"What are we doing here? Why have we been abandoned like this?"
The middle-aged man sighed and lowered his body until he was sitting against a poplar tree, staring out into the Kebar River of Babylon, the land of his captivity.
It had been at least a dozen years since Ollam had felt like singing God's praises. Yet, he hadn't stopped completely. Partly out of habit, and partly due to demand from his captors, he'd played his songs on occasion, the wonderful songs of praise his ancestors had composed. He could hardly help it. He was a temple musician, and though the temple was out of his reach, the songs still haunted him.
How he loved those songs, those psalms of praise of the homeland he hadn't seen in years, and of the God who had sent them to this terrible place. The wonderful songs written by great men of his faith: Moses, David, Asaph, the sons of Korah. But whenever he sang them, his heart ached. Each year, he would sing them less and less.
Singing songs of the temple, of Zion, of his Lord, was like being dragged from Judah all over again. The pain, twelve years old, returned fresh, and any wounds that may have been partially healed opened once again.
Just the other day, a Babylonian official had ordered him to play his harp and sing one of the songs of ascents. He knew the official was mocking him, but he also knew the punishment for disobeying. The words, and the melody, were still burned in his memory.
May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life;
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem,
and may you live to see your children's children.
It had taken all of Ollam's willpower to keep his composure during the performance. When the official started harassing him, however, he could handle it no longer. Turning his head, he'd cried like a baby. The official had laughed and dismissed him.
Ollam looked out at the Kebar. The river was at flood stage and was rushing by violently, hitting the rocks along it with fervor. Such a contrast to the waters of his favorite psalm, as much as Babylon was to Judah. He opened the knapsack beside him and pulled out his harp. His voice and fingers joined in harmony.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
Throwing down his harp, he buried his head in his hands and wept.
"Where are they, Lord? Where are the still waters, the green pastures? Where is my restored soul?"
Leaning against the tree, Ollam slowly rose. He reached down for his harp and examined it.
"I just can't do it anymore, Lord."
Raising the harp over his head, he felt it hit a branch of the tree he'd been leaning on. He gently maneuvered the branch through the harp's strings until it was a good half-cubit down. Letting go, he looked out on the river and wept.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
References in order, from NIV:
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