READ : Psalm 137:1-9
It’s hard to sing the song of faith when you’re beaten down and discouraged. When you’re living among people who don’t care about God, it’s hard to remember that heaven is your home. But you can learn to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
On Christmas Eve, 1971, a small group of ragged American prisoners of war gathered in a North Vietnamese prison for a special purpose. They were being permitted, for the first time in their years of captivity, to worship together. Their Christmas Eve service was similar to millions of other worship services being held all around the world that night. They prayed together, they listened to the familiar words from the Bible telling the story of Joseph and Mary and the baby in the manger. And they sang: O Come, All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night – every Christmas carol they could remember. Navy pilot John McCain, who led the service, tells what happened as the men sang those Christmas songs:
“Tears rolled down our unshaven faces. Suddenly we were 2,000 years and half a world away in a village called Bethlehem. And neither war, nor torture, nor imprisonment, nor the centuries themselves had dimmed the hope born on that night so long before. . . . We had forgotten our wounds, our hunger, our pain. We raised prayers of thanks for the Christ-child, for our families and homes, for our country. There was an absolutely exquisite feeling that all our burdens had been lifted. In a place designed to turn men into vicious animals, we clung to one another, sharing what comfort we had . . . The guards did not disturb us.
But as I looked up at the barred windows, I wished they had been looking in. I wanted them to see us – faithful, joyful and, yes, triumphant.”
Like so many of God’s people before them, these men were singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
HOW CAN WE SING?
The ancient believers who sang the song we call Psalm 137 were in a similar situation. They too were refugees, prisoners of war. These men, women and children had been taken from Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Babylonians and resettled in a far-off foreign land. The captives in Babylon weren’t used to the harsh conditions of their new life. They suffered physically, but they suffered even more in spirit.
What hurt them the most was their memories of home.
By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion. (v. 1)
The captives in Babylon grieved as they thought about all they had lost – homes, possessions, families and friends, all that was familiar and dear, gone now forever. Most of all, they grieved for Zion, that is, for the temple of the Lord. Mount Zion was the hill in Jerusalem where Solomon’s magnificent temple had stood. The name Zion came to represent the house of God that was built there. The temple was a reminder of the special relationship that had existed between the Lord and his people. So of all their painful memories, the exiles’ deepest grief was caused by their sense of having lost the privilege of entering God’s presence to worship him in the temple. They had lost their homes and possessions, their country, their city, even their religion – or, at least, the building that symbolized it.
Added to that pain was the sharp taunting of their new masters. Like most conquerors, the Babylonians didn’t hesitate to add salt to the wounds of their victims by mocking them. “Come on,” they cried, “Give us a song.”
“Our enemies had brought us here as their prisoners,
and now they wanted us to sing and entertain them.
They insulted us and shouted,
“Sing about Zion!” (v. 3, cev)
The music of the Psalms, the worship songs of the Jewish people, was apparently known far and wide – even in Babylon. Now the Babylonians wanted to hear a sample, not because they had any interest in worshiping God, but simply to mock. They thought it might be good for a laugh to hear the songs of a God whose city and temple had been destroyed and whose people were now their slaves.
“How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” asks our psalm. Those Jewish believers were totally devastated. They had experienced the loss of everything, including their dignity, their very identity. It just didn’t seem possible to go on.
But in the midst of all this emotional trauma the psalmist also makes a vow.
Jerusalem, if I forget you,
May my right hand never be able to play the harp again.
If I don’t remember you,
may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth so I can’t sing.
(vv. 5-6, NIrV)
The temple may be gone, Jerusalem may be only a heap of ruins, but the psalmist swears an oath that he will never forget them, or the God whom they represent. He vows to remain faithful to the Lord, even in this far-away land, even when it seemed as though the Lord himself had been defeated. He will continue to sing the Lord’s song in that foreign country, not for the amusement of those who scorn God, but as a witness to his faith.
This man had made a decision. He could have settled in in Babylon and forgotten Jerusalem. He could have renounced his faith in the God of Israel in order to embrace the gods of his new country. He could have put away his harp for good, and sung the same tune everyone else was singing – the song of the world and its values. In other words, he could have conformed. But he didn’t do that. He would rather lose the use of hand and voice altogether than to fail to use them in praising his God, the true and living God. This man made his choice. He took his stand. He would worship and serve the Lord no matter what. Wherever he was, he would be distinctive. He would identity himself with God and his people.
SINGING IN A FOREIGN LAND
It would be nice if Psalm 137 ended on this inspiring note, but it doesn’t. There is an abrupt change of subject in the closing verses. It’s as though all his painful memories cause the psalmist to suddenly boil over, and the rage and hatred he felt for his enemies spills out onto the page.
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
That’s a shocking, even embarrassing passage. No wonder many people want to ignore or suppress it. Here we are, reading along in a beautiful Psalm, filled with poignant longing and noble resolve. Then we turn a corner to be suddenly confronted with the psalmist’s naked bloodlust for vengeance. With one breath he is expressing deep longing for the City of God, and with the next he pronounces a blessing upon anyone who will grab a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out on the pavement.
What are we to make of that? Are these verses also the word of God for us today? After all, we live in a different time and circumstances. We are after-the-cross, post-resurrection people. We know about Jesus, who forgave his enemies even as they were killing him, and taught us to love ours! The people who wrote and sang the 137th Psalm were captives living in a pre-Christian world. And -let’s be honest – it was a cruel and savage time. Most of us, by contrast, are more “civilized.” Christ has left his imprint on our societies, at least in the so-called Christian west. So what can this exile song of longing and vengeance possibly say to us?
I can think of at least three things. First, it can teach us to examine our own attitudes, to look inside our own hearts. It is true that the psalmist lived in a very different time. Being “uncivilized,” he hadn’t learned to mask his feelings. He spits out his hatred and his longing for revenge straight and pure. We tend to be more hypocritical. When what we’d really like to do is smash somebody’s face in, instead we smile insincerely, and then look for a way to retaliate in secret where no one will know about it. The psalmist wasn’t as polite. He talks openly about making his enemies suffer the same way he and his people have suffered. He wanted to pay somebody back, to do to the Babylonians exactly what they had done to the Jews. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize him until we’ve been in his shoes. Maybe we don’t have the right to condemn the psalmist unless we too have been the victims of some terrible atrocity, as so many Christians living in other places in the world have been. Maybe we’ll need to learn to love and to forgive our own enemies better before we can stand in judgment upon the psalmist. Is our attitude really all that different from his? Furthermore, isn’t there, behind his bloodthirsty cry for revenge, a hunger for justice and for the punishment of evil? And aren’t those things right? Where do we stand on the aggressor-victim scale? Provocative and important questions, all of which are raised by Psalm 137 for us to try to answer.
A second thing this Psalm can do for us is to alert us to the truth about where we ourselves are living. The fact is, as believers we too are living in a foreign land – even in our own homes, our own native countries. This world in all of its manifestations is not our home. Human cultures and societies, wherever they are, are the products of sinful human beings. None of them is perfect; all of them are seriously flawed. They are part of a world that is in general hostile to God and the people of God. “The children of God, wherever they have lived,” said John Calvin, “have always been strangers and foreigners in the world.” That means we don’t really belong to our countries or societies or tribes, in any ultimate sense. We belong to God – and to the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we may love our countries, we must pray for our countries, we should work for the betterment of our countries. But we must never worship our countries, or give them uncritical allegiance, or place them above our duty to God. Remembering that we are living in exile in Babylon will keep us from doing those things. It will stop us from making this world our permanent home. Heaven is our permanent home; here we’re only passing through.
The third thing this Psalm can do is to help us sing the Lord’s song in the foreign lands where we reside. To do that means to worship God above all, and bear witness to him among the nations of the world.
Singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land also means that in cultures like ours dominated by materialism, where the highest goal is self-indulgence and life is all about getting more and more stuff, we must proclaim that the Lord is our God, and the meaning of life is to love and worship him. In cultures where salvation is widely thought to be through advancing technology and self-improvement, we must proclaim that Jesus is the only Savior. Our only hope is in Christ. In cultures where racism and tribalism dominate, we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and prove to the world that in the body of Christ there really is no Jew or Greek, male or female, rich or poor, black or white. And finally, singing the Lord’s song means that in cultures that reject all absolutes, we must demonstrate that God’s people live by God’s truth, and by obedience to God’s word.
So make your choice about where your true home is: the Jerusalem above or Babylon here. Take your stand. Sing the Lord’s song, like the Hebrews long ago, like those American prisoners on Christmas Eve in Hanoi. Bear witness to the goodness and the love of Christ. And as you do, always keep your heart set on home.