By The Rivers Of Babylon


Judah in Exile

‘By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.’ Psalm 137:1

Historical context

The Babylonian captivity of Judah is to be understood primarily by an examination of the political movements of the 3 superpowers, Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt in the last half of the 7th century. At this time the Deuteronomic reform of Josiah occurred. Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh was a vassal of mighty Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal.

The cultic reform was a part of a greater movement in Judah to emancipate the state from Assyrian influence. Successes at both political independence and cultic reform stopped when Josiah died at the hand of Pharaoh Neco at Megiddo in 609 B.C.

From 609 B.C. until 605 B.C. Egypt controlled Judah, having replaced Josiah’s successor, Jehoahaz with his brother Jehoiakim. In 605 B.C. Egypt and a remnant of the Assyrian empire were defeated at Carchemish by Babylon which proved to be a turning point in the history of the Southern kingdom.

With the death of Jehoiakim, the Babylonians made a concerted effort to establish their influence on Judah permanently. Jehoiachin was deposed and taken to Babylon. His brother or uncle Zedekiah ‘Mattaniah’ was placed upon the throne.

The Temple was plundered and a substantial number of artisans and upper-class citizens, Ezekiel included, were taken into exile. Counting on help from Egypt, Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar to whom he had sworn allegiance by God, 2 Chronicles 36:13.

The Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem and conquered it in 587 B.C. The Temple and palace were razed. More of the populace were deported. The state of Judah, its long history associated with YHWH was no longer. In 582 B.C., a third and final deportation took place, Jeremiah 52:28-30.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon

Little is known about the life of the Judeans in Babylon. Many deportees were placed together at the periphery of this thoroughly mongrel city. Sources originate their witness to worship and other aspects of community identification and affirmation.


The Greek rendering of the Babylonian ‘bab-ili’ means ‘gate of God’, the city on the river Euphrates, 80 km south of modern Baghdad, Iraq, founded according to Babylonian tradition by the god Marduk. The time of Babylon’s greatest material wealth and splendour was the reign of ‘Nabu-kudduri-usur II’ 605-562 B.C. The Hebrew Bible calls him both Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuchadrezzar.

Nebuchadrezzar is most famous as a brilliant general and a builder. Most of Babylon’s palaces, temples, fortifications and canals were restored during his reign. For processions honouring Marduk (at least once a year the priests took his image through the city, Nebuchadrezzar created the most impressive street of the ancient world, ‘the Processional Way’ a 1200 m avenue flanked by carved lions.

For Ishtar, goddess of love and war, probably, ‘Queen of Heaven’ in Jeremiah 44:17-25, he raised the over 20-meter high ‘Ishtar Gate’, a magnificent gateway glazed in bright blue, with 150 ‘mushrushus’ Babylon’s dragon and bulls, alternately white and yellow. To please a Persian concubine who was depressed by the unbroken flatness and longed for her native mountains, he installed the famous ‘Hanging Gardens’.

He certainly had a case to boast of the great city he had rebuilt. Daniel 4:30 ‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?’

At the time of Nebuchadrezzar, the city of Babylon spread out on both sides of the Euphrates. In the centre of the city, in its older, eastern part stood ‘Etemenaki’, ‘House of the platform of Heaven and Earth,’ described by Herodotus on his visit around 460 B.C.

It was a great seven-storeyed ‘ziggurat’ or temple-tower, already very old and damaged in the war of 652-648 B.C. but splendidly restored at this time. Excavations show its base at its maximum extent to have formed a square with sides of about 90 m. Saggs estimates the Hight of the tower with a small temple on its summit as 90 m. This could be the original behind the ‘tower of Babel’ story in Genesis 11:1-9.

Just to the south of the ‘Etemenaki’ and intimately associated with it was the great temple complex of ‘Esagila’, ‘House of the Raised Head’.

On a pedestal inside it stood golden images of Marduk and his consort Sarpanitum, whilst images of divine attendants stood on either side of the supreme pair. These attendants included hairdressers for Sarpanitum, a butler and a baker, a doorkeeper, and dogs. Statues of winged creatures called Kurub guarded the entrance. It is probable, that the plunder from the Temple at Jerusalem, brought with the blinded Zedekiah was stored here, 2 Kings 25:7-13 / 2 Chronicles 36:7.

Babylon’s main streets were laid out in a direction from northwest to southeast to use the prevailing northwest wind to carry away smells and keep the temperature down. The streets bore names like ‘Marduk shepherd of his land’, ‘He hears from afar’, and ‘May the enemy not have victory’.

The striking similarity with Psalms 3:1 / Psalm 3:4 and Psalm 25:2 / Psalm 37:16 suggests that Psalm 137 isn’t the only one composed ‘by the rivers of Babylon’. Psalms 3:1/ Psalm 3:4 / Psalm 25:2 / Psalm 37:16.

The area of the city within the inner walls was slightly more than 1000 acres. On the basis of populations of more recent Oriental cities, which have generally been found between 150 and 200 to the acre, this would indicate a population of Babylon at the time of Nebuchadrezzar up to 200 thousand. This figure fits well with Jonah 4:11 which estimates the population of Nineveh, a comparable capital, at 120 thousand, Jonah 4:11.


The impact of Babylonian culture on the Hebrew Bible might be more significant than we are accustomed to thinking.