I don’t know much about trees. I can’t tell oak from walnut, maple from cedar. But one stands out to me: the willow. Her hanging branches differentiate her from most other trees. That they’re usually near water helps. When our girls were younger we used to play a game where the first to spot one would shout out, “Willow, weep for me!” referencing the jazz standard, most notably recorded by Billie Holiday. (I can distinguish a C#dim7 chord from a C#min7-5 chord but not one tree from another.)
Remember from Part 1, the song we’re looking at (Psalm 137) was likely composed by a priest recalling captivity in Babylon. The ancient city was located on the Euphrates River and also featured many streams and canals. So you can imagine the abundance of water-loving willows. (The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient wonders of the world, demanded much water.)
Song of Hope
On the willows there we hung up our lyres. —Psalm 137:2 ESV
This is beautiful poetry. The psalmist lends his lyre (or harp) to the willow, his distress so great he cannot play music. For me, music has long been a solace. Before I really knew Jesus, I thought of music as my healer and soother. I spent countless hours at the piano. When not physically at a keyboard, I reflected on music constantly. Chord progressions, lyrics, rhythms. Musicians are like this. It’s what we meditate on. But when deep sorrow strikes a musician, even his music cannot comfort.
The Hebrew musicians were so anguished they couldn’t even play, yet they chose not to bash their harps against the willows, like a heavy metal guitarist. They didn’t destroy their harps but held out hope for a day when joy would return and music would once again rise from their instruments.
Consider the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
7 “I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. 8 I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. 9 And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.
10 “Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again 11 the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD: “ ‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’ For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD.” —Jeremiah 33:7-11 ESV
A few weeks ago one of my coworkers set a guitar in my office, one that had been left at the church many years ago. They’d made attempts to contact the owner, but he never responded. I opened up the case to discover a classical guitar from 1971—older than me. It was in decent shape, missing a couple strings. They’d all need to be replaced. (When I bought strings for it, the guy at Guitar Center asked, “Now, are you playing more classical or flamenco?” I responded, “Uh, I found this old guitar and I just want to see how it sounds.” Look for flamenco on a Sunday morning sometime.) I researched its value online and found it wasn’t worth much, $150 maybe. But it could be played again. Music could once again resonate on its musty wood.
I also think of my grandma’s 1960s Gibson acoustic resting in her closet. I played it a couple times a few summers ago. With new strings and a visit to a guitar repairman, it could sound beautiful again. It’s an instrument that deserves more than to be banished to a closet. It should, if you ask me, sit in my office, thankful to be played a few times a week.
A couple decades ago, Billy Joel and the legendary Ray Charles collaborated on Joel’s “Baby Grand,” which befit the pianomen. It’s a song about how when friends and women and fame let you down, there’s only one who’ll remain:
Ever since this gig began
My baby grand’s
Been good to me
But even music isn’t the ultimate solace. Music can indeed promote emotional and physical healing—there’s an entire genre dedicated to it—and even David with his harp soothed the evil king Saul. But lasting relief and comfort come only from the one who is called our Comforter.