By the Waters of Babylon We Wept
One of the words used (overused!) to describe our current situation is “unprecedented.” It’s true that we are experiencing things that we may personally have never known, but it is equally true that the human experience throughout history has been filled with similar trials—including the history of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments. We read in the Bible about times of famine, exile, cities under siege, plagues, and even house arrest (which is how some of us are feeling). While in many cases the events of the past were more severe than our current trial, many of the biblical passages from such times are more relatable to us today because of the ways COVID-19 has disrupted our world.
Psalm 137 is one those passages. It gives expression to one of the saddest and darkest experiences of God’s people: exile in Babylon. “Every line of it,” one writer explains, “is alive with pain” (D. Kidner). Especially the ending. But it’s also a psalm that is alive with hope in the midst of pain. The psalmist recalls the taunts of their captors and tormentors: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (vs. 3)—that is, songs about a cherished time and place that used to be. Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed and the people of God exiled to a foreign land. To require such songs in such a time and place was to add insult to injury.
For most of us, our current “exile” is minor by comparison. For others, especially those who have lost loved ones, or even jobs, the feeling is all too familiar: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song [in such a situation]?” (vs. 4). There are times when we can’t imagine singing the songs we once sang. Yet, (and this is where we learn from the psalmist) the people of God are “not driven to despair” (2 Cor. 4:8). Verse 5 and 6 of the psalm express a deep resolve to never forget the covenant faithfulness of God or to settle for any lesser joy than that which comes to the faithful people of God.
Having life disrupted in frustrating and devastating ways is not unprecedented in the least. That doesn’t make it feel better, but it does at least cause us to look back and see that in every dark and discouraging time that preceded this one, there have been those among God’s people who have held on to hope even when they couldn’t sing. Sometimes it’s the times when we can’t sing that remind us most poignantly of what it was we were singing about in the first place.