The Song of Captives
Brian D. Dykstra, teacher at Hope PR Christian School in Walker, MI
“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” (Ps. 137:5-6).
The beginning of a school year is associated with happy faces. Students are happy to see their friends again. Some students found that even summer vacation can begin to drag, so learning and homework aren’t tedious chores yet, but can even be interesting. Parents are usually happy because now children won’t have so much time on their hands. This Psalm, however, is not a happy Psalm for it was written during the time of captivity in Babylon. Psalm 137, on which our first Song-of the-Week is based, is still appropriate for the beginning of the school year, but not, as some children might think, because they are returning to the captivity of the classroom. It contains valuable lessons which we do well to keep in mind.
The captives are remembering Zion, because remembering was all they could do. They were not going back to Zion from time to time for a family vacation or spiritual retreat. How many of them knew their return to Jerusalem would not be for seventy years? Jeremiah had told them how long their captivity would last but apparently its duration was not common knowledge. Daniel learned the length of the captivity because he read about it (Dan. 9:2). However, many of the Jews thought the period of captivity would be so short, it would not even be worth their time to plant gardens or arrange for their children to marry. A prophet had to tell them to plant gardens and give their children in marriage because this captivity would last a long time (Jer. 29:5-6).
This would be a spiritually dangerous time for the Jews. For God’s Old Testament people, He was worshipped in Jerusalem as in no other place. Now, however, they are scattered among the heathen among whom the glory of God’s name was not anywhere near important. We see this in the enemy’s request to have the Jews sing the songs of Zion. Perhaps they were interested in hearing whether or not these Jews were as good at performing music as they had heard. More likely, though, the enemy wanted to make the Jews feel even more miserable. The lyrics of their songs provided an occasion to mock the Jews about their God. If Jehovah is as powerful as these songs claimed, then what were they doing here in captivity?
This empire did not have as its goal the preservation of God’s truth or His proper worship. The goals were increasing wealth and the enjoyment of every pleasure which the world of that day had to offer. Would the Jews be able to hold on to their faith while mixed with the world in a place far from the temple? Would they grow despondent because it seemed impossible for God to keep His promises when they were so far away from the promised land? Would the Jews be tempted to forget about returning to their inheritance if they managed to improve their lives by having their work become materially profitable? Why go back to a land in ruins when their new situation was just beginning to become comfortable? How many of these dangers sound familiar to us?
To combat these dangers, the psalmist determines not to forget Jerusalem. He would rather lose the skills he had acquired than not remember the city where God had placed His name. These skills were the psalmist’s livelihood. With the cunning of his right hand, he played his harp. With his tongue, he sang the words of Jehovah’s songs. Could the psalmist have been one of the singers in the temple? If so, he was willing to give up everything he had for the sake of Jerusalem, God’s church.
One reason for having our schools is for our children to acquire the skills they will need in life. The kindergartners are learning the shapes of letters and their sounds to prepare them for reading. Junior High students are learning more advanced skills as they draw nearer to taking up their life’s work. The gaining of these skills comes at a considerable price. We must follow the psalmist’s example and value the well-being of Jerusalem above all the joys of life which our skills make possible for us.
Jerusalem was in sad shape. Much of what calls itself the church is also in sad shape today. The psalmist had personal trials which brought him sorrows and each of us also has burdens to bear. God did not remove only the carnal element from Jerusalem and Judah and send them to captivity. True Israelites also suffered the consequences for the sins of the nation. Yet the psalmist was more troubled by the ruin of the church than by what happened to him personally.
Remembering Zion and not forgetting Jerusalem were the only ways to make possible the future restoration of the church. If we do not know the ways of God, the doctrines of the true church and how to order our lives according to that truth, we are not immune to the sorrow the psalmist experienced in witnessing the ruin of God’s church. Our schools are one way God’s covenant children can learn of Him. May our covenant God be pleased to use our efforts to place a knowledge of Him in their hearts through our Lord Jesus Christ.