This powerful and evocative psalm first came to life to me in hearing the moving rendition in the musical “Godspell” —
The speakers in this psalm are stuck in a dark predicament. Full of grief, how can they sing the songs of their people, the songs of God sung at the temple? It was especially difficult as, to all appearances, it seemed that God had abandoned them. The nation had fallen. The temple was flattened. They were hauled away by foreign troops into captivity.
Yet the existence of this song in the Psalms, the hymnbook of Israel, of Jesus, and of the church, suggests ironically that in those moments they could not but sing, pray, grope toward the God of Israel yet God was as near to them as their gripping pain.
This time of despair in the history of God’s people known as the exile was painful and heart-wrenching. Yet out of that deep despair such beautiful poetry and music was borne. It is in this time that the faith of Israel evolves and much of the previously disparate stories and texts about God’s work with Israel and humanity are woven together into the first versions of what we now would consider Scripture. The great epics of Genesis and the Exodus story appear to have been compiled in this time, to remind Israel that they have been exiled before – in Egypt – and the God of their mothers and fathers did not forget them too. The recording of the creation stories of Israel into Genesis at this time, as well as the recording of the words of prophets like Isaiah, helped awaken awareness in Israel that the God they’d experiences was not just a national deity, a local spirit, or a family god. This God is the one true God who created all that is and whom every person, in all lands, experiences on some level. The first hints of a hope of heaven begin to emerge in the parts of Scripture composed out of this experience, as Israel gropes to understand how God can be faithful to them when so often the life of exile is one of seeming hopelessness. Even death cannot break the promises of a God who can tell the prophet to prophesy so that dry bones live, and those lost in death return to life without suffering and pain.
The experience of despair this psalm describe then, though heart-wrenching, actually deepen the people of God’s awareness of their Creator. It leads them to come to know God in a more profound way, and to see the world with new eyes. Ultimately it is their experience which lays the foundation for the birth of the world-transforming faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
I don’t know about you but I’ve faced times which, though they pale in comparison to the pain of the exile, truly were times where it was hard to see God with me and when prayers and songs of praise were hard to speak. I can think of times I sat, tear-filled, in despair and fear.
As both a pastor and a chaplain, I have seen so many go through such times. Like Israel, so often such times do not destroy the ones I’ve accompanied through those times but deepened their faith and awareness.
This poignant and powerful song reminds us your experience of pain, shock, loss, or estrangement need not destroy you. If you will not give up and work to open up through prayer, meditation, song, or other means of remaining open to God, it may be this experience that feels as if it will destroy you will instead deepen you. You may arise stronger, like the coal which under pressure births the diamond.
May it be so.
Your progressive redneck preacher,