Boney M. Rocks
I don’t really remember much about 1978. I was eight years old and I’m sure life was a lot simpler back then. We didn’t have a colour TV and mobile phones were what happened when you accidently pulled a cable out of the wall and you had to get a technician in to fix it.
But in 1978, music was alive and pumping and Germany-based disco band Boney M. was big. Taking on The Melodians 1970 song, By The Rivers of Babylon, Boney M. popularised a song that became No. 1 in the New Zealand pop charts for 14 weeks. Even today, who doesn’t know this song and who can’t sing along with nearly all the lyrics?
By The Rivers of Babylon
The song is based on the biblical Psalm Chapter 137 Verses 1-4, a poem expressing the lamentations, or cries, of the Jewish people who were living in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586BC. Those of us living in western prosperity and peace find it difficult to fully comprehend what living in exile must be like, but this song seeks to articulate ancient emotions or separation, pain and anguish.
When we listen to this song we should close our eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like to sit by the rivers of Babylon (the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq) weeping and wailing, remembering what life used to be like in a land now far away, the land of milk and honey. There the exiles say as they tried to work out how to sing the Lord’s song, how to worship, how to remember the goodness of God, after being carried away to captivity and finding themselves in a foreign and difficult place.
Scripture in Song
By The Rivers of Babylon is one of a few pop songs whose lyrics come directly from the Bible (see also ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ by Pete Seeger, ‘40’ by U2 and ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ by Sister Janet Mead).
The Wider Bible Story
The story that is recounted through these exiled people is the big story of the Bible. The Old Testament is the story of how God journeyed with His people through good times and bad, when life turned out the way it was supposed to, and when it didn’t. The prophets were simply a group of people who were the voice of God, encouraging people to turn back to God and if they didn’t, well there are consequences to all our actions.
The story of the exile is concluded in the New Testament through the arrival of an anticipated Messiah who ultimately achieved the impossible, the ability for us all to know who we are and where we fit even without having to have land to make us feel better about ourselves – knowing that Jesus paid the price of our wandering away from God gives us everything we should need to have hope in this world and for the future.
The refrain in the song By The Rivers of Babylon is taken from Psalm Chapter 19 Verse 14, which says [in paraphrase] ‘may my prayers be acceptable to you God as I think about you in this foreign place’.
Where is God
I’ve found over the course of my life that there have been times when I’ve thought that God has abandoned me, when I’ve wondered where God is, when I’ve believed that He doesn’t care about me nor was He interested in giving me anything good. Sometimes these feelings have been transactional, ‘I’ve done this, why aren’t you doing that?’ One of the most common questions I hear from people when they’re in crisis is ‘where is God when it hurts?’
Here’s my point. In the Gospel of John Chapter 1 Verses 1-2 John writes, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.’ The Word is Jesus, He is the voice of God. We often say that the Bible is the Word of God, so it easily follows that the Bible is God speaking to us. One of my [stolen] catch cries is this, ‘if you want to hear God speak, read the Bible; if you want to hear God speak audibly, read it our loud.’
God has not abandoned us
When we read the Bible, either in our hearts or out loud, we’ll read stories like we see in Psalm 137 and Psalm 14, stories of people throughout time who have had hard times, actually harder times than most of us will ever have. But there is absolutely no sense that God has abandoned them. There is grief, there is lament, there is pain, but they’re constantly searching to find God in the middle of their situations. While they may feel abandoned, deep in their hearts they know that hasn’t happened.
By The Rivers Of Babylon should become a perennial favourite on the playlists of the devices we use to stream content; it’s God’s Word being planted and nurtured in our hearts every time we hear it. May we keep singing it, keep humming it, keep repeating it for the generations to come.
Grant Harris is a reformed banker who has been the Senior Pastor of Windsor Park Baptist Church in Auckland, New Zealand, for ten years. He’s also been the Chaplain to the SkyCity NZ Breakers Basketball Club for the last eight years. He loves hearing a good story, and give him a microphone or a platform and he also loves telling a good story, particularly about the difference Jesus has made in his life You can contact Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org.