Many of the Psalms come with their own story. The story of Psalm137 is one of loss and exile, so grievous and bitter that it emerges here with expressions of rage that we find it hard to deal with. We note briefly the story behind the psalm, with the basic movements within the psalmist’s own mind. We move then to our own experiences of exile and loss and ask, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in the midst of exile and loss?” The Psalmist asks this as a rhetorical question assuming that we cannot. The truth is that we sing the Lord’s song, even in great distress. How?
The context is clear: Exiled Jews sat down beside the rivers in Babylon, and they wept as they remembered their home in Jerusalem. Somewhere around 930 BC the kingdom of Israel (united under David and Solomon) divided in two. The northern kingdom of Israel lasted for about 200 years until the Assyrians carried their leaders off into captivity. About 130 years later the southern kingdom of Judah fell, in stages over about 15 years. The Babylonian Empire carried off their political and religious leaders to Babylon. This Psalm was written, then, soon after these deportations (about 580 years BC). An old rabbinical tradition states that Jeremiah wrote the psalm, and it certainly reminds one of Jeremiah’s laments, although he was not taken to Babylon, but to Egypt, where he died.
The Psalmist’s Lament
We see two basic ideas in the Psalm:
1A) Their captors are tormenting the Jews by mocking them with invitations to sing “the songs of Zion”. The Psalmist responds that he cannot sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. He knows the songs. Indeed he calls on God to strike him down with something that would look to us like a stroke if he would dare to forget them. But he cannot sing the songs.
1B) But the Psalmist also says he cannot forget the songs. if he forgets Jerusalem he may as well die. This is our experience. We hurt too much to sing the Lord's songs, but we cannot do anything other than sing. A real case of the Babylonian Blues.
2A) From depression (anger turned inwards) at his own distress the Psalmist turns his anger outwards: first against the Edomites who had taken part in the sack of Jerusalem, and then against Babylon itself. The final verses are so bitter that I have never heard them read out loud in church—even this morning we left them out.
2B) Remember that this psalm tells a story of loss and exile, of the pain and hurt that people experience in this world. It does not tell us what we should do, but what exile feels like. Assume for a moment that Jeremiah felt what this Psalm expresses, which I think is highly likely. Then hear what Jeremiah wrote to the exiles who were grieving and in such pain. Jeremiah 29 gives the text of a letter that he wrote from his place in Israel to the exiles in Babylon:
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Seek the peace of the city that destroyed you! This is radically different from Psalm 137, but we make a mistake if we try to erase the anger and bitterness of the psalm and move quickly to Jeremiah 29. Consider our own stories, as we seek to move beyond pain and bitterness to the integration of Jeremiah 29.
Our Own Stories
I grew up in Zambia and Zimbabwe. When I was 15 my parents moved to Pennsylvania, and I became an immigrant—an exile in a strange land. Since then I have lived in Pennsylvania and Indiana (and briefly in Kentucky), as well as back in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Then God planted me in Steinbach, and I now sing the Lord’s songs in a new strange land called Canada.
Growing up, I did not realize that such moving is not the only way to live. I just assumed that you move, and that you live with recurring loss. Last May we held a symposium at Providence on the experiences of missionary families. A common theme from different families was that of loss. Even among those whose commitment to follow Jesus was clear and strong, there was hurt and pain associated with moving back and forth. There are many rewards that missionaries (who we might call “gospel immigrants”) experience; and there are also many losses. We continue to sing the Lord’s songs, but sometimes we sing a bit off-key.
In our own experience a particularly painful time came during our last full year in Zimbabwe. We were scheduled to return to the USA in December 1990, but were considering staying longer to take advantage of my work permit. Then Lois’ parents called us in September. They told us that Dad had cancer, and that he would likely live for another seven months. We wrapped up our affairs and returned on schedule just before Christmas. Dad died at the end of March. I remember going to church in the months following and trying to sing. It is hard to sing the Lord’s songs when you are grieving, in pain, consumed with loss. We healed over time, and God’s goodness and love have become abundantly clear, but I can understand the psalmist.
I had a further struggle when we visited Zimbabwe for seven months in 1992. This was my home, and I knew that we would not live there for any length of time again. I remember one of the Lord’s songs that helped me come to terms with loss. August 1992—General Conference at Wanezi—I sat in a special service at the end of conference. The evangelist, a South African named Shadrack Maloka, started singing in the middle of his message: “Mayenziwe intando yakho”. Words from the Lord’s prayer: Your will be done. As we sang I cried, and found healing for the loss that is part of this life.
We could tell many stories from this congregation, of people who emigrated from Russia under great pressure. Some lost all that they had. One couple in our church has told the story of how they were separated in Europe while they made their way to Canada. Somehow they were re-united in Canada. One of my friends at Providence sings in the Faith and Life women’s choir. She herself is Japanese Canadian, but she has learned to sing German Mennonite hymns. She tells me that there are always damp eyes in the audience as they sing these songs: Singing the songs of Zion in a strange land. But we Mennonites don’t express the anger and hurt that went with the loss of home and country in emigrating to Canada. Is it because there was none? Or because we repressed it?
A friend of mine tells the story of his own move from China to Canada. He was born in China, son of missionary parents, and lived there until his family was forced to leave during the Communist Revolution in 1950, a 15-year old boy. He tells how they crossed into Hong Kong and then sat down on their suitcases to wait for instructions. They had learned under the Communists never to show any feeling and to do only what they were told to do. An official asked what they were waiting for. “For someone to tell us what to do.” “You’re in the Free Territory of Hong Kong now. You can do whatever you want.”
He did not realize how deeply that expulsion had scarred him until many years later, when he suffered the symptoms of PTSD. Then, as a pastor in Atlantic Canada, he attended Acadia University studying for a doctoral degree. One day he was assigned to teach a class on liberation theology. He prepared the lesson, and as he drove to Acadia he thought of a Scripture to begin with. He decided on Psalm 137. He began the reading without expecting to feel anything in particular, but then, as he read, the feelings from their expulsion surfaced. He felt fully the anger and rage and bitterness that he had repressed all those years ago as a 15-year old. He read the last verses, which we leave out, with real venom, and then he closed his Bible and slammed it down on the table in front of him. It bounced across the table, hit the blackboard, and fell to the floor.
The class sat there stunned. For a minute or two there was complete silence. As the adrenalin receded and he regained control of his emotions, he said, “Today we will critique Liberation Theology, but always remember that Liberation Theologians have lived this Psalm.” After the class was over, the students wanted to know what had happened, and they spent another hour or more talking over the way that his own experience of exile had informed his reading. His experience helps us to move forward.
Exiles on Earth
The fact is that we are all exiles on this earth who have experienced pain and loss. Whether we describe the experience of refugees and immigrants, including many in our own congregation, or whether we think of the journey of life more generally, we are all in exile on this earth. In Philippians 3:19 Paul describes the way that “earthly people” live: “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” In contrast, he says of us, “But our citizenship is in heaven.” Again in Ephesians 2:19-22 Paul describes the way that Jews and Gentiles alike become God’s people: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
We belong to Heaven as we travel through this world. So in Zimbabwe we sing, “Si nga abahambayo thina kolumhlaba. Siyekhaya ezulwini.” “We are pilgrims in this world travelling to Heaven.” This means both that we struggle to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land of grief and loss, and that we have the Lord’s song planted in us precisely so that we will sing it in this world of grief and loss.
Some Simple Steps
So how can we sing the songs of Zion as exiles in this world? Now is not the time to analyse in depth the way that we respond to grief and loss to discover God’s presence and joy. Instead I suggest a few simple steps. No guarantees; just my conviction that these steps are necessary in the journey.
1) Admit the pain and grief you experience. One of my students at Providence is a counsellor at a Pentecostal college. She tells me that Pentecostals have this idea that we have to move straight from pain and loss to victory, and as a result they often fail to grieve fully. Maybe Mennonites are closet Pentecostals!
Take a lesson from the Psalmist. No matter how bad your life is, no matter how difficult and deep your pain is, you can cry your anguish out to God. When Al read the psalm and slammed his Bible down on the table, the open expression of grief and pain was an important step in his healing. Before we can do anything else, we own our pain, we admit our grief, and we cry our anguish out before our Creator. God honours us when we cry out to him.
Don’t rush it. Sometimes you have to let the hurt alone before you can feel it fully. The impulse to avoid the grief in our lives is sometimes the best first step. But I can tell you that you won’t heal until you do bring the inner wound into the open.
3) Don’t confuse the grief itself with what God wants in our lives. Jeremiah makes it clear that God wants us to prosper, and that we can pray for the peace and prosperity of the world in which we live in exile. As the world around us discovers God’s peace and wholeness, God’s Shalom, we also find peace. God does not want us to remain stuck in pain and hurt. God wants us to heal. Notice that Jeremiah describes the exile as God’s doing. Healing is also God’s doing.
4) God wants to give us joy. The world doesn’t really want joy; it wants to be happy. God doesn’t really care if we’re happy or not—happiness is too shallow to describe what God wants to give us. You have heard Randy give the benediction often: “May God give you everlasting joy, peace, hope.” But I have never heard him pray, “May God make you happy”; not because God wants us to be unhappy, but because God wants us to have his life deep within us, to live forever as citizens of Heaven, with God’s joy and peace and everlasting love. Being happy is fun, but it is only a by-product of something deeper and greater: God’s peace and joy.
Somehow, in ways that I don’t understand, the grief and hurt of exile in this world is the way that God gives us the deepest most powerful joys possible. Listen to the way that Paul describes it in Philippians 4:11-13: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
Paul applies this attitude here to a gift the Philippians had collected for him, but it represents his attitude towards the whole of life. We could have read the last part of Romans 8, or the beginning of 2 Corinthians 6, or 2 Corinthians 12; in each case we would have found the same basic idea. We are exiles on earth, and God uses the pain and trouble and heartache of our lives to prepare us for the eternal joy of Heaven. The psalmist may not have understood this journey fully, but crying out his hurt and anger and pain to God he took another step on that journey.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
9 August 2015
Text: Psalm 137
Appendix, From the Epistle to Diognetus, chapter 6:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.