By the Rivers of Babylon

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. (PSA 137:1)

Of the one hundred and fifty Psalms collected in the Old Testament, only 73 are actually attributed to David. Some of them, such as the 137th which we read together as the Psalter, were written much later in Jewish history, and deal with events unimagined during the height of David’s kingdom.

David ruled a united kingdom of Israel in about 1000 BC., and was followed by his son Solomon. Solomon built the kingdom to its greatest physical extent, reputation, and wealth, but his willingness to worship the variety of idols introduced by his hundreds of wives and concubines introduced a fatal flaw into the kingdom, and upon his death it fractured into the independent and warring kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

About 250 years after Solomon, in 721 BC., the Assyrians came and conquered Israel, carrying everyone living in the northern kingdom away. These 10 tribes are now lost to history, as there is no further record of them as a distinct people. There are many theories, but it appears most likely that they were simply absorbed into other Asian populations through intermarriage.

The southern kingdom of Judah struggled along against increasing pressure from the more powerful nations in the region for another 135 years until in 586 BC. the Babylonians came into Judah to punish them for supporting Egypt against them in a war. All those who were educated, or successful businessmen, or political leaders were taken to Babylon where they were kept captive for some years. The prophet Daniel was one of those carried into Babylon, and the familiar stories of the “Fiery Furnace,” “Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream,” and “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” all come from that period and that experience.

We recall that the reason that the Jews were the “chosen people” was because of their fascination with and dedication to their external forms of worship. The covenant established with Jehovah said that if they would worship Jehovah only and keep to the rituals defined in the laws of Moses, they would be rich and happy. They had no desire to take it any farther than that because they loved their rituals, and because they loved them and protected them, the scriptures which later became the Old Testament were safely preserved with them.

But the law said that the only true worship could take place in Jerusalem, and those who loved the laws and rituals of their church suffered terribly because they could not fulfill that part of the law. The covenant with Jehovah had also promised that they would have their own nation, and now their land was filled with Babylonian settlers and uneducated Jews, too worthless even to be captured by the Babylonians and who were willing to marry Canaanites (these unfortunates were later known as “Samaritans” and were completely shunned by any good and proper Jew).

And so the unnamed psalmist sang a song that has touched the hearts of captive peoples the world over, telling us how it felt to be homesick, to be among strangers speaking a strange language, to be forced to dance and sing and pretend to be happy to please those who have stolen your goods and killed your family. It is not surprising then that the last verses should celebrate revenge in the extreme, to the point of delighting in the thought of murdering the children of your enemies.

Many people have seen this Psalm to be symbolic, representing not just the plight of the Jews in Babylon, but the plight of all captive peoples everywhere. The African slaves in the United States turned this Psalm into a lovely hymn that they sang in their churches and (ironically) to entertain their owners. There are many other examples of captive or displaced peoples who have read this Psalm or sang that hymn and felt that it spoke directly to their hearts.

Although we recognize the Psalm as symbolic, yet it contains very natural, troubling images of the destruction of innocent children, apparently sanctioning revenge. We must take it beyond simple symbolism in order to get to the real message that concerns our life today.

The leading image in this Psalm is that of Babylon, both as the nation which has caused the captives their misery, and as the geographic location of their imprisonment. Babylon was an immensely powerful empire in those days, dominating the whole of the Fertile Crescent from its capital near where the Tigris and Euphrates (the “rivers of Babylon”) entered the Persian Gulf.

We know from the stories in the book of Daniel that the kingdom of Babylon was completely dominated by their loves of self and the world, that even though they were externally very successful, their system was completely corrupt because its internal fires were driven by the lust of dominion over others. We only need to be reminded of how easily king Nebuchadnezzar was led to believe himself a god, how he would kill anyone who did not worship him to see how close this quality was to the surface.

Because the real Babylonian nation had that quality, it was therefore chosen as the symbol for those qualities in the church and in the man of the Church when John was shown the visions that became the book of Revelation, and has now come to stand as a symbol for that quality in any organization or individual.

We are all, from time to time, held captive by the rivers of Babylon. We all find ourselves in states where we either choose to ignore certain teachings of the Word, or else we deliberately twist their meaning so that they do not seem to apply to our own particular situation–at least to us. And we do this in order to control a situation, to force someone else to do what we want them to do, or to gain some material advantage.

Babylon stands for being “dominated by the loves of self and the world,” while the rivers of Babylon represent “false reasoning.” (AE 518:38) From time to time we “sit down by the Rivers of Babylon” when we allow ourselves to be overcome by our natural, hereditary desires. And when that happens, when we allow ourselves into such a state of temptation and trial, the Lord moves even closer to us than usual. He stirs our conscience, our remains of good and truth, and in many other subtle, inner ways, sounds alarms that cause us to look up, look outside of ourselves, and understand where we are spiritually.

And seeing ourselves in Babylon, we weep when we remember Zion. We regret that we have allowed ourselves to come into such a state, and we wish we could go back to having things the way they were. But we have to acknowledge that the situation is one of our own making, that we cannot go back, we can only go forward.

Historically, the Jews, had a Covenant with Jehovah. He would protect them, cause them to prosper, and protect them in their own land as long as they obeyed Him. Their captivity in Babylon was not an accident, but the direct result of their own disobedience. As our lessons from the Apocalypse Explained points out, as the Jews profaned the things of their worship, they gradually became “Babylonian” as to their internal worship, and so were physically moved away from Israel to Babylon in order to represent the fallen state of their internal worship. It was only because the Lord needed certain representatives in order to fulfill the prophecies of His birth and life that He allowed them to return to Judah and rebuild the temple. Once He had come and been rejected by the Jews, Jerusalem and the temple were once again destroyed, and the Jews themselves were scattered. (See AE 1029:16,17)

The Heavenly doctrines tell us that the first 6 verses of this Psalm are a “Lamentation by those in falsities from ignorance, because they don’t have the Word” (P.P.) but we need to be quite clear that we are not talking about the ignorance of innocence, but the ignorance that is the result of deliberately putting the truths of the Word aside in favor of things that support what we selfishly want to do. The resulting lamentation or unhappiness is the result of being able to see how things used to be when we were in order from the context of our downfallen state.

We do not need to dwell any further on this state of spiritual captivity to selfishness and worldliness, for it is all too familiar to all of us. What we need to do is to see if the internal sense of this Psalm shows us the way out of our captivity.

Verses 5 and 6 remember Jerusalem in the following words: If I forget you, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget her skill! If I do not remember you, Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth–If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. In this context, ‘Jerusalem’ does not refer to the physical city Jerusalem, but rather ‘the church’ (AR 880, TCR 782:5) and so stands for the Lord’s promise that even with those people who have turned away from His truth and found themselves in the spiritual states represented by Babylon, still there is hope, still the church can be formed with them, it is still possible for them to be happy to eternity in heaven. (P.P)

The Psalm tells us how we can come out of our captive state and return to a life of happiness and usefulness. It says, O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy shall he be who repays you as you have served us! Happy shall he be who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock. (PSA 137:8,9)

When good and truth are brought together in the heavenly marriage, uses are the result, and these, and the delights that come from uses, are represented by babies in the Word. But, according to the laws of correspondence, everything has its opposite correspondence as well; and when evils and falsities are conjoined, wickedness and the delight one feels in the commission of some secret evil is the result. In the context of this Psalm, the “Babes” that are to be destroyed are nothing more than the lies that we first tell ourselves, and then tell others, to justify the evils that we do. (See AE 411:27)

The Holy City the New Jerusalem is an often used image of the Lord’s Church and His heavenly Kingdom. In our states of unhappiness in this world, we long for the rest and comfort we hope to find with the Lord someday. We long to be free of the confusion and difficulties of life in the natural world with its temptations, disease, and insecurity. We want to go to our true, spiritual home where we can safe and happy.

But we are captives–we are not free to go home until we have broken the bonds that hold us in slavery in Babylon. If we truly wish to be free, we must search out the truths from the Word, and honestly compare our lives to them. With the Lord’s help through our conscience, we should easily see falsities springing from our love of evils. We must then act courageously, and decisively, and smash those lies from hell against the rock of truth.

The historical Babylon was the capital of an empire of incredible wealth and power, but because of its internal corruption, it was quickly replaced by others. Our lesson from the book of Revelation speaks of a symbolic Babylon, and gives long lists of the precious and luxurious items to be found in her, the entertainments and delights that the kings of the earth found there, and concludes with these words: Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine line, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with good and precious stones and pearls! For in one hour such great riches came to nothing. (Rev. 18:16,17)

The most dangerous lie of all is the one that makes us believe that the things of this world are lasting or satisfying in themselves, for at the hour of our death, they will all come to nothing. We must break this lie that makes us cling to material possessions and the life of the body upon the truth, the truth that it is in our own long-term best interests to set our priorities correctly, to learn to put spiritual things first in our lives.

Remember the parable of the Rich Man and his barns full of grain. He was a very successful farmer, normally something to admire, but all he did with the wealth he produced was to store it up in barns. When the barns became full, he tore them down and built even bigger barns to hold his wealth. And what did the Lord say to him? “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ (Luke 12:20)

The things of the world are the wealth and power that attract us to Babyon in the first place, but it is the lies that we tell ourselves to excuse our behavior that are the bonds that enslave us. The Lord asks us to break these bonds that hold us in Babylon, to set ourselves free so that we can return from Babylon to live eternally in freedom in the heavenly land of Canaan wherein is the Holy City the New Jerusalem! As the Lord Himself said at the conclusion of His discussion of the relative value of earthly and spiritual treasures in Matthew, Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (MAT 6:33).

Lessons: PSA 137, REV 18:1-17, AE 1029:16, 17

Apocalypse Explained 1029

[16] When, therefore, the sons of Israel wholly departed from the statutes which were representative of the spiritual things of the church, through which they had communication with heaven, they were all given into the hands of the king of Assyria; for there was no longer with them any representative church and consequently no communication with heaven.

The same thing happened to the Jews. When they had adulterated and profaned all the statutes, judgments, and laws that represented good and truth of faith, to the extent that there was no longer any thing of good and truth left, and when their church thus became Babylon, then not only their kings and princes and the whole people, but also all the treasures of the house of Jehovah, and afterwards all its golden vessels, were given into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon; and moreover the temple itself was burned

Their transgressions were:-

That they filled Jerusalem with innocent blood (2 Kings xxiv. 4);

That they offered incense unto Baal, poured out drink- offerings unto other gods, set abominations in the house of Jehovah, built high places to Baal in the valley of Hinnom, delivered up their sons and daughters to Molech (JER. xxxii. 29-35).

All these signify the profanation of the holy things of the church. Such profanation is signified also by “Babylon.”

That the land, therefore, which signified the church might no longer be profaned by them, and also that Babylon might thus fully put on its representation, it was said to them by Jeremiah that they should surrender themselves voluntarily into the hands of the king of Babylon, and those who did not surrender themselves, but remained in the land, should die by the sword, famine, and pestilence (JER. xxv. 1-11).

[17] But since the Lord was to be born in that nation and make Himself manifest where the church then was and where His Word was, so that nation after a captivity of seventy years was brought back from Babylon, and the temple was rebuilt. And yet no other church remained with them except a church like that called Babylon, as can be seen from many things which the Lord Himself said about that nation, and from the way they received Him; and for this reason Jerusalem was again destroyed, and the temple burnt with fire.

Copyright © 1982 – 2005 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009


The Wise Men

The Wise Men

An Extemporaneous Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh (MAT 2:11).

  1. Christmas is a wonderful time of year:
    1. Special decorations in homes, communities
    2. Special Music
    3. Holiday Plans
    4. And of course, the reason for all these special things is the story of the Lord’s birth on earth.
  2. The story of the Lord’s birth also has many different parts, each with its own response and affections:
    1. Zacharias in the Temple
    2. Angel appearing to Mary
    3. The trip to Bethlehem
    4. The Lord born in a stable, laid in a manger
    5. The visit of the shepherds
    6. The presentation in the temple and Circumcision
      1. Simeon and Anna
    7. The visit of the Wise Men
    8. All these are familiar stories that tell us something about Christmas, that add to our understanding of what really happened when the Lord was born on earth.
  3. For today, we are going to focus on the Wise Men, and their visit.
    1. The Wise Men came from Syria, a country to the North and East of Israel.
    2. Syria was a special place because there were people in Syria who still had the special teachings of the Ancient Church – the Ancient Word.
      1. Science of Correspondences
        1. They were able to see that the holy writing of scripture contained messages, and they were able to understand them.
        2. There were many wise men in Syria who knew, from the ancient texts, when and where to expect the Messiah.
        3. All they had to do was wait to see a special star which would tell them that the exact time was at hand.
    3. The Word says that the Wise Men “saw the star in the East” (MAT 2:2), and this has been the cause of some confusion.
      1. It does not mean they were looking Eastward when they saw the star, for that would have been the wrong direction. (Bethlehem was to the South and slightly West of Syria.)
      2. Rather it means they were in the part of the world known as “the East” when they saw the star.
        1. It says “in the East” because it represents love to the Lord — the state we need to be in in order to receive the Lord.
    4. We may wonder why, if the Wise Men knew so much about the Lord’s birth, did they go to Jerusalem instead of to Bethlehem.
      1. Jerusalem is very near, and on the way
      2. Assumed the king would go there after His birth
        1. Which He did, briefly
      3. Assumed the Jews would be eager for the Messiah
        1. That He would have been eagerly awaited and taken to Jerusalem to begin His reign.
        2. But we see from Herod that the Jews did not want to be ruled by a spiritual king.
  4. The Wise Men followed the star to Bethlehem, to the very house where Jesus was.
    1. Mary, Joseph, and the baby were no longer in a stable, but were in a house when the Wise Men came.
      1. The Word does not tell us exactly what happened, but we can guess that Joseph, being a kind and considerate man, found work as a carpenter in Bethlehem in order to rent a little house for them to live in until Mary and the child were strong enough for the long and difficult journey back to Nazareth.
  5. How many Wise Men were there?
    1. Again, the Word does not tell us.
      1. We know that there was more than one because they are always referred to in the plural.
      2. We accept the tradition that there were three men because the Word tells us that there were three gifts.
        1. Gold — Celestial Good
        2. Frankincense — Spiritual Good
        3. Myrrh — Natural Good
  6. What a wonderful image this story presents:
    1. A simple family — a young carpenter and his wife — in a humble home in a little Judean town, being visited by foreign kings, who bring priceless gifts and who worship their little child!
    2. We call the kings “Wise Men” because they searched the Word to find where the king should be born, they studied the Word in its internal sense to guide them in their search for the king.
  7. If we would be wise, if we want to find the Lord, if we want Him to be the king of our lives, we must do the same thing:
    1. Search the Word using the Internal sense
    2. And guide our own lives according to the truths we find there.
    3. When we look to the Word as our guide, we, like the Wise Men, will see the star in the East, the truth (star) will appear
      1. Because we love the Lord (that means that spiritually we are in the East)
      2. And seek to find Him in the Word.
      3. If we follow the star — the truth in the Word – It will lead us
        1. Over mountains
        2. Across deserts
        3. Through Valleys
      4. Until we, like the Wise Men, will find the Lord in a house (our mind).
        1. Leading us from within
        2. Inflowing with love
      5. When we find Him in our minds, we can then acknowledge Him as our Lord and Savior by giving gifts:
        1. Gold: Celestial Good — love to the Lord
        2. Frankincense: Spiritual Good — love to the Neighbor
        3. Myrrh: Natural Good — Obedience to the Law.
    4. These are the true gifts of Christmas
      1. That we receive life from the Lord, and through our own choices and skills give it back to Him, by giving it to others

And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (MAT 25:40) Amen.

1st Lesson:

MAT 1:18-25 (Mat 1:18-25) Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. {19} Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. {20} But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. {21} “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” {22} So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: {23} “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” {24} Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, {25} and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS. Amen.

2nd Lesson:

MAT 2:1-12 (Mat 2:1-12) Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, {2} saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” {3} When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. {4} And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. {5} So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: {6} ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” {7} Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. {8} And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” {9} When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. {10} When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. {11} And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. {12} Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. Amen.

3rd Lesson:

AC 9293:2,3 2] It is evident from the Word that such things are meant by ‘gifts offered to Jehovah’, as in David,

Sacrifice and gift You have not desired; burnt offering and sin-sacrifice You have not sought. I have delighted to do Your will, O My God. Ps. 40:6, 8.

In Moses,

Jehovah your God, He is God of gods, and Lord of lords, who shows no partiality and does not accept a gift. Deut. 10:17.

And in Matthew,

If you offer your gift on the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, you shall leave the gift there before the altar, and go away. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Matt. 5:23, 24.

From this it is evident that gifts offered to the Lord served to bear witness to things offered from the heart, which are those of faith and charity. ‘Being reconciled to a brother’ means charity towards the neighbor.

[3] In the same gospel,

Wise men from the east came, and they gave gifts to the new-born Lord – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matt. 2:1, 11.

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh’ means all forms of the good of love and faith offered to the Lord, ‘gold’ being forms of the good of love, ‘frankincense’ forms of the good of faith, and ‘myrrh’ forms of both in external things. The reason why ‘wise men from the east’ offered them was that among some in the east there remained from ancient times the knowledge and wisdom of the people of old, which consisted in their understanding and seeing heavenly and Divine realities within things in the world and on earth. For it was well known to the ancients that all things had a correspondence and were representative, and therefore had a spiritual meaning, as is also evident from the gentiles’ oldest books and their monuments. This was how they knew that gold, frankincense, and myrrh meant the forms of good that should be offered to God. They knew also from their prophecies, which were those of the Ancient Church and which have been spoken of in 2686, that the Lord would come into the world, at which time a star would appear to them, about which also Balaam, who likewise was one of ‘the sons of the east’, prophesied, Num. 24:17 – see 3762. ‘A star’ furthermore means cognitions or knowledge of internal goodness and truth, which come from the Lord, 2495, 2849, 4697. Amen.


Copyright General Church of the New Jerusalem, 1982 – 2008
Author, Rev. James P. Cooper, M. Div.
Page last modified October 21, 2008