The phrase “By the Waters of Babylon” has come to describe the core of my writing and teaching ministry. I have a book by that title, my podcast has the same name, and I named my blog the same as well.
The phrase comes from one of the most tragic of the psalms, Psalm 137:
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?
The context of this psalm is Israel in Babylonian exile. It was customary for Jews to gather for worship by a river due to the necessity of ceremonial washings—this was a practice that continued for the building of synagogues later. So it is very likely that the setting of this psalm—“by the waters of Babylon”—refers to the Israelites’ attempt to gather for worship in exile.
And yet instead, they sat down and wept; they hung up their lyres, the predominate instrument of accompaniment for temple worship. Their captors mocked them: “Sing for us one of your worship songs!” But the captive Hebrews could not. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
They were God’s people in a strange land; they had no homes, no place for worship; they were a unique people with a unique identity, but they were aliens and strangers.
God’s People in Exile
What is particularly instructive for us is that New Testaments authors often use language to describe the church’s situation that refers to Israel’s experience in exile by way of analogy.
Consider, for example, even the idea of Babylon. In the New Testament, particularly in the book of Revelation, the title of Babylon is given to the enemies of God. No matter how someone interprets what exactly Babylon refers to in Revelation, it becomes in the New Testament representative of everything that is contrary and hostile to God, his worship, and his people.
And isn’t that exactly how Scripture describes this present age? Galatians 1:4 calls the world in which we live the “present evil age.” Second Corinthians 4:4 identifies the “god of this world” as one who has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” this one who Ephesians 2:2 calls “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Jesus said that this world hates him, because he “testifies about it that its works are evil.” In other worlds, there appear to be striking similarities between the Babylon in which the Jewish exiles found themselves and how the New Testament describes the age in which we Christians find ourselves.
Or think about the idea of Zion or Jerusalem. In Psalm 137, these refer to a literal city, but even in the psalm, these titles represent more than merely a physical location—they represent the place where God’s presence dwelt, the place of true worship.
In the New Testament, the terms “Zion” and “Jerusalem” are likewise often used metaphorically in reference to the place of God’s presence and true worship. Probably the most vivid example of this is found in Hebrews 12. There in verse 22, the author is describing Christian worship, and he says,
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering.
God’s presence is in the temple of Heaven, and when we Christians worship, we are actually joining with the worship of heaven, uniting our voices with innumerable angels in festal gathering and saints who have gone before us. Ephesians 2:6 tells us that we Christians have been raised up with Christ and have been seated with him in the heavenly places. In fact, in verse 19 of the same chapter, Paul calls us “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” and Philippians 3:20 tells us that our citizenship is not here on earth; our citizenship is in heaven itself.
You see, when we consider how the New Testament describes this present age, it sounds a whole lot like Babylon. And when we consider how the New Testament describes our citizenship in the place of God’s presence and worship, it sounds a whole lot like a distant city where we have our citizenship but where we do not currently find ourselves.
And to make this comparison even more apparent, consider how Peter refers to the church today: First Peter 1:17 calls our current situation as Christians “the time of your exile,” and 2:11 specifically calls us “sojourners and exiles.”
In other words, we who are members of Christ’s church in this present age are, like Israel, God’s people in exile. Like Israel, our citizenship is in Zion, a city far away where God’s presence dwells in his temple and where pure worship takes place. Like Israel, we find ourselves by the waters of Babylon, amidst a people whose ruler hates God and his worship and his people.
Christians in the first through third centuries recognized this. They couldn’t help but recognize their status as exiles because they were increasingly persecuted for their faith.
Yet something happened in the fourth century that led God’s people to forget that they were sojourners and exiles. In 313, the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Now, of course, that was a good thing. We Christians should never desire persecution. But then in 392, emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman empire and outlawed all other religions. In essence, the church and state eventually united, forming what many call “Christendom,” and church leaders literally wanted to turn the empire into a theocracy like Israel, climaxing in the Holy Roman Empire.
The problem is that God never intended for this kind of church/state union for the New Testament church. Now, many good things came as a result of that union—much of the cultural production that came out of Christendom, for example, the art and literature and music, contains values and morals that are noble and good. Nevertheless, this union of the church with the broader culture lulled Christians into forgetting that they were exiles.
The Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, argued against the church/state union, but they continued to retain a connection. The Church of England especially, as its name indicates, maintained a close union between church and state.
It really wasn’t until the early Baptists in England, and a few groups prior to Baptists, that we find a clear articulation of the need to recover a separation between church and state. This emphasis of the separation of church and state influenced the founding of the United States of America as well, but nevertheless, the effects of Christendom can still be observed today. How many Christians today consider themselves sojourners and exiles? How many Christians recognize that their citizenship is in another world and that they are currently living in Babylon?
Do We Recognize Our Situation as Exiles?
Unfortunately, many Christians today don’t recognize that they are in exile. The problem today is that false worship is not always so blatantly obvious. This is partially due to the fact that we are still seeing the lingering effects of the medieval union of Christendom, especially in America. False worship is often packaged in wrappings that make it seem less overtly pagan.
But the other reason is the secularization of the West following the Scientific Revolution and Age of Reason. We don’t have pagan kings commanding us to bow down and worship huge statues of themselves. We don’t see altars and human sacrifices going on around us, because the “sophisticated modern mind” doesn’t believe in the supernatural.
But our Babylon is no less pagan—it is just a different kind of pagan. It is a paganism that doesn’t worship idols of gold or bow down to kings as gods; rather, our Babylonian paganism worships financial prosperity, hedonism, entertainment, immorality, and self. And really, when you think about it, does not our Babylon sacrifice virgins? Our Babylon just does so in a more sophisticated way. And does not our Babylon also sacrifice infants? Ours just does so before they are even born.
This is why the message of Psalm 137 is so relevant for us today. We are God’s people living in exile; we are supposed to submit to our authorities, participate in society, and pray for the welfare of the city, just like Jeremiah told the Babylonian exiles:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.Jer 29:4–7
But when we consider our values as God’s people, we find ourselves in a culture that is diametrically opposed to us. As Peter tells us, we are to be holy, as God is holy (1 Pet 1:15). We are to “conduct [ourselves] with fear throughout the time of [our] exile (v. 17). He admonishes us,
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.1 Pet 2:11–12
As God’s people in exile, let us live holy lives, seek the welfare of the city where God has placed us, and worship our God in reverence and awe.
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