Bible Order: Daniel 1–2
Chronological Order: Joel 1-3
New Testament Only: 1 Corinthians 15:1–11
On The Willows There
So I’m reading along and suddenly I am transported back to the year 1977. It was Psalm 137 verses 1-3 that took me there. In 1977 I was a freshman in high school and I was performing in our school play, “Godspell”. That play is a modern retelling of the story of Jesus Christ. The play has taken some creative liberty with the story but it is pretty much based on the book of Matthew with a few bits from Luke and other books of scripture thrown in as well. It was first produced shortly after “Jesus Christ, Super Star” became a hit Broadway musical.
There is a scene in the play that attempts to re-enact Jesus’ final moments in the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, there is a little creative liberty here. In the play, Judas Iscariot has left and the remaining disciples hold the Passover meal. They then come one by one to Jesus for a moment of hugs and handshakes before each lies down to sleep. This tends to be a very poignant moment as we see a display of each disciple’s personal relationship with Christ. While the disciples aren’t supposed to know what is about to happen, this moment has a definite feeling of good-bye. While they are saying their good-byes, the band sings the song “On the Willows There”; the lyrics of which are taken from the first few verses of Psalm 137.
What is the scriptural connection between the 137th Psalm and the Garden of Gethsemane? I can’t say there is any direct scriptural connection and I certainly don’t know what the play’s producers and writers had in mind, but I do see a connection none the less.
Israel had wandered from God. They had sinned greatly and the consequence of their sin was separation from God in the form of, at least for the southern tribes, the Babylonian exile. As I’ve said before, the Babylonians did not take every Israelite. They took the intellectual, artistic, political, and religious classes into exile. This was the heart of the nation and it was done to prevent rebellion. Those taken into exile were slaves.
Psalm 137:1-4 ESV
“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!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
Verse 1 of this Psalm mentions the “rivers of Babylon”. These were canals dug off the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to irrigate the land. As the Israelites had made bricks in Egypt, they now dug canals in Babylon. Can you see them at the edge of a canal, exhausted by their labor, sitting down and weeping for what was lost? The Israelites had been known for their songs of praise to the God who blessed and forgave; who protected them from their enemies. Now, in exile, the Babylonians taunted these slaves. “Sing us one of your songs about your God who protects you.” Their separation from God robbed them of their joy. They were unable to make music. In their sadness they hung up their lyres. There was no reason to sing; the inspiration for their music was gone. How could they sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land; in exile?
Can you imagine being freed from slavery only to find one’s self back in that condition? I wonder about us Christians some times. We were freed from the bondage of sin; some continue to pick up those chains. Some continue to labor under chains from which they had been freed.
Separation from God is certainly something to weep about. As I’ve said before, habitual sin, over which one feels no remorse, is incompatible with the designation “Christian. If you are a follower of Christ, sin will hurt; it will cause you to grieve. Having been saved, we are in the process of being made like Christ; we will stumble, and those stumbles will hurt, but we are saved none the less. When you sin, does it hurt? I have found that when I stumble it hurts; I am unhappy and uncomfortable. I feel the separation from God greatly and I struggle just to bring myself to church or prayer for my guilt weighs heavily upon me. The joy that salvation brings is muted by my self-imposed separation.
There is sadness in separation from God; there is joy in His presence. As Christians we will forever be strangers in a strange land physically. Spiritually, however, we have constant communion with God as long as we choose to be attached to the vine that is Christ. Sin severs the vine and the joy drains away.
Now think of the disciples and their time with Jesus. Early in Jesus’ ministry He is approached by disciples of John.
Matthew 9:14-15 ESV
“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
A wedding is a time of celebration and Jesus likens time with Him with this joyous occasion. Of course, He also likens a time separated from Him to emptiness; a lack of sustenance if you will. Now, at in the Garden of Gethsemane, unbeknownst to the disciples, the time of fasting is upon them. Christ, having our sorrows placed on Him was about to be separated from them and God Himself. No one has ever been as alone as Christ was upon that cross.
Having been separated from Christ from the time of His arrest until His resurrection three days later, the disciples had lost their joy. They were separated from God. The Bridegroom was gone and there was no song of joy to be found within them. They could rightly hang their lyres on the willows; the weeping willows.
When a Christian sins they are separated from God. Even worse, they receive ridicule from the lost. “If this is what it means to be saved by your God you can keep Him.” When we sin we separate ourselves from the joy of God’s presence. We lose our ability to fearlessly stand before a lost and dying world and sing of our salvation; of our Savior. We grieve; there is no song in our heart. We have hung our lyres on the weeping willows.
Brothers, don’t put yourself back in chains. Jesus has set you free and you are free indeed! Don’t let sin steal the song of joy from your heart! You are meant to sing!!!
May your heart sing all the day long!
Your brother and servant in Christ,
Dying to self, living to serve!
(Originally posted 7/10/10)