Society now and then - Psalm 137
You might be surprised at me mentioning football on the day my team have played their last game in Division 1 after being relegated, but I remember going to a match in Newcastle once to see the home team play my team Sheff Wed. As a Newcastle resident at the time, I got a ticket for the famous Newcastle United Gallowgate end. There I was, amidst 1000s of Geordies & Wed scored I had to celebrate very quietly!
In a way it was very uncomfortable, I didn't belong with those people in that place. I should have been somewhere else.
These are 2 small & really trivial illustrations of something that is actually rather profound. Often in this life we have experiences where we feel alienated, we feel we don't really belong, we should be somewhere else, we're away from home.
It's that kind of experience writ large that is the backdrop to our Bible reading this evening. Do turn to Ps 137 (p 627).
Anyone who's my age or older will probably have the 70s song by Boney M which turned this Psalm into a chart success, ringing in their ears! But on reflection that Disco rendition was rather too jolly.
These Biblical words express the raw emotions of those who felt alienated, those who knew they didn't really belong, those who were away from home.
v1 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion' (Jerusalem). Then v4 'How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?'
You see this Psalm & the book of Daniel that we're going to looking at in future weeks, are set during the period known as the 'Exile' some 600 years before Jesus. The exile had been an event that seemed like a disaster for the people God.
After the glory years of King David (about 1000BC) things had gone seriously pear-shaped. The nation of Israel had been divided, half of it destroyed & now even those left were under serious threat.
With the rise of a new superpower in the world scene Babylon, the Israelite capital Jerusalem came completely under Babylonian control & there was a mass deportation of the people from their homeland to Babylon hence the 'Exile'.
This was hugely traumatic. It wasn't just a question of being away from the comforts of home. Their homeland was bound up profoundly with their understanding of God. Being exiled from Israel made them ask; Was their God really the creator of the world? Was he the Lord of history? What had happened to the special covenant agreement between God & his people? Did God really love them? Was he in control? How could they live for him in a strange land?
Ps 137 serves as a good place to begin a series on Daniel because it was into this situation that Daniel & his friends found themselves God's people in perplexity having to try to live for God in a Pagan environment.
Now as we shall see this eve Christians are in a similar position as we seek to live for Jesus in Britain in 2003AD & so in Ps 137 we get some pointers as to how we should live as Christian exiles in a pagan world.
See from Sermon notes the need to;
1) Recognise we live in a strange land. V1-4
For these Israelite believers in the true God their experience was truly perplexing, depressing & painful; v1 '1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.'
Here are the people exiled in Babylon. Remembering their home & all it means about their faith & their God makes them cry with sadness. Ancient Babylon (Modern Iraq incidentally) had many 'rivers' included systems of irrigation canals across huge flat plains. It was as if the very nature of the landscape underlined the sense of alienation it was so different to what a native of Jerusalem & district felt at home amongst, namely hills & valleys.
But not only are they in deep depression, but there are mocked; v 3 'our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' 'sing about this indestructible Jerusalem & it's so called almighty God' they taunt. This all adds up to the terrible thought of v 4 'How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?'
These people feel about as far away from feeling settled, stable & at home as it is possible to get.
In our NT reading from 1 Peter, I wonder if you noticed how Christian's are described? In v1 the description is 'God's elect' chosen by God in his love, and 'Strangers in the world'.
You see, now we Christian's belong to God through Jesus & his blood shed on the cross. Christians belong to heaven that is our true home, this world is no longer where we really belong. We're pilgrims, travellers waiting to go to our real home. We are, if you like, resident aliens. We belong elsewhere but have to live here for a while.
Being Christians in this world is like being in a foreign country it's like being away supporters! We're waiting to go to where we really will be at home in the full presence of God in heaven.
Our exile then is different from the situation of the exiled Jews in Babylon. It's not geographical & physical but rather spiritual & perhaps the situation for us is more subtly dangerous -The Jews of 6th C BC knew that they had been taken away from home & they remembered what home was like. We have never lived anywhere as Christians except away from home & therefore we can fail to recognise what the dangers are.
For us perhaps the main pressures, come from the values & ideas of our age values perpetrated by influential opinion formers in the media & the educational world, in particular by what one culture watcher (Os Guinness) has described as the 'terrible trio' 'advertising, TV & pop culture'. It is these ideas that create the 'strange land' in which we live. A 'land' which does not recognise God & is ways.
It's worth being reminded of the main alien ideas they overlap & I simplify enormously but you'll recognise them;
Secularism The view of life that excludes God. Interest is simply in this world, not the next. The present is all important, history is of little value. Leads to Christian ideas being marginalised. Can be summed up 'Trad is bad' or 'The latest is the greatest.' It's worth remembering the words of another Psalmist (Ps 14:1): 'The fool has said in his heart there is no God'.
Pluralism 'Variety is the spice of life'. Not the good idea that differences of style & culture contribute to the whole, but the philosophical idea that all claims to spiritual truth are essentially the same. Religions & philosophies are all good as long as they agree with pluralist values that is!! The claim of Jesus to be the only way to God & God's clear & final message to the world means the Christian cannot accept such ideas. (Jn14;6, Hebs 1:1)
Relativism There is no such thing as objective truth. All is relative to the individual or the situation. Nothing is certainly right or wrong. 'That's just your way of looking at it. Each to their own.' For the Christian the claim of Jesus to be truth means that truth is objective, personal & knowable. (Jn14;6)
Materialism It's a real as I feel. Or WYSIWYG . Only what you can see, touch, hear or feel is real. Faith is belittled, what really matters in life is what you own. Jesus words about the fact that a person's life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions & having possessions but losing your soul put this into Christian perspective (Lk12:15f).
All these ideas are strongly present today they form the seas against the tide of which we have to swim & we need to recognise them & not be seduced by them because 'everyone else' seems to believe them.
One of the most insightful Christian thinkers of recent decades Os Guinness once said 'Christians are always more culturally short sighted than they realise. They are often unable to tell, for instance, where their Christian principles leave off & their cultural perspectives begin. What many of them fail to ask is 'Where are we coming from & what is our own context?'
To live for God in a pagan world (like ours is increasingly becoming) we need, like the Jewish Exiles of 2thousand years ago, to recognise that we live in strange land.
But also we need to;
2) Maintain loyalty to God & his ways. (v2, 4-6)
Things were tough for these Israelite exiles, there was opposition & yet the psalmist can say; v5 'If I forget you, O Jerusalem,' If I forget where my loyalty to God lies 'may my right hand forget its skill.' If I forget where my allegiance should be in this alien place, may what is crucial to living the functioning of my leading hand, forget how to work!
And similarly v6 '6May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy'. If I lose my devotion to what Jerusalem represents God's presence & his purposes & promises may I be struck dumb, may I not be able to speak of anything.
The pressure on these believers was immense, there was much that had created fertile soil for seeds of doubt & unbelief or simply going with the flow of the alien culture, but the challenges seem to have deepened their loyalty to God rather than diminished it.
Notice the way that the writer shows the refusal of God's people to let God & his truth be mocked - v 3 'for there (in Babylon) our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'
The Babylonians mocked the reality behind the songs of the Lord, the songs that speak of truth about the true God. How did the people react to this mocking? In defiance v2 'There on the poplars we hung our harps.' They refused to trivialize what they knew to be true, they would not do what they were asked by their pagan masters when it meant belittling their God.
That's the challenge we face are we going to hold fast to God's promises & God's ways revealed in the Bible as the heat is turned up?
As the expectation to tow the cultural line gets greater, as the pressure to be 'politically correct' about whatever is the latest ideological fashion gets stronger will we remain loyal to God & his word of truth in the Bible?
Perhaps we should pray for this kind of passion for God & his glory exhibited by the exiles?
To live for God in pagan world we need to recognise we live in an alien land with values that are not God's, we need to maintain a strong loyalty to God & his word & finally we need to;
3) Maintain a sense of God's justice (v7-9)
Reading this Psalm we can't help but sense some of the raw pain & feeling of the writer about his situation. The sadness, the weeping, the painful memories, the distress of the tormenting opposition that results from being away form home. But the way the Psalm ends has been considered by some to go just too far, making it superficially one of the most distressing parts of the Bible.
V 7 'Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
'Tear it down,' they cried, 'tear it down to its foundations!' 8O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-- 9he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.'
Many simply reject these words as unacceptable cries for vengeance but we know that as Apostle Paul puts it in the NT 'All scripture is God breathed & useful for teaching..' So there must be something to learn from these verses.
It is clear in the light of Jesus that for individuals & groups vengeance is completely unacceptable. His eg is to us is to love our enemies by praying for those who oppose & persecute us & not to curse them. (Matt5:44). These words then remind us how human beings, even godly ones can sink into sinful attitudes. We all need forgiveness a forgiveness provided through Jesus & his death on the cross some 600 years after the events this Psalm speaks of.
But we also need to see what is behind these impassioned cries. That seems to be a legitimate sense that justice should be done, that God the right & fair judge should return to those who have done wrong their just deserts. Here we have a reminder that justice in this broken world matters & one day it will be fully done.
V7 'Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
'Tear it down,' they cried, 'tear it down to its foundations!'
The traditional enemies the Edomites are guilty, they opposed & sought to destroy the holy City of Jerusalem. 'Remember them O Lord judge them' the writer cries out.
Then in v8 & 9 the Babylonians who were the ones to bring about the disaster of the Exile in human terms are the focus; 'O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us--
9he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.'
It was apparently, not unusual for a pagan victorious army to underline their victory by the gruesome shocking actions described in v9. It could well have been the case that Jewish babies had been smashed against rocks by the conquering Babylonians (cf 2Ki 8:12.)
Here then in powerfully vivid communication, like hearing a scream that touches us deep down in a way that simple dispassionate information sharing doesn't, is a plea in God's presence for justice.
If we are to live for God in a pagan world we need to stand up for justice. Justice matters, what is right matters.
We live in a world that where secular thought has sought to overcome what has been the foundation of our civilisation for over 1000 years that is the Biblical truths that human beings are of supreme value & significance made in the image of God, & also that human beings are fallen, broken, sinful & selfish & in need of the restraining influence of law & justice.
We shall need to stand up for this fundamental truth, more & more as we live for God in a pagan world. We need to for the sake of our society & to help people understand the gospel for without a sense of justice if we're all good why do we need the forgiveness of a true & just God?
But also as we see evil perpetrated, as we see injustice injustice against God's people, we will cry out to God not vengefully like the writer here, but faithfully, knowing that God will one day right all wrongs. So in the words of the Apostle Peter about the return of Jesus (2Pet 3:10) 'keeping with God's promise we are looking forward to a new heaven & a new earth, the home of righteousness (& justice).'
We are not where we belong, we are aliens in a strange land, things are not what they should be. Christians like the exiles in the 6th C BC are 'away from home'.
As we seek to live for God in a pagan world we do so like the people of God in Exile at the time of Ps 137 we face a degree of discomfort, struggle & pain we don't really belong here we have another destination heaven. But as we wait for heaven & press on here we must recognise we are in a strange land, we must seek to maintain our loyalty to God & his ways revealed in the Bible & we must long for God's justice to be recognised, knowing that one day God & his people will be proved right, one day, though Christians have had to live in a strange land, they will be fully & finally at home with him.
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