The events and experiences portrayed in the biblical testimony have a way of becoming metaphors for life.
From the smaller contexts of personal experience to the larger, more collective experience of community and nation, the images and concepts of bondage, exodus, wilderness, land of promise, national destiny, exile and restoration become frameworks for understanding the cycles of experience and history.
A poignant psalm (137) has come to mind recently that expresses the pathos of Israel’s loss of the institutional reminders of its core identity as a covenant people.
After a rejection of reform efforts by King Josiah to correct a descent into the mire of an unholy alliance of superficial religion and political corruption, Judah fell to the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians.
We know this as the exile, when a majority of the covenant people were transported to Babylon, having lost their city and their temple.
Before the fall to Babylon, the covenant community had already fallen to the seduction of privilege and power; Babylon simply made painfully real what was already happening.
The victims were taken to a strange place, where the norms of covenant life did not apply.
The psalm offers a portrait of the experience:
- The despair of the loss of what had represented the security of their covenant as a people; city and temple had been their refuge and their reminder of who they were: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1).
- The mocking of the victims by those who had overpowered them: “For there our captors asked us for songs … ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’” (Psalm 137:3).
- The lament of being dispossessed: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (Psalm 137:4).
- The power of memory to keep hope alive: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, … let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you ….” (Psalm 137:5-6).
Such was the experience long ago of exile.
We know from the rest of the testimony that the memory of who and whose they were would sustain them through the mocking and the captivity until a new and deeper concept of the covenant would emerge.
That concept would be refined by the experience of exile and would become a covenant not of place, formula or ritual, but one of transformation (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
In the testimony, the experience of exile joins with the memory of the covenant promise (“I will be with you”) to enable Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-54) to see and express what God would bring from the despair of losing trusted frameworks of their faith.
We hardly need to be reminded that exile not only can be a major historical event, such as what we find in Israel’s life in the sixth century BCE, but it can also be a metaphor of a “state of experience” when those with the power to do so overpower, mock, redefine and dismiss as irrelevant the values and principles that have been held as central to the core of life.
The prophetic voices that spoke to exile then might well speak to exiles of any age: “Remember Jerusalem!” – remember who and whose you are – as the key to the emergence of a “new Jerusalem” beyond the loss, mocking and disregard. Keep singing the Lord’s song, even in a strange land.
A more recent song by the poet James Russell Lowell (1819-91), from the context of a nation’s struggle over the injustice of slavery, contains the oft-quoted lines: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
It is no small thing to experience exile from the structures and institutions that have protected the principles and values for a covenant of life together.
When they devolve into powerful supports of privilege and entitlement at the expense of the well-being of those without access to the power that maintains them, then those structures and institutions themselves can become abusive and oppressive, “singing a strange song in the Lord’s land.”
The message of hope is clear, even for such distressing times. It’s better not to “hang our harps on the willows” (Psalm 137:2) but to continue to sing the Lord’s song, even in a strange land. It is always a hopeful sign when many seem committed to singing it.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).