By the rivers of Babylon


By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
[Psalm 137 NIV]

It’s worth first getting a rough sense of the timing of the exile mentioned in the above quotation. Abraham lived around 1800BC, Moses  1300BC, David 1000BC, and Solomon, who built the temple in Jerusalem, around 950BC. Later the kingdom divided into Israel in the north, and Judah in the south and in 722BC people in Israel were taken into exile in Assyria. But the exile of Judah into Babylonia, referred to in Psalm 137, began in 600BC and continued until the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC. Of the well known prophets, Ezekiel and Daniel ministered to the people in Babylon, whilst Jeremiah remained in Judah. During the exile the sacred books of the Jews assumed great importance and it was at that time that the role of Scribe was developed. Cyrus marched against Babylon and defeated it in 539BC after which he allowed the people to return. Many exiles though chose to remain outside Judah.

Psalm 137 is full of deep emotion.

The writer pictures the great sadness of the exiles who long to return to Jerusalem and sing the songs of the Lord in their rightful place. The people are afraid they will forget Jerusalem and what it means to them. They remember with bitterness how the Edomites gloated over the destruction of the city. And then they wish that the Babylonian infants will be killed, which makes a rather nasty ending to this Psalm.

We have seen frequently on our TV screens over recent years the terror and anguish of refugees forced to leave their homeland and live in a foreign country so we can begin to imagine how terrible this disaster felt to the people of Judah. But the situation was made far worse by what happened to Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple which had stood for some 400 years at the time of its destruction. To the exiles it felt as though the centre of their lives had been destroyed, their faith shattered and ripped apart. And yet, despite the despair in Babylon, gradually, with the help of prophets like Ezekiel they rebuilt their lives and established the Jewish faith in a written form which has lasted for over 2500 years.

We are fortunate if we do not to suffer a similar fate in our physical lives, although many people in the world do, but in our spiritual lives it is a common occurrence.

Being taken into exile in Babylon is like being overcome by false ideas and selfish actions to such an extent that any true goodness and truth we know seems to have been destroyed.

False ideas are all around us like the rivers of Babylon flowing by. But however bad the situation appears the Lord is always with us and can help us ‘weep’ over what we have lost. This is a good start because it marks the start of our way back. It means that we can get back to a time when the Lord and his teaching is at the centre of our lives. Jerusalem and the temple can be re-built again. We can return home. For us ‘Ezekiel’ is our conscience that reminds us that self love and self interest are a dead end approach to living. We need to respond to the Lord and follow him.

The exile to Babylon happened just once, but in the lives of our spirit we will be frequent visitors to Babylon. We will often be carried away by false ideas that lead us to selfish actions. But deep down our conscience calls us to return home, to get back to the true ideas that should light our way through life. We will want to return home just as the exiles wanted to return from Babylon to Jerusalem. But the key message is the same. We need to remember Zion, the Lord and his teachings that should be at the centre of our lives – always

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.