The Rivers of Babylon

I was amazed when I first read Psalm 137: “by the rivers of Babylon.” I was eighteen years’ old at the time and to this day I still can’t get the ‘Boney M’ tune out of my head. It’s an interesting passage because its writers, presumably a group of Jerusalem Psalmists, have found themselves in exile in Babylon (586 BC) and are reflecting on their woes as they meet up with other Jews for prayer and worship by the Kebar River. Ironically, these song writers were facing a much bigger problem than their enforced change of address. Something was wrong in their hearts too and the exile was merely bringing it to light.

First of all, these were worship leaders who had “hung up their harps” because life had not been so kind to them. What a mistake! Whether in the Temple of Jerusalem or by the rivers of Babylon, the Lord’s Name was to be praised! Men like Joshua (Joshua 6:20), David (1 Samuel 16:23) and Paul (Acts 16:25-26) each learned the wonderful power released by praise and worship when they faced their challenges. It seems we should sing our way out of every desert (Ephesians 5:19-20).

Perhaps more alarming was that their physical surroundings had determined whether or not they would continue serving God. “How can we minister in this foreign land?” was their question (Psalm 137:4). This is an astonishing response and one that can subtly affect many Christians today. Somehow, moving from one place to another, or one church to another, seems to put a stumbling block in the path of ministry. Those who were 100% involved in their last church sometimes want to blend into the background of their new one. “We were Sunday School workers in our last church, but now we would like to just sit and receive for a while…” Fair enough, except that a plan to do so until Jesus returns is occasionally in the small print. Why people do this is anyone’s guess. Maybe a new start is an opportunity to shed an unwanted burden, or perhaps people don’t feel that their ministry is needed in a different place. But it might be worth asking God what He thinks, and you could drop the Pastor an email too!

While this can be true within a country, it can be even more of a problem when a family or individual comes from another nation. I’ve known wonderful Christian men and women who ran enormous youth clubs, cell groups, served in administration and stewarding back in Nigeria, or Germany or the States, but since arriving in the UK they have resigned from serving. And yet by doing so they miss the very purpose of God in bringing them to the British Isles. They are unwitting and sometimes unwilling missionaries!

Contrast the writers of Psalm 137 with the prophet Ezekiel. The hand of the Lord came upon him by the rivers of Babylon (Ezekiel 1:1-3). In exactly the same place that these worship leaders resigned, another accepted that his ministry had only just begun. Daniel and the three Hebrew boys also embraced the Lord’s service in Babylon, staring into the lions’ den and the fiery furnace, rather than forsake God. Clearly, it’s all a matter of perspective and passion.

Paul said, “From one man God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). So the Lord places yielded men and women where He wants them and grants them both a home and a work place in His kingdom. In such circumstances, the Home Office can only obey the Spirit.
You may have heard of the New Testament church in Antioch – it has become a model for many churches today. Amazingly, none of those serving significantly in that church were native to Antioch (Acts 13:1). Barnabas was Cypriote; Simeon was African; Lucius was from Libya; Manaen was a Hebrew; and Saul was from Tarsus. Thank God that these men had not hung up their harps in foreign territory. Indeed, the story of the whole Bible is of men and women who left home to serve heaven, including the Lord Jesus. When the Spirit comes upon us, we can serve God in a far away land (Acts 1:8).

So whatever our circumstances and wherever we find ourselves, let us arise and serve Him to the full. Then, like Ezekiel, the hand of the Lord will come upon us too. And that’s worth leaving home for.

Originally published in JOY Magazine, June 2009

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