BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON
A Sermon by Rev James P. Cooper
March 3, 1996
Preached in Mitchellville, Maryland March 3, 1996
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1).
Of the one hundred 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 B.C., 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 B.C., the Assyrians came and conquered Israel, carrying away everyone living in the northern kingdom. These ten 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 B.C. 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 the Jews were the “chosen people” was 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 had 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 sung 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 need to be reminded only 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 to the surface this quality was.
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 either we 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 others 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 lesson 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 six verses of this Psalm 137 are a “lamentation by those in falsities from ignorance, because they don’t have the Word” (PP), 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 from the context of our downfallen state how things used to be when we were in order.
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 of the psalm 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” (see 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 (see PP).
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” (Psalm 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 are the result. In the context of this psalm, the “babies” 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 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 some day. 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 be 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 linen, 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. This lie that makes us cling to material possessions and the life of the body must be broken 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 Babylon 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” (Matt. 6:33). Amen.
Lessons: Psalm 137, Rev. 18:1-17, AE 1029:16, 17
1029:16,17. 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 24:4);
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 (Jeremiah 32:29-35).
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 (Jeremiah 25:1-11).
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.