Editorial note: This article is the manuscript version of a sermon presented by Admiral Black at the Toronto Satellite Ministers' Professional Growth Seminar in March 2000.
On gaunt hills rest the ruins of a city. It had once been the capital and religious shrine of a proud and prosperous people. Its walls and towers stood regal against the sky. The golden dome of its magnificent temple gleamed in the light of the noonday sun. Long caravans meandered in and out of the gates of its market places. Everywhere the blessing of God could be seen.
But the people of this city turned from God. They were selfish and unprincipled, and their sin brought them low. For "righteousness exalts a nation" (Prov. 14:34), but sin is an equal-opportunity destroyer. Fire and sword ravished the city, and its citizens were carried away as captives to Babylon.
We encounter some of these captives, sit ting by Babylonian rivers in the 137th Psalm.
This psalm highlights a communal lament uttered by a people who knew the pain of exile. Once in the land of exile, the Israelites were spared many hardships, but there was one grief that seemed almost beyond bearing. The sorrow triggered by the loss of Zion seemed overwhelming to them.
Babylonian dainties were tainted by captors' taunts: "Sing us one of the songs of Zion" (verse 3). "Celebrate for us the majesty and the protection provided by your God." Hence, in the midst of plenty, exiled Israel declared the mournful lamentation and query, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" (verse 4) And they refused to sing. And they placed their harps, silent on willow branches by the river (verse 1).
Israel's decision to remain mute, to hang up their harps, was a mistake. They refused to sing of Zion's glories because their capital city lay in ruins and their loved ones had been destroyed by this heathen power. In refusing to take up their harps, they saw themselves in a noble light but the truth is that they missed a great opportunity. By singing they could have demonstrated the efficacy of gratitude. Does not the Scripture challenge us to "Give thanks in every thing" (1 Thes. 5:18). They could have shown that God's presence is not limited by geography and that nothing can "separate us from [His] love" (Rom. 8:38). Instead, they decided to hang it up, to swallow their pain, to hold their peace.
Singing the Lord's song anyway
The challenge of singing the Lord's song in a strange land is not new. Many are faced with the dilemma of how to bring personal spirituality into the work place, without appearing to be overzealous. Others find it difficult to sing, to remain optimistic in the face of failures, setbacks, or loss. Some seem temperamentally predisposed to pessimism. Others permit sins to steal their joy, refusing to confess or forsake them. Instead they hang it up, putting their harps in storage, refusing to sing on foreign soil.
And is it not true that often we feel the strangeness of our land? When one million men are raped in prisons each year, are we not reminded of this land's strangeness? And does it not seem like foreign soil when we hear about child abuse, weapons in schools, or gratuitous violence in our various forms of entertainment? This world is not our home.
Israel should have sung. Yes, music and mirth were far from their hearts. Yes, anger and a desire for revenge buffeted their spirits. Yes, God seemed so far away. But the strangeness of our circumstances is no excuse for hanging up our harps. Jesus left us an example of singing in the rain of suffering and even approaching death. Moreover, praise brings deliverance. Israel should have sung.
We can refuse to hang it up by making a commitment to three simple practices:
First, we must refuse to use the strange circumstances as an excuse. Second, we should follow Jesus' example in the way He sang through the pain. And finally, we should permit praise to bring deliverance. Practicing these three simple things can have a liberating impact in our lives.
Refuse to use strange circumstances as an excuse
Often we behave as if our trial is unique. But 1 Corinthians 10:31 reminds us that the tests we face are common to humanity. Others are traveling with us in the strange country of failure, frustration, and fear, and many of these saints have learned to sing in spite of struggle. We are, there fore, without excuse.
A minister friend of mine sought to provide solace for a woman who had endured the anguish of having her leg amputated. When he entered the hospital room, instead of having to cheer her, she lifted his spirits. She said, "Pastor, thank God it's as good as it is! I could have lost both legs." She had learned to sing the Lord's song in a foreign country.
Later, in Babylon, the Hebrew worthies, Daniel and his compatriots, would refuse to make excuses. They purposed in their hearts to maintain a diet that would honor God. They were determined not to deviate from strict integrity and refused to bow when the music played. They heard another melody, a heavenly one that empowered them to live with honor, even on foreign soil.
Once a friend urged Socrates to avail himself of the opportunity to escape death. (Discussed in Frank Magills' Masterpieces of World Literature, New York: Harper-Collins, 1990, 43). But Socrates asserted the premise that"... the really important thing is not to live, but to live well. . . . And . .. to live well means the same thing as to live honorably or rightly." We are called to live with honor, to sing God's song even in a foreign land.
Follow Jesus' example of singing through the pain
Jesus was a stranger in this world, leaving the chants of cherubims and the songs of seraphims to journey to this planet on a salvation mission. He was despised and rejected (Isa. 53),abused and mistreated. Relatives and even His closest friends often misunderstood Him. Earth for Jesus was a strange land, but He refused to hang it up.
Only once in the New Testament is it recorded that Jesus sang (Matt. 26:30). When did He sing? He sang on the night in which He was betrayed. He sang after washing the disciples' feet. He sang as the shadow of a cross fell unmistakably across His pathway. He sang as Judas hurried to betray Him. He sang at the end of His Last Supper. He sang as He headed for the agonies in the Garden of Gethsemane and the hill called Calvary, the place of the skull. He sang a hymn as His outward world was falling apart. If Jesus could sing in the strange land of suffering, we have no excuse for hanging it up.
Permit praise to bring deliverance
We confuse the enemy, Satan, when we sing God's song in a strange land, for our God inhabits praise (Psa.22:3). The enemy expects us to respond to life's trails with complaints and exasperation. But praise brings God's presence. Refusing to hang it up brings Divine reinforcement.
Paul and Silas were incarcerated (Acts 16) unfairly. They were beaten without the benefit of due process and jailed without being permitted to defend themselves. They sojourned in the strange world of injustice. But instead of hanging it up, they began to sing and the other prisoners heard them. Their joyful singing so influenced heaven that the earth shook and their chains fell off, for praise brings deliverance.
Our lives are beset with dangers, toils, and snares, but we must refuse to hang it up. Our Savior promises to be with us, yes, even in a strange land (Matt. 28). He said, " 'I will never leave you nor forsake you' " (Heb. 13, NKJV). He is able to keep us from falling (Jude 14). He has promised to supply every need of ours according to His unspeakable riches (Phil. 4). He has gone to prepare a place for us and promises to come again (John 14). Even in a strange land, that's some thing about which we can sing.
So why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
And long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion
My constant Friend is He
His eye in on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.
I sing because I'm happy.
I sing because I'm free.
His eye in on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.