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How To Sing the Lord's Song In a Foreign Land

By Deal W. Hudson
9/8/2014 (3 years ago)
Catholic Online (https://www.catholic.org)

The beauty of these lines from the Psalmist masks the suffering that prompted their utterance. An entire people, united by their faith in a single God, are captured and taken as slaves to serve the masters of a hostile culture, one still bound to the worship of many gods.

As Christians, we believe that grace abides in everything; we believe that good can arise out of the worst of circumstances. In the weakness of belief, we are tempted to sing no more, to "hang up our lyres." What we are to learn from the Psalmist? Our lack of belief can be remedied by the challenge of living in a "foreign land," where suffering comes from the loss of religious liberty and the scoffing of cultural elites aimed at the principles we embrace.

By the Waters of Babylon- People of faith, no matter the age, have known moments of darkness so bleak that the thought of singing praise, singing joyfully, seemed impossible. Being commanded to sing at such a moment would feel like an insult, a kind of psychological torture

By the Waters of Babylon- People of faith, no matter the age, have known moments of darkness so bleak that the thought of singing praise, singing joyfully, seemed impossible. Being commanded to sing at such a moment would feel like an insult, a kind of psychological torture

Highlights

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) -

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

The beauty of these lines from the Psalmist masks the suffering that prompted their utterance.  An entire people, united by their faith in a single God, are captured and taken as slaves to serve the masters of a hostile culture, one still bound to the worship of many gods.

They suffer in captivity asking why their God allowed this tragedy, lamenting the loss of their homeland, allowed by the God who permitted their capture and enslavement.  This people of faith find it hard to worship and pray - they hang up their lyres. 

But their captors, obviously aware of their despair, demand they sing, demand they demonstrate their continued faith in the God who failed them, who forgot them. Their tormentors make the hardest demand of all: the slaves must sing songs of their faith, songs of praise to their God. They are commanded not only to sing but also to sound joyful doing it. 

We can understand the psychology of their masters: You have proudly proclaimed the superiority of your religion, how your God is the only true God, how the rest of humanity lives in ignorance blinded by idolatry - "If all that is true, why are you now our slaves?"

Yes, we understand captives as well, those songs that were so easily and joyfully sung by the people of the Temple do not come so easily to the tongue when the Temple has been destroyed and the people enslaved.  "Tell us now, sing to us now," the masters demand, "about your God who would destroy the temples of all other gods."

Song, as we know, is often found among captive peoples and those standing literally in the face of death. Song has been, in a sense, the only salve available to people ostensibly stripped of everything, their freedom and dignity.  Their song becomes an audible sign of what cannot be taken away.  As early as 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, an entire book was devoted to cataloging the songs of the American slaves (Slave Songs of the United States, New York: A. Simpson & Co. 1967).

Song can express both the defiance of the executioner and the peaceful acceptance of death. As portrayed in Poulenc's opera, "Dialogue of the Carmelites" (1956), a group of Carmelite nuns mounted the scaffold of the French Revolution in 1794 and sang the "Salve Regina." The nuns' song signifies confidence that the sharp edge of the guillotine will not be the end of their lives.

But the Psalmist describes a people who have "hung up their lyres"; a people who have stopped singing about God, their hope for salvation, or even in protest against their captors. The Jews, it must be concluded, were in the depths of despair, and who can blame them? Like their Temple they had been demolished - the very notion of being "the chosen ones" must have elicited bitter laughter among them.  They didn't know their captivity would soon end, would last only two generations.

People of faith, no matter the age, have known moments of darkness so bleak that the thought of singing praise, singing joyfully, seemed impossible. Being commanded to sing at such a moment would feel like an insult, a kind of psychological torture.  Yet, the Babylonians did just that, they commanded the despairing Jews to sing.

On the surface, the command seems cruel and spiteful, and, indeed, the Babylonians intended as much. But perhaps without knowing it, their captors were doing the slaves a favor. Why? Because they needed to sing, not to please their captors, but to reawaken their faith and hope, to once again feel  joy in being alive in spite of suffering and the memories of loss.

As Christians, we believe that grace abides in everything; we believe that good can arise out of the worst of circumstances. In the weakness of belief, we are tempted to sing no more, to "hang up our lyres." What we are to learn from the Psalmist? Our lack of belief can be remedied by the challenge of living in a "foreign land," where suffering comes from the loss of religious liberty and the scoffing of cultural elites aimed at the principles we embrace.

© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, a Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine. Dr. Hudson's radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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