The Weight of Seasonal Change
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
There are different seasons of our life that we have different feelings. Before giving birth to your first child or getting married, you might have a certain anticipation and excitement about the unknown. Before your first day on the job, you might have a certain fear of not measuring up or of not being sure whether you have the skills your new employer thinks you have. And for Israel, by the waters of Babylon, they experienced a deep mourning. And perhaps for All Nations now as we turn this final leaf, we might be running more the course of sadness or perhaps of being lost and not being known.
If we think of those Israelites, they had seen their homeland burned, the smell of everything aflame seared in their memory. Off they were led away to a distant land. And since we have a prophetic, scriptural author here, I think he must have known it was a work of the Lord to empty the land, but it didn’t soften the blow. They sat and wept by the waters of Babylon. Who knows how they felt there at a river or canal in a foreign land. The city of ancient Babylon was split by a river, you could probably see the massive fortifications, the central temple (a ziggurat), the citadel, the hanging gardens, and the king’s palaces (I assume they would have been able to see the monumental buildings from across the river), but for the Israelites, this capital city of the ancient world wasn’t glorious, and sitting by the river wasn’t necessarily the idyllic place to be. It was there at the river that they sat and wept. With the splendor of Babylon all around them, they mourned the loss of their home and the temple of Yahweh, the true God. This place wasn’t glorious to them. Their captors made them sing songs. How could they sing of glory when they’ve been forced away from their home? How could they sing of Jerusalem in this den of wickedness, Babylon? For those whom God had preserved from death, this was the life they were called to live. And it probably felt insignificant.
Ami mentioned a conversation she had recently with someone reminiscing about life, they said: ‘you build up things the first half of your life only for them to seemingly be torn down.’ Although we might begin with hope of vitality in life, somehow the curse of God against Adam and Eve hits all of us. No one can escape suffering forever. And it hit these exiles hard. But they were to establish their lives in the land, and those who did handed on the teaching of Yahweh to the next generation and the next. Paul rightly says, ‘But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.’ Contentment is especially hard when you have to suffer or when you’ve been called into exile. And yet, it was through this exile that God would eventually raise up Jesus. Those by the waters might or might not have been thinking so far in advance, but God was. He was going to preserve his people in his great mercy, and he was going to accomplish salvation in Christ so that they might taste a fuller mercy.
But the truth that God would continue to raise up their offspring through to Jesus didn’t fully alleviate their pain and sorrow. So yes, they would sing, first so as not to forget where they came from, and second, to bring the prayers of the martyrs to the throne of God. It is a bit shocking. Edom betrayed his brother, and Babylon destroyed the city. The song Israel sings is the song for God to bring justice against Edom and Babylon. We’re reminded of the message of Revelation: the halo of the rainbow around the throne of God reminds God of his mercy to those who are devoted to him, and the martyrs cry, ‘How long?’ The imprecation of Psalm 137 isn’t abnormal. It is the cry of the earth since Adam and Eve first sinned and Cain shed the blood of his brother Abel.
In difficult circumstances, we are often left not knowing why. Even some of the Israelites who were exiled must have wondered why them. Why can’t God have exiled the wicked and left the righteous in peace? When we are serving a parent who is in hospice or we have regularly gotten medical tests to try to answer our stubborn pain, we don’t often get the answer we want if there are answers at all. What can we do in suffering? What can we do in our time of waiting? We can approach the throne of grace in our time of need and find an open ear and the greatest mercy. For those in Christ, the throne is not a place of fear but of mercy. And like the martyrs, we can find rest in the merciful and great high priest in times of difficulty and injustice. His burden is light.
I think too, we are called to live with hope. After the mourning of Psalm 137 the book of Psalms leads us to sing songs of triumphant praise. We can only praise when we’re living with a hope that understands this Babylonian captivity. Praise borne out of suffering is a weathered but sturdy praise. In Christ, there is the hope of the resurrection of the dead. Once we’ve felt Babylon, we know more wonderfully the grace of resurrection. And in the meantime, God is at work in us to sanctify and through us to gospelize. And so we endure our present sufferings because of hope. ‘This light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’
And I think this too applies to what Brian D. said on Sunday. When the king gives moving orders, we follow, since we are at the service of the king. We cannot understand the reasons for the Lord moving us on right now, but we know that he will guide by his hand to accomplish his glorious purposes for his name’s sake. And that is enough, wherever he calls us.