By the Rivers of Babylon

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.”

[1264 words]

24 Replies to “By the Rivers of Babylon”

  1. But what about all the megachurches? Aren’t they going ‘gang busters’? I think it is often a case of “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1)

    Ewan McDonald.

  2. Very well put Ewan re the Megachurches. I am currently reading a book entitled THE RITE, which details the training of exorcists in the Catholic Church, and what has struck me very clearly is the fact that all of these men, supported by lay people, men and women, make the point that there needs to be a consistent prayer life maintained to counteract the Evil one in individual people’s lives.
    A friend of my parents was a missionary in PNG with the Churches of Christ. She told us a story of a group of pastors riding bikes through rough terrain to conduct an evangelistic campaign, when one of them realised that his rear axle was split in half. They all stopped, the senior pastor called for prayer and immediately asked for confession of any sins in all of their lives. Once they they had confessed, they prayed for God’s assistance in repairing the bike as they were miles away. They held the two parts of the axle together and prayed, and it was repaired. They rode on to their service and souls were saved
    The Church’s axles are broken, we need to confess our sins, and trust God to repair the axle, and ride on to save souls.
    Wayne Pelling

  3. Pride comes before a fall. Is it possible (you asked a lot of questions in your article Bill) that the western church became proud as it spread from those 12 men in Jerusalem then 120, then 3120 to turning the world upside down? After the persecution stopped it grew greatly because it became the thing to be. Then Christians began to persecute those who had persecuted them and then persecuted each other. Smells of pride to me. Did the western church reach its zenith of pride in the late 19th and 20th century and now we are back to being the persecuted minority? Questions, questions, questions? Answer: The LORD Jesus, then the early church (His body) initiated activities after they prayed. Is that the answer. I believe I know the answer, and you do too.
    Greg Brien

  4. An excellent article which points out the real tragedy of the Church in Western countries. Many of our Churches are so busy appeasing Islam and worshipping at the temple of multiculturalism that they are prepared to depart from their basic tenets.

    Our Judeo-Christian ethic is what has produced democracy and human rights. We must not sacrifice this in order to accommodate belief systems which do not share our belief in the equality of all people of whatever race.

    Many of our Churches do not even seem to practice Christianity any more, but a sort of wishy-washy we’re-all-the-same humanism. This might make them feel good, but cultural relativism which says all belief systems are equally valid, quickly allows totalitarian ideologies to take root and flourish.

    By the way, I am Jewish, but strongly feel that the Church must take the lead in reasserting our common values.

    Pam Renton

  5. Thanks so much Bill for being a prophetic voice to the Church. We really need to take this message seriously and repent as Daniel did on behalf of his people.
    Diana Hallas

  6. Thanks Pam

    Yes quite right. Perhaps a major theme of this site is that the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West is under attack big time, and we all need to do what we can to turn this around. Thanks for writing.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Thanks Diana

    Yes, you raise an important point about this story which I did not mention. Daniel and his friends remained faithful to their God while in Babylonian captivity. Even more incredible, they rose to positions of power and influence in the pagan land without compromising or losing their spiritual integrity. Their lives offer all sorts of lessons for believers today, as we endure our cultural captivity in a secular West. Will we have the same impact as they did?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Interestingly many articles I have been reading in the christian press here and overseas lately have been about change. Some people are waking up to the fact that we are impotent as we insist that “we have always done it this way.”

    Change will be difficult because there are too many who will lose their position of power if God shows up and takes control.

    I have been writing about the parlous state of the church for the last 12 months and turned it into a blog which you can find at if you are interested.

    Jesus gave five ministries to the church including the prophetic. The church has shut this ministry out and as a result we no longer listen to God we follow our denominational traditions, most of which are contrary to scripture.

    We need desperately more Bills, Toms, Dicks, and Harrys who will speak the word of God fearlessly. Like the Prophets of scripture, they in all probability won’t get a hero’s welcome, but it doesn’t alter the fact that if the church is offended, it is their problem not ours.

    Roger Marks

  9. Bill, agree with your questions and finding difficult when we see the modern churches. It’s true that in west so many good christians are doing very good things, at the same time the Church has become the laughing stock of the nations. I think the problem is we went away from the true purpose of the Church and Christ. We focus more on program than God’s will and purpose. The Church in the West supported the immoral issues and tolarence towards the ungodly issues. As a result we are reaping the harvest. Therefore the Spirit of the Lord is urging us to surrender in 2 Chr.7:14.
    Queenie Ratnajeya

  10. Thanks guys

    This is quite interesting: I just received in the mail yet another box of books I had ordered from In it was the last book penned by Richard John Neuhaus before his untimely death earlier this year. It is called, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile. After a quick look through it, it seems we are on the same wavelength.

    He reminds us that “The People of God is a pilgrim people”. Thus, “For those whose primary allegiance is to the City of God, every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland a foreign country”. He concludes his book with these words:

    “It is a time of many times: a time for dancing, even if to the songs of Zion in a foreign land; a time for walking together, unintimidated when we seem to be a small and beleaguered band; a time for rejoicing in momentary triumphs, and for defiance in momentary defeats; a time for persistence in reasoned argument, never tiring in proposing to the world a more excellent way; a time for generosity toward those who would make us their enemy; and, finally, a time for happy surrender to brother death—but not before, through our laughter and tears, we see and hail from afar the New Jerusalem and know that it is all time toward home.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Pam,
    Multicuturalism is not the cause of the ‘persecution’ of the church today. The painful truth is that the gradual dismantle of christian values and decline of the church in the west is the doing of its own population and not the result of the influence of other cultures. The secularisation of Europe began even before muslim and other migrants came. The church was not able to stem the onslaught of science ,materialism and emergence of a decadent culture and lifestyle, the product of its own population and not that of multicuturalism.
    Sadly, the church was not only weak but it compromised the truth of God’s word, where the truth of God’s word was no longer absolute but relative.Today, any “dogmatic’ interpretations are widely chastised and secularism is passionately embraced. Was multicuturalism responsible for the teaching of evolution in schools or the banning of teaching alternative creation by intelligent design? Is the breakup of family units and failure of churches to speak the absolute truth regarding divorce to be blamed on other cultures? The way things go, gay marriages and abortion may soon be equally acceptable as divorce, sadly to say even by the church. These are not the work of pressure groups from the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or other religious beliefs systems. These are the work of the popular and powerful force of secularism and atheistism of its own population.
    Today, many Christians migrants from Asia and other parts of the world are moving into Australia and many of the local churches have been strengthened by their presence.
    While in the past the west brought the gospel to the east, now its the reverse.Having said all that, continuous prayer is needed, apart from speaking and standing up.
    Barry Koh

  12. Thanks Barry

    I think you are both right. The church has often been its own worst enemy here, and is responsible for much of the decline of Christianity in the West. But there are also external forces warring against Christianity, of which multiculturalism – the belief that all cultures and belief systems are morally equivalent – has been one. It is this very thing for example that gave rise to our horrendous racial and religious vilification laws, and the persecution of the two Dannys.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Thanks again guys

    Also quite interesting is another book I received today: Donald De Marco’s Architects of the Culture of Death which looks at such figures as Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Sartre, Freud, Kinsey, Sanger, Guttmacher and Singer. Says De Marco, “What accounts for the historical return to such dark pagan moral practices after so many centuries of Christian culture? The answer is the rise of a new image of humanity, a new kind of paganism, with its own particular architects, who self-consciously built a new culture within the existing culture of Christianity, which they sought to destroy and displace. Those who built according to this image are the architects of the Culture of Death.”

    Thus as I mentioned earlier, there are really two sources of the current predicament: internal problems within Christianity, and external opponents to it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Certainly Barry Koh is right in saying that the Church’s capitulation to materialism began a long time ago. In fact, I’d say that the Church failed to assert itself – its message, and distinctive world-view – in the later-18th century or thereabouts. By the time of Darwinism – when the materialist project reached the maturity of its attack – the Church should already have established its distinctiveness and difference from the values/world-view that had been coming, and slowly asserting itself, for a century or so.
    John Thomas

  15. Thank you Bill.

    A reformation awaits us…
    May the good Lord halt the Institutionalizing of self.
    We truely confine ourselves.

    Martin Van Dyk

  16. Bill,
    Multiculturalism is not best described by its technical definition or interpretation.The idea is not carved on tablets of stones.The better definition is in the living application of it or its subtance and from that we see there are certainly much more benefit than flaws.No concept or system is perfect but do you throw away the baby with the bath water. I may not necessarily be attracted to a different culture or or agree with a particular belief system of another culture but I learn to respect their beliefs without compromising my faith. It does not prevent us from preaching the true gospel the apostles taught, though it may require one to be more diplomatic, knowing the sensitivities of other cultures but that should not be a major hindrance to evangelism.
    The decline of the church and christianity in the western world which began years ago, has been its own doing and little to do with the pressure from other cultures and beliefs system or from the recent multicuturalism. If non western culture and beliefs have a negative effect on the christian faith and values,then how is it that God thinks otherwise and allow this often regarded “western religion” to greatly thrive and flourish in pagan countries of Asia,Africa,and South America while the western world remain in decline.As such I find it hard to agree that multicuturalism is an external threat to the church and christian values.Secularism,athiestism and the preaching of another different gospel is the real, if not form almost the whole threat to the church.

    As long as we refuse to face the truth, and instead make excuses and blame others for the gradual decline of the church,we will continue to bark at the wrong tree and fail to address the real issue, an error the external enemy will love to see as fall into, leading to our own destruction.

    The vilification laws are a recent development arising from freedom to speak the truth about the long term militant and territorial intent of the jihadists.This recent development intensified particularly after the rise of the talibans ,9/11, and al Qaida.While I do not dispute the right to speak forthrightly,I question why put the blame on multicuturalism.Should we now throw out the baby as well because of Bin Ladin and the jihadists.Are the rest also to be penalised on account of him.

    The church is still very much in danger not so much now from the long term threats of its external enemies, but from the immediate threats coming now from within the church and its local populace.We need more watchmen where the immediate dangers are now threatening us , and quit barking at the wrong tree. It’s not just the methods of preaching the gospel that are changing but the gospel itself is now becoming another gospel.(Gal 1:8,9) Thanks Bill.

    Barry Koh

  17. Bill, are you aware of the prayer initiative to be found at There you can find an excellent prayer for the plight of our nation and cities. The aim is to have as many people as possible take ten minutes out of their schedule this Friday, the 10th, to prayer this prayer individually or in groups. I have already been praying it.
    Steve Swartz

  18. “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.”

    Despised? Yes, in the universities and the Hollywood circus. Secular universities are of course the main source of bad ideas. Don’t know how you can reverse that. Get more committed Christians into politics perhaps. There should also be a massive effort to make people aware of their positive Christian heritage. That film on Wilberforce was a great idea. There are many other lantern bearers to be admired. How about the Christians who helped the Jews?

    What minority? There are hundreds of millions of Christians on the planet. Lots of resources there. The churches have to be cleaned up too. Sacking that intellectualising fence sitter in Canterbury should be top priority.

    John Snowden

  19. Hello Bill

    I followed a link via Christianity today from (I’m in Australia)

    I think John is right. But I also think a faulty eschatology is somewhat to blame. Many Christians have the idea that the world is God’s Vietnam and we are just waiting for the helicopters. This has led to a retreat from culture.

    The gospel, I believe, will be victorious in history. Wherever Christian worship is faithful, God builds a new culture out of the corpse of the old one, and it eventually dominates. The key is not political action or any other kind of action, unless they flow directly out of faithful worship. Judgment begins at the house of God. Like Joseph and Jesus, and unlike Adam, if we are obedient servants, God gives us dominion on a platter because we can be trusted with it.

    One final comment: in Esther, many Jews were actually comfortable with their captivity, so the Lord promoted Haman to bring about a crisis and a glorious resolution. Perhaps that’s where we are today.

    Mike Bull

  20. Thanks Mike

    Hey, I am with you. I have written elsewhere about some of the points you raise, including a view of the end times which leads some believers to have their bags packed, feet up, waiting for the imminent return of the Lord. Of course he might come back at any moment, but then again it could be centuries before he returns. But we are to occupy till he comes, as Jesus tells us in a parable in Luke 19:13.

    And thanks for the good point about the Esther story.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  21. Hi Mike,

    What a great metaphor. Thanks for that.

    “Many Christians have the idea that the world is God’s Vietnam and we are just waiting for the helicopters.”

    Mansel Rogerson

  22. Many of us in Britain also bewail the loss of our idol, Britannia, Britannia that used to rule the waves but which does so no more. Nationalism and all isms are idolatries. Let us not become demoralised by our fading stars, our place in the pantheon of ruling nations, such as the twelve stars of the European Union. Let us instead remember that we are citizens of another kingdom, not bounded by passport controls. Jesus Christ said to Peter, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Surely that promise should galvanise us into action. We should strive to establish the sovereignty of that other kingdom now, wherever we are placed on the globe, and to drive out all idolatries, as described in Deuteronomy 7.

    David Skinner, UK

  23. I think the phrase “Many Christians have the idea that the world is God’s Vietnam and we are just waiting for the helicopters.” best sums up the evangelical churches to a great degree. We have been committing the sin of waiting for the Lord to return instead of doing His Work and when He returns be found doing our duty. I believe Hal Lindsey, La Haye, and dispensationalism in general, have lulled us into not doing anything to challenge the prevailing culture. Corrie ten Boom noted that it was the dispensationalist teaching in Chinese Christianity that left that Church unprepared for the Communist onslaught. Yet look at it now – an underground church that is thriving, and the number of Christians in China and Africa is apparently more than the USA, Europe and Australasia combined.
    I note the amillenial/postmillenial aspect to Mike Bull’s comments about the Gospel being victorious in history, and whilst this may cause debate, yet it is a prophetic perspective that is in line with the Gospel – optimistic and placing faith in the God Who is here and He is Never Silent (to quote Schaeffer).
    Wayne Pelling

  24. I suppose it is one small thing but it could get some people thinking. I sit on a number of committees and councils and sometimes opportunities arise when I can declare myself as a (practicing) Christian. I find it easier and easier to do this and as yet have not been told it is unacceptable. Perhaps if all our brothers and sisters did likewise others would (at least) know ‘a Christian’?
    Peter Rice

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