How Shall We Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land?

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:1–4)

God used captivity and slavery as a tool to “adjust” the hearts of his people on more than one occasion. First, he used their slavery in Egypt as a crucible to forge a people who were willing to step out into the wilderness, walking in faith toward the Promised Land. And later, he used the Assyrians and the Babylonians to carry-off that same people — and to hold them for a generation or so — before allowing them to return to the land. But my soul wonders about that moment… the moment of being carried off into the unknown. What was that like?

Imagine the emotional trauma that those Jews endured. They left behind their livelihoods — everything they knew and loved — and journeyed into the unknown. Would the Babylonians care to preserve the Jewish culture? Would they force the Jews into hard labor? Would they kill them? Would the captives have to watch as their wives and daughters were taken away for ill use? The unknown is such a cruel master — and I cannot help but wonder what these captives thought as they trudged along to Babylon.

Well, those who were skilled in music were wondering too; they were wondering what to say about the Lord. “How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land,” they asked. How shall we sing among our captors? I mean, could this ever be right?

Furthermore, the text implies that the captors might have goaded them to sing. Perhaps they said something like, “Hey, you musicians… Sing us a song! Give us one about your God — you know, the God who abandoned you to this captivity! Ha ha ha...”

I cannot help but think of America’s sordid history with African slaves — a people gifted with song. A slave owner might have commanded his “property” to sing — to entertain. These songs, however, flowed from their oppression — rendering hope in the midst of trials. The “owners” were not worthy of such songs. So, what of the Babylonians? Would they understand the Lord’s song? Or would singing God’s song then and there be a desecration of the singer’s holy office?

The beginning of Psalm 137 shows the musicians as stymied; they remembered, they sat and they wept… and then they hung-up their instruments. Was that a correct response, though — that stopping… that putting-away of the Lord’s song?

Only rarely does God tell us not to sing. And those pearls-before-swine moments are few and difficult to discern. But I am encouraged by their earnest question — by its essential weight. They said in effect, “This is what we do — we sing the Lord’s song! However, we have no reasonable hope of pleasure or ease — or even the assurance that we will not be killed. In light of all this, what should we do?”

But the singers worked their way through the argument and came up with the essential element — remembering!

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” (5–6)  

Remembering God, remembering his promises and remembering what he has already done for us — these are the cure for care… and this was an important aspect of their music; they sang in worshipful remembrance. And so should we.

For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at