Last week, as part of our study of Psalm 137, I pointed out the striking similarities between the conditions in which the Hebrews exiled in Babylon found themselves and the Church today. I ended by asking, “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?”
And yet, is the Church’s situation really that bad? Is it really as bad as Psalm 137? Our culture doesn’t seem nearly as bad as Babylon was. Do we really need to separate ourselves completely from those around us and retain a completely distinct identity like Israel?
But that is not exactly the full picture. Consider what the prophet Jeremiah commanded the people as they were being taken off into exile in Babylon:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
You see, God did not expect his people to remain completely and utterly distinct from their captors in every respect. In fact, they were supposed to build houses and plant gardens and get married and have children, and they were even supposed to seek the welfare of Babylon!
We see this kind of thing exemplified with one of the very stories I mentioned a few weeks ago. Daniel refused to stop praying to Yahweh, he would not pray to the king, and he would not eat meat that was associated with pagan worship, yet he willingly allowed himself to be educated in the literature and language of Babylon and even served in political leadership, as did others of the people of Israel.
So, considering Jeremiah’s instructions, why is the psalmist so distraught in Psalm 137? Well, remember the primary focus of this psalm. The emphasis is not on building houses and planting gardens or education or political involvement. Remember why they are by the rivers of Babylon.
The specific focus of Psalm 137 is worship.
You see, when Israel lived in their land and existed as a theocracy, worship and culture were perfectly intertwined. Now that they are in exile in a foreign land, a strong antithesis exists between their worship and pagan worship—there is absolutely nothing in common between true worship and false worship, and the pagans are actually hostile toward the worship of Yahweh. But there is much commonality between their everyday life and the everyday life of the Babylonians—building houses, planting gardens, marriage and family, governing, literature, and education.
How is this so? Well, first, because all people are made in the image of God. Even unbelieving pagans still have the image of God; that image has been marred by sin, but it is there nonetheless. So even unbelievers can do relatively good things—they can build structurally-sound houses, they can plant fruitful gardens—I mean, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World!—they can devise successful political systems, they can produce worthy art, and they can teach things that are true.
Furthermore, they can do these worthy things not only because of the image of God, but also because of God’s common grace. The Bible teaches that God sends rain on the just and the unjust, he shows general grace even to unbelieving people such that they can be successful in regular earthly activities. And so in these kinds of activities, God’s people can stand alongside unbelieving people, participating in and contributing to society. And in fact, God commands his people to actually seek the welfare of the city and pray on its behalf; why? Because since they are living as exiles in this land, its welfare it their welfare. There is much commonality between the culture of God’s people and the pagans in these respects.
But when it comes to worship, there is no such commonality. There is strict antithesis between the belief systems and worship practices of God’s people and pagan people. And that is what is specifically in view in Psalm 137. Its focus is not on everyday life; its focus is gathering by the river for worship. The “songs of Zion” are not the everyday folk songs of the people; they are the songs of corporate worship in the Temple. The longing for Jerusalem is not merely for the city, but for its center of worship.
The same is true for the New Testament Church. Jesus was very clear: Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s—pay your taxes. Why? Because the welfare of the city is also our welfare. A healthy government that protects the innocent and punishes injustice is a good thing, even if that government is pagan. In the context of teaching Christians how to live as sojourners and exiles, Peter specifically says that we should submit to earthly authorities and even honor them (1 Peter 2:13-18). Why? Because the welfare of the city is also our welfare. Government was instituted by God himself, and inasmuch as governing officials rule with equity and justice, they are doing exactly what God intends for them to do. Like Jeremiah, Paul commands that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). Why? So that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
You see, there is a very real sense in which we Christians, very similar to Israel in Babylonian exile, are dual citizens. We are first and foremost citizens of a future city, the heavenly Jerusalem, where the presence of God dwells and where he is worshiped in truth and purity. But we are also citizens of the present earthly city, in which we contribute to society, submit to and pray for governmental authorities, and participate in various aspects of cultural endeavors.
But the important reality we must recognize is this: While we, like Israel, may legitimately build houses and plant gardens and participate in the political process and enjoy the literature and education of the foreign land in which we are exiles, our worship must remain distinct. We, like Israel, must recognize ourselves in a situation in which true worship will always be at odds with the prevailing beliefs and values of the world; true worship will always be mocked and maligned by unbelieving people; true worship will always be countercultural to pagan worship.
There is commonality with regard to the everyday aspects of life, but there is strict antithesis when it comes to matters of belief, value, and worship. Unfortunately, however, in some ways the difference between these two categories is somewhat more difficult for us to discern today than it would have been for Israel in exile.
When the authorities commanded Daniel to stop praying to Yahweh and instead pray to the king, that was a very clear case of antithesis between true worship and false worship. When the authorities commanded the people to bow down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, that was a very clear case of antithesis between true worship and false worship.
The problem today is that false worship is not always so blatantly obvious. This is partially due to the fact that we are still seeing the lingering effects of Christendom, especially in America. False worship is often packaged in the wrappings that make it seem less overtly pagan.
But the other reason is the secularization of the West following the Scientific Revolution and Age of Reason. We don’t have pagan kings commanding us to bow down and worship huge statues of themselves. We don’t see altars and human sacrifices going on around us, because the “sophisticated modern mind” doesn’t believe in the supernatural.
But our Babylon is no less pagan—it is just a different kind of pagan. It is a paganism that doesn’t worship idols of gold or bow down to kings as gods; rather, our Babylonian paganism worships financial prosperity and hedonism and entertainment and immorality and self. And really, when you think about it, does not our Babylon sacrifice virgins? Our Babylon just does so in a more sophisticated way. And does not our Babylon also sacrifice infants? Ours just does so before they are even born.
This is why the message of Psalm 137 is so relevant for us today. We are God’s people living in exile; we are supposed to submit to our authorities and participate in society and pray for the welfare of the city. But when we gather for worship, we find ourselves in a culture that is diametrically opposed to us. And so Psalm 137 is given to us by God in order to teach us something about our worship in exile.