Singing the Songs of Zion

This week’s post is by Brandon Adent, a deacon at Redeemer Church. He likes music, words, and words about music.

As the crow flies, baby, well I ain’t so far from you
but since I don’t have wings I can’t get home as fast as I want to

I remember the first time I tucked into a Rory Gallagher album; I’d never heard sounds like that from a guitar. Squeaks and squawks and chirps accompanied each tone, the kinds of sounds you can only get when you’re really going for it and know exactly what you’re doing. They had an urgency and a transparency to them, an odd mix of happiness and grief, and a willingness to face and embrace both of them, wherever that took him.

This was what Rory was known for: long, intense shows (over three hours long) playing his heart out.

Rory could really play, but he could write and sing, too. Particularly in his earlier records, he had joy in his voice. You could tell he was having the time of his life.

Even with so much joy, his songs talked so much of pain. particularly a song called “Too Much Alcohol”. The story is pretty simple: his lady is driving him nuts, and he medicates with pure alcohol:

Whiskey make me drowsy
And gin can make you think
Well, a common cold can kill ya
But, my baby turned me to drink

I went down on 31st Street
To pick up a jug of alcohol

Yeah, I told the guy to put in some water
But he wouldn't put in a drop at all
One hundred per cent alcohol
Well, let me have some

This kind of thing was pretty central to the blues lifestyle. Not surprisingly, a lot of these guys didn’t live to be very old (Rory himself died at 47) and those that do aren’t in great shape in later life. They lived a hard life, some by choice, others because those were the cards they were dealt.

Some may dislike the blues, but I love them. I like to be happy, but there’s no sense in faking; sometimes, happy song just won’t do. Occasionally, the biblical thing to do would be to sing the blues.

The blues have hope at their core. The big question, though, is where we put it. Do we look for comfort in God (in Whom it's perfectly found), or do we look for it in drink, sex, money, or power which can never give us the rest for which we long?

The Hope We Have

In the case of a certain psalmist, the writer of the 137th psalm, the source of the turmoil comes not from relationship trouble, but a longing for home:

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

Jerusalem has been destroyed. The psalmist is being held captive in exile, and forced to sing one of the celebratory songs of the temple, and they’re just sick of it. The psalmist would rather lose the ability to make music than to sing one more happy song from Jerusalem.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

Even the happiest songs of Zion are sad.

At the same time, though, the psalmist knows they can’t forget Jerusalem, and they don’t want to. They miss those songs and the city in which they were sung, when they could sing these songs happily and with joy, as they were meant to be.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

Just when we thought it wouldn’t get any darker, like Rory being willing to drink poison to numb the pain, the psalmist prays for the violent death of their oppressor’s children, and cries out for justice from the only One who can truly administer it impartially.

Being Honest

That’s pretty dark, right? What would you do if you heard someone pray that way? The more “spiritual” thing to pray for is deliverance from oppression and grace and mercy for the oppressors.

Often, that’s what we should do, but not always. The psalmist is just being honest about their feelings and desires, and they’re sick of putting on a show, both literally and figuratively.

When I’m not doing so well emotionally, I often feel that I have to put on a similar show. I have to pretend like everything is great when it’s not. I have to smile and laugh and be happy when I just want to curl up in a corner and cry.

The Bible says that sometimes a happy song just isn’t going to work. As much fun as it is to sing happy songs, there’s value in expressing sadness, too, particularly when that sadness drives you to the Savior.

I’m not saying completely remove the filter. There’s definitely a line between honesty and just spilling things, a fine line though it might be. Honesty is inviting people to see what’s troubling you, as opposed to spilling your troubles all over whether or not it’s welcomed. Spilling quickly turns to wallowing, either on one’s own or otherwise.

Look for the Light

Many blues songs “resolve” at wallowing, which is really to say they don’t resolve, at least in a way that lifts us from the mire for good. That's sort of the point, really. We hope for something better than what we have, but there seems to be no one or nothing that can save us from where we are.

However, there is hope, and the psalmist knows where to put it; in the Lord, who He is, what He's done, and what He will do.

While God waits awhile to act on the psalmist’s prayer, He does. Kingdoms rise and fall, and Edom and Babylon are no exception.

Ultimately, though, God sent his own Son to be crushed for the wickedness of the world, including sins of ours, those of Edom, and those of Babylon, so that all who trust in Him will be able in inhabit a city and world so beautiful that it makes Jerusalem look like a slum.

Even in the blues, there can be joy. Even in the blues, there is hope.