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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.


Bible Journeys: Exploring the Bible through Organized Bible Study Groups

In 2013 I spent five days in the stunning Colorado Rocky Mountains studying the middle chapters of Isaiah with 50 fellow Bible students.  The background you’re seeing on the above video is from the lodge where we spent about five hours a day pouring over the chapters, sharing insights, working to understand the themes, history, context.  Why?  Because many of us have found, as perhaps you have, that there is something very special that occurs when we sit down with others to see how the Scriptures are talking to us today.  Not only are our own insights enriched and expanded, but the sense of fellowship, friendship, even awe, that comes from the many ‘holy ground’ moments of immersion in the Word, is like no other experience. “I rejoice at thy word”, writes the Psalmist (119:162), and what joy it gives as we explore God’s Word more deeply.

I often get asked for ideas about how to organize a Bible study group. Here are some ideas that may be helpful to get you started:

  1. How many should be involved? Think about starting with a small group, maybe 6 – 8. You might want to ‘find your footing’ before opening it to people of all denominations in your community. One of the challenges is learning how to really delve into the text and let it teach us, describing what we read in our own language, vs. denominational language that some are used to using. As groups become more proficient at using Biblical language or their own, free of denominational ‘speak’, then opening it to others can be a great blessing for all.
  2. Where do we meet? Hold it in participants’ homes or at a Reading Room or Sunday School if church members agree.
  3. How often do you meet? It completely depends on people’s availability. Some groups find that starting with once a month meetings, perhaps 2 hours at a time, is just about right. Others find that is too infrequent and go to a bi-weekly model. And some groups love this study so much that they agree to meet weekly. Whichever is right for you, you may want to start less frequently and scale UP rather than back, if modifications need to be made.
  4. How much of the Bible do we cover at each meeting? Many have found that about a chapter an hour is as fast as they want to go. Much faster and you’re unable to plumb the depths of a verse – each one so rich that you want to really delve into it. A number of groups find that two hours, or two chapters per meeting, is just about right.
  5. How do we best prepare? Again, this depends on your group’s preferences. Some choose to follow a guideline, like “Foundation Stones”, published by Bible Study Seminars and available at their website. These provide both background and study questions, but do not go consecutively chapter by chapter. Other groups choose to have a facilitator prepare five or so study questions per chapter, send them out ahead of time via email, then each one comes prepared with their answers. People may find different translations and commentaries helpful in their study and their monthly or bi-weekly meetings become a way of sharing. Of course we’re relying on prayer to illumine these texts but the Bible study is often just to help people understand the context and background for each book, and that helps us penetrate the spiritual meaning of the verses.
  6. Where would I find study questions if I don’t have time or interest in writing my own? Check out the shop page on this website to find workbooks for those Bible Study groups that want background and study questions per chapter. If there is an accompanying audio track, some Bible Study groups will get that and play it ahead of their study to amplify the book being studied.)

2nd Isaiah Online Video Course - Bibleroads.comInterested in having a very specific recommendation on where to start with your new Bible study group? You might want to check out the newly released Bible Roads 2nd Isaiah Online Bible Study Course which is a 12 hour video recording of the aforementioned Colorado Bible study group (and comes complete with its very own virtual facilitator).

If you have any suggestions or experiences you would like to share about organizing Bible study groups or if you have any additional questions about how to proceed, please comment below.


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