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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 137

Psalms 137

The Psalm falls into three strophes, each of three verses. The two first represent Israel’s deep sorrow during the time of their exile from the Lord’s land, in which all joyful song was silent; for how could they well sing and rejoice themselves, at a distance from Zion, the city of their God, with which their whole soul was bound up. The third strophe invokes God’s anger upon the authors and instigators of such distress—in the first instance on the hostile, though nearly related people of Edom, then on Babylon, the immediate executrix of the destruction, which had now received the due recompense in her own destruction, but was still destined to receive heavier judgments.

The proper sentiment of the Psalm lies in the last strophe. The two first were only intended to introduce and assign the motive for the wishes and prayers expressed in it.

With the two preceding Psalms this forms a trilogy. Those were designed to inspire the hope of Israel’s salvation, this to awaken hope regarding the full execution of judgment upon the enemies, the delay of which would have been not less trying to Israel than that of their own salvation. Both points are very commonly combined together, in particular, in the prophecies of Zechariah, which, as the following investigation will show, were separated from this Psalm only by the space of a few years.

That the Psalm was sung after the return from Babylon, is evident from the words in Psalms 137:1-3, “we sat, we wept,” &c., comp. also in the, preceding Psalm, Psalms 136:23-24. But we are carried lower down still by another date, the reference to Babylon as the destroyed in Psalms 137:8. Although the first taking of Babylon, under Cyrus, laid the ground of its later complete ruin, yet there was still no destruction properly connected with it. Its walls and gates remained uninjured. It was at the second capture, by Darius Hystaspis, which was effected after a siege of twenty months, probably in the sixth year of Darius, hence eighteen years after the first (see Prideaux Connection B. iii.), that Babylon’s hundred gates were laid waste, and her lofty walls prostrated, and that women from other nations had to be brought in as into a depopulated city. It is to this event that the statement must refer. For it was this which properly formed the first and the last destruction. Afterwards the city, of itself, fell more and more, till it sank altogether; comp. Gesenius on Isaiah 1. p. 460.

We have, therefore, a period, before which the Psalm could not have been composed. But, on the other hand, we must continue to stand precisely at this period, and must not descend lower into the times after the exile. We have still before us here the generation that had been in exile. The expressions, indeed, “We sat, we wept,” are of themselves not decisive for that, but the whole tone of the Psalm shows, that the speakers are not such as knew of the exile merely by hearsay. The state of exile still appears vividly before the eye of the people, and in the foreground of their contemplations. Still fresh, and not obliterated by any later sufferings, is the thought of what had been suffered at the hands of Edom and Babylon; and these two, Edom and Babylon, have still not come to the lowest depth of misery, the divine justice has still farther to manifest its retributive dealings toward them. Finally, the general tone, so highly excited and confident, shows, that an event lay in the present—that, namely, to which the predicate: thou destroyed, points—through which the hope of the full execution of the judgment announced by the servants of the Lord was very powerfully quickened.

It is of importance, for the right understanding of this Psalm; as well as of the two preceding, that we should realize the position of things at the beginning of the government of Darius. For the ascertaining of this, it will be enough to quote what was said in the Christology on the vision of Zechariah, Zechariah 1:7-17: “That the angels are sent to spy out the condition of the earth, and that they return with the answer, that the whole earth is at rest, is designed to symbolize the thought, that it is now time for the accomplishment of the promises in favour of the covenant people, and the threatenings against their enemies. There reigned in the second year of Darius a general peace; all the nations of the former Chaldean kingdom enjoyed a peaceful and uninterrupted prosperity. Even the Babylonians had again well-nigh recovered from the disadvantages which the capture of their city by Cyrus had brought upon them; the city continued to be rich and prosperous. Judea alone, the seat of the people of God, presented a mournful aspect; the capital still lay for the most part in ruins; no protecting walls surrounded it; the building of the temple, which had been some months before recommenced, at the exhortation of Haggai, had hitherto been obstructed by difficulties, which the dispirited people despaired of being able to overcome; the number of inhabitants was but small, and the greatest portion of the land still lay waste. It required a large measure of faith, under such circumstances, not to doubt either the faithfulness of God to his word, or his omnipotence. His promises to the covenant people had only begun, and that in a small degree, to be fulfilled by their return; his predicted judgments upon Babylon extended farther than to a mere capture of the city, and even this beginning of their fulfilment had apparently ceased, since the city was continually regaining its former prosperity. To counteract the temptations which this state of things necessarily occasioned, and which were fitted to unnerve all theocratic energy, was the object of this prophecy.” In the sixth year of Darius the courage of the Israelites was raised by two circumstances; first, the successful termination of the temple-building, seventy years after its overthrow, the dedication of which was kept with joy, Ezra 6:16, then the conquest of Babylon, whereby its entire destruction, as foretold in prophecy, was brought much nearer, seventy years after the destruction of Jerusalem. These two events form the starting-point for this trilogy of Psalms. On the foundation of these does the joyful hope rise, which is expressed in them, respecting the prosperity of Israel, and the execution of judgment on the adversaries. This supposition of itself explains the buoyant and courageous tone by which these Psalms are distinguished from the melancholy and depression that appeared in the decade of Psalms which belong to the period when the building of the temple was interrupted (the nameless pilgrim-songs).

Verses 1-6

Ver. 1. By the water streams of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we thought upon Zion. Ver. 2. Upon the willows which are there we hung our harps. Ver. 3. For there they who held us captive desired of us words of song, and of our plundered ones joy: “Sing its songs of Zion.” Ver. 4. How could we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land. Ver. 5. If I forget thee, Jerusalem let my right hand forget, Ver. 6. Let my tongue cleave to my gums if I remember not thee, if I do not raise Jerusalem to the top of my joy.

That Babylon, Psalms 137:1, is not the city, but the kingdom, appears from Psalms 137:2. The streams of Babel are the Euphrates and Tigris, the Chaboras, in the neighbourhood of which the colony resided, in which Ezekiel laboured, the Ulai or Eulaeus, Daniel 8:2. The question: why did they sit beside the streams, must neither be disposed of by the remark, that Babylon was a land rich in streams, for it was not this to such an extent that it could simply have been designated from its streams; nor must it be answered by mere conjectures of one kind and another, without any proper ground existing for them in the context. The peculiar reason for the children of Israel being represented as sitting at the streams is the weeping. An internal reference of the weeping to the streams, must therefore have been what gave rise to the representation of the sitting. Nor is this reference difficult to be discovered. All languages know of brooks, or streams of tears, comp., in scripture, Lamentations 2:18, “Let tears run down like a river day and night,” Lamentations 3:48; also Job 28:11, where inversely the gushing of the floods is called weeping. The children of Israel placed themselves beside the streams of Babel because they saw in them the image and symbol of their floods of tears. To a certain extent Daniel 8:2, Daniel 10:4, are analogous, as, according to them, Daniel had his vision in great streams, for the ground there also lies, in an internal respect, which the place of abode has to what moves his soul: the great waters are to him—corresponding to the sea in Daniel 7:2—the symbol of masses of people, with the commotion and conflict of which his soul was occupied; comp. on Psalms 46:3, Psalms 93. On the other hand, the passages so often brought into comparison here, of Ezekiel 1:1, Ezekiel 3:15, are not similar. For the Chaboras does not come there specially into consideration as the place of prophecy, but the mention of it serves only as a geographical description of the dwelling-place of those among whom the prophet laboured. The שם gives prominence to the place of sojourn. The remembering of Zion is no patriotical one in the ordinary sense; it comes into view, not so much as the civil as the spiritual capital of the people—as the place where the Lord dwelt with his people. To be separated from Zion was to be separated from God, the source of all life and all joy; comp. on Psalms 42, 43. How could they avoid weeping, who were shut out of his holy fellowship? God lost, all lost.

The willows, in Psalms 137:2, are mentioned in connection with the streams. The suff. in בתוכה points to Babylon. The harps are brought into notice as accompaniments of joyful song. (Michaelis: Cithararum olim in soleninioribus gaudiis usus erat, Genesis 31:27; 1 Samuel 10:5; 2 Samuel 6:5; unde earum cessatio ingentem et publicum luctum describit, Isaiah 24:8; Ezekiel 27:13; Revelation 18:22; Job 30:31; Lamentations 5:15.) The voice of joyful song must remain silent out of Zion, because there only could the church enjoy nearness to her God, this joy forms the condition of every other joy. Whoever robs her of that must henceforth speak no more to her of joy. It sounds like bitter contumely, though it should be meant for good.

The often tortured כי , in Psalms 137:3, is not to be limited to the subject of this verse, but extends to Psalms 137:3-6, in the relation they bear to Psalms 137:2: We let our harps repose, for our oppressors desire, indeed, a song from us and music, but we declined giving then it. The שיר even of itself means, not song in general, but song of joy or praise; comp. on Psalms 42:8, Psalms 83 supers. Here the more exact import is further determined by the שמחח , joy. The cheerful songs are meant which were sung at Zion especially during the feasts. The desiring of such songs is not to be considered as “a scornful demand of the rude conquerors, for the purpose of making sport to themselves.” For, in that case, why should they have desired precisely cheerful songs, joy? Plaintive songs would have been still better suited to the purpose; and in the answer no respect is had to such a bad design; this thought alone is brought distinctly out in it, that away from Zion they could not sing and enjoy themselves. The desire rather proceeds from the wish, that the Israelites might reconcile themselves to their lot, that they would forget the old and true Zion, which the enemy had taken from them, and would not restore, and would in their imaginations find a new one in Babylon, would feel at home in the land of their banishment. Let one compare how the King of Assyria sought to make the bitter exile sweet to Israel in Isaiah 36:17. The תולל is the Chal. form for שולל . This always signifies plundered, imprisoned, comp. at Psalms 76:5, also Micah 1:8, where the prophet typifies beforehand the fate of the people as led away into captivity—comp. גלו in Ps 137:16. How impossible it is to explain the word here satisfactorily, so long as one proceeds on the groundless supposition, that it as an active signification, is clear from this alone, that not one of all the attempts of this kind have been able to attain to general acceptance. The expressions, “they who held us captive,” and “our plundered,” point to the absurdity of the demand, since they desired what their own conduct had rendered it impossible to give. It was not otherwise than if a person should insist upon another singing, whose throat he had already gagged.

Psalms 137:4-6 contain the answer to the demand of the sons of Babylon, though not addressed to these themselves. We are to supply: But we said. The song of the Lord, Psalms 137:4, the joyful, as the Babylonians had desired it, in the foreign land, where it rather becomes us to weep, than to sing, as it would imply a renunciation of Zion as our proper spiritual home. The reason for the refusal is given still more plainly in Psalms 137:5-6: to sing and rejoice in the foreign land were a shameful forgetting of Zion. Accordingly interpretations of this sort: such conduct would have been a culpable desecration, are at once to be rejected. No trace also is to be found of such superstition. The Israelites certainly often sung their sacred songs (only not joyful ones) in the foreign land, and an entire series of them was even composed there.

To the words in Psalms 137:5: let my right hand forget, something must be supplied from the context. We are not, therefore, to explain this: let it forget me, which besides affords no good sense; but rather, the playing on the stringed instrument, Psalms 137:2, for of this, whether the right hand should be applied to the purpose or not, was the point in question. Then, the punishment also perfectly accords with the misdeed, as in Job 31:22: If I, misapplying my right hand to the playing of joyful strains on my instrument, forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand, as a punishment, forget the noble art; and then also Psalms 137:6 fits admirably to what goes before: May my misemployed hand lose its capacity to play, and my tongue, misemployed in singing cheerful songs, its capacity to sing.

The cleaving of the tongue to the gums, Psalms 137:6, as a mark of dead silence, is found also in Job 29:10. If I remember thee not, singing joyful melodies. The head or summit of joy is, as it were, the chamber, in which Jerusalem was entertained. As to the sense, it formed itself the top, comp. Isaiah 2:2. Some give a constrained meaning: if I do not set Jerusalem higher than my highest joy; ראש the sense of the best, for worst.

Verses 7-9

Ver. 7. Remember, Lord, to the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who then said: clean off, clean of even to the ground for it. Ver. 8. Daughter of Babylon, thou destroyed one, happy for him, who recompenses to thee thy gifts, which thou has given us. Ver. 9. Happy for him, who takes thy little children and dashes them on the stone.

In respect to the malicious joy of Edom at the destruction of Jerusalem, and its punishment, see the prophecy of Obadiah, Lamentations 4:21-22, Jeremiah 49:7-22, Ezekiel 25:12, ss, Their hatred was the more deserving of recompense, because they were connected by a near tie with Israel. The Lord has now remembered to them for a longtime the day of Jerusalem: they have disappeared without leaving a trace behind. The Psalmist only prays for that which the Lord had often declared was to be done, what lay grounded in the eternal laws of the recompensing divine righteousness. (Calvin: “It is to be noted, that the prophet does not here rashly break out into curses and threats, but that he only acts as a divine herald to confirm former predictions.

Now, by the impulse of the spirit, he prays God, that he would show in reality that the prediction had not been uttered in vain. And when he says, Remember Jehovah, he calls the promise to the recollection of the pious, that persuaded of God’s acting the part of an avenger, they would calmly and patiently wait for the issue.”) The Pi. of ערה properly, to strip bare. The expression seems to be taken from Habakkuk 3:13.

In regard to the proper author of Israel’s misery and distress, Babylon (comp. in reference to the: daughter of Babylon, on Psalms 45:12), the Psalmist points through the predicate: thou destroyed, to the circumstance, that the beginning of God’s vengeance had already laid hold of her, and connects therewith the wish for its completion. At the end of Psalms 137:8 a double point of reflection presents itself. The dashing of the children is the recompense for the gifts, which they had given Israel, and which, according to the eternal laws of divine retribution, must necessarily return upon the giver—comp. Isaiah 13:16; for the very thing they had one to Israel, they afterwards practised before the eyes of the Palmist, with inhuman barbarity among themselves, not sparing those who were nearest and dearest to them. [Note: Prideaux Connect on B. iii.: “To make their provisions last the longer, they agreed to cut off all un necessary mouths among them; and therefore drawing together all the women and children, they strangled them all, &c.”] Instead of finding fault with the writer, we should rather be edified by his energetic acknowledgment of the divine retributive righteousness, which is also taught, precisely as here, by our Lord in Matthew 7:2. For what is said here is only an individualizing of the sentiment uttered there: “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” The most tender human compassion is not excluded by this mode of contemplation. שדודה has been greatly tortured, but it can only signify: thou destroyed—not thou spoiler, nor thou to be spoiled; and it refers only to a desolation that had already taken place; not: which I in spirit see as already spoiled, for had that been the meaning, it would have been more pointedly marked. Upon גמל , see on Psalms 7:4.

We have now in Psalms 138-145, a cycle of Davidic Psalms, called forth by David’s reflection upon the promise in 2 Samuel 7, and by the anxiety, which filled him, regarding his posterity. In them he accompanies his offspring through their future history, and presents to them the anchor of safety in the storms, which he knew from his own experience certainly awaited them. We have here a prophetic legacy of David, corresponding to his last words in 2 Samuel 23. That these Psalms close the series of Davidic Psalms, is certainly not accidental, but is in unison with their internal character, and the time of their composition.

In Psalms 138, David sets the promise before the eyes of his family. In Psalms 139, he presents to their view, for their consolation and incitement, the all-present God. In Psalms 140, he brings still more closely to them the circumstances of danger that lay before them. In Psalms 141, he strengthens them against the internal dangers with which the external necessity threatened them. In Psalms 142, Psalms 143, he shows them how they were to sustain themselves, if matters came to an extremity with them. Psalms 144 forms the transition from the prayer-songs to the song of praise, with which in Psalms 145 the whole is concluded. There manifestly exists a correspondence between Psalms 138, the rejoicing on account of the promise of the Lord, and Psalms 145, the rejoicing on account of its fulfilment; the lamentations and prayers are inclosed by praise and thanksgivings.

The appropriateness and connection of these Psalms is acknowledged to some extent even by those who have deprived themselves of the vantage-ground of the superscriptions. Thus Ewald says of Psalms 140-143 : “a series of songs so similar in matter, and so much of one stamp, that one can hardly doubt that they were the production of the same poet.” Köster agrees and adds: “I take them for a supplement of the old Davidic songs. For in place of the liturgical expansive character of the preceding Psalms, we are here at once brought back to the lively alternation of feelings which prevailed in Psalms 3 ss.” Hitzig remarks on Psalms 140 : “The three following Psalms are of a quite similar kind, and appear to have been composed by one author much about the same time.”

Seventy-two Psalms of David have gone before. These eight bring up the entire number to eighty. We may perhaps regard Psalms 138 as the governing castle; and the remaining heptad as divided into three and four. The section would then be marked by the extended superscription of Psalms 142.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 137". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-137.html.