On the Willows There


One of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written and recorded is On the Willows from Godpsell, the musical. Take a moment to listen to the song and the words.

The song lyrics are found in Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament:

“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

The Psalm is a communal lament of the exiled people of Abraham’s ancestry in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem in their homeland. The rivers of Babylon are the Tigris and the Euphrates and their tributaries.

As I meditate on these things, I find it ironic that the region of the Tigris and Euphrates are thought to have been the location of the Garden of Eden. When the Psalm was written, the area was governed by Nebuchadnezzar II, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time, who had sieged Jerusalem, captured its inhabitants, and driven them to Babylon.

The song captures beautifully the sorrow and longing of a people who had recently lost their homes and all that was familiar to them. Not just their homes, but their way of life, their safety and security, their community, their culture, their ancestral roots, and their spiritual sanctuary – the Temple. Everything they valued most highly was lost in the exile, even their purpose and reason for living.

Jerusalem was the gem of the land God had promised to their ancient father, Abraham. Abraham had wandered from Ur, not far from Babylon, at the direction of God over one thousand miles to a “land God would show him”, a land God promised for his descendants.

Several generations after Abraham, his descendants were forced by famine to find refuge in Egypt where they were initially welcomed with open arms. They were eventually enslaved there for the ambitions of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They labored there, captives in slavery, for approximately 400 years.

Through a miraculous series of events, Moses led them out of Egypt and out of the grasp of their captors. They wandered 40 years through desert regions between the land of their former captivity and the land God promised many, many generations earlier to Abraham. God lead them by cloud during the day and by fire at night.

When they finally arrived in the land God promised so many years earlier, a land flowing with milk and honey, it was a homecoming of epic proportions. They lived and flourished there for many generations and centuries.

They were able to fend off the surrounding threats and to establish an Eden of sorts for themselves. Their safety and security that allowed them to construct a grand Temple where they could commune intimately with their God who rescued them out of slavery and delivered them to the promised land.

But all was not well in this Eden. Much like the first Eden, choices were made that ran counter to the designs and intentions for their wellbeing.

Through the Prophets, we learn that they became complacent in their comfort and abundance. They forgot the God who rescued them and delivered them into the land and gave themselves to idols. They stopped doing justice among one another, and they became as corrupt, wicked and evil as the nations that were driven out of the land before them.

This cycle of Edenic living, exile, longing, deliverance, redemption, Edenic living, exile and longing is the story of humankind. The exile is long and the yearning for Eden is great.

As the writer of Hebrews observed, Abraham “made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:9-10) Abraham knew the longing in his heart would not be filled by any land on earth.

The cycle of abundant living followed by enslavement is paradigmatic of a world that is not our final home, and people of faith perceive it as such.

It is often said that people do not appreciate what they have until they lose it. This is the lament of the writer of Psalm 137:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

They “had it all” (so it seemed), and now it was lost. They couldn’t have known, at the time, that generations would pass, and they (their descendants) would return to Zion, but it would be temporary… again.

They would rebuild the Temple. They would live for a number of generations in relative security, peace and prosperity. Then the cycle would begin again.

In the midst of these cycles of human experience, during Roman occupation of the same promised land, God would enter. He would empty Himself of His glory to become one of us. He would leave behind His divine privilege to be born a human child. He would submit Himself to the human condition and experience weakness, suffering, angst, sorrow, and lament.

“On the willows there, we hung up our lyres.”

The Psalm, itself, betrays a different story. The Psalmist took up the lyre to write the song and sing it in lament for what was lost and for what they yearned. Resilience remains in the longing.

In more modern times, Africans were bought and sold into slavery in the Americas. Their slavery lasted 200 years. The residual oppression lasted another 200 years before legislation was passed to reverse the the legal, social and political structures that continued to hold African-Americans down, but the culture, attitudes, institutionalized bias and vestiges of the centuries of outright racial animus continue today.

Four African-American woman came together recently to write and produce Songs of Our Native Daughters in lament and memory of their collective past. Their album is as hauntingly beautiful echoing Psalm 137.

Something about songs of lament grip the human heart, mind, and soul. We can all relate, though our stories may differ.


Lament is the human condition. Even as we live in our “promised lands”, Eden slips through our fingers. The ultimate loss of the Eden for which we yearn awaits us in our dying. Our songs of victory and rejoicing in this life are like mist in the morning that burns off under the heat of the sun. Lament is our true song.

Though we are from dust and to dust we will return, the human condition is one of longing and lament for something we seem to have had once, but now is gone. We long for something that, even as we try to grasp it, slips through our fingers like a vapor.

In the midst of the most existential, angst-filled book of the Bible, we read that God put eternity into the human heart. (Ecc. 3:11) The longing we find there betrays a reality the substance of which is largely fleeting in the human experience.

But in this cycle of the human condition, God came to us. He came as one us. He took on our sorrows, our lament. He wept with us, and He submitted Himself to our pain, anger, and frustration.

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

God came to us to show us the way out. The way to a real Eden. The Eden not of our primal dreams, but an Eden that God has prepared for those who love Him and are willing to submit themselves to Him.

He stooped down to lift us up, to carry us, and plant us by the rivers of Living Water.

We shall sing the Lord’s song because we have hope that the God who put eternity in the hearts of men will meet us where we are and take us to where He is – our real Home.

“In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I am coming again and will receive you to Myself, that where I am, you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Postscript:

It is fitting that I read Psalm 137 in my daily reading today, the anniversary of the last night of the Godspell performance my son was in .

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