Praying by the Rivers of Babylon

Boney M by the Rivers of Babylon on YouTube. Verses of a Psalm stayed at No1 in the UK pop charts for five weeks.

Boney M by the Rivers of Babylon on YouTube. In 1978 verses of a Psalm stayed at No1 in the UK pop charts for five weeks.

By Stephen Green. First published in Christian Voice October 2016.

Jeremiah 29:4 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon. 5 Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them. 6 Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. 7 And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

Towards the end of October, those following our Lamplight Bible Reading Plan read these words from Jeremiah.  They also read Psalm 90 and 2nd Peter chapter 3 on the same day, and I’ll come back to them later.


It is tempting for us to feel as oppressed in the world in which we live as the people of Judah must have felt in Babylon. We rightly fix our view on the city of God, on the heavenly country.  So maybe we feel little more than captives here on earth.

So what are we to do? Look to the skies, or the hills, whence cometh our help? (Someone will no doubt observe there should be a full stop in verse one of Psalm 121, but please let that pass for now. I am making a point.)

Are we to spend our days bemoaning that we cannot sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (I’ll also come back to that.) Are we to scan the newspapers for signs of the imminent second coming of the Lord?

There is no encouragement for such a view in our Lord’s comment about looking for ‘the signs of the times’ in Matt 16:3. That was said to scribes and Pharisees seeking a sign that Jesus was who he said he was. We believe already. We don’t need such a sign.


Michaelangelo's 16th century representation of Jeremiah

Michaelangelo’s 16th century representation of Jeremiah

If we can identify in any respect with the captives in Babylon, we should be open to what the Lord God said to them through the Prophet Jeremiah. The context comes in chapter 28. The false prophet Hananiah was telling the captives they would all be back in two years. In verses 8 to 10 of chapter 29, Jeremiah tells them to ignore the false prophets. It won’t be two years.  It will be seventy.

We are in a similar position. We are here for the long haul. The Lord is not returning tomorrow, or if he is, he will want to know what you did to advance his kingdom today. The word of the Lord to us, just as to them, is to be busy. The word with which we started comes from the very prophet to whom the Lord said:

Jer 1:10 See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.

But in chapter 29, it is not kingdoms and nations being destroyed before something better is built and planted.  Rather is it physical building and planting being commanded to the people of the Lord.


The command falls into four parts. Firstly, the Lord’s people are to buy land and build on it. Secondly, they are to take steps to feed themselves. Thirdly, they are to increase in their families. Fourthly, they are to pray for their host city.

So how does such a view co-exist with the attitude we find in the psalm popularised in reggae style by Jamaican-led Boney-M?  Their 1978 offering ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ stayed at number one in the UK charts for five weeks. That’s right.  These verses from the King James Bible were at the top of the hit parade almost forty years ago:

Psalm 137:1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. 3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. 4 How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?

Psalm 137 is a lament.  It was written for a purpose.  But it is also timeless.  You will know reggae has connections to Rastafarianism.  In that movement, ‘Babylon’ is any unjust world system.  But we find the same view in the Revelation to John.  Babylon there is code for the Roman Empire and indeed for any revived Roman empire.  The Jewish exile manages to speak to Christian believers in every time and place.

But there is a time to mourn and a time to dance. Indeed, from what Jeremiah tells us, there is a time to get your head down and work.  We need a mindset of prospering through hard graft undertaken with the Lord’s blessing.


The fact is, preaching the Gospel, widely understood as the mission of the church, is not the only way to build the Kingdom of Heaven. We also build the Kingdom wherever God’s rule is put in place. If a Christian establishes a successful business, that also builds the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  When a Christian provides for and raises a godly family, that too builds the Kingdom of Heaven.

If by our prayers the leaders of a nation turn from idols to the living God, the Kingdom of Heaven is being advanced in the here and now. We may feel under the two-pronged pressure of Secularism and Islam.  But in the peace of a God-fearing nation we shall also have peace.

We are very familiar with the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy urging us to pray for our leaders:

1Tim 2:1 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; 2 For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.


Yet the same sentiment is already there by the grace of God in Jeremiah 29:7. Similarly, we find the prophet’s injunction to provide for our families repeated in Paul’s letters:

1Thess 4:11 And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you;

It is also in the psalm set on the same day as Jeremiah 29 in the Lamplight plan:

Psalm 90:17 And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

The apocalyptic third chapter of the second letter of Peter is also listed for the exact same day, by the grace of God.  In it, the Apostle urges us to keep a balance between looking for ‘the day of God’ and conducting ourselves well here in the meantime:

2Peter 3:11 Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 12 Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? 13 Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. 14 Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless.


Going back to Jeremiah 29, it would be remiss not to remind ourselves of the great promises to the exiles a few verses on:

Jer 29:10 For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. 11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

12 Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. 13 And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. 14 And I will be found of you, saith the LORD: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the LORD. And I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive.

The fall of Jerusalem in the Nuremberg Chronicle from 1493.

The fall of Jerusalem in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

Jerusalem was about to fall. In exile the people had to get on with improving their lot, increasing their population and substance. They were to be ambitious, positive and prayerful by the rivers of Babylon.

A day would come for their return. But equally they were not to be distracted by that hope.  We know they took the advice because Daniel found Jeremiah’s prophecy and acted upon it seventy years later.

Let us follow their example, building, planting, increasing and advancing the Kingdom of God.  And let us never stop praying for our nation. Because in the peace thereof, we shall have peace.

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