How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
There is a clear ache in the words of the psalmist. In fact, the first Hebrew word of the verse sounds like the English word “ache,” and the writhing emotional pain of the human writer seeps between each word. A literal translation into the vernacular would render the last phrase, “on the foreigner’s turf,” describing not only a geographic change but a change from all that was familiar and dear, all that would direct their thoughts to their God and the community of faith.
There was failure in the words, because they had been taken captive to Babylon by their conquerors and made to serve them while the memories of the siege and the mass murder of their kindred and friends remained firmly in their heads. This was not only the shame of a military defeat, but also the guilt of a spiritual failure – for the real cause of their failure had been their sin and godlessness. It would have been easier for the prodigal to sing about the love of his father in the pig sty.
There is a point to going through grief and bereavement, to accepting its reality and weeping and admitting our true circumstance. David had written, “weeping may endure for a night,” and he used the words metaphorically – in truth weeping may endure for longer than a night – but the promise of the next line is still sure, “But joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Elsewhere we read, “The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
The Lord’s song can be sung in a new circumstance, but it may take our hearts awhile to do so sincerely. Paul and Silas could sing in a Philippian jail, but let’s not imagine that they reached this spiritual level in an instant, or that they each would have been able to do it had they been completely alone. They had grown in their faith, through their knowledge and their experiences, by the word of God and the Spirit of God and their fellowship with sincere believers. They had each other for support and mutual strengthening – but it was no less a miracle that they still sang and rejoiced in difficulty.
We need Christian relationships where we can be honest and share our pain, because by doing so we also share our consolation and strength in Christ. The pain passes in time, we move to higher ground more mature, more secure in Him, and even the tragedy of failure and sorrow, shame and guilt, are eased by the Holy Spirit. We can sing the Lord’s song anywhere, and the place is not as essential as the attitude of our hearts.
Much of our religion is no more than nostalgia. Let go of the sweet memories that have nothing really to do with the living God and let the living Christ instead be the center of your heart’s affections. Let the loss you feel be used of Him for His holy purposes, to strengthen and to mature you, and there will be a time that you can sing the new song He places in your heart, for the glory of God. After all, in heaven we will not be singing sweet songs about “the church in the wildwood” but victorious songs of praise for the living Savior. God does a much greater work in our hearts than nostalgia can do alone!
William Pierson Merrill wrote: “Rise up, oh men of God! Have done with lesser things.” The lesser things of sentimentality are not evil in and of themselves. Who would want to live without some memories!? But the work of God is always new and fresh, and because of Him we can always look forward with hope, not backward with despair. The psalmist wrote, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance” (Psalm 42:5 KJV). The countenance of God refers to His face, and in the moments that our hearts are disquieted we will find the deeper experience of a new encounter with the living God if we will turn to Him. And our faith need be no stronger than that, a simple willingness to turn to Him, to seek Him. He is near the brokenhearted.