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It is appropriate that Hosea 13 should be read in conjunction with Psalm 137. Hosea 13 brings the prophet’s promises of judgment to their climax. God is going to destroy proud Samaria (Ephraim). Similar warnings were repeatedly thundered against Judah, but they showed no sign of repentance. In 587 B.C., God destroyed Jerusalem and the last great wave of people were transported into exile. Here in Psalm 137, the captives from that catastrophe voice their utter despair, and almost all of their focus is on the secondary agents—their captors, the Edomites, the people of Babylon. And both perspectives are valid and complementary.
Here I shall reflect on the four sections of Psalm 137.
(1) The first (Ps. 137:1–3) is so vivid it sounds like eyewitness recollection. A relief from the Assyrian palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh pictures three prisoners of war playing their lyres while a soldier marches them along; doubtless this also happened in Babylon. The “rivers of Babylon” was a system of canals connected with the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. The “harps” (lyres) were instruments of joy. In the symbolic language of Revelation 5, when the lion who is also the lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of the Almighty, signaling that he is worthy to open the scroll and bring about all of God’s purposes in blessing and judgment, all the “harps” break out; it is a moment of ineffable joy, the opposite of this paragraph.
(2) But the exiles refuse to sing (Ps. 137:4–6). All of the associations of the songs of the Lord are tied to Jerusalem and the temple. For them, their staunch refusal, even to their tormenting captors, was a sign not only of pathos and heartbreak
(v. 4) but also of passion and fidelity (vv. 5–6).
(3) The Edomites had obviously delighted in the destruction of Jerusalem and perhaps helped it along. On this point the prophet Ezekiel has more to say (Ezek. 35; see meditation for October 2). God hates smugness and a vengeful spirit. The judgment on Jerusalem came, ultimately, from God—but he would also judge those who delighted in and contributed to Jerusalem’s fall. One of the ugliest recent evidences of that smug vengefulness within the ranks of professing evangelicalism was the slogan “no tears for queers” after a young gay man had been beaten to death.
(4) At the end of a siege, victorious soldiers might pick up small children by their ankles and kill them by bashing their heads against a wall. What such barbarism demands, strictly speaking, for justice to prevail, is similar suffering. These white-hot lines are not cool policy statements, but the searing cries of moral indignation. We must hear the anguish, before we also hear God insisting that vengeance is his (Rom. 12:19).
2 Kings 20 is one of the sadder chapters of Scripture. It pictures a man who has been faithful in the past, now withering away in the complacency of selfishness.
King Hezekiah ruled over Judah, the southern kingdom, in the waning days of the northern kingdom of Israel. Once the Assyrians had defeated Israel and transported its leading citizens, leaving behind only a shattered wreck of a nation, there was plenty of reason for discouragement in the south. But in truly heroic fashion, Hezekiah, guided in part by the prophet Isaiah, withstands the withering siege of King Sennacherib of Assyria, simply relying on the mercy of the Lord God. Sent by God himself, plague sweeps through the Assyrian camp, killing almost two hundred thousand people. Jerusalem and Judah are spared (2 Kings 18–19; Isa. 36–37). Moreover, Hezekiah’s commitment to God in the early years of his reign was not characterized by the typical compromise, which maintained some sort of allegiance to Yahweh while not touching the high places and other sites of pagan worship. Far from it: he cleaned things up, earning the judgment, “He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done” (2 Kings 18:3–4). He even recognized that the bronze serpent Moses had made (Num. 21:4–9) had now become a superstitious snare, and destroyed it.
Then he fell ill and wept bitterly. Somehow he got himself into the position where he thought his righteous deeds meant that God owed him a long and prosperous life (2 Kings 20:2–3). In his mercy, God assigned him fifteen more years, and gave him a miraculous sign to confirm the promise (2 Kings 20:1–11). During that fifteen-year span, however, Hezekiah failed an important test: when emissaries came from Babylon, instead of seeking the Lord’s face and walking humbly, Hezekiah played the role of a proud potentate, showing off the kingdom’s rising wealth. Everything was duly recorded in the books of Babylon, in preparation for the day, more than a century later, when Babylon would be the superpower and crush Jerusalem and send her people into exile (2 Kings 20:12–18).
But this is not Hezekiah’s most grievous lapse. When Isaiah the prophet tells him what will happen, the king does not repent of his arrogance, or seek forgiveness, or intercede with God. The threatened judgment is slated for the future: Hezekiah refuses to accept any deeply felt responsibility. He piously comments, “The word of the LORD you have spoken is good”—while the writer comments, “For he thought, ‘Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?’” (2 Kings 20:19). Hezekiah has become a moral and strategic pygmy.
Far better to die young after genuine, godly, achievements, than to die old and embittered, poisoning your own heritage.
20:1 In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’” 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, saying, 3 “Now, O LORD, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: 5 “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD, 6 and I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David's sake.” 7 And Isaiah said, “Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover.”
8 And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up to the house of the LORD on the third day?” 9 And Isaiah said, “This shall be the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?” 10 And Hezekiah answered, “It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps. Rather let the shadow go back ten steps.” 11 And Isaiah the prophet called to the LORD, and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz.
12 At that time Merodach-baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that Hezekiah had been sick. 13 And Hezekiah welcomed them, and he showed them all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. 14 Then Isaiah the prophet came to King Hezekiah, and said to him, “What did these men say? And from where did they come to you?” And Hezekiah said, “They have come from a far country, from Babylon.” 15 He said, “What have they seen in your house?” And Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”
16 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD: 17 Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD. 18 And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” 19 Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?”
20 The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah and all his might and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 21 And Hezekiah slept with his fathers, and Manasseh his son reigned in his place.
2:1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,1
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source.2 That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,3 12 saying,
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
13 And again,
“I will put my trust in him.”
“Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
13:1 When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling;
he was exalted in Israel,
but he incurred guilt through Baal and died.
2 And now they sin more and more,
and make for themselves metal images,
idols skillfully made of their silver,
all of them the work of craftsmen.
It is said of them,
“Those who offer human sacrifice kiss calves!”
3 Therefore they shall be like the morning mist
or like the dew that goes early away,
like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor
or like smoke from a window.
4 But I am the LORD your God
from the land of Egypt;
you know no God but me,
and besides me there is no savior.
5 It was I who knew you in the wilderness,
in the land of drought;
6 but when they had grazed,1 they became full,
they were filled, and their heart was lifted up;
therefore they forgot me.
7 So I am to them like a lion;
like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
8 I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs;
I will tear open their breast,
and there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild beast would rip them open.
9 He destroys2 you, O Israel,
for you are against me, against your helper.
10 Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities?
Where are all your rulers—
those of whom you said,
“Give me a king and princes”?
11 I gave you a king in my anger,
and I took him away in my wrath.
12 The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up;
his sin is kept in store.
13 The pangs of childbirth come for him,
but he is an unwise son,
for at the right time he does not present himself
at the opening of the womb.
14 I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;
I shall redeem them from Death.3
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.
15 Though he may flourish among his brothers,
the east wind, the wind of the LORD, shall come,
rising from the wilderness,
and his fountain shall dry up;
his spring shall be parched;
it shall strip his treasury
of every precious thing.
16 4 Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword;
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open.
137:1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows1 there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
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!
7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
138:1 I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
2 I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.2
3 On the day I called, you answered me;
my strength of soul you increased.3
4 All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O LORD,
for they have heard the words of your mouth,
5 and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD,
for great is the glory of the LORD.
6 For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly,
but the haughty he knows from afar.
7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.
8 The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.