One of the saddest and most shattering passages in the whole of the Bible is Psalm 137:1-4: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”
Some Old Testament background is necessary to fully appreciate the pathos of this passage. Israel as a nation was formed some 1400 years before Christ, as described in the book of Exodus. The great promises of a people of God and a land made to the patriarchs in the book of Genesis were eventually fulfilled, after the miraculous liberation from Egypt.
By the time David and Solomon were seated on the throne, in the tenth century BC, Israel was a nation which was at its peak, and the surrounding nations looked in awe at it. But those glory days did not last long, and the kingdom was soon split into two, and a slow decline ensued. Indeed, sin, especially idolatry and immorality, slowly but surely would bring the nation undone.
Thus in 722BC, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians, and between 597 and 586BC Jerusalem fell and the southern kingdom was overrun by the Babylonians. A large number of Jews were exiled to Babylon, just as the prophets had warned.
They had lost everything: their homeland, the temple, and most importantly, the presence of Yahweh. They were now strangers in a strange land. They were shell-shocked. This was not mere homelessness, but the deep and bitter realisation that the greatness which was once Israel – great because Yahweh was its king – was now gone.
It was a devastating period in Israel’s’ history, and of course the captivity lasted for over half a century, until the Persian defeat of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. The exile was a pivotal point in Hebrew history, and one which observant Jews even today look back upon with sorrow.
So what does all this ancient history have to do with Christians today? Quite a bit, actually. The church in the Western world is also very much in exile. We are certainly in a cultural captivity. We have gone from being the leading voice in Western culture to a despised and dispirited minority, flung to the margins of society, having very little impact on the secular West.
So in some ways we are not unlike those Jews who sat by the rivers of Babylon. There is one major difference however. While the Jews wept, and were inconsolable in their captivity, many believers today do not seem all that broken up about it at all. We have sort of grown used to our captivity, and we have for the most part decided to just get along with our captors.
We have resigned ourselves to our fate, and have tried to appease our captors, hoping for some sort of peaceful coexistence. But the ancient Hebrews certainly did not take this attitude. They resisted their tormentors, and asked, “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”
They had the right attitude. How could they sit back and just accept all this? Sure, they came to realise that this was their divinely appointed fate, at least for a season. They were paying the price for their rebellion, idolatry and unbelief.
But there was one amazing outcome of the Babylonian captivity: once the Jews returned to their homeland, we have no record of them ever again falling into idolatry as they had so often done prior to the captivity. They had learned their lesson, in other words.
The question is, have we? Have we seen that the fall of the church in the West is in many ways our fault, and may in fact be God’s means of getting our attention, of rousing us from our sleep? Unless we get serious with God, repent, and seek his face, we will continue in our downward plunge into irrelevance and ineffectiveness for Christ and his Kingdom.
Sure, there will always be a remnant of true, committed followers of Jesus Christ in the West. And true, God will build his church. It is just that the centre of gravity for Christianity has shifted from north to south. Most of the great church growth taking place today is no longer in Europe, England, America or Australia, but in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Thus God is not finished in his commitment to building his church. It is just that he delights in working where people are hungry and serious about faith. If the West will not provide that fertile soil, then God is quite able to find other places where the soil is ready for major growth.
So what should our attitude be? One very good answer to that question is found in Amos 6. It is a terrific passage which we should never lose sight of. In verse one it says, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” (KJV). That is, woe to God’s people who are complacent, indifferent and apathetic. Woe to those who just don’t care.
And verse six is equally powerful: “Woe to those who do not grieve over the ruin of Zion” (KJV). That is, woe to those who are not heartbroken over the impoverished state of God’s people. Woe to those who are not in fact sick in the stomach about the wretched condition of the church.
The bottom line is: do we care that the church has in so many ways become the laughing stock of the nations? Do we care that the church is becoming increasingly irrelevant and superficial? Do we care that we are not having much of an impact anymore?
Do we care, in other words, that we – who are supposed to be the salt of the earth – have lost our saltiness, and as the light of the world, have grown dark? It all comes down to attitude. Should we not be seeking the Lord on our knees, asking for his forgiveness and pleading for his mercy?
Or are we just too busy with our trivial pursuits, our little games, or self-centred lifestyles? Do we care that the name of Christ has been dragged in the mud? Do we care that the glory of God seems to have departed from so much of Western Christendom? Do we care that our witness is so meagre and so ineffectual?
I ask along with the Jews in Babylon, “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while we have allowed the church of Jesus Christ to languish?” Again, God has not abandoned the West. And again, there are many great Christians in the West who do many great things.
But surely we are nowhere near where we are meant to be. Let us all pray and ask God to break our hearts with the things that break his heart. We desperately need to seek God, humbling ourselves and craving God’s best. And that means also repenting where need be, for so often letting our Lord down. We all desperately need to meditate afresh on that marvellous passage in 2 Chronicles 7:14:
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”