The Rivers of Babylon

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Many people in lockdown or shielding enjoy listening to the former hit song ‘Rivers of Babylon’ because of its catchy tune and appropriate wording for these times. The lyrics are from Psalm 137, written over 2,500 years ago, about another group of people also in ‘captivity’. The song is also meaningful to Essex Freemasons who are Companions in the Holy Royal Arch, as it relates the beginning of a story which is central to the teachings of core Freemasonry.

Nebuchadnezzar II expanded the Babylonian empire and ruled Egypt, Syria and Judah. After sacking Jerusalem, he took thousands into captivity as forced labour where they remained until Babylon was captured by Cyrus II of Persia.  One can easily visualise a leading Judean captive of royal descent called Zerubbabel (meaning ‘Born in Babylon’) sitting down by these rivers and thinking of the land of his forefathers called Zion, so named after the hill on which David had founded the city of Jerusalem.

Zerubbabel summoned up the courage to ask Cyrus if he could lead a party back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the Temple. Cyrus gave Zerubbabel approval to leave Babylon, appointed him the Governor, as a Prince, of Judah and decreed the Temple should be rebuilt.

55 miles south of Baghdad, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Babylon was once one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the ancient world. In our modern world the equivalent today is also referred to as the ‘Babylon-on the-Hudson’. The Royal Arch Masons there even have ‘The Zerubbabel Society’ for Companions who pledge to donate $100 a year, or more if they can afford it, with a special jewel which can be worn at all Royal Arch functions.

There are some differences in the Royal Arch Masonry found between the banks of the Hudson and East rivers, and throughout North America, compared with English Freemasonry. A frequent visitor may also notice a difference in a majority of the population on that continent where it is deemed as basic good manners and good citizenship to view yourself as just one member of the community, regardless of whether the community is a town, an organisation or a family.

Such good-manners and good-citizenship make for an ‘Excellent Companion’, just part of the legacy which Zerubbabel unknowingly has left for all Royal Arch Masons of today, dating from those ancient times when he sat down by ‘The Rivers of Babylon’.

Tony Hales

Content Generator
Provincial Grand Lodge of Essex