“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!’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song
in a foreign land?”
(Psalm 137:1-4 ESV)
You can feel the sorrow, the anguish, and the pathos. This is the cry of the captive Jew taken from his homeland down to Babylon. ‘On the willows there/we hung up our lyres.’ How do you make music in captivity? How can you rejoice in the land of the oppressor? Jerusalem was the location of the temple, signifying the throne of God on earth. It was the privilege of the Israelites to be the chosen people of God among whom He dwells. The songs of Zion were songs of worship sung in the temple; they were unique to the people of God.
Jeremiah would go on to deliver a message to these captives, encouraging them to seek the good of the city, in spite of their captivity:
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:7)
Yes, they were captives. And, yes, they were forcibly removed from their homeland. Yet, God was using their presence as a means of blessing their captors. Here was the Jewish community, God’s chosen people, bringing God’s blessings to the gentiles. Here was the seed of Abraham blessing the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). This was the Gospel in infancy. Prior to this time, God’s saving grace was largely confined to the Israelites. Now it was flowing out to the nations. As Paul would later write in Romans 11, the gentiles were being grafted into the tree of the original Jewish church. And as that happens, we cannot help bursting into praise alongside Paul:
“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33)
The songs of Zion were becoming the songs of the nations.
Isaiah wrote of a future time when the captive Jews will return to their homeland and be able to sing the song of Zion once more:
“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa. 35:10)
But the very context of this passage indicates that this passage points beyond the return of the Jewish captives to their homeland in 538/539 BC. It looked forward to a time when ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped’ (v. 5), a reference to the ministry of Jesus. It also speaks of when ‘waters shall burst forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert’ (v. 6), a picture of the era initiated by the coming of Christ and to be completed at his return (cf. Isa. 43: 19; 44:3-5; Joel 2:28).
What was confined to the Jew has been made available to all nations. The dwelling place of God is no longer just with Israel, it is being extended to all – to all humanity who place their faith in the Redeemer. And eventually, all humanity shall come together to sing that song of Zion. As John observed in his vision of the end of history:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and he will be their God.” (Rev. 21:3)
God’s revelation leads us to look forward to that time when the Lord’s song will be sung by a great multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9)
And what song would they sing?
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (v.10)
May we, through faith in Christ, be found a part of that joyful choir.