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Though there is no title prefixed to this beautiful psalm, and no direct intimation as to the occasion on which it was composed, yet there can be no doubt as to the circumstances in which it was written. There is, indeed, no mention of the name of the author, and no possibility of recovering that name now, but there can be no doubt that it was composed by one of the exiles in Babylon - one who had witnessed and shared the sufferings of the exiles there, and who had also a lively recollection of the wrongs done to Jerusalem when it was attacked and destroyed by its foes. The writer was a Jew to the heart’s core; an “Hebrew of the Hebrews;” embodying and expressing in this short psalm all that there was which was special in Hebrew feeling, patriotism, devotion. Nowhere else in a short compass is so much Judaism - so much Jewish piety - to be found concentrated as in this psalm. There is grief at their lonely and desolate condition in Babylon; profound and submissive silence in the midst of their troubles; indignation that they should be taunted and derided by their captors; a strong - earnest - supreme love for their native land; deep resentment at the remembrance of the many wrongs done to Jerusalem when it was destroyed; and an earliest invocation to God that he would remember those wrongs alike in relation to Edom and Babylon, and treat those wrong-doers as they deserved. It would seem most probable that the psalm was composed soon after the return from Babylon, and before the temple was finished - while the ruins of the city caused by the Edomites and Babylonians were visible everywhere. The combined remembrance of the insults in Babylon, and of the wrong done to the city at its capture, animates the poet, and fills his mind with this deep and burning indignation.
By the rivers of Babylon - The streams, the water-courses, the rivulets. There was properly only one river flowing through Babylon - the Euphrates; but the city was watered, as Damascus now is, by means of canals or water-courses cut from the main river, and conveying the water to different parts of the city. For a description of Babylon, see the introductory notes to Isaiah 13:0. If the reference here is to Babylon proper, or the city, the allusion would be to the Euphrates flowing through it; if to Babylonia, the allusion would be to the Euphrates, and the other rivers which watered the country, as the Tigris, the Chaboras, and the Ulai. As it is most probable that the captive Hebrews were not scattered through the empire, but were concentrated in one or a few places, it is, perhaps, not improper to understand this of Babylon itself.
There we sat down - There we were sitting. Perhaps a little company of friends; perhaps those assembled for worship; perhaps those who happened to come together on some special occasion; or, perhaps, a poetic representation of the general condition of the Hebrew captives, as sitting and meditating on the desolations of their native land.
Yea, we wept - We sat there; we meditated; we wept. Our emotions overpowered us, and we poured forth tears. So now, there is a place in Jerusalem, at the southwest corner of the area on which the temple was built, where the Jews resort on set occasions to weep over the ruins of their city and nation.
When we remembered Zion - When we thought on our native land; its former glory; the wrongs done to it; the desolations there; when we thought of the temple in ruins, and our homes as devastated; when we thought of the happy days which we had spent there, and when we contrasted them with our condition now.
We hanged our harps upon the willows - The harps once used to accompany the songs of praise and the service of God in the temple; the harps with which they had sought to beguile their weary hours, and to console their sad spirits in their captivity. The word rendered “willows” - ערבים ‛ărâbiym - used only in the plural, denotes the willow or osier, so called from its white, silvery leaves. Gesenius, Lexicon. Compare Isaiah 15:7. It is probable that the weeping willow - the willow with long pendulous branches - is here referred to. Trees in desert lands spring up along the courses of the streams, and appear, in the wide desolation, as long and waving lines of green wherever the rivers wind along. The course of a stream can thus be marked by the prolonged line of meandering green in the desert as far as the eye can reach. It has been objected to the statement here that the willow is not now found in the neighborhood of ancient Babylon, but that the palm is the only tree which grows there. I saw, however, in 1852, in James’ Park in London, a willow-tree with a label on it, stating that it was taken from the site of ancient Babylon; and there seems no reason to doubt the correctness of the account. The willow may be less abundant there now than it was in former times, as is true of the palm. tree in Palestine, but there is no reason to doubt that it grew there. All that the psalm, however, would necessarily demand in a fair interpretation would be that there should have been even a single clump of these trees planted there, under which a little band of exiles may have seated themselves when they gave utterance to the plaintive language of this psalm.
In the midst thereof - In the midst of Babylon; showing that this referred to the city proper. They could not sing, such was their grief, though they had their harps with them; and they hung them up, therefore, on the branches of the trees around them; or, poetically, they were as dumb as if they had hung up their harps there.
For there they that carried us away captive - The Babylonians.
Required of us a song - Asked of us a song. The word does not express the idea of compulsion or force. Margin, as in Hebrew, words of a song. Perhaps the idea is that they did not merely ask music, but they wished to hear the words - the songs themselves - in which they were accustomed to praise God. This may have been a taunt, and the request may have been in derision; or it may have been seriously, and with no desire to reproach them, or to add to their sorrows. We are not to impute bad motives to others where there is no evidence that there are any, and where the supposition of good motives will answer just as well; and the expression here may have been a kind and natural wish to hear the songs of these foreigners - songs of which they might have heard much by report; perhaps songs which they had overheard them singing when they were in a less desponding state of mind, and when they sought to comfort themselves by these ancient national melodies. As the only reason assigned for not complying with this request was that they could not “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” Psalms 137:3, we are rather led to infer that there was no bad motive - no disposition to taunt and ridicule them by the request that was made.
And they that wasted us - Margin, laid us on heaps. The Hebrew word means a tormentor; properly, one who extorts lamentation from others, or who causes them to howl - to wit, under oppression or wrong. The Septuagint and Latin Vulgate render it, “They who led us away.” The general idea is, those under whom they were then suffering; or, who had caused these trials to come upon them.
Required of us mirth - literally, “Our tormentors, joy.” The Hebrew word means joy; and the sense is, that they asked them to give the usual indications of joy and happiness - to wit, a song. The language means, “Cheer up; be happy; give us one of the beautiful songs which you were accustomed to sing in your own land.” It may, indeed, have been in derision; but there is no proof that it was.
Saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion - The songs - the sacred hymns - which you were accustomed to sing in worship in your own land.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song - The song designed to celebrate his praise; that is, appropriate to the worship of Yahweh.
In a strange land - Far from our home; far from the temple; exiles; captives: how can we find spirit in such circumstances to sing? How can we do that which would be indicative of what we do not feel, and cannot feel - joy and happiness! The idea is not that those psalms or songs would be profaned by being sung there, or that there would be anything improper in itself in singing them, but that it would be misplaced and incongruous to sing them in their circumstances. It would be doing violence to their own feelings; their feelings would not allow them to do it. There are states of mind when the language of joy is appropriate and natural; there are states where the heart is so sad that it cannot sing.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem - The meaning here is, that to sing in such circumstances would seem to imply that they had forgotten Jerusalem; that they were unmindful of its sorrows, and cared not that it was desolate. The remembrance of its calamities pressed hard upon them, and they could not do anything which would seem to imply that they had become unmindful of the sufferings that had come upon their nation. One will not make merry when a wife or child lies dying - or on the day of the funeral - or over the grave of a mother. A joyous and brilliant party, accompanied with music, feasting, dancing, when a friend has been just laid in the grave, when the calamities of war are abroad, when the pestilence is raging in a city, we feel to be untimely, unseemly, and incongruous. So these captives said it would be if they should make merry while their temple was in ruins; while their city was desolate; while their people were captives in a foreign land.
Let my right hand forget her cunning - Let my right hand forget its skill in music - all its skill. If I should now play on the harp - as indicative of joy - let the hand which would be employed in sweeping over its strings become paralyzed and powerless. Let the punishment come where it would seem to be deserved - on the hand which could play at such a time. So Cranmer held the hand which had been employed in signing a recantation of his faith in the fire, until it was burned off, and dropped in the flames.
If I do not remember thee - Equivalent to, “If I forget thee.” If I ever fail to remember thee; if I shall ever act as if I had forgotten thee. Singing in a strange land, among those who had perpetrated such wrongs in thee - appearing to be happy, cheerful, joyous, happy, merry there - would be understood to imply that I had ceased to remember thee, and cared nothing for thee.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth - Compare Ezekiel 3:26. Let me be unable to speak; let my tongue be as it were attached to the upper part of the mouth, so that it could not be used. If I employ it in an unworthy purpose - in any way whereby it can be inferred that I have ceased to remember my native land, and the city of our solemnities, let my tongue be ever after useless. This language is often employed by Virgil: Vox faucibus haesit.
If I prefer not Jerusalem - literally, “If I do not cause to ascend.” That is, If I do not exalt Jerusalem in my estimation above everything that gives me pleasure; if I do not find my supreme happiness in that.
Above my chief joy - Margin, as in Hebrew, the head of my joy. The chief thing which gives me joy; as the head is the chief, or is supreme over the body. This is expressive of a great truth in regard to religion. Anything else - everything else - is to be sooner sacrificed than that. The happiness which is found in religion is superior to that found in every other source of enjoyment, and is preferred to every other. If either is to be sacrificed - the joy of religion, or the pleasure derived from society, from the frivolous world, from literature, from music, from dancing, from works of art - it will be the latter and not the former. There are other sources of joy which are not in any way inconsistent with religion: the joy of friendship; of domestic life; of honorable pursuits of the esteem of people. So of music, the arts, gardens, literature, science. But when one interferes with the other, or is inconsistent with the other, the joy of the world is to be sacrificed to the joy of religion. When the joy of religion is sacrificed for the joy of the world, it proves that there is no true piety in the soul. Religion, if it exists at all, will always be supreme.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom - The Edomites; the people of Idumea. On the situation of Edom or Idumea, see introductory notes to Isaiah 34:0.
In the day of Jerusalem - In the day when Jerusalem shall be restored; in the day when punishment shall be inflicted on the nations that destroyed it; then, do not forget the Edomites, who took so large and so active a part in its overthrow. This is to be understood as a continued “remembrance” of Zion; as a purpose not to “forget” Jerusalem. The psalmist, representing the feelings of the captives in Babylon, says, that so far from doing anything which would imply a forgetfulness of their native land - as singing cheerful songs there might be understood to be, they would do everything to call Jerusalem to remembrance. They would remember her former splendor; they would remember her desolations; they would go further - they would not forget those who had brought these calamities upon her; those who had done most for her overthrow. As among the most prominent, they would remember particularly the ancient; enemies of their nation - the Edomites - who had been among the most active in its destruction, and who had united with the Babylonians in the work of ruin. They would remember all this; and they prayed God that he also would remember the desolation itself, and all the actors in that work of desolation.
Who said - Implying that they had been associated with the Babylonians in the destruction of the city. On the hostility of that people to the Hebrews, and the grounds of their hostility - and on their agency as united with the Babylonians in destroying Jerusalem, and the divine vengeance threatened them on that account - see, as above, the introduction to Isaiah 34:0.
Rase it, rase it - Margin, as in Hebrew, make bare. That is, Strip it of everything - temple, houses, ornaments, fountains - and leave it a bare and naked rock. Let nothing remain but the rocks - the foundations - on which it is built. In the history of the Edomites, as stated in the introduction to Isaiah 34:0, there were abundant facts to show that they were particularly zealous and active in seeking the destruction of the hated city. This verse and the one following constitute a portion of the “imprecatory” Psalms; of those which seem to cry for vengeance, and to manifest a revengeful and unforgiving spirit; the portion of the Psalms which has been regarded as so difficult to be reconciled with the forgiving spirit enjoined in the gospel. On this subject, see the General Introduction, Section 6.
O daughter of Babylon - That is, Babylon itself; the city of Babylon. On the word “daughter” as thus used, see the notes at Isaiah 1:8.
Who art to be destroyed - Certainly to be destroyed; of whose destruction there are fixed and absolute prophecies. See the notes at Isaiah 13:19-22.
Happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us - Margin, that recompenseth unto thee thy deed which thou didst to us. Literally, “Happy shall he be who shall repay to thee the recompence which thou hast recompensed unto us.” The idea is, who shall repay thee for thy treatment of us; or, as we should say in common language, “Who shall pay thee back?” That is, he will be esteemed a fortunate man who is made the instrument of inflicting deserved punishment on a city so guilty and so cruel. He will acquire fame and honor by doing it; his name will be made known abroad and perpetuated among people. In fact, the name of Cyrus, who conquered Babylon, is among the names of the most celebrated of conquerors; and the manner in which he took Babylon and overthrew the government and kingdom, has given him a most eminent place among successful princes and conquerors.
Happy shall he be that taketh ... - Margin, as in Hebrew, rock. This refers to what was not uncommon in ancient warfare, as it is now among savage tribes - the indiscriminate slaughter of those of all ages, and of both sexes, in war. It was expressly foretold of Babylon that this would occur (see Isaiah 13:16, and the notes at that place), and there may be a reference here to that prediction, and the psalmist may mean to say that the man would be accounted happy, or would be happy, who wreaked vengeance on Babylon in carrying out that prophecy. The idea is, “This will certainly occur, for it is foretold, and happy or fortunate will he be who is the instrument in fulfilling it.” Compare 2 Kings 8:12; Nahum 3:10; Hosea 13:16. See also Homer, II xxii. 63,373, following It is impossible to reconcile such barbarous customs with the idex of “honorable war,” or with the principles of war as carried on among “civilized” nations now.
It should be added, however, that there is much - very much - that is practiced in war by “civilized” nations still, which it is equally impossible to reconcile with any just notions of morality or humanity, and which in coming ages, and when people shall come to view things aright, will seem to the people of those times to be not less monstrous, strange, and barbarous. In regard to this passage, we are not necessarily to suppose that the author of the psalm approved of this, or desired it, or prayed for it. He looked forward to the fulfillment of a prediction; he saw that a just and terrible judgment would certainly come upon Babylon; he expressed that in the common language of the times, and states the manner in which it would occur; he described the feelings - the gratification - of those who would execute the divine purpose in the overthrow of Babylon; he referred to the estimate in which the conqueror would be held by people, and the glory of the achievement as giving him fame among people.
It must be admitted that the feelings of the author of the psalm appear to accord with this; that he considers it proper that the city should be destroyed; and that he regards its overthrow as a righteous judgment, and as a thing to be desired in the divine administration. It is true that he might approve of such an overthrow, and see it to be right - he might describe the feelings of those by whom it would be done, their joy, their exultation, and even their barbarity, without himself approving of their barbarity, or sympathizing with their feelings, or partaking of their spirit; but still it cannot in fairness be denied that there is an apparent approval of the act here referred to, which savors more of imprecation than forgiveness, and which is apparently prompted more by the spirit of revenge than by a desire of just punishment. On this subject, however, see the General Introduction, Section 6 (4); and the notes at Psalms 109:10. A correct record may be made, whether of facts or of feelings, without any design of expressing either approbation or disapprobation on the part of the historian, the prophet, or the poet.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 137". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20