By the Waters of Babylon

Recently I was finishing up in the altar while the choir was practicing, and I heard them sing (beautifully, as always) the pre-Lenten Matins hymn, “By the waters of Babylon.”  After it was all over, I stopped to ask them, “Do you know where Babylon is?”  After a few blank stares, someone tentatively offered, “East of here?”  It was a safe guess; we live on the west coast, and pretty much everything is east of here.  No doubt the person meant, “somewhere in the Middle East,” which is of course correct.

But I was thinking of something else.  I pointed to the doors leading out from the church into the parking lot, and said, “It is just on the other side of those doors.”  We live in Babylon, in world fixed in its rebellion against God and its oppression of His people.  “And here,” I continued, “is Jerusalem.  Right here in this nave.  When we stood before the chalice earlier this morning, our feet were standing within Jerusalem.”

This is perhaps why we sing the hymn “By the waters of Babylon” just before we enter Great Lent.  This hymn is based on Psalm 137, and the psalm is not so much a song as a cry of pain, a pang piercing the heart set to the music of a harp.  Israel had been ravaged and raped by a foreign invader, both metaphorically and literally.  The overthrow of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC was accomplished with all the horror of ancient warfare—soldiers cut down, old men killed where they sat, women and young girls ravished, children’s brains knocked out against the rocks.  Then the defeated and starved survivors were taken far away to languish in exile in Babylon.  To cap it all, as they languished there, their Babylonian “hosts” demanded that they take their harps and use them to play for them some of the Temple songs they had heard so much about.  Zion’s Temple had some great music, right?  How’s about playing some for us?

It was the crowning humiliation, the final blasphemy.  To think of the holy hymns once sung in the sacred Temple courts to the praise of Yahweh now being used as secular entertainment, reduced to a kind of pagan drinking song!  The Psalmist’s heart overflowed with pain and indignation—by the rivers of Babylon, sitting beside its canals, he sat down and wept over it all.  How could one sing the Lord’s song like this in a foreign land, forgetting and debasing all that one once knew as holy?  If I ever do that, the Psalmist promised, if I ever use my skillful right hand to play one of the songs of Zion for the amusement of Zion’s ravagers, may my right hand wither up and never play anything again!  No: I refuse to settle down and accept Babylon as the new normal, forgetting the joy of knowing God and worshipping Him in His courts.  I refuse to become Babylonian.  In my secret heart, I will live and die as one from Jerusalem.  I will exalt Jerusalem above my highest joy.

This must be our song too, for we also live in Babylon.  Is the world so very different?  Christians and their faith are openly mocked in the public square, and icons are sold as objets d’art.  The values enshrined and protected by law fly in the face of everything the Church has held dear, and the pressure is constant for Christians to acquiesce and support the secular status quo.  Forget the old ways, and the Church’s dogmas and values and canons.  It’s a new day; it’s 2016.  You’re in Babylon now.

Indeed we are.  But our hearts do not forget where we came from or where we truly belong.  Babylon is not our home.  Here we are but strangers and sojourners, exiles upon the earth (1 Peter 2:11).  Our true home is Jerusalem.  If we ever forget this and settle down and live like the Babylonians, may our right hands wither and our tongues cleave in silence to the roofs of our mouths.  Let us take courage.  The exile will not last forever.  Jesus is coming.  Soon enough we will all go home.