By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
“Gateway to God”
Last week we celebrated Holy Week, commemorating events that are at the very heart of our Christian faith. We began our journey through Holy Week with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem—a Hosanna that didn’t last. We followed Jesus to his betrayal and death and burial—a sentence that wouldn’t last. And ultimately, we rejoiced with Jesus’ followers at his glorious resurrection—a promise that will last forever. The journey was filled with events and details captured by the Gospel writers. One of the most intriguing, perhaps, is a detail Matthew includes. At the moment of Jesus’ death there was an earthquake, the Temple curtain was torn in two, tombs were opened, and saints were raised to life! (Matthew 27:51-53) Somehow, because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the gateway to God had been opened wide, and now we can boldly enter that Most Holy Place. (Hebrews 10:19-20)
Through the darkest events in human history, God is able to open a way into His presence.
Psalm 137 begins “By the rivers of Babylon.” It was a real, physical place. God’s people had been defeated, humiliated and dragged away into exile. Here by the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates they sat and wept. The joy of former days—the glory of the kingdom of David and Solomon—were a distant memory now. The city was in ruins, the Temple had been destroyed, they had lost everything. Worst of all, it seemed as if God himself had forsaken them. These were the darkest of days. At first they couldn’t believe it had happened. The Temple represented God’s eternal presence among them, and now it was gone! Their denial gave way to anger—anger directed at their Babylonian captors to be sure, but also anger toward their leaders, toward each other, even anger toward God for allowing this to happen. All hope was lost. What could they do now?
Interestingly, the place where they sat and wept was Babylon—a city whose name literally means “gate of the gods.” We can assume it was somewhere near those great rivers that God had provided to nourish the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:14). Even though it may have seemed like they had been deserted and abandoned by God, is it possible that God had actually brought them here for a reason? For a redemption? Was Babylon a gateway to God?
The song continues, “There on the poplars we hung our harps” (vs. 2) They weren’t about to sing songs of joy for their captors. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (vs. 4). No, instead they would just sit and weep by the rivers; they would make vows to remember Jerusalem as their “highest joy” (vs. 5-6); they would pray imprecatory prayers (curses) calling on God to exercise His harshest revenge and destruction (vs. 8-9). I wonder if that was their best strategy?
Like so many commentators, I struggle with how to read these “imprecatory” psalms. However hard I try, I can’t get past the idea that these words are being spoken from a place of spiritual need and spiritual pain, rather than as a measured theological response to God’s nature and work in the world. God’s people in exile are not simply victims of the “bad culture” all around them. They are wandering and rebellious children experiencing God’s firm correction. Can their denial and anger and depression eventually lead them to repentance, rather than a thirst for revenge? Will they eventually realize that God’s presence isn’t limited to a particular place, no matter how special it may be? Will they learn anything at all that God is trying to teach them?
In Jeremiah, God speaks to these people in exile. Rather than simply praying for their captors destruction, God tells them, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).
“Repentance raises us up; grieving knocks at heavens gates; humility opens them.” (St. John Climacus, 579-649AD) Is it possible that the Lord had actually brought them to Babylon to provide a “gateway” back to Him—through repentance, grieving and humility?
Jesus would ultimately provide the permanent, enduring gateway to God. He even told his disciples, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (John 10:9) By his death on the cross, the curtain was torn and the way was opened. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Those words must have seemed so much more satisfying to the disciples than any curse they could speak over Jesus’ tormentors. Passing through the curtain he provided, we can once again take up our harps and our songs of joy; we can glory in the gift of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus, and we can leave the fate of our enemies to Him.
We CAN sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land! Whatever dark place you find yourself in today—by whatever unwelcome river God might have placed you—may you be able to receive His grace in the grieving, know His peace in the pain, and experience His rest in repentance. Stay thirsty, my friends.
SONG: Don McLean – Babylon