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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Psalms 137

We now come to the last series of psalms in which we find a retrospective of the tribes. Psalm 137 was written after the return of a remnant of Israel from Babylonian exile to the promised land. The God-fearing Jew looks back on that period and expresses his feelings about it.

Prophetically we see this in the Feast of Booths, the last feast of Leviticus 23. This feast points to the realm of peace. While living in the land, in this feast they commemorate the wilderness journey, including living in booths, which refers to their living in tents (Lev 23:43). In the same way, the remnant who returned from exile to the land under the leadership of Zerubbabel look back at the exile. So will the returned twelve tribes look back to their exile.

Verses 1-4

God’s People in Babylon


Psa 137:1 shows the circumstances under which the psalm was written and thereby makes clear the occasion for its writing. The psalmist writes the first four verses in the we-form. He represents all of the exiled people who had in their hearts an unceasing homesickness for Zion or Jerusalem.

Many of the exiles had adapted to life in Babylon and had no desire to return to Jerusalem when the opportunity was offered. Only a small number of Jews went back. The prophet Jeremiah had encouraged them to settle there, however, not with the intention of living there forever, but until the time, which God had set for this discipline, would be over (Jer 29:4-7; 10).

The psalmist describes the fate of the exiles who had been taken away by King Nebuchadnezzar. They remember sitting by the rivers of Babylon (Eze 1:1; Eze 3:15). Destitute, exhausted and deeply sad, they rested, after the long walk from the promised land, by the many water channels of Babel. They gathered there with their fellow citizens and talked about Zion. When they thought about it, tears of sorrow came forth. Zion was the center of the earth for them. That was what their life was all about. That is where they went three times every year and experienced intense joy in the presence of God.

All expressions of joy had disappeared since they had been taken away as captives to this foreign land (Psa 137:2). There was no longer any reason to be joyful. After all, they could no longer go to Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts of the LORD. Therefore, they had “hung” their harps “upon the willows in the midst of it”. This refers to the Levites who were used to accompanying the songs of praise to the LORD’s glory in the temple in Jerusalem with their harps. But if there is no temple, then no songs can be sung and no accompaniment is needed. Then the harps can be hung upon the willows in Babylon.

Yes, those who held them captive wanted them to sing a song for them (Psa 137:3). They were to show joy to those who had subdued them. They were to entertain them by singing “one of the songs of Zion” to them. These are songs in which they sing that the LORD reigns as King from Zion, songs of the realm of peace, such as Psalm 93 (Psa 93:1-5).

At that time, the songs and reality contradicted each other. They were in exile. How then could they sing about Zion? As if it were only entertainment, while their whole heart was full of sorrow about what had happened to Zion. In fact, it is a harassing question from the soldiers who were guarding them to rub salt in the wound.

So their response was: “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psa 137:4). After all, it is impossible to combine: the foreign, heathen land, in which they were captives, and then expressing joy about the LORD, something that should be done in the temple in Zion. It’s not that they shouldn’t sing songs, but that they couldn’t sing because of the circumstances they were in. They would be violating their feelings.

It were songs of worship to the LORD. They could not sing these now, for they were far from God’s dwelling place in Jerusalem. They had to be sung in His presence in Jerusalem. There they could do so with the joy that was appropriate. If they did this in Babylon, where idols were served, it would seem that they had forgotten Zion and that they could also sing joyfully about the LORD here and that too to entertain their oppressors.

Verses 5-6

Jerusalem Is Unforgettable


The psalmist now becomes personal. After the use of “us” in the previous verses, he now speaks in the I-form. He exposes the deepest feelings of his soul. He does not speak to the soldiers who were guarding him, no, he now speaks personally directly to Jerusalem (Psa 137:5). No longer singing about Jerusalem is one thing, forgetting Jerusalem and not thinking about it is another.

The God-fearing makes it clear in strong terms how much his heart is devoted to Jerusalem. If it should ever happen that he forgets Jerusalem, then his right hand must wither and become powerless, so that he can never play the harp again. All he is saying is that it is impossible for him to forget Jerusalem.

In his thoughts, too, he is always occupied with Jerusalem (Psa 137:6). To think of Jerusalem means to experience the supreme joy. Jerusalem rises above everything that can make someone happy. If it should ever happen that he does not think about Jerusalem, then his tongue should cling to the roof of his mouth. Then he will never again be able to sing the beautiful songs about Zion and express himself about the LORD. All he means by this is that it is impossible for him not to think about Jerusalem. Jerusalem fills his heart and his mind. His whole life revolves around that city.

Verses 7-9

Call For Judgment on Edom and Babylon


Uttering curses on himself made it clear how much he loved Jerusalem. Then in Psa 137:7 he addresses the LORD regarding the Edomites, a brother people of the Israelites. The sons of Edom have a totally opposite view of Jerusalem and harbor totally opposite feelings toward that city. This was particularly evident “on the day of Jerusalem” i.e. the day of the fall of Jerusalem.

On that day, the Edomites, full of gloating, sided with those who destroyed Jerusalem (cf. Eze 25:12; Eze 35:5-15; Oba 1:10-12). As cheering spectators, they encouraged the destroyers with the words, “Raze it, raze it to its very foundation” (cf. Hab 3:13b). The faithful remnant says to the LORD to remember against the sons of Edom, by which they mean that He will repay the Edomites and judge them (Oba 1:15).

And then there is the “daughter of Babylon”, which are the Babylonians, the ruthless destroyers (Psa 137:8). The God-fearing addresses them on behalf of God. Certainly, they were a means in God’s hand to discipline His people because of their persistent sinning against Him. However, they went far beyond God’s limits of necessary discipline and in doing so committed a crime against God’s people. Their crime must be justly repaid. The God-fearing blesses him who will do this recompense.

The desire of Psa 137:9 sounds heartless, even inhuman, to the ears of the New Testament believer (cf. Isa 13:16; 18). Should innocent, defenseless children be seized and dashed against the rock? However, we must remember that this is a perfectly just recompense (cf. 2Kgs 8:12; Hos 13:16). It is a course of action that is consistent with the Old Testament rule of retribution according to the principle of “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth” (Exo 21:24; cf. Deu 7:10; Deu 32:35). In the future, Edom and Babylon will be totally destroyed (Oba 1:18, Isa 63:1-6; Isa 13:19-21; Isa 14:22).

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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Psalms 137". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/psalms-137.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.