Last week I presented the historical context for Psalm 137, a context of the people of God living in exile among a pagan people. Now once again, understanding this immediate context may cause us to wonder, how in the world could this psalm be relevant for Christians today? Certainly we do not live under such depressing conditions!
It is certainly true that the Church today is not the same thing as Israel in the Old Testament. However, both Israel and the Church are peoples of God. And what is particularly instructive for us is that New Testaments authors often use language to describe the Church’s situation that refers to Israel’s experience in exile by way of analogy.
Consider, for example, even the idea of Babylon. In the New Testament, particularly in the book of Revelation, the title of Babylon is given to the enemies of God. No matter how someone interprets what exactly Babylon refers to in Revelation, it becomes in the New Testament representative of everything that is contrary and hostile to God, his worship, and his people.
And isn’t that exactly how Scripture describes this present age? How does the New Testament describe the world in which we as Christians find ourselves? Well, Galatians 1:4 calls it the “present evil age.” Second Corinthians 4:4 identifies the “god of this world” as one who has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” this one who Ephesians 2:2 calls “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Jesus said that this world hates him, because he “testifies about it that its works are evil.” In other worlds, there appear to be striking similarities between the Babylon in which the Jewish exiles found themselves and how the New Testament describes the age in which we Christians find ourselves.
Or think about the idea of Zion or Jerusalem. In Psalm 137, these refer to a literal city, but even in the psalm, these titles represent more than merely a physical location—they represent the place where God’s presence dwelt, the place of true worship.
In the New Testament, the terms “Zion” and “Jerusalem” are likewise often used metaphorically in reference to the place of God’s presence and true worship. Probably the most vivid example of this is found in Hebrews 12. There in verse 22, the author is describing Christian worship, and he says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” God’s presence is in the Temple of Heaven, and when we Christians worship, we are actually joining with the worship of heaven, uniting our voices with innumerable angels in festal gathering and saints who have gone before us. Ephesians 2:6 tells us that we Christians have been raised up with Christ and have been seated with him in the heavenly places. In fact, in verse 19 of the same chapter, Paul calls us “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” and Philippians 3:20 tells us that our citizenship is not here on earth; our citizenship is in heaven itself!
You see, when we consider how the New Testament describes this present age, it sounds a whole lot like Babylon. And when we consider how the New Testament describes our citizenship in the place of God’s presence and worship, it sounds a whole lot like a distant city where we do not currently find ourselves.
And to make this comparison even more apparent, consider how Peter refers to the Church today: First Peter 1:17 calls our current situation as Christians “the time of your exile,” and 2:11 specifically calls us “sojourners and exiles.”
In other words, we who are members of Christ’s Church in this present age are, like Israel, God’s people in exile. Like Israel, our citizenship is in Zion, a city far away where God’s presence dwells in his Temple and where pure worship takes place. Like Israel, we find ourselves by the waters of Babylon, amidst a people whose ruler hates God and his worship and his people.
Christians in the first through third centuries recognized this. They couldn’t help but recognize their status as exiles because they were increasingly persecuted for their faith.
Yet something happened in the fourth century that led God’s people to forget that they were sojourners and exiles. In 313, the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Now, of course, that was a good thing. We Christians should never desire persecution. But then in 392, emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman empire and outlawed all other religions. In essence, the church and state eventually united, forming what many call “Christendom,” and church leaders literally wanted to turn the empire into a theocracy like Israel, climaxing in the Holy Roman Empire.
The problem is that God never intended for this kind of church/state union for the New Testament Church. Now, many good things came as a result of that union—much of the cultural production that came out of Christendom, for example, the art and literature and music, contain values and morals that are noble and good. Nevertheless, this union of the church with the broader culture lulled Christians into forgetting that they were exiles.
The Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, argued against the church/state union, but they continued to retain a connection. The Church of England especially, as their name indicates, maintained a close union between Church and state.
It really wasn’t until the early Baptists in England, and a few groups prior to Baptists, that we find a clear articulation of the need to recover a separation between church and state. This emphasis of the separation of church and state influenced the founding of the United States of America as well, but nevertheless, the effects of Christendom can still be observed today. How many Christians today consider themselves sojourners and exiles? How many Christians recognize that their citizenship is in another world and that they are currently living in Babylon?