As I focus on Psalm 137:4; the part of the psalm which relates to where the Jews declined to singing the Lord’s song in their land of captivity; I am still pondering over why those captive Jews said:

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? (ESV)

I see that this psalm points to the fact that they were behind the Waters of Babylon after they had been sent off to that foreign land in slavery. In the course of their journey, they penned and sang this very pathetic song. When it comes to the metaphor where it says, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land," I try to imagine what they meant exactly by that.

Were they merely singing the Lord’s songs for entertainment in their days? And if those songs were songs of worship, then why could they not sing the said songs to worship God, even in their land of captivity?

3 Answers 3


Why did the captive Jews refuse to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Psalm 137:4 (NASB) "How can we sing the Lord’s song In a foreign land?"

Jeramiah's Message to the Exiles in Babylon.

Jeremiah 29:4-10 (NASB)

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, 5 ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their [a]produce. 6 Take wives and [b]become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. 7 Seek the [c]welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its [d]welfare you will have [e]welfare."

8 "For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to [f]the dreams which [g]they dream. 9 For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord. 10 “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place."

Babylon was a city infested with idols and demon worshiping, and they were mocking the Israelites that their god was superior to their God. Singing would give the opportunity to the Babylonians to jeer and belittle his name, that Jehovah is an inferior to the Babylonian gods.

Obviously from verse three, the Israelites repented from the wicked things of their ancestors and wanted to worship the true God in Jerusalem, and so they cried " How can we sing a song to the Lord in a foreign land?" The period of their wait was 70 years.

Psalm 137:3-4 (NET Bible)

3" For there our captors ask us to compose songs; those who mock us demand that we be happy, saying: “Sing for us a song about Zion!” 4 How can we sing a song to the Lord in a foreign land?

  • I appreciate your input. The Babylonians were making jest of them. In other words; they wanted them to sing; so they can mock their God. But, this is raising more questions for me. Like you read from the NET Bible: “those who mock us demand that we be happy.” Does this sound like they were waiting to mock them? And it also looks like their captors simply wanted to enjoy some of their songs? Or can we say that they didn’t agree to sing the Lord’s song because the Land was polluted? Yet, in the process of struggling; they eventually created the song in question and sang? How do we reconcile this Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 12:45
  • The captors wanted them to sing ,only to give them the opportunity to mock them all the more, on the other hand the Israelites desired to sing , but under such conditions they could not be happy doing so. They wanted to worship him as free people at the holy temple in Jerusalem. Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 15:49

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:3-4) [ESV]

A common explanation is given by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler in their commentary:1

2-4 The Babylonian captors demand musical entertainment but the captives, who can only cry, hang up their musical instruments and refuse to make music. They cannot express joy as long as they are in exile. Joy, which is synonymous with with being in God's presence, is no longer possible when the Temple is destroyed. Exile is equated with descent into the world of the dead; like the dead, the exiles are unable to praise God. (30.10; 88.11-13)

3-4 Songs of Zion, some scholars identify Zion songs as specific types of hymns abut the Temple (46; 48) or as the pilgrimage psalms (84; 120-134). More likely, the Babylonians are asking for any native Judean song. The psalmist equates them with a song of the LORD, that is, any song sung in the Temple, and therefore they can no longer be sung.

Songs are an expression of the joy which is found in the presence of God. They are sung in the Temple, or while making a pilgrimage to the Temple. Unlike the past where they were able to journey to the Temple, the exiles are like the dead, and are unable to praise God.

Another possibility is found n Deuteronomy, where the apostasy of the nation had been predicted:

28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 31) [ESV]

The LORD promised the people would be exiled if they turned to other gods:

64 “And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the LORD will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. 66 Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. (Deuteronomy 28)

The LORD had Moses teach the people a song:

16 And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods. 19 “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. 21 And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” 22 So Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31 ESV)

This song could rightly be called a song of the LORD. It was to serve as a witness for the LORD against the people of Israel. The exiles refused to sing the song which "would confront them as a witness".

The refusal to sing the song is both a type of acknowledgement of their past wrong actions and a rejection of the meaning the song carries. The people will not sing as a witness against themselves. Instead, they will not forget Jerusalem (137:5-6) and will call upon the LORD to punish the Edomites and Babylonians.

  1. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 1435

More than just a place where people lived and transacted commerce, Jerusalem was
the Holy Mountain where the King was installed (Psalm 2)
the joy of the whole earth, the city of the great King (Psalm 48)
the place God loved (Psalm 78)
a place that can't be moved, but abides forever (Psalm 125)
the place of the Name of the Lord God of Hosts (Isaiah 18)

and a whole lot more besides.
And they had just seen it destroyed, razed to the ground. It ripped their courage and strength from them, because they just couldn't fathom how such a thing could have happened. It was just IMPOSSIBLE that God's dwelling place could be harmed; and yet, it was.
There is just no way that you can come back from that, without a LOT of grieving. And that's what they are doing here. The grief is palpable in these words; it's a complete and utter submersion in spirit-crushing pain.
At least, it's that experience until the last line, where dashing babies against a rock is called for.
Which tells me that this psalm wasn't written down IMMEDIATELY after the exile, because you don't go from despair, to a desire for violent revenge, in a moment. That last sentiment takes time to grow.

  • I agree with you that they were in shock over the temple as "they had just seen it destroyed, (and) razed to the ground." In other words, they were disgusted and aggrieved. I appreciate this divergent opinion. So, they didn't decline to singing the Lord's song because they were in a desecrated land or because they perceived their captors were seeking for an opportunity to mock their God. Little wonder, yet I must ponder over why still in the struggle; they eventually created the song in question and sang it? So, how do we reconcile this? Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 21:58
  • I do not speak as a Biblical scholar. I believe the worst time in my life came when I was 57, and I lost my health, my career, and my family, all in a space of a few weeks. I sat in my chair for three years, and grieved, and it was all I could do to keep breathing in and out. Then, I got up, sought counsel, and set about trying to rebuild what I could. If I had written a song at that point, it would have been much like Psalm 137, although I hope I would have left the baby-smashing part out.
    – Papa Pat
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 15:12

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