By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps
upon the willows in the midst thereof.
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.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
“LIKE A MAN SKIDDING TO A HALT AT THE EDGE OF A PRECIPICE
The captivity in Babylon was a shock to the complacency and to the expectations of the Chosen People. Since the times of Abraham and Moses they had regarded themselves as the favoured children of God. God had rescued them from oppression in Egypt. He had enabled them to conquer the land of Canaan. He had built up for them the grandiose kingdoms of David and Solomon at a time when the great empires of Egypt and Assyria were dominating the world of the Near East. In spite of reverses they had probably never lost the feeling that their God would protect them.
THEY HAD IGNORED THE WARNINGS OF THE PROPHETS
They believed in their star in spite of the warnings of the prophets sent to them by God. But their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and, even more, the destruction of the Temple of Jahweh at the conclusion of their disastrous opposition to Nabuchodonosor had brought them up short, like a man skidding to a halt at the edge of a precipice.
SOLOMON’S TEMPLE AT JERUSALEM GOT DESTROYED
The Temple had represented to them the presence of God in their midst. The destruction of the Temple no doubt meant to them that they had lost the protection of their God. What was left to them but annihilation?
IN BABYLON THEY WERE AT FIRST ENSLAVED
In Babylon they were at first enslaved. They were deprived of independence, of their own homeland, of their Temple, the sanctuary of their God. It was a time to despair, a time to lose heart. On the purely natural plane there is evidence that they adapted themselves to the conditions of their new life. They were dwelling in a land that was richer than the land from which they had come. Agriculture was much easier. Their natural talents at affairs of business and banking came to the fore. During their stay in Babylon they seem to have prospered in the ordinary business of human living.
GOD, THROUGH THE PROPHET ISAIAH, HAD TOLD THEM THAT A REMNANT OF THE RACE WOULD BE SAVED
But, through Isaias [Isaiah], God had promised that a remnant of the race would be saved. Belief in this promise never died. But the people, faced with the ignominy of their condition as exiles, as a displaced people, subject to the will of their conquerors, meditated on the reason for their fall. It was then that they began to realise that their sufferings were, as the prophets had told them, the punishment of their sins, of their failure to worship Jahweh, and Jahweh alone. They realised that they had failed their God, the one true God, by serving the false gods of the other nations of the world.
GOD IS FAITHFUL
It was a consolation to them then to remember what their prophets had also told them, that God would save at least a remnant, a portion of the people. Moreover God did not leave them absolutely desolate. The elders of the people recalled to them the glorious promises which God had made them.
While they could no longer sacrifice to their God in the Temple at Jerusalem, at least they could meet together to recall from memory the wonderful history of their nation since God had called them, in the person of Abraham, from the city of Ur so long ago. Perhaps God, as a wise Father, had brought them back so close to the land of their origin; they had been made by God, only God could remake them as a nation, as God’s chosen nation.
THEY BEGAN TO SEE AT LAST THAT THEIR ONLY HOPE WAS GOD
They began to see at last that their only hope was in their God. They learned in these difficult circumstances that there was no real god, no true god but Jahweh, the God Who had revealed Himself to Abraham, their father.
THE ROLE OF THE PROPHET DANIEL
This lesson was brought home to them forcefully in the adventure of Daniel the prophet at the court of the Chaldean kings. It is Daniel, acting under God’s inspiration, who interprets the dream of Nabuchodonosor when the Chaldean soothsayers fail. It is the companions of Daniel who triumph in the fiery furnace. It is the people of God who triumph when the king wishes them to worship false gods.
It is also Daniel who teaches them that the kingdoms of the world will all perish and that it is only the Kingdom of the Son of Man which will be everlasting, bringing peace to all nations. They probably did not understand completely the revelations made by Daniel about the Messianic kingdom to come in this world and at the end of time. But at least his message seemed to be a message of hope, and it helped them to forge in their souls a greater faithfulness to Jahweh.
THE PROPHET EZECHIEL SPEAKS ALSO OF THEIR SINS
God sent them also the prophet Ezechiel to encourage them in the midst of trial. Like all the prophets, Ezechiel recalled to them that their desolation was the punishment of their sins. But he forecast for them an even more glorious future. He regarded the Chosen People in their present condition as a race of dead people, only their dry bones remained. But, as he told them, God could raise up even their dry bones and make them a living people again.
THEY LEARNED THAT THEIR OWN PERSONAL SINS COULD CAUSE DISASTER
At this time, too, they learned from Ezechiel an even more important lesson. They had been accustomed to the idea that the sins of parents would bring suffering and disaster to their children. But this had led them to attribute their misfortunes to their ancestors rather than to themselves. But now they learned the significant lesson that their own personal sins could bring disaster to themselves. In this way they learned the important lesson of personal responsibility. This meant a great gain for the individual consciences of the people.
COLLECTIVE AND INDIVIDAUL RESPONSIBILITY OF CONDUCT
At the same time their sufferings also broadened the scope of their desires. They began to look forward not only to the restoration of the kingdom of Israel but also to the restoration of the whole people of Israel. They forgot the rivalry between the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In their mutual sufferings they lost their old antagonisms and began to dream again of a united people, one people, faithful to their God.
DREAMS OF A REUNITED NATION WORSHIPPING GOD IN A NEW TEMPLE
God Himself nourished them in their hopes. He inspired Ezechiel to draw up plans for the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem. No doubt also, He recalled to them the prophecies of Isaias [Isaiah] about the end of their captivity in Babylon.
INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
Meanwhile, on the larger scale of human history God was preparing the redemption of His Chosen People. The people of Babylon itself were becoming restive under the oppressive rule of the Chaldean monarchs. To the north and east of the empire a new and vigorous force was growing. Cyrus, a king of the Persian people, conquered the Medes and became a threat to the Babylonian empire.
A FLAME OF HOPE
A flame of hope must have surged up in the breast of the people as the name Cyrus began to be whispered and then shouted in the empire. At this time they will have recalled that Isaias [Isaiah] had spoken of a Cyrus who would come as God’s Messias to rescue His Chosen People. They will have remembered that Isaias had foretold the ruin and destruction of Babylon:
‘Babylon, glorious among the nations, the famous pride of the Chaldeans, shall be even as the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrha. It shall be no more inhabited forever… But the wild beasts shall rest there, and their houses shall be filled with serpents: and ostriches shall dwell there, and the hairy ones shall dance there; and owls shall answer one another there, in the houses thereof, and sirens in the temples of pleasure’ (Isaiah 13:19-22).
ISAIAH’S PROPHECY ABOUT CYRUS COMES TO PASS
Isaias had foretold not only the destruction of the empire of the Babylonians. He had even foretold that it would be accomplished by Cyrus: ‘ Thus saith the Lord to my anointed Cyrus, whose right hand I have taken hold of, to subdue nations before his face, and to turn the back of kings and to open the doors before him: and the gates shall not be shut. I will go before thee and will humble the great ones of the earth. I will break in pieces the gates of brass and will burst the bars of iron. And I will give thee hidden treasures and the concealed riches of secret places: that thou mayest know that I am the Lord who call thee by thy name, the God of Israel. For the sake of my servant Jacob and Israel my elect, I have even called thee by thy name’ (Isaiah 45:1-4).
Things came to pass as God had foretold. Cyrus invaded the empire during the reign of Nabonidus. His victory over the Chaldean dynasty was easy and swift. This was probably due to two factors: the empire was dissatisfied with the oppressive rule of the Chaldean kings, and Cyrus, an Aryan monarch of a new style of governing, was reputed to be a lenient monarch. He allowed the conquered people to keep their gods and their own customs; he restored exiled peoples to their own lands.
CYRUS LETS THEM BUILD THE TEMPLE AGAIN
The Chosen People remembered that Isaias had said that Cyrus would let them build their Temple again: ‘Thou (Cyrus) art my shepherd, and thou shalt perform all my pleasures; who say to Jerusalem: Thou shalt be built; and to the Temple: thy foundations shall be laid’ (Isaiah 44:28).
True to his policy of seeking to gain the favour of conquered peoples, Cyrus extended his mercy to the Chosen People. In the year 538 B.C. he published an edict:
‘Thus saith Cyrus king of the Persians: The Lord the God of heaven hath given to me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judea. Who is there among you of all his people? His God be with him. Let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judea, and build the house of the Lord the God of Israel: he is the God that is in Jerusalem’ (Esdras [Ezra] 1:2-3).”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959