They were beaten down, hopes extinguished, dreams as illusive as the wispy clouds overhead. This was not the life they planned. This is not the promise they believed. They had carried their harps—symbols of expressed joy—with them into this foreign place, but they had no heart for music. Mocking bystanders demanded melodies of these beaten people but bitterness froze their fingers and hearts.
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
Our captors asked us for songs:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?*
While some of us have experienced at least a twinge of this kind of heartache, most of us haven’t literally been captured by an enemy, dragged into a foreign land, lost all that provided stability and identity. Some who fear looking deep within themselves or refuse to take that journey may blithely say, “Oh, life has always been good. I’ve been lucky. I wouldn’t change a thing.” But in those quiet moments when only God and our hearts are listening, many of us pause occasionally to reflect on “what might have been.”
But there is profound danger if we remain more than a moment with those harps-hanging thoughts. We can’t deny them, but neither can we ignore them. Careful remembering can lead us into gratitude that by those “rivers of Babylon,” God did not forsake us. Maybe we can’t quite yet pick up the harp to make beautiful music, but we can allow remembered melodies to whisper their message into the depths of our beings. And those whisperings produce hope that some day, some way, with some one, we can sing again.
Yes, I know that the Apostle Paul declared, “Forgetting what is behind,” but as I look carefully at his life, I see evidence of his own harp-hanging: longing for the companionship of Mark, the face-to-face joy he once experienced with his Philippian friends, renewed fellowship with Timothy—“I have no one like him.” Paul’s harp was temporarily hanging on the willow branches. But it was time to live in the present and anticipate the future. And so go we.
*Psalm 137, New Revised Standard Version