Singing in a Strange Land

For there they that led us captive required of us songs / and they that wasted us required of us mirth / “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing YHWH’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137:3-4)

The agony is palpable.

The historical books of the Bible tell us the story of the people of God, and generally do so in a rather straightforward fashion. So it is in 2 Kings 25:21, tersely declaring that Judah was exiled out of its land. The shock, the agony, the horror, and the astonishment of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the exile of its people would find its voice elsewhere in Scripture. Few places prove as compelling as Psalm 137:1-6.

The Psalter communicated much simply by placing Psalm 137 in its current location. Psalms 120-134 are the “songs of ascent,” which we believe were sung as pilgrims would ascend the hill country of Judah to approach Jerusalem and Zion, where YHWH made His name to dwell. Psalm 135 praises YHWH as Creator, the God of Israel who destroyed their enemies, and the One True God, no dumb and mute idol. Psalm 136 is the grand call and response powerfully affirming YHWH as the Creator God of Israel, who has done great things, who delivered Israel from his adversaries, and who continues to provide, for His covenant loyalty/lovingkindness (Hebrew hesed) endures forever.

But then Israel sat by the waters of Babylon, and cried when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1). They hung up their musical instruments upon the willows (Psalm 137:2). The victorious Babylonians, pagans vaunting over their defeat of the people of YHWH, demand to hear the songs of Zion (Psalm 137:3). The Psalmist’s question rang out: how could they sing YHWH’s song in a strange, alien, foreign, and pagan land (Psalm 137:4)? The Psalmist would go on to resolve to never forget Jerusalem; he would rather forget his skill and never speak a word again before he would forget Jerusalem or enjoy anything above it (Psalm 137:5-6).

Ferdinand Olivier 001

We can barely begin to imagine the trauma of exile for those in Israel. Everything they knew and believed about themselves had literally been dashed to pieces in front of their eyes. They watched as thousands of their fellow Israelites, fellow people of God, died from famine, plague, and sword. They watched as the pagans ransacked the holy places of YHWH, whom they had believed to have been the God of Israel, who maintained covenant loyalty, and who overcame Israel’s adversaries. They were led to a distant land as the spoils of war, a land of strange tongues and stranger customs. Nothing could ever be the same again. Who would they become? What happened to YHWH’s promise? How had He let this happen to His people? How could they sing the songs of ascent to Zion when no such ascent proved possible? How could they sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land?

Without a doubt exile began as an extremely disorienting experience for Israel. Many would apostatize, believing the lie that might makes right, buying into the Babylonian propaganda. Yet for many the exile would prove the catalyst unto greater faithfulness; YHWH really was not only the God of Israel but the One True God, the God of heaven. He judged His people on account of their continual rejection of His purposes; Israel deserved far worse than it actually received. YHWH would again visit His people and bring them out of exile; He would again choose Jerusalem and Zion; Israel would again sing YHWH’s song in His land (Isaiah 40:1-5, Zechariah 2:10-12).

When Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian monarchy and took over the empire, Israel was allowed to return to its land (Ezra 1:1-4). And yet the exile was not fully over; Israel was still captive to foreign powers. Their long exile would only find its satisfaction in Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH in the flesh, having returned to His people, defeating sin and death through His death and resurrection, in His ascension establishing a dominion which would have no end (Daniel 7:13-14, John 2:14-22, Acts 2:36). Israel, and all mankind, received access to God through Jesus, and could become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, with all the rights and privileges thereof (Ephesians 2:1-18, Philippians 3:20).

Yet before the people of God can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, they must also experience exile. As Christians we live as exiles and sojourners in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11); we live in its midst, ought to pray for peace and the salvation of all men, and do what is honorable among all, but we cannot love this world, cannot be friends with it, and cannot live according to its customs (Romans 12:1-2, 17, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, James 4:3-5, 1 John 2:15-17). We will be thought strange and consider the ideas and customs around us as strange (1 Peter 4:3-4); no matter how much we may look for a home and security, we will not find it here.

As with Israel, so with us: exile begins as a very disorienting experience. We also are tempted to apostatize, to believe the lie that might makes right, to buy into the propaganda of our nation and our cultural ideology (Romans 12:2). But our exile is designed to prove the catalyst for greater faithfulness, to prove the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:1, 6-7). It is through the crucible of exile that we learn that God is the One True God, who has made Himself known through His Son, and that the only hope of the world is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is through the crucible of exile that we come to understand that the world is out for its own, does not glorify what God would have glorified, and that whatever we have experienced is far less worse than what we have deserved. It is through the crucible of exile that we learn to anchor ourselves in our great confidence and hope that Jesus will return again to gather His people to Him, that we will rise and forever be with the Lord, and dwell in His presence in the resurrection forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

It does seem difficult to sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land. Yet we must remember that God has already obtained the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, and we will prove more than conquerors if we remain faithful to Him (Romans 8:37, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). The day is coming on which we will sing a new song and the song of Moses and the Lamb before the throne (Revelation 5:9-10, 15:3-4); until then, we do well to sing the songs of Zion even in a strange land, glorifying God for what He has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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