These were the words that I heard as my wife prayed one night several weeks ago. They were the words of a woman who knew what God has said about her, but who also knew the painful disconnect that often seems to exist between what God says and what actually happens. They were words of disappointment. They were words of anguish.
They were also words to which I could easily relate. The previous Sunday, our church had sung a song in which the congregation affirmed “You’re never going to let, never going to let me down,” and all I could think was, “How can I sing these words when God has already let me down?”
Our Predecessors in Disappointment, Disillusionment, and Despair
Perhaps that is how the community behind Psalm 137 felt. For generations, they had been told that God would defend His city and His temple. Prophetic voices to the contrary were shouted down or silenced. And yet, here they were sitting in Babylon as prisoners of war. Moreover, their pagan captives were rubbing salt in their wounds by demanding that they sing “one of the songs of Zion” for their entertainment.
Descriptions of Psalm 137 often emphasize the role that the land played in Israelite theology. This marker of identity had been lost, and there was a real question about how God’s people could worship him “in a foreign land.” Such analysis is clearly on the mark, for it goes to the very heart of the question “Can God be trusted?” It may, especially in our own context, even raise doubts about whether God even exists.
Nevertheless, I think that there are other forces at work in the minds and hearts of this community of exiles. As we have already pointed out, they had been indoctrinated with the ideology of the Davidic monarchy. The temple was the place where God—the only true God—had put His name. It was His reputation that was on the line in the war between Babylon and Jerusalem, and, whatever indiscretions Judah had committed, it seem for all the world that it was in God’s best interest to defend His honor by defending His temple.
And because God either could not or would not defend His honor, the people in this company had experienced unspeakable trauma. Relatives and friends had been killed in battle. Women and children had starved to death—or, worse, had become sport for Babylonian soldiers. They themselves had lost positions of honor and wealth and had been herded off like cattle towards an uncertain future.
It is a wonder that they all didn’t just “curse God and die” (to borrow a line from Job 2:9). Maybe some of the captives did. But the community represented by Psalm 137 chose a different course of action. Granted, the psalm is not really for God; He is only addressed directly once (verse seven pleads with God to remember the treachery of the Edomites). But neither is it a repudiation of God. It is a cry of despair in which the author addresses both Jerusalem and Babylon but that is really for neither of these contrasting localities. If anything, it clings even more fervently to the blessings (symbolized by Jerusalem) that have been promised in the past and that now seem to be lost forever.
God would eventually respond to the anguish of His people (Jeremiah 29:1-14). It was a word of comfort, but it was not the word for which the exiles had hoped. God did have plans for them still, and His plans were good. But they did not involve an immediate return from Babylon. They did not include an immediate overthrow of Nebuchadnezzar. They did not include an immediate restoration of the Davidic ideology. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see what God was doing, and we can see how God’s plan brought blessing to His people and glory to His name. But all of this was surely impossible for them to see. God’s word to them in the darkness of their doubt and despair was simply, “Trust me. I know what I am doing.”
The Mystery of God’s Plan
These are hard words to hear for those of us who feel like our lives are hurtling towards frustration and futility. The last thing that we want to do is trust God, especially if there is no indication how—or even if—He will redeem our pain and allow us to reclaim the agency that is so essential for human flourishing. And yet, we Christians of all people ought to know that faith is the only way out of the darkness.
Sometimes, as Peter Scazzero observes in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we simply have to sit in the unresolved tension of our lives. We have to reach out to God in both love and despair and watch Him use both to refine our character and to draw us into a closer relationship with Him.
At other times, we have to recognize that there are bigger issues at stake than our own personal struggles or the well-being of our family, church, community, etc. Like the people behind Psalm 137, we need God’s help to gain a more expansive perspective on our experiences, and we need to accept the fact that our place in history may not be to empathetically share the fate of those around us. Then, we will be free to minister to the people that God places in our lives.
At still other times, we need to take encouragement from songs like Steven Curtis Chapman’s “God Is God” or Danny Gokey’s “Haven’t Seen It Yet.” I don’t know about you, but I consistently overestimate my ability to predict the future. I think that I know what God is up to, especially when I am sure that it means disaster for me. But the truth is that none of us see the beautiful collage that God is constructing or know how He is putting it together. God’s blessing may, in fact, be just around the corner, and it may be more wonderful than anything we could imagine.
Responding in Faith
I do not know which of these scenarios will be your fate. I do not even know what will become of me. And sometimes the waiting, the wrestling, the not knowing, is more than I can bear.
But here is what I do know. Regardless of which scenario God has ordained for our future, He calls us to trust that He is who He says He is and that we are who He says that we are. And as we proclaim our faith through our worship and our work, we can also ask Him to help us when our faith wavers.