By The Rivers of Babylon

Title: By The Rivers of Babylon

Bible Book: Jeremiah 2 : 09-11

Author: Johnny L. Sanders

Subject: Judgment



This is the second of a two part series within a series of messages from the book of Jeremiah, a series which I call Jeremiah’s America, because America is reflected so clearly in Jeremiah’s message to Judah. I call the overall series “Jeremiah’s America” because I see our society mirrored in God’s message to the people of Judah.

These two messages came to me as I listen to a song while driving to and from Shreveport. My wife Becky and I love to hear Daniel O’Donnel sing both the songs of Ireland and our favorite hymns. She had bought a new CD and told me she listened to it on the way to visit her mother. She mentioned one song in particular that she enjoyed. It was By the Rivers of Babylon. I played the CD while driving to Shreveport. When I heard By The Rivers of Babylon, I loved it so much that I hit “repeat” and listened to it again. On the way home, I did the same thing, only, I kept replaying that one song, while thinking about the message. I came home and began skimming both Psalm 137, on which the song is based, and the entire book of Jeremiah.

I knew then that I had to include a sermon on this subject in the series from Jeremiah. The more I studied, the more I felt led to expand it to two sermons. The first is, “In the Shadow of Babylon,” and the second is, “By the Rivers of Babylon.” Judah had been living in the shadow of Babylon, in the very shadow of God’s judgment, but they refused to repent. As a matter of fact, they openly said, “We will not listen.” The more they persisted in their rebellion again God, the darker that shadow became. Let me stress here that I find America on every page of Jeremiah, and though America is not the Covenant People, God raised up America to accomplish His purpose. America became the center for the spread of the Gospel - and it still is, even though there are serious signs that we are going the way of ancient Judah and Israel.


A. They Chose the Shadows Over the Light.

1) They chose the shadows. They were not simply overtaken by them. Since the days of David and the early reign of Solomon, Israel had drifted, from generation to generation, to false worship of the true God, and then to the worship of false gods. As a matter of fact, this was nothing new. During the entire period of the Judges, Israel had repeatedly turned from the true living God to worship lifeless gods of wood or stone. The worship of Baal was more appealing to the flesh, especially since there was not just the tolerance of immorality, but the promotion of it in this fertility cult. It not only accepted the vile things of the flesh, it promoted it and thrived on it. God had commanded His people to drive out all pagan people and to purge the land of idolatry, but they never finished the job.

2) God sent prophets to warn them that they must obey Him. He sent Amos and Hosea to Israel, the Northern Ten Tribes and Isaiah and Micah to Judah, the Southern Kingdom, made up of two tribes (Judah and Benjamin). Israel refused to repent and God raised up the ruthless Assyrians to destroy the nation, except for the remnant that joined itself to Judah. Then He sent Isaiah and Micah to warn Judah that if they did not repent and follow the Lord, He would use Assyria to punish them. If they still persisted in their rebellion against Him, He would raise up another nation to destroy Assyria and then take Judah into captivity for seventy years. Still they refused to repent - they chose the shadows of Babylon over the light of Yahweh.

3) God raised up a new prophet. His name was Jeremiah. As the shadows began to grow darker, God singled out Jeremiah - chosen before he was ever born - to carry the final warning to His chosen, but rebellious people. The priests dishonored God. The prophets prophesied lies. The kings and princes demanded both. The people rejected the strict demands of Yahweh for the pleasures of the flesh to satisfied their greed as well as the lusts of the flesh.

4) They had stopped calling on the Lord. The Lord demanded, “What fault did your fathers find in Me that they went so far from Me, followed worthless idols, and became worthless themselves? They stopped asking: Where is the Lord who brought us from the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness (Jer 2:5-6, HCSB). This was not a sin of ignorance, it was a sin of arrogance! They knew well the history of God’s dealing with their ancestors.

5) God charged them with two sins. What an indictment God beings against these stubborn, rebellious people!

“Therefore, I will bring a case against you again. This is the Lord’s declaration. I will bring a case against your children’s children. Cross over to Cyprus and take a look. Send someone to Kedar and consider carefully; see if there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever exchanged its gods? (but they were not gods!) Yet My people have exchanged their Glory for useless idols. Be horrified at this, heavens; be shocked and utterly appalled. This is the Lord’s declaration. For My people have committed a double evil: They have abandoned Me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer 2:9-13).

They had abandoned the fountains of living water and laboriously hewn for themselves cisterns. When they finished their task they discovered that the cisterns had cracks and would hold no water. They did not accidentally discover broken cisterns, the dug them, which meant that they had invested mental choice and plans, physical labor, and financial resources in their quest for who knows what - but they came up empty!

Aren’t you glad we live in a sophisticated society, in an enlightened age, in a progressive country where people would never do anything so stupid as those ancient Israelites? Well let me tell you something: enlightened America made a choice, a deliberate choice many years ago that has left millions of people living in the shadows of Babylon, instead of walking in the heavenly Son light. Following the Scopes Trial in 1925, America listened to the enlightened liberal, anti-Christian media, and embraced evolution, the gospel of Humanism, which like a giant vacuum cleaner, began sucking in our children. Today, few things leave the elite liberals of universities, scientists, social scientists, and the media more irate and acrimonious than the subject of creation, especially the Genesis account of creation. What did ancient Judah do that was more shocking that the modern American who looks the Creator in the face and declares, “I don’t want you!”?

6) God gave Jeremiah a vision of what was about to come, Jer 1:13-16.

“Again the word of the Lord came to me inquiring, ‘What do you see?’ And I replied, ‘I see a boiling pot, its mouth tilted from the north to the south.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘Disaster will be poured out from the north on all who live in the land. Indeed, I am about to summon all the clans and kingdoms of the north.’ This is the Lord’s declaration. They will come, and each [king]will set up his throne at the entrance to Jerusalem’s gates. They will attack all her surrounding walls and all the other cities of Judah. ‘I will pronounce My judgments against them for all the evil they did when they abandoned Me to burn incense to other gods and to worship the works of their own hands.”

That boiling pot was Babylon, whose armies would circle around the Arabian Peninsula and descend upon them from the north. They were living in the shadows of Babylon but would not believe it - and they would not return to the Lord.

B. God Sent Jeremiah to Warn Judah of the Coming Judgment, Jer 3:6-11.

1) These people could not plead ignorance. God sent Jeremiah with one message after another, but they still refused to repent.

“In the days of King Josiah the Lord asked me, ‘Have you seen what unfaithful Israel has done? She has ascended every high hill and gone under every green tree to prostitute herself there. I thought: After she has done all these things, she will return to Me. But she didn’t return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. I observed that it was because unfaithful Israel had committed adultery that I had sent her away and had given her a certificate of divorce. Nevertheless, her treacherous sister Judah was not afraid but also went and prostituted herself. Indifferent to her prostitution, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and tree. Yet in spite of all this, her treacherous sister Judah didn’t return to Me with all her heart—only in pretense.’ This is the Lord’s declaration. The Lord announced to me, ‘Unfaithful Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.”

God had destroyed “unfaithful Israel” for the same sins “treacherous Judah” was committing every day. And, Judah knew well what had happened to Israel and still refused to repent. God has destroyed the Northern Kingdom, but instead of repenting, Judah had become even more hardened against Him.

2) Babylon is coming to administer God’s judgment, Jer. 5:15-18.

“I am about to bring a nation from far away against you, house of Israel. This is the Lord’s declaration. It is an established nation, an ancient nation, a nation whose language you do not know and whose speech you do not understand. Their quiver is like an open grave; they are all mighty warriors. They will consume your harvest and your food. They will consume your sons and your daughters. They will consume your flocks and your herds. They will consume your vines and your fig trees. They will destroy with the sword your fortified cities in which you trust. But even in those days’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘I will not finish you off.”

He had finished off Israel, but He would preserve a remnant from Judah through whom He would keep His Covenant. Still, they refused to repent. Jeremiah pleaded with them to repent, but they absolutely refused. In fact, they sought to kill Jeremiah.

3) They even used religious grounds for refusing to repent, Jeremiah 7:1-8. This is the great Temple Sermon when God’s “word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand in the gate of the house of the Lord and there call out this word: Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who enter through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says:

“Correct your ways and your deeds, and I will allow you to live in this place. Do not trust deceitful words, chanting: This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord. Instead, if you really change your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, if you no longer oppress the alien, the fatherless, and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors forever and ever. But look, you keep trusting in deceitful words that cannot help.”

What were the deceitful words in which they trusted? They used the temple of the Lord as some kind of good luck charm. As long as they had the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, the Lord would be forced to defend them. Nothing could happen to them as long as they had the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. They had made this their chant: The Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord.


A. There Were Three Invasions.

1) They came in 606 B.C. At that time they took away Daniel, Sahdrach, Meshach, Obednego, nad other princes and choice young people whom they would train to serve the king of Babylon.

2) They came again in 597 B.C. This time they came to put down a rebellion and they took more captives back to Babylon.

3). They came the last time in 586 B.C. This time, they laid siege to Jerusalem, broke through the wall, and destroyed the temple. More captives were taken back to Babylon.

B. That Is How They Came to Be Sitting By the Rivers of Babylon.

1) The early captives refused to adjust to the captivity. They were sure God would soon return them to their land. They had prophets to tell them so. Jeremiah wrote to tell them this was not going to happen until the end of the seventy years, as God had revealed. These were sad and broken people. Listen to their despair - let me read the first six verses of Psalm 137 from the New American Standard Bible:

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the LORD’S song
In a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

1) The exiles are now sitting by the rivers of Babylon. They had insisted that they could not be taken into captivity because they had the temple of the Lord. God told Jeremiah to tell them that would not save them. They must either repent of go into captivity. They vehemently, fiercely refused and turned against Jeremiah, seeking to kill him. When they refused to repent, God sent Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar’s commander in chief, Nebuzaradan to conquer and deport them.

2) They said they could not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. They are now sitting by the rivers of Babylon. They had hung their harps on willow limbs. We are told that willows grew in abundance along the Euphrates River. The Babylonians came along and asked the captives to sing them a song: “

For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

Some think the Babylonians were deliberately taunting, demanding that they sing a song of Zion. Others believe they simply asked them to sing a song of Zion, but that their sorrow was so great that it was like the Babylonians were taunting them to ask them to sing. They responded, “How can we sing the LORD’S song In a foreign land?” They were defeated, depressed, dejected, crushed. They had been conquered by an ungodly, pagan nation. They had been ruthlessly taken away and settled among pagan, Gentile people. That was their side of it. On God’s side, He sought to purge His people of idolatry and when they returned, they returned without idols. It took the Babylonian Captivity to cure the Chosen People of their desire to worship idols and false gods. However, at the moment, they were only concerned that the God they claimed to serve had permitted them to be taken into captivity by a pagan nation.

C. God Had an Answer for Them, Jeremiah 29:1-14.

Chapter 29 contains a letter Jeremiah wrote to the captives in Babylon, soon after the second group had been taken into captivity in 596 B.C. Among the captives were prophets who were telling them that God would restore them quickly. The Lord instructed Jeremiah to warn the people not to listen to those false prophets because He had not sent them. From the beginning, He had told them that the captivity would last seventy years. Why seventy years? They had not obeyed Him in keeping the Sabbath year for seventy years! Listen to the letter Jeremiah wrote to the captives:

“This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men [in marriage]so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.” For this is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: “Don’t let your prophets who are among you and your diviners deceive you, and don’t listen to the dreams you elicit from them, for they are prophesying falsely to you in My name. I have not sent them.’ This is the Lord’s declaration. For this is what the Lord says: ‘When 70 years for Babylon are complete, I will attend to you and will confirm My promise concerning you to restore you to this place. For I know the plans I have for you’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:4-11).

Jeremiah’s letter includes and invitation and admonition which has an application for us today:

“You will call to Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you’—the Lord’s declaration—‘and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and places where I banished you’—the Lord’s declaration. I will restore you to the place I deported you from” (Jer 29:12-14).

Let me summarize what Jeremiah writes to these people:

1) Forget what the false prophets are saying - they are lying.

2) Listen only to God’s word - you will be there seventy years.

3) Build house - you are going to be there a long time.

4) Plant gardens and vineyards - you are going to need them.

5) Get married and have children - get on with your life.

6) Plan your son’s wedding - refuse to be defeated by circumstances.

7) Pray for the city where you live - that is best for them and for you.

8) Work to improve the city where you live - in helping them you help yourself.

9) Call on the Lord - you will find Him when you seek Him with all your heart.

What should we conclude from this? If you find yourself by the rivers of Babylon, don’t give up. Don’t sit down and wait for the end. Build a house, get married, go into business, support the city where you live. Now, will you give me the privilege of drawing a conclusion here? I believe what Jeremiah was saying was that it is time to take down your harps from the willow limbs and sing the Lord’s song - yes, even in a strange land. A willow limb is no place for a harp.

Would you like an example of what God would like for His children to do when adversity comes, whether it comes in the form of judgment or simply a test of our faith? Daniel. Daniel, and his contemporaries, Sahdrach, Meshach, and Obednego. A den of lions could not keep Daniel from calling on the name of His God - and he did not hide it, either. A fiery furnace could not keep Shadrach, Meshach, and Obednego from serving the Lord. They prayed for deliverance, but stated that if God chose not to deliver them, they would keep on calling on the name of the Lord. 


A. In Revelation, Babylon Symbolizes the Systems of the World Set Against God, Rev. 18.

1) There are the religious systems of this world.

2) There are the political systems of this world

3) There are the commercial systems of this world.

4) They all represent the world that is set against God.

5) We live in a world that is at enmity with God - metaphorically, Babylon.

6) That enmity will be intensified during the great tribulation.

7) Mighty Babylon will be destroyed “in one hour.”

B. You Must Not Be Depressed or Defeated By Babylon.

1) Build your house, even by the rivers of Babylon.

2) Get married and raise your family.

3) Get a job or start a business.

4) Seek the welfare of the community in which you live.

5) Seek to be both salt of the earth and a light to the world.

6) Never despair - God has His plan.

7) Seek the Lord with all your heart - you will find Him.

8) Serve Him and witness for Him - honor the Great Commission.

9) Worship and glorify the Lord, even by the rivers of Babylon.

10) Take down you harp and sing the Lord’s song, even by the rivers of Babylon.

Let us expand this principle and make an application for today. What ever trial you face, wherever you are, whatever the circumstances, seek the Lord with all your heart and you will find Him. Take down your harp and sing the Lord’s song wherever you are, be it stress, health problems, a financial crisis, loss of a loved one, war, persecution. Seek the Lord and sing the Lord’s song wherever you are. Let me share a story with you, a story we are very fortunate to have preserved for us today. The story is told in the first person:

Back in 1932, I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago's Southside. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis, where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn't want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child.

But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie good-bye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66. However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back. I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music.

The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.

People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was "Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead."

When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart.

For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn't want to serve Him any more or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well. But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis. Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God? Oh, if I had paid more attention to Him that day, I would have stayed and been with Nettie when she died.

From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to Him. But still I was lost in grief. Everyone was kind to me, especially a friend, Professor Fry, who seemed to know what I needed.

On the following Saturday evening he took me up to Malone's Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys. Something happened to me then. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one into my head-they just seemed to fall into place:

"Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand! I am tired, I am weak, I am worn, Through the storm, through the night lead me on to the light, Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home."

The Lord gave me these words and melody, He also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power. And so I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when He will take me and gently lead me home.

The author signed his name - -Tommy Dorsey. No, he was not the Tommy Dorsey (the Big Band leader whom we know and love), but Thomas A. Dorsey, a black Gospel singer and songwriter in the 30s. He also wrote "Peace In The Valley" at the same time, right after his wife died giving birth to their child, who also died. I thank my friend, Andy Mercer for identifying the author, and for supplying the second verse of the song:

When my way grows drear, Precious Lord, linger near,
When my life is almost gone,
Hear my cry; hear my call; hold my hand, lest I fall,
Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.


The world is at enmity with God, and if it hates God it will hate all those who honor Him. If the world does not hate you, you are simply not putting enough distance between yourself and the world. This is what the Lord would have you to do: Seek the Lord with all your heart - He will find you! Serve Him as the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Worship Him with all your heart. Sing the Lord’s song in the heart of Babylon. He has a plan: “ For I know the plans I have for you’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” Begin right now by seeking Him with all your heart. If you are already walking with Him, then go out and be his witness. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

“For this is what love for God is: to keep His commands. Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has been born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith” (1 John 5:3-4).

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