The words of Psalm 137 paint a picture of forsakenness. The people of God are out of place and in captivity, far from the once great Jerusalem and the Land of Promise. They sit weeping by the waters of Babylon.
They cannot bring themselves to sing. Music is gone from their lives; they’ve tossed their instruments to the trees. They did this in response to the mocking demands made upon them. “Sing,” their captors said in derision. “Make merry for us.”
Songs of triumph were part of Israel’s history. Miriam, the sister of Moses, led a noisy celebration after the Red Sea closed upon the chariots of Egypt and drowned a dominant military force. Israel had been led out of slavery by the mighty hand of God. With glee, the people reveled before the Lord for “the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea.”
But by Babylon waters, the people only pondered defeat. A flood of tears had been shed over the decimation of their homes and fields and Temple. The memories of Moses and the victories of David and the prosperous times of Solomon seemed so distant.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
This question seems rhetorical at first. But I see the Psalms as a collection of dialogues with God. I think they hung their harps on the willows and waited for an answer from Heaven. I believe they wanted to sing, but wondered how. They needed help.
Songs that Last
Note that this brooding and dark song is sandwiched between two great psalms of thanksgiving (Psalms 136 and 138). “The Lord will accomplish what concerns me; thy lovingkindness, O Lord, is everlasting; do not forsake the works of your hands,” concludes Psalm 138 (verse 8).
Could we find ourselves by Babylon waters? A place of captivity with chains and shackles? A place where our words and witness are belittled and marginalized? Would we respond in the same way? Would we let the music stop?
Richard Wurmbrand relates a story about Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi Gestapo death camp organizer who was captured and brought to Israel to be tried for war crimes he committed during the Holocaust era of the 1940s. Some Jews were said to have sang or prayed as they were herded to gas chambers to die. Interestingly, Israeli guards report that they heard Eichmann recite some of these Jewish phrases while he awaited execution – the only execution the state of Israel has ever carried out.
The songs of a few Jews destined to die in a foreign place stuck with Adolf Eichmann decades later.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Perhaps, the better question is this one: “How can we NOT sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
The Song on Christ’s Mind
Jesus encountered a foreign land. In fact, He willingly made Himself captive to its power when He hung upon the Cross at Calvary. There, He who knew no sin became sin for us. Darkness descended upon the scene, according to Matthew 27:45. It lasted three hours; and I think it was a darkness like the darkness that once came to Egypt, a darkness that could be felt.
The cup had come to the Savior’s lips. The dread expectation of this moment shuddered Him just hours before as He wrestled in prayer at Gethsemane. All justice was being served upon the battered and bleeding Body of the Lamb of God. Our great High Priest brought the “once and for all” offering for all sin. The offering was that of His own spotless self and the penalty of all injustice was laid upon Him.
Something brand new came to the Son — a sense of separation from the Father, who had to look away as the Righteous One assumed unrighteousness.
Those in charge of the activity at Golgotha that day mocked the Lord of Glory. The religious leaders taunted Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Even the thieves who hung with Him threw their voices into the chorus of revilement.Jesus brought a song to His lips. It was not a happy song, but it was a song nonetheless. Click To Tweet
The mocking, I imagine, was similar to that of the captors mentioned in Psalm 137. It was as if they were saying to Jesus, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
And Jesus did this as He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He brought a song to His lips. It was not a happy song, but it was a song nonetheless.
The words Jesus spoke at this moment of pain and forsakenness are from the lamentations that begin Psalm 22. This psalm starts with instructions from King David, its writer, to the choirmaster; the directive even includes the tune to be used with its singing.
The Choice to Sing
There are many songs God has given us, and some are to be sung in the midst of disaster and desperation. In situations foreign to us, we cannot hang up our harps.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song?” We shall sing because we choose to sing.
Jesus thought of this psalm rather than the words hurled at Him from those beside Him and beneath Him at Calvary. He spoke them, and in the power of them, He finished His great work of redemption.
It was a triumph of meekness, the victory of One so powerful who chose to mouth a psalm rather than call down the skies to crash upon His enemies.
For more on the power of meekness, watch “A Meek Mind Over All Matters,” a message from Thomas Schaller, pastor of Greater Grace Church in Baltimore.
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