Last week, exile was threatened; this week it is reality. The atrocities of war perpetrated against the people of God are well documented. Homes were destroyed, fields were set afire, destroying crops. And olive groves and vineyards were overrun. The Temple in Jerusalem was burned to the ground. The Babylonian armies left nothing untouched. Even so-called civilians were not exempt from the marauding armies of the Babylonians. Priests were killed, women were raped, and children were brutally murdered, perhaps by dashing them against rocks, in front of screaming and pleading parents. There was no mercy. The destruction was intended to be shocking and horrifying. And it accomplished its purposes well. Those who survived the powerful assault were rounded up, allowed to gather up only a few possessions that they could carry, and then they were marched off to Babylon as prisoners of war. The absolute demoralization of God’s people was complete.
Our Psalm this morning recalls the arrival of the people of God just outside of the boundaries of Babylon. Perhaps they had been marshaled there in a temporary camp while the Babylonian officials figured out what to do with them and how to divide them up in the various capacities that they would serve as slaves for the people of Babylon.
And there, in that camp, by the rivers of Babylon, a wearied and broken people sat down and wept. They were exhausted from their trek, their hearts were broken, and personal loss and grief was overwhelming them. Reality had set in, and it was devastating. All was lost. There was no hope. The words of hope that Jeremiah had been preaching to them seemed hollow and totally irrelevant.
And then, as if to rub salt into their wounds, and to torment them further, their captors demanded music of them. But not just any music: they demanded songs of joy and gladness, songs of mirth and songs of worship. “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” they cackled. Songs of Zion were songs of ascent. Songs of ascent were sung joyfully by throngs of happy people as they made their way up to the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals. They were songs of worship that celebrated the goodness and the power and authority of God. But now there is no Jerusalem, there is no pilgrimage to the city to joyfully celebrate. They are going down into a heathen city, not up into a holy city.
And the question arises, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” How can we sing songs of joy with broken and devastated hearts? And the answer for them was that they could not sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, and so in an act of corporate defiance and disobedience, they took their harps and they hung them up in the branches of the willow trees. And in that, there is a tiny bit of grace. In every devastating situation there is always a bit of grace, but it must be searched for and found. Along the rivers of Babylon, weeping willows grow in profusion. One of the songs of Zion speaks of the trees clapping their hands with joy. But here in this foreign land, if the brutal tormentors of God’s people will show them no mercy, then the trees in this heathen land will weep with them in sympathy. Grace can always be found if it is looked for.
Jerusalem, though it is gone, will not be forgotten. Even in the midst of utter loss, the city and the God that it represents will never be forgotten. It will always be a part of these people’s lives. And in that, there is incredible hope. The Psalmist, who is obviously a musician, prays that his right hand will wither and that his tongue will stick to the roof of his mouth, if he does not remember his God. He knows that one day he will again play his harp, and he will again sing the songs of Zion. He just doesn’t know when that will be.
And because he does not yet know when that will be, his anger in his devastation and loss is like an open and festering and raw wound. He wants vengeance. He expresses his feelings openly and honestly. He wants his brutal tormentors to suffer the same pain and agony that he has suffered. “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!”
We could be shocked by that sentiment, and maybe we are. But perhaps upon honest self examination we will discover that that shock is merely the product of our own self righteousness. For we, too, have experienced white hot anger when we have been the victims of human cruelty and torment. We, too, have wished for vengeance. And while we have not experienced the horrifying devastations that the Babylonians perpetrated against the people of God, we have suffered. And we have wanted vengeance, and perhaps we have even exacted it.
It is subtle, but also, I believe, intentional. Even though the Psalmist clearly wants vengeance against the Babylonians, he nowhere indicates that he hopes to accomplish it himself. He realizes that vengeance is out of the realm of his authority. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” and he knows it, and so do we.
So we return to the fundamental question of this Psalm. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Increasingly, and partly due to our own negligence, we Christians and the values that we hold, are becoming more and more foreign to the world around us. Things which once gave us a sense of security and well-being are no longer reliable or trustworthy. Even our own government seems to be spiraling down a path of wanton self-destruction. At some point, we will have to discover that security and peace can only come from our abiding and constant relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. And so the only answer to the question, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Is that we must sing it. We must join together with one voice, singing the songs of ascent, singing the songs of worship and the songs of joy. We must place our hope and trust in the living God, and in the living God alone. We must proclaim the goodness and the love of God in every place, no matter how foreign or how hostile that place may be. And we must begin by proclaiming it among ourselves in worship together, so that we can be strengthened and encouraged by one another to live our lives faithfully in this increasingly foreign land. And, as we sing the Lord’s song, we will find ourselves praying down reconciliation and peace, not judgment and vengeance, so that by our witness, all enmity and bitterness will be laid to rest forever.