Top Menu

Archive | Old Testament/Hebrew Bible

Psalm 137 and Popular Culture

Gebhard_Fugel_By the Rivers of_Babylons

By the Rivers of Babylon, Gebhard Fugel, 1920

Just when you think popular culture has shelved the Bible as passé, along comes a haunting version of Psalm 137 sung by American singer-songwriter, Don McLean,* and captured on this video.

A lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, McLean’s version of Ps. 137 captures the ache of those who were taken from their homes and brought to the Babylonian Empire’s capital for slave labor.   This popular version’s lyrics are a summary of the Psalms’ opening four verses, simply but powerfully conveyed for maximum impact.

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
    as we thought of Jerusalem.
We put away our harps,
    hanging them on the branches of poplar trees.
For our captors demanded a song from us.
    Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn:
    “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”
But how can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a pagan land?

“The rivers of Babylon” was the name Jews used for the whole country, sharply contrasted to their beloved Jerusalem, destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar’s troops invaded. (For that reason, Ps. 137 is considered one of the few that can be dated—either written between 587 -539 BCE, the period of captivity that starts with Jerusalem’s destruction in 587, or just after the Jews’ release in 539 BCE).

Demanding that the captives sing – an act of joy – when hearts are breaking for their many losses (loved ones, homes, country, etc.), smacks of cruelty. It reminds us of Nazis demanding that the classical musicians in Jewish concentration camps entertain captors with their beloved Bach and Brahms.

The Psalm doesn’t shy away from those strongest of emotions in extreme circumstances–grief, anger and outrage. Aren’t these the natural responses to evil? Perhaps this is the way Ps. 137 tells us we must never be complacent when evil tries to gain the upper hand, whether in individual lives or for an entire nation and people.

But the lament doesn’t stop there, providing the reader or listener with a way out of such mental or physical hell. After the opening lament (verses 1-4) expressing grief, verses 5 and 6 turn us to the value of remembering.

I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget how to play the harp.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I fail to remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Who hasn’t experienced remembering better days–whether prior to a death, divorce, health or financial challenge? And yet the Psalmist points us to far more than just better times. It’s remembering why Jerusalem is our greatest joy, Jerusalem representing the place where God dwells.   For centuries the Jews and Israelites believed their God was a tribal God and lived in Zion (Jerusalem), which was one reason Solomon needed to build a Temple for Him.

But a spiritual breakthrough grew out of their reverse exodus or deportation to Babylon. They might have left Jerusalem, but God would never leave them.   It was in captivity where the Jews began to glimpse how enormous God is, far beyond the tribal deity who protected them on their homeland’s battlefield. Indeed, this is the God capable of saving from fiery furnaces and lion’s dens—even securing the Jews’ national release to return home.

In the midst of their grieving, Psalm 137 turns them to the answer, and it can do the same for us.

Note: For a different musical interpretation of the same Ps. 137, watch this dramatic clip from Guiseppe Verdi’s opera (1841) that launched his artistic career: Nabucco (the short version of “Nebuchadnezzar” in Italian, about the same period of Jewish captivity.  It’s a kind of 19th century version of popular culture.)

*The verses were were composed by Englishman, Philip Hayes and McLean recorded it as ‘Babylon’ for a 1971 album.


Snakes, Mountains and Moses

Mt. Nebo and Kings Hiway

View from Mt. Nebo and King’s Highway, linking ancient Edom, Moab and Amman Kingdoms.

Jordan is a country full of surprises, mainly of how many Biblical sites there are. One of my favorites is Mt. Nebo, the traditional site thought to be where Moses hands over the reins to his number 2 in command, Joshua. Was it because Moses was tired and decided to give up leadership to the next generation? Hardly.

Nothing Moses did seems to have been motivated by anything but his clarity about God’s direction, which he had to learn as we all do. Whether it was leaving the wilderness to return to Egypt where he was a wanted man, or herding his often-recalcitrant fellow Hebrews through a generation of wilderness, Moses listened to God most of the time, and bore the weight of consequences when he didn’t, as in this case.

The decision not to enter ‘the Promised Land’ was based on a Biblical directive he disobeyed. The account (in Numbers 20, NRSV) explains that the Israelites were in the wilderness called Zin, without water. Turning to God in prayer, he got his answer:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock (emphasis added) before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.

…but chose to ignore it….

So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice (emphasis added) with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. 

…and suffered the consequences.

12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 

Talk about having a dramatic moment?! Did Moses succumb to that all too modern malady of performing for the crowds? Isn’t it more dramatic to strike the rock for all to see then simply talk to it when few could hear? Perhaps that was Moses’ reasoning– something we’ll never know.

But we do know that Moses learned an important lesson in obedience, as did his brother Aaron who was also disobedient. This is where the Bible is the best literal guidebook for travelers. Numbers 20 and 21 continue the saga of the journey to freedom, how the King of Edom forbade entrance into his territory, even if the Israelites kept to themselves on The King’s Highway (the very road on which our bus traveled!).   Lesson learned: keep going (and listening) despite the obstacles that arise, regardless of how daunting.

God directs them around Edom (near today’s Petra, and part of ancient Edom), along the Red Sea. Aaron goes to die on Mt. Hor, the most prominent peak visible from today’s Petra. Once again the people complain and this time serpents are sent (Num. 21:7-9).

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

So visitors to Mt. Nebo today are treated to an enormous brass sculpture of a serpent on a pole. One traveler observed how it looked like the medical profession’s symbol, sometimes explained as sourced from the Greek mythology of Hermes, who is given a staff by Apollo, the god of healing. They obviously don’t know their Scripture!

Mt Nebo

Mt Nebo photo credit: “Nebo04(js)” by Jerzy Strzelecki – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons


The Psalms: Man Responds to God!


“Old Man Praying” by Julian Falat (1853-1929) National Museum in Warsaw

If someone were to think of the Psalms ‘only’ as hymns of praise, often set to music, they’d be missing why they’ve been so central to the worship of God throughout both Jewish and Christian history.

In addition to the beauty of their poetry and musicality, the Psalter is the only Biblical book in which man responds to God. This is partly evident in the way they are written in the 2nd person voice: ‘you’. “Save me O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul” is really saying “YOU save me O God…”.

Consider that in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, all the books of both the Law and the Prophets are God revealing the spiritual nature of the Creator to the patriarchs, prophets and other receptive hearts. The family and national accounts chart the Israelites’ ups and downs –listening and not listening, obedient one moment to their covenantal blessing and then throwing it off as so much discarded refuse the next.

But the Psalms are the intimate, sometimes anguished, and often joyous response to God for every high and low of the human scene. There isn’t a human emotion they don’t encompass. Whether the writer is King David or one of his court musicians, such as the sons of Asaph, these prayers and laments reveal the most personal fears, guilt, and revenge as well as overflowing gratitude. Why? Because they take they take every detail of their lives to God to sort it all through.

The Psalms show us a completely theocentric people. No armchair psychologists here. No face-booking or tweeting of slights or self-congratulatory missives.

The Psalms are the real deal, people just like us sorting through the debris and exaltations of human experience – why tough things come to families, neighbors and nations. Yet heartbreak coexists with unutterable joy because even the laments wondrously turn into prayers of gratitude and praise. Even if the writer doesn’t see God this moment, he (or she) makes every effort to remember, with conviction, an earlier time when God indeed was his salvation.

Reading through a handful of Psalms, looking for major themes, reveals their breadth and depth:

  • Why it’s vital to defend one’s thinking daily (Ps. 7)
  • How to see through the raging of ‘the carnal mind’ (Paul’s later term for what would oppose itself to God) and remain unimpressed (Ps. 2)
  • Trust in God (Ps. 91)
  • Protection (Ps. 16)
  • Self-examination in order to eradicate errors too long held
  • The foolishness and even moral idiocy of thinking there is no God
  • The counterfeit of the Gen. 1:26 man (made in “God’s image”) called ‘the children of man”
  • The source for true satisfaction
  • The every-whereness of God’s voice
  • To be honest in our prayers, not polite (Ps. 137)
  • And one especially compelling: The spiritual qualifications for those involved in God’s work, in spiritual endeavors.

I’ve included some of the Psalms with each topic, but left others blank. Perhaps you’ll like this list and work with it, adding your own themes and finding the Psalms that illustrate the ones above. We love hearing from you as you discover meaning so please feel free to write about your own love affair with the Psalter.

Good digging!



Jonah: How Big is our Love and other Lessons for Today

Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, Gustave Dore, 1866

In this third and final blog on Jonah, we explore how to bring the text forward, building on last week’s focus on the world BEHIND the text.   This is the linchpin of Bible Study, the ‘so what’ question? “So what does this have to do with life today?” If we don’t apply the text, we’re just reading history. But if we employ it, we can change history.

Jonah prompts us to probe the difference between ‘religious truth’ and ‘historical truth’,  because of its fantastical elements like the fish swallowing and spitting up a man.  If it’s not about an actual event, then what is the parable’s ‘religious truth’ that has made it one of the Old Testament’s most popular books for generations?

Jonah is classified as one of the prophetic books, and placed in the canon there.  Yet its four chapters are more allusive than dogmatic. With so many details unknown, the text raises more questions than it answers. Could this have been the writer’s intent since he even ends the book with questions?

         Then God said to Jonah,Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?’                                      (NLT, Jon. 4:9)

Exasperated at Jonah’s continued jealous and narrow-minded response to the Ninevites’ change of heart,  God again questions:

        …Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (NRSV, Jon. 4:11)

The reader is left filling in gaps with answers to the many questions raised. In fact, identifying these is a valuable way to explore what otherwise looks like a simple parable on obedience (or not) to God.  Here are a few, and please add to this list for what Jonah prompts you to consider more deeply, sharing through the “comments” section below):

  • Why did Jonah initially avoid God’s call and flee to Tarshish? (What is the state of thought here that is a major alert to us?)
  • How could Jonah sleep while the storm was raging and the sailors working so hard to survive? (What ‘storms’ are raging around us while we sleep comfortably in our ‘boats’ or lives?)
  • Where is Jonah seeking comfort and where is he uncomfortable? (Where do we seek comfort and where are we uncomfortable?)
  • Did he really repent when in the fish, a fact we might assume but the text doesn’t indicate clearly? (If not, what does that mean about our inner motive fulfilling our mission?)
  • What did he tell the Ninevites that caused such an immediate repentance? (Who are the ‘Ninevites’ of our lives and how do we communicate with them?)
  • If God is all about justice, why were the Ninevites forgiven instead of punished? (What is the nature of God revealed in Jonah? How do we think of God in terms of the balance between justice and mercy?)
  • What is the relationship of Israel to the outside world?

It is this final question that is the giant ‘so what’ to me about Jonah. What is my relation, as a Christian today, to the ‘outside’ world, the world that isn’t of my church family or even Christian family?

This was brought home sharply while attending a Presbyterian minister’s friend presentation about his recent trip to Syria. Joining several other ministers in Lebanon, they went by military escort to Homs, a city I had visited and loved when traveling there ten years ago. Their mission was to bring prayer and support (since no other aid is allowed at present) to a city that has been under siege for years. Seeing the bombed out images of Christian churches, learning more of the thousands forced to flee their homes– now refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere–is heartbreaking if we leave it there.

But this minister, along with thousands of other Christians worldwide, is NOT having a ‘Jonah moment’, thinking only of his own comfort and biases. He knows, as do all who take up this call, that we must answer for those in the Middle East through active prayer and whatever specific additional steps come, to meet their needs. Jonah also tells me I have to equally pray and forgive those who have perpetrated their exodus.

Jonah demonstrates how all-encompassing God’s love is, and therefore how inclusive ours must be. The thousands of Christians forced to flee their homes in the Middle East after 2000 years, hope we’ve learned its lessons well.


Jonah: An Ancient Archie Bunker?!

Jonah and the Whale, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1568-1625

Last week’s blog in this three part series was the world OF the text. Now is part two: the world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals).

One way to initially unpack a Biblical text is to find out when it was written– providing often-significant context for why this story, told at this time.

Jonah is written quite late in Israel’s history, around 400 BCE, over a century after their return from Babylonian captivity. Yet the story centers on a much earlier time when the city of Nineveh needs to be saved. Founded on the east bank of the Tigris River originally by the first Babylonian Empire, the city was rebuilt as the capital of the Assyrian Empire around 705 BCE.

Before Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BCE (by a combined force of Babylonians and Medes), they had a long history of cruelty, especially toward their conquered enemy, Israel. Centuries before, in 922 BCE, Israel’s citizens were defeated and deported, forced into an exile where all they loved was at risk of being lost: their culture, history, language and religion.

The result? Assyria became Israel’s most hated and feared oppressor, known for violence and cruelty in its capital. Israel prayed that God’s wrath would consume its enemies, especially the Ninevites.

Enter Jonah, a dedicated Jew convinced the Ninevites should not only not be saved, but God should punish them for their inflicted misery. After all, wasn’t God supposed to avenge Israel’s enemies, a theological view entertained for centuries?

Yet by 400 BCE, Nineveh’s greatness was long over. So what was the little book’s purpose? To stop the growing nationalistic and racial attitudes developing after the Babylonian Exile, especially since the Jews had just passed a law that they alone could stay in Jerusalem.

I think of Jonah as a kind of Old Testament “Archie Bunker”, a narrow-minded prophet given the opportunity to think differently about a bitter enemy, shedding prejudice and bigotry. But first, he had to respond to God’s call.

Consider the sympathetic portrayal of the sailors and Ninevites, both heathen groups willing to acknowledge God and repent of sins. Didn’t this indicate they weren’t nearly the pagans Jonah (i.e. the Jews) assumed them to be?

The Book of Jonah teaches us through negative example.   Told as the only Old Testament parable, it delivers its point through symbolism.   It becomes the reader’s task to figure out, for example,

  • Does Jonah stand for something larger, such as Jews directed to share God’s word beyond their borders?
  • Is Nineveh a whale that had swallowed Israel?
  • Is King Cyrus of Persia the whale willing to spit you up to live again?

As in any parable, the reader will draw his or her own conclusions. And since parables are timeless, we’ll explore in the third and final column, how to bring Jonah’s oh-so-contemporary lessons forward. Until then, happy pondering!


Gain FREE access to "Old Testament Overview" Video!