For the Israelite community in exile in Babylon (Psalm 137), their anguish and longing for home is reflected by a state intense grief: they wept by the rivers of Babylon. When taunted by their captors and oppressors: “sing for us!” All they could do is hang up their instruments (the lyre in this case) in despair: “How can we sing the Lord’s Song in a foreign land?” they asked.
Antonin Dvorak, a Czech, felt the same way when he lived in Manhattan (I can think of Bostonians who would feel the same way, having to cheer for the Mets, or worse yet). Even though he had been given a prestigious position in the National Conservatory with a ‘comfortable’ stipend, he longed for the hills of his native Bohemia. Yet in his deep longing, he picked up the lyre and compose the much beloved “New World Symphony.” Scholars have longed noted in the symphony echoes of another song of longing for home, now from the antebellum South: “Sweet low, sweet chariots, coming for to carry me home.” Yet another song, made famous in the 70’s by the band Boney M, “By the Rivers of Babylon” equally captures the anguish and the longing to head home from our own Babylons today.
This longing from home also includes the longing for justice. How long O Lord before the injustices of this world and the disregard for God’s Law are dealt with? The psalmist appeals to fairness: What our enemies have done us, let it happen to them! (Psalm 137: 8-9). At first glance this sounds like unbridled revenge (in a sort of Bruce Willis or Rambo way). However, the lex talionis ( the “eye for an eye” idea) is the principle of measured sentencing that is limited by the offense committed. This way, one cannot be punished beyond what the offense actually is. You and I can think of countless instances in world history where humans dispense justice in unfair ways: either the offense is punished with a sentence that is far greater than the actual offense (Jean Valjean in Les Misérables) or the offense goes unaddressed (perpetrators of unspeakable crimes who go on to live their lives without facing justice). The Psalmist longs for the day when justice will be done. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!
In Jesus and the Gospel, there is always a moment when we say, “But now.” In the case of this longing for home and for justice, it comes in Hebrews 12:22-24 and answers the longing of those who think it impossible to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land: NOW, you have already come to Mount Zion. You have come to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the church of the first-born, and by faith in Jesus you are inscribed in heaven (registered as in a census). Not only that, but we have come to Jesus Himself, the one who died for our sins and guilt (for we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory). But, by placing our trust in Jesus, we are now facing the Judge who has declared us righteous and not guilty before Him. This sentencing is not that we get off easy, far from it. The lex talionis is fulfilled in Christ who took on the punishment of the sins of the world upon Himself on a Roman Cross. The penalty was paid alright, but by Another who out of love took our place in the sentencing and the carrying out of the verdict. God’s justice has been served through God the Son who willingly took upon Himself the judgement of the guilty. This is the profound truth of the Gospel (the “Deep Magic” of Narnia) that you and I, in our frailty (both spiritual and intellectual) can only grasp by faith in Him.
So what kind of song do these folks who are registered H (Heaven, not political parties R, I, or D) sing? Revelation 15:2-4, the book of worship par excellence, tells us: We, the people of Zion, sing the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) and the Song of the Lamb. A song of deliverance from physical and spiritual bondage!
“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed”
In the end, we long for the heavenly city even as we are oppressed, afflicted and taunted by the earthly city Babylon. But unlike the exiles in Psalm 137, we have already come back to Zion, we belong to heaven (duly registered as citizens of Heaven) even as we continue to suffer in Babylon. This is why we don’t hang up our lyres (or Fender/Gibson, violin, harp, etc.) but we sing the songs of Zion with full force. The requirement of justice has been met by the Mercy of God toward all those who put their faith in Jesus. For it is in Jesus alone what we are able to stand God’s justice. As James says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).
When you are bogged down by your own failures, the taunting voice of accusation, doubt, shame and guilt. When you despair over long-term illness, unfair treatment at work or at home, plaguing addictions, heavy debts, you name it. Maybe you have been struggling with all the injustices in this world and wondering what God is doing (or not doing). What about in our society that is so far away for any notion of fearing God?
Remember that this oppression is passing. Your oppressor, “Babylon,” will meet her judgment one day. Don’t ever forget that if you have believed in Jesus and put your trust in Him, you belong to another city, the heavenly city. In this city you don’t hang up the harp but you pick it up right now and you sing the song of the Lord.
Take heart, God’s justice has already been manifested at the Cross in Jesus’ sacrifice. Put your trust in Him to confront evil in His time and in His righteous way. Mercy triumphs over judgement!
At TCC we talk a lot about ‘gospeling’ others. Maybe you know someone who really struggles right now whether God even exists, or, as someone once said, “he is busy somewhere else.” By singing the song of Zion right now, you are exalting His justice and His mercy as made known through Jesus. Our song of praise is a witness to others that indeed in Christ, justice has been fulfilled. Mercy has triumphed over judgement! We join in and invite others to this massive concert/worship service that is going on right now:
Righteous and true are your ways O Lord!