By the Waters of Babylon

Psalm 137 provides several insights about the experience of some individuals brought to Babylon in the first deportation (597 BC)—though largely negative in perspective. Read this citation from the psalm (verses 14):

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?

In verse 1, “waters” probably refer to irrigation canals that the exiles dwelled beside in ethnic settlements and were obligated to maintain. Two antagonists are identified in verse 3: “captors” (Babylonians) and “tormentors” (likely other captive ethnicities living nearby). This incident depicted in this psalm presumes a pluralistic setting: proximity to and friction with persons of other cultures, religions, and ethnic identities.

In their misery and disorientation, some of the deportees could not imagine serving God apart from the infrastructure of the Israelite state (monarchy, temple, land). Perhaps they did not listen attentively to the Lord or suffered from double-mindedness: “For they have not listened to my words,” declares the Lord, “words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either” (Jer 29:19). Perhaps they idolized the temple and Zion ideology—“the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and the yearning of your soul” (Ezek 24:21). Or as one commentator suggests, they did not discern this critical lesson: “Holy sites do not enable Yahweh’s presence among his people, but holy people do (Jer 7:3–11).”

The dejected singers in Psalm 137 provide a negative path to follow in the midst of cultural disorientation. The musicians were unable to imagine blessing and service apart from their former temple setting and their accustomed lifestyle in Canaan. The musicians in Psalm 137 had unwillingly transitioned from a mono-cultural to a pluralistic setting. They lost social, religious, and economic power.

They did not discern how their view of reality or themselves was conditioned by power and its loss. As a result, they did not perceive their opportunity or responsibility. They did not seek the common good for the glory of God, as Jeremiah counseled in his letter (29:4–7). They did not declare God’s name as exiles in their pluralistic context.

Clearly, we must not repeat the error of Psalm 137. Amid our “exiles” today, we must never forget our biblical priorities. Inordinate longing for past cultural domination and related forms of thinking is neither spiritually healthy nor intellectually pious.


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