/ Warren Peel

How can we sing the Lord’s songs in Babylon?

Can you picture the scene? A group of Jewish exiles have gathered for their daily catch-up by the banks of the Euphrates river at the end of another working day. Everywhere they look are reminders that they don’t belong in this pagan, alien land. Man-made pyramids, called ziggurats, with temples to false gods like Marduk, Ishtar and Adad look down on them. The Sabbath day is unknown and desecrated every week. They are hundreds of miles from their promised land. Many of their loved ones are dead back in Judah. The king’s own sons had been slaughtered in front of him before being blinded taken captive, to end his days tormented by that last horror he ever saw. Other members of the royal family were made eunuchs to serve in the king’s palace. Three tidal waves of destruction swept over Judah altogether, over the course of twenty years. When they closed their eyes they could still see the massacre of their people by Babylonian soldiers, hear the screams that were suddenly cut short by Babylonian steel, and smell the smoke from the fire that engulfed the royal palace, every important building in Jerusalem and above all the holy Temple of the Lord. They could still see the gloating, arrogant soldiers carrying the sacred vessels of the Temple—how dare they pollute those holy things with their unclean hands! Why didn’t God strike them down as he struck down Uzzah all those centuries ago for daring to touch the ark?


All these memories must have been replayed over and over whenever the wretched exiles in Babylon met, as they multiplied their grief by sharing their stories of anguish day by day. The Babylonians showed no sympathy however. Perhaps they came to the Euphrates to gloat or mock or rub salt in the wounds of these devastated captives. Perhaps they were just oblivious to their pain. Either way it was a torture to the exiles. ‘There our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”’


But the people had no heart for singing the psalms of their homeland while their homeland was in ruins and they themselves were captives in a foreign land. Instead, by the rivers of Babylon, they sat and wept as they remembered Zion. Their instruments hung on the trees untouched. Perhaps they sobbed the words of Jeremiah as they thought of their ruined city, ‘How like a widow is Jerusalem, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave… After affliction and harsh labour, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress… Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe. All the splendour has departed from Daughter Zion.’ (Lam 1.1,3,5,6)


A plaintive question

‘How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?’ (Psalm 137.4) How indeed? This was no academic question for these exiles. Their world had fallen apart. The gods of Babylon seemed to have triumphed over the God of Judah. The temple was gone—what hope was there now of any kind of approach to God? Here in Babylon Marduk is king, isn’t he? What’s the point in singing praise to Yahweh in Babylon? Can he hear? Does he care? Even if he does, can he do anything to help us? Can he answer prayers in Babylon?


A resounding answer

The book of Daniel gives a rousing and resounding answer to the question of the exiles. It teaches them how you can sing the songs of the Lord in Babylon. Better, it teaches them by showing them. For that’s what Daniel does over the course of his whole life in Babylon. The first half of the book (chapters 1-6) gives us snapshots from Daniel’s life (and from his three friends as well) showing us a godly believer who is singing the songs of the Lord in Babylon with all his heart. He stands firm for God in a wicked and pagan environment. He trusts the Lord, loves the Lord, obeys the Lord and the Lord honours him. Contrary to all appearances, the Lord God Almighty is present, active and sovereign over everything that happens in Babylon.


The second half of the book (chapters 7-12) makes the same point, but in a different way—now through strange and unsettling visions of the future. The Lord is clearly in control because he is able to reveal the future to Daniel, whether it’s 400 years later or right at the very end of history. And the Lord can reveal the future because it’s the Lord who determines the future.


A relevant issue

Daniel shows the exiles how to live joyfully and faithfully for God in Babylon. And that is the book’s great lesson for us today. For we are exiles in Babylon as well. Peter begins and ends his first letter in this way: Peter… To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion… She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings… This world is Babylon—the world in rebellion against the Lord. It presses in on us constantly, trying to squeeze us into its mould. It may seem like God is absent, that he has been ousted by the more powerful gods of Babylon—not Marduk, Ishtar and Adad any longer, but Self, Equality and Freedom. We may find ourselves asking the same question that the exiles asked by the Euphrates River as we are mocked for our out-dated beliefs: ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ How can I live for God in the twenty-first century USA?


Daniel shows us how, as he points us to the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ, enthroned above all earthly thrones, to whom all authority and glory belong, and calls us to trust him as he did.

This article originally appeared in the Reformed Presbyterian Witness. Used by permission.

Warren Peel

Warren Peel

Warren has been married to Ruth since 1998 and God has blessed them with four daughters. He is Pastor of Trinity RPC in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland. He serves as a Trustee of the Banner of Truth.

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