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A SONG FROM THE CAPTIVITY IN BABYLON
For once, there is no need for guessing about the occasion of this Psalm. It reflects the sorrows and thoughts of one of the captives, either during the captivity itself, or shortly afterward when the memories of the terrible experience were still fresh in the psalmist's mind. As Rhodes noted, "The date therefore would be sometime between 587 B.C. and 537 B.C."
THEIR PITIFUL SITUATION
The psalm is fully self-explanatory. The first three verses describe the situation. The chosen people are suffering the captivity in Babylon, enduring the sporting taunts of their enemies, and weeping over their sorrows as they contrasted their status with what it once was in their beloved Jerusalem.
"By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion."
"Rivers of Babylon." The city of Babylon was situated on the Euphrates river, but the plural here probably refers to the great network of canals which had been built for purposes of irrigation. The gardens and industries thus watered were in all likelihood the areas where the Hebrew slaves would have been employed.
"There we sat down, yea, we wept." The picture that emerges here is one of extreme dejection, sorrow and bitterness. The refreshing altitude of Jerusalem with its mountains pressed upon the memories of the captives sitting and weeping by the canals of Babylon.
"Upon the willows in the midst thereof
We hanged up our harps.
For there they that led us captive required of us songs,
And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
The willows were a quick-growth tree that sprang up in abundance along the many canals of the Euphrates.
"They that led us captive required of us songs." The songs of the captives would have been considered as sport or entertainment by their masters; and the very fact of their hanging their harps on the willows indicates that they unwillingly complied with such demands, muttering to themselves, perhaps, the curses upon themselves and their terrible imprecations upon the enemy.
The marginal readings here substitute "words of songs" for "songs" in Psalms 137:3a and "tormentors" for "them that wasted us" in Psalms 137:3b. Kidner stated that, "`Tormentors' here is as likely a meaning as most of the others that have been proposed or substituted for this expression, which is found only here in the Bible."
It was the "words" of the Jewish songs which the captors wished to hear, because the poor status of the captives was a stark and embarrassing contrast to the triumphant words of the hymns of the Chosen People.
"Them that wasted us, or `tormentors'" (Psalms 137:3b). The Babylonian slave masters were a cruel, sadistic company of evil men who made sport of the helpless captives, forcing them into actions that appeared mirthful to the captors. The picture that emerges here is one of pity and sympathy for the oppressed.
CURSES UPON THEMSELVES
Their extremely distasteful assignment of entertaining their captors and amusing them precipitated the bitter thoughts of the next three verses.
"How shall we sing Jehovah's song
In a foreign land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her skill.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
If I remember thee not;
If I prefer not Jerusalem Above my chief joy."
There was indeed a remnant of true Israelites, the faithful believers in God, among the multitudes of the Babylonian captives. These were the `righteous remnant' spoken of by Isaiah. They were the ones who clung tenaciously to the blessed memories of Jerusalem and the glory of Israel's past history.
That this segment of the children of the captivity was a definite minority is revealed by the relatively small "handful" of the once mighty nation of Israel who actually returned to Jerusalem when God's servant Cyrus permitted and encouraged it. Josephus gave the total number of the returnees as, "Forty-two thousand four hundred and sixty two; yet did many of them stay at Babylon, as not willing to leave their possessions."
"How shall we sing Jehovah's song in a foreign land?" (Psalms 137:4). This is not a reference to their inability to sing such songs for their captors. It is an exclamation of their extreme displeasure in being compelled to do so. The following lines became their muttered pledges to themselves, perhaps out of the hearing of their tormentors.
"Let my right hand forget her skill ... my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth" (Psalms 137:5-6). These are curses upon themselves, applicable in case of their forgetting Jerusalem, or preferring not Jerusalem above their chief joy.
"If I prefer not Jerusalem" (Psalms 137:6). The implication here is that many did indeed learn to prefer Babylon. It appears that the status of the captive Israelites in Babylon was not unbearable. The prophet Ezekiel evidently was permitted to own property, as were many others; and, in time, as the `seventy years' expired, many of the Jews became prosperous and even wealthy. If this situation was common when this song was written, it would explain this line.
IMPRECATIONS AGAINST ENEMIES
The bitterness of Israel against their enemies who had vented their sadistic cruelties upon them is understandable enough, however foreign to the spirit of Christianity they must appear to us who follow Christ.
"Remember, O Jehovah, against the children of Edom
The day of Jerusalem;
Who said, Rase it, rase it,
Even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, thou art to be destroyed,
Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee
As thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
Against the rock."
"Remember ... against the children of Edom" (Psalms 137:7). The bitter mutual hatred of the two branches of Isaac's family, the Edomites and the Israelites, continued without abatement throughout their history. As Amos said of Edom, "His anger did tear perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever" (Psalms 1:11). The Edomites seem to have been almost totally a wicked people. Their terminal representatives are featured in the New Testament in the evil dynasty of the Herods.
In the words here, the Israelites, even in the circumstances of their captivity, still cherished their hatred of the Edomites, calling for God's judgment against them, even along with his judgment of the Babylonians. The basis of that undying hatred is stated in the book of Obadiah. "In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day that strangers carried away his substance, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even thou wast as one of them" (Obadiah 1:1:11).
The historical occasion for that behavior of Edom was apparently the capture of Jerusalem by the Philistines and the Arabians a couple of centuries before the fall of the city to Babylon. (See a full discussion of this in Vol. 2 of my commentaries on the minor prophets, pp. 241-244.)
Jerusalem was not totally destroyed on that occasion, despite the plea of the Edomites that it be "rased."
"Babylon ... thou art to be destroyed" (Psalms 137:8). The psalmist here had evidently read and believed the prophecy of Jeremiah in that tremendous fiftieth chapter describing the utter destruction of Babylon.
"Happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us" (Psalms 137:8). See my full comment on the prophecy of Babylon's destruction in the fourth year of Zedekiah, at the very climax of Babylonian authority and power in the whole world of that era. (See Vol. 2, of my commentary on the major prophets (Jeremiah), pp. 525-550.)
"Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock" (Psalms 137:9). An imprecation of this type invoked against innocent and helpless little children is contrary to the word of Christ and the holy apostles; yet this is an accurate statement of the attitude that was common among the warring peoples of antiquity. That such shameful cruelty and brutality against tiny children was actually executed upon the victims of conquest is a matter of Biblical record (Nahum 3:10). Christ prophesied that the same atrocities would be executed upon Israel herself in the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:44). There is this factor that entered into the destruction of the children, namely, that with the defeat and death of their parents, the fate of the children was sealed; and in the views of ancient conquerors it was, in a sense, merciful to destroy the children instead of abandoning them to a fate of starvation or something worse. Ancient armies had no medical corps, or battalion of nurses, to take care of the infant children of their slaughtered enemies!
It was indeed a long and terrible trail of blood and suffering that was initiated by our ancestors in Eden who failed to honor God's Word regarding the "forbidden fruit"
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 137". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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