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?
– Psalm 137:1-3
There are times when all of us are tempted to become discouraged. “Don’t lose your song” is, in a sense, something that a minister must learn to say to people. He has to learn to say it in different ways. The preacher hears about heartaches and broken dreams. He hears about disappointments and the defeats. Some have had harder defeats than others; sometimes, he must try to remind himself of it. But, along the way, everyone meets defeat, discouragement, frustration. We call it having the blues or the blahs, being down in the dumps. And no one is immune: parents, teachers, elders, preachers, all of us at one time or another become discouraged.
Some of the very finest men and women of God that we read about in Scripture were victims of discouragement. Elijah became discouraged after his great victory of the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 19). It’s unexpected because he was seemingly on top of the world. But he had powerful enemies, he felt all alone in his stand against evil, he was physically exhausted—and so he became so discouraged that he wished he could die. John the Baptist dealt with it, too. The man who had boldly prepared the way for the Lord became disillusioned in prison and had doubts about Jesus.
While ups and downs are inevitable, the problem is getting into a valley and staying there. God does not want us to be discouraged and despondent. In those times, we might, like Israel in exile, ask How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
I think another of the psalms helps us to answer that question. In Psalm 40:1-3, it appears the writer has been bogged down by the problems he faced; he has “lost his song,” so to speak. In v. 2, he speaks of being in the pit of destruction, the miry bog. The superscription attributes this psalm to David, and we can certainly think of times when his life was in the pits. It may have been when Saul drove him from the palace and pursued him in jealousy. Remember, Saul was trying to take his life, and David narrowly escaped on several occasions. Or maybe it was when David’s own son, Absalom, rose up in rebellion against him. Perhaps it was in the aftermath of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, when David added sin on top of sin by having her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. The son who came from their encounter became ill and died. Then again, possibly it was the grief he suffered when his son, Amnon, assaulted his daughter (and Amnon’s half-sister) Tamar. Or it could have been something else altogether.
Whatever the pit may have been it was uncomfortable. It was dark and wet and slimy—a miry bog. It was impossible for him to get out of it without help. Maybe we have felt like that before; maybe we are feeling that right now. It could be that for you, life is the pits, and you would like to get out but you cannot. Maybe it’s some sin you are struggling with. Maybe you’re struggling to make ends meet. Maybe your job is essential and you are overworked. Maybe you’re exasperated with your family. Maybe you have suffered some sort of loss.
Anything that causes a sense of helplessness and desperation and threatens to ruin life or take it away, that is the pit. And there is no secure footing in a dark, muddy, slimy pit. If you cannot stand up, you cannot escape. In the bog, the more you squirm, the deeper you sink—you’re sunk.
We cannot get out alone. But the Psalmist reminds us that we do not have to. I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure (Ps 40:1-2). David, overwhelmed by his rescue, thought of a rock when he thought of God’s deliverance. He wouldn’t have to sink anymore. He could freely move about, unrestricted on a sure foundation.
And God not only lifted him out of the pit, he restored the song to his heart. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. God did not create us to be defeated and silent. God created us to conquer and sing. That is a powerful metaphor, and no one helps us understand it better than David. As a young shepherd boy, David would play on his harp while he tended sheep. Later, he played the harp so well that it quieted the spirit of Saul. He was a composer—after all, the Psalms are fundamentally songs.
David knew music. But he had not yet experienced a new song. We may sing songs when we’re in a hole in the ground. The songs we sing then are sad songs: the blues, country music. Songs about tragedy, misfortune, sorrow and grief. Songs about anger and bitterness. But when we get out of the pit, we want to sing a new song: a song of praise to the living God.
Living life inevitably brings pits—slimy, watery, sticky pits. We cannot escape them under our own power, wit, or wisdom. We must firmly plant our feet on Jesus the solid rock. Then we can sing the Lord’s song, even if we remain in a foreign land.