first to feel the whip of religious intolerance, nor will they be the last. Like the non-conformists of England, who were denied the freedom to worship publicly, the Hebrew nation during the Babylonian captivity was also denied free, public worship.

In bitter strains, Psalm 137 describes the state of Israel under its Babylonian captors. Because the Israelites were separated from the temple in Jerusalem, they could not gather for public praise and worship of the Lord. This brought great sorrow to the hearts of God’s people. The beauty of Babylon offered no solace. No matter how lovely the foreign land in which they dwelt, it was not their beloved Jerusalem, the dwelling place of the Lord where the Levites once sang glorious songs to their heavenly King. In Babylon, their harps were silent as their captors taunted them to sing their sacred songs, knowing full well public worship had been denied the Jews.

The psalmist responds to the captors with what seems like inappropriate hatred, “Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” This may seem harsh, but the psalmist is only recalling prophecies of God’s judgment on Edom and Babylon (Isa. 13:16; Ezek. 25:13–14; Jer. 49:7–20; Lam. 4:21–22). In reciting this prophecy of doom, the psalmist is encouraging Israel to hope in the Lord. God has promised to bring them back to Jerusalem, to restore their worship of the Lord, and repay their enemies in full. According to Calvin, “To pray for vengeance would have been unwarrantable, had not God promised it, and had the party against whom it was sought not been reprobate and incurable; for as to others, even our greatest enemies, we should wish their amendment and reformation.”

Read through Psalm 137 again. What were the Israelites willing to give up to have their freedom of worship restored? Do you cherish your religious freedom as much as Israel did? In what ways is your religious freedom threatened? What can you do? What are you willing to give up for religious freedom?