Psalm 137:1-4, By the Rivers of Babylon

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?

//Casual Bible readers, unaware of Israel’s history, often miss the desperate atmosphere which produced much of the Old Testament. A number of sections in the Bible were written “in exile;” that is, in the period in which Israel had been destroyed and the Jews were dwelling as captives in Babylon.

In those days, defeat of a nation was more than demoralizing. It was evidence of the impotence of their god. When rival nations fought (I use the word “nation” loosely), their representative gods in heaven warred as well. When Israel lost, first the northern kingdom to Assyria and then the southern kingdom to Babylon, it was as much a religious crisis as national one. Yahweh, the chosen god of Israel, had presumably been destroyed. The Babylonian deities were the victors.

It was in this atmosphere that the above hymn was penned. The Jews, desperate to one day recover their sacred land, refused to believe their god had died. Instead, they concluded, they were being punished. They dug in their heels and swore to an even greater code of holiness.

There, in the land of the enemy, they reinstituted the Sabbath, adopted kosher dietary laws, and began practicing circumcision, all in an attempt to preserve the boundaries which kept them a separated people. These laws were specifically chosen to make Jewsdifferent.

It worked. Their god revived, and when the Persians conquered Babylon a half-century later, a remnant of the Jews remained as a cohesive, consecrated people, and they were allowed to return to their holy land.

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