How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land Psalm 137:1-6

We are living in strange times. Indeed one church I know has renamed its weekly newsletter “Strange Times”. We are now more than a month into this strange new world. So much has changed. We can only go out of the house for specific reasons. We aren’t allowed to travel. Very many people have stopped doing most of the things they would usually do. Many of those are the very things which usually give our lives satisfaction, purpose and meaning. We may well be anxious and scared about what this uncertain future holds for us.
At the same time we are all distanced from most if not all of the people we care most about. We may well be very worried about them, especially if they are ill or particularly at risk. Chatting on the phone or WhatsApp or Facebook or Zoom is not the same as being together in person.
It is completely natural that many of us are experiencing these changes and constraints as a form of bereavement. We find ourselves feeling grief for everything we have lost. When somebody dies people usually go through different stages. We may begin by denying the reality of the loss. Then we can become angry, with the world or with ourselves or with God. We can be overwhelmed with sadness. It is common to feel numb or to lose energy and motivation for a time. After a bereavement some people can even experience depression before they reach the final stage of acceptance, accepting that what is gone has gone and learning to live life differently. In these days very many of us are still in the early stages of mourning for those aspects of our lives which have gone during this lockdown, and particularly for being cut off from family and friends. We need to give ourselves space to grieve, as we would when a loved one has died, as we are grapple to adjust to the new reality imposed upon us.
The Israelites knew all about grief. In 587 BC the Babylonian Empire overran the nation of Israel. They destroyed the capital city Jerusalem and they destroyed the heart of Israel’s religion, the Temple which Solomon had built four hundred years earlier. The national identity and the faith of Israel were snatched away from them, and most of their relatives and friends were murdered. Then the Babylonians took the surviving Israelites off into Exile in little groups scattered all over the place.
The Israelites knew all about mourning over what they had lost. Psalm 137 is one of their hymns of lament written in the time of the Exile. It expresses their desperate sadness in the new situation they found themselves in.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
At this time more than ever, perhaps we can understand why it was that in Exile in Babylon the Israelites were finding it impossible to sing joyful songs about Mount Zion and the Holy City of Jerusalem. These were gone forever. The Israelites were deep in mourning. We can understand the anger which is expressed at the end of the Psalm, calling down judgment and destruction against those who had destroyed Jerusalem and taken the Exiles into captivity.
7 Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
‘Tear it down,’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations!’
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Those verses remind us of the truth that we can always feel free to tell God how we are really feeling. Our prayers are always allowed to be open and honest even when we are feeling sad or depressed or angry or grieving.
In this period of lockdown, we may well feel as if we too are in Exile, cut off from so many aspects of life we knew before. Cut off from family and friends and neighbours and work and shops and cafes and trips to the seaside. Cut off from Worship and Bible Study and Fellowship and all those precious things church brings to us. We may feel like the exiles and be asking the same question they did.
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
How CAN we rejoice in God when we are cut off from so many of the usual expressions of our faith? How can we worship? How can we still learn and grow? How can we pray? How can we encourage and support one another when we cannot gather together as we always have done to do these things?
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
The first thing we need to do is to accept the reality of this strange new world. Some folk are making the mistake of expecting everything to go back to normal in a few weeks’ time. That is not going to happen. As far as church is concerned, we ministers are having discussions about when churches might be open again and we generally agree that starting Sunday services again is going to be months rather than weeks away. One major reason for this is because of the 12 week isolation period recommended for our older members and other people with medical conditions. We need to accept that we are in exile and that we are going to be so for quite a while yet.
So we need to find out how to sing the Lord’s songs in this foreign land. The Israelites clung on firmly to the life and the faith they had known before Jerusalem was destroyed.
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
In the same way, we should not forget all the ways God has blessed us in the past. We look for ways to express our faith in praying and Bible reading and study and praise and worship individually. But we are not able to meet at church or in each other’s homes at the moment, just as the Israelites had lost their spiritual home in Jerusalem and the Temple. So we are also needing to discover ways to continue to pray and learn and worship all together and in smaller groups from our separate homes, as well as doing so as individuals.
God used the time of Exile to refine and purify his chosen people Israel. The Israelites learned to put their trust in God again, and they discovered that his promises could be trusted even though they were scattered and far from their spiritual home. God blessed them and renewed their faith in those years. And in this time of exile God will bless us too. We will have opportunities to draw close to God and deepen our faith. He will teach us to trust in him more, as we learn to depend on him alone. And in these strange times each of us need to find our own answers to that vital question:
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

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