Psalm 137 recounts one of the most momentous historical moments in the Old Testament and sets up the final scene of the drama of Hebrew history, when a remnant returns to rebuild both city and temple.
As I meditated on Psalm 137, I can almost feel the Psalmist’s experience as he penned: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” These words seem to fit the occasion for what I, and many others now feel: a longing to return to the house of the Lord.
Undoubtedly, an Israelite carried away to Babylon after God sent the king of Babylon to destroy both the city of Jerusalem and the temple wrote Psalm 137. We read about the total displacement of the tribe of Judah subsequently carried to Babylon. Away from city and temple, this Israelite could only dream of what it had been like when he was back in the land of Israel, worshipping at the temple with fellow-Israelites. Sorrow now fills his heart as he sits by Babylon’s river, remembering better times. But for now, these memories are all he has. One thing is certain: when he gathers again, he will never take it for granted.
I dare not suggest that these few weeks of quarantine depriving us of the privilege to gather with God’s people are somehow akin to the trauma of losing both city and temple and subsequently the land itself. There is no comparison at least when it comes to intensity not to mention time span. Nevertheless, most of us have never been through a crisis like this, where we have been unable to meet together for a protracted period. And at least for a short time, we have begun to feel what the writer of Psalm 137 felt for years—a longing for to be gathered in God’s dwelling place with the people of God.
It seems our present quarantine is producing in the Church a new appreciation for gathering together which perhaps we previously took for granted. It’s easy to do in the West where we have been able to gather without government intimidation or interference. If so, such an appreciation will be one of the unintended blessings of the pandemic. Perhaps it will also produce a new level of commitment to church life where people move from merely ‘dating’ the church to ‘marrying’ her. If so, that also will be a blessing. I’m not suggesting that this is why God allowed such a horrific and devastating virus to descend on the land. But as is always the case (Romans 8:28), God is able to weave the black thread of pain and suffering into the white tapestry, so it looks like part of the plan from the beginning.
One of the things (hopefully) we have learned is that while we are thankful for the technologies which provide us with the ability for a facsimile of real fellowship, it is just that—a facsimile and not the real thing. In his opening paragraph of his first letter, John the apostle speaks of “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (I John 1:1). In this passage, he is remembering the proximity of fellowship he had with the Son of God during his Incarnation; so close that he could see the color of his eyes and touch him while fishing in Galilee. Nothing can ever replace this type of fellowship where we look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters. No video link will ever suffice for real face to face fellowship.
The same is true of worship. The writer of the Psalm cannot bear to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Ps. 137:4). While I appreciate our worship team leading us through the medium of electronic media, real worship was ordained to coincide with fellowship where our voice blends with hundreds of others in the assembly. The same can be said of our receiving the preached word. I’ve seen some posts recently mocking pastors and leaders for preaching to empty buildings each week. I applaud those gifted leaders whose commitment to the preached word has caused them to use social media to continue to provide God’s people the word of life. I have a feeling that if Paul had electronic media in his day, he would use it to the max to continually provide the church with relevant ministry.
Are you longing for the gathered assembly once again? If so, ask yourself the question, “Have you previously taken for granted the gathering of God’s people?” If so, repent and ask the Father to give you a new, heightened appreciation for the gathered assembly. Do it now before you are allowed to gather so that when we assemble with the saints once again, you’ll be able to register your new, heartfelt appreciation for the house of the Lord. On that day, you will then say with another Psalmist, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1).