Last week, I read through Psalm 137 and it reminded me of the 70’s song “By the Rivers of Babylon” written and sung by the group, Melodians. Now I am not trying to date myself, however, I thought everyone would remember that pop song but alas, not so much. The song opens with the lyrics; “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept--when we remembered Zion.” The Reggae style of music is catchy and tends to stick with me all day long. To be honest, I know the words are taken directly from the Bible, but I have not really paid attention to the whole story behind the song. The lyrics of the song stop short of giving us the full measure of the despair and anger of the people of Israel as they were taken into captivity by the super powerful Babylonians. The words describe a lost nation, who were filled with a longing for the past and who saw no hope for the future.
How often, when we are struggling with events in life or when we feel misunderstood, do we feel abandoned and have no hope? Sometimes, we comfort ourselves, by thinking that “God knows my heart” or “God knows that I mean well.” We want to present our best selves to God as faithful believers who trust that God knows our hearts and our intentions to be good. When we are happy and content, it is easy to come before God and offer praises. However, when we are in the midst of struggle and when we feel anger at a spouse, or the hate of a contentious divorce battle or when our depression takes us to a very dark place, it is not as easy to seek God’s favor. In the text, Israel was a nation, with a deep history of song but who could no longer sing. This nation, who once had a deep and abiding relationship with their God, felt forgotten by their God. This nation, whose home was now destroyed, feared they would never see its glory again. They wanted revenge. They admitted their anger, fear, and hate to themselves but more importantly to God.
The Psalmist shows us how we too can live in and through real life events and express our fears and doubts to the Almighty. Our world doesn’t look so different from theirs. We may not be physically taken captive, as they were, however there are life circumstances that hold us hostage. Our captors might include crippling debt, substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment or serious health issues, which keeps us in a place of devastation with little hope for the future. It is in these dark times that we ought to be the most honest with God and ourselves. Without these times of trial, we would not recognize our need to turn to someone bigger than us for comfort and peace. I think that is what is so special about the rawness of emotion that the Psalmist writes. The lament of Israel does not end in despair but in the very next chapter, they once again sing praises of thankfulness that God hears their cries and that God has never left them but is in the midst of their struggles.
I don’t want to diminish their pain and anger they feel right then and there. It has been my practice not to voice my feelings but to “gunnysack” them because I often think that my issues aren’t as bad as what other people suffer. Two of my good friends, on two different occasions, have encouraged me to not diminish or hide what I am feeling as unimportant. They told me to own them and once my feelings are recognized and accepted, I am better able to use them to discover how to identify my triggers and grow in understanding of others and myself. This is what is so real about Psalm 137. Israel was struggling with all sorts of emotions and they readily admit to them. Even though they would not be free from captivity for years they still believed that God was listening and was with them in the foreign land of Babylon. They were hope-filled that they could voice their despair and yet God would remain with them. Because of their experience in captivity, they learned the value of obedience and found hope in in God’s faithfulness to His chosen people. Some days, we too may have to hang up our harps, sit on the banks of a river to weep, rant and rave because life just wears us down. Then we, like Israel, must find a way to get up and march on with a hope-filled heart that God is with us in the midst of our daily struggles. “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”