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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Psalms 137

Verses 1-9

Psalms 137:0

1          By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,

When we remembered Zion.

2     We hanged our harps

Upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3     For there they that carried us away captive required of us

A song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,

Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

4     How shall we sing the Lord’s song

In a strange land?

5     If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,

Let my right hand forget her cunning.

6     If I do not remember thee,

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
If I prefer not Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

7     Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;

Who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

8     O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;

Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

9     Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones

Against the stones.


Contents and Composition.—The poetically-gifted author, at one time speaking in an elegiac, at another in an epic strain, begins with a mournful reminiscence of the occasion when the exiles were derisively invited by the inhabitants of Babylon to sing their devotional songs, and could only answer by silence (Psalms 137:1-3). He then makes the strongest assurances of his personal attachment to Jerusalem, which he ever loves in faithful remembrance and prefers to all joys (Psalms 137:4-6). Finally, he entreats the divine retributive judgment upon Babylon and Edom in a tone of threatening and imprecation (Psalms 137:7-9).

The time when this despite was endured seems still to remain in lively remembrance and to reach into the personal experience of the Psalmist (Venema and most); and there is no support for the assumption which connects the Psalm specially with the dedication of the Second Temple and the restoration of the sacred music (Rudinger), or for that which discovers (Hengstenberg) a more definite indication of the time in Psalms 137:8 (see the exposition). It would make the poem artificial to suppose that the longing of the exiles was introduced merely as the counterpart of that of the poet himself who lived in the Maccabæan age (Hitzig). The superscription: by David (Sept.), with the addition in some Greek versions: by Jeremiah, can be defended neither by the assumption of a prophetical poem of David representing the feelings of Jeremiah (Geier, J. H. Michaelis), nor by that of a composition by Jeremiah after the manner and model of David (Du Pin, et al.).

[Perowne says, that there can be no doubt whatever as to the time when the Psalm was composed. He then says; “It expresses the feeling of an exile who had but just returned from the land of his captivity. In all probability the writer was a Levite who had been carried away captive by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, . … and was one of the first, after the edict of Cyrus was published, to return to Jerusalem.” But for this specializing view he does not adduce the least evidence. Alexander rejects the opinion of Hengstenberg that the composition took place after the final destruction of Babylon by Darius Hystaspis. It is best to adhere to the general view mentioned above.—J. F. M.]

Psalms 137:1-2.—By the rivers of Babylon. Not only the capital city with the Euphrates and its canals are here brought into view, but the whole Babylonian territory, intersected everywhere by rivers and canals. Ezekiel also (Psalms 1:3) and Daniel (Psalms 8:2) experienced their prophetic visions on the banks of the Chaboras and Eulæus. These surroundings, moreover, suggested the image of the willows upon which the captives sorrowfully hung their harps. This expression, if not exactly a proverbial one (Geier, J. H. Michaelis) is, at all events, a poetical method of referring to the hushing of their joyful and festal songs, especially those in which the harp was employed (Genesis 31:27; 2 Samuel 6:5, and frequently in the Psalms), and whose silence indicated public misfortune and national grief (Isaiah 24:8; Ezekiel 26:13; Amos 5:23; Job 30:31; Lamentations 5:14 f). The silent and pensive sitting among the willows by the side of the gently-flowing stream is in admirable agreement with the feeling of home-sickness. There is no allusion to the situation of the Jewish houses of devotion placed near water for the sake of the ceremonial lustrations (Venema, et al.). [Alexander: “It has been objected that the willow is unknown in the region once called Babylonia, which is said to produce nothing but the palm-tree. Some avoid this difficulty by explaining the whole verse as metaphorical, hanging up the harps being a figure for renouncing music, and willows being suggested by the mention of streams, perhaps with some allusion to associations connected with this particular tree. It may also be observed, that extraordinary changes have taken place in the vegetable products, and especially the trees of certain countries. Thus the palm-tree, so frequently referred to in the Scriptures and so common once that cities were called after it, is now almost unknown in Palestine.”—Delitzsch: “The עֲרָבָה, whose boughs formed a part of the Lulab at the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40), is understood to mean the brook-willow, and in our passage there is scarcely such a close botanical distinction made, that the weeping-willow (salix babylonica) could not be included under this term.” Del. also states that in the lower, well-watered portions of Babylonia, the willow and viburnum are indigenous.—J. F. M.]

Psalms 137:3.—The grief occasioned by their lengthened sojourn as captives in a foreign land was heightened, on the one hand, by their oppressors insisting that they should strike up some one of their sacred songs, and, on the other, by the recollection of the blessings received in Jerusalem through these songs and the celebration of God’s worship generally. Nothing could supply their place as long as this celebration was inseparable from the Temple, and God was found there as His only dwelling-place on earth. The singing of sacred songs which were connected with the public worship of Jehovah (2 Chronicles 29:27, comp. 1 Chronicles 25:7), and therefore of a liturgical character, in a foreign country, was, however, not contrary to the Law, but, under the present circumstances, was opposed to religious and moral feelings. In Psalms 137:3 c joy [E. V. mirth] may, according to the parallelism, mean here the expression of joy (Geier), especially in hymns of praise (Sept.) and joyful songs (Rosenmüller, De Wette, Hengst.). But it may also denote merely the frame of mind inspiring such songs (Hupfeld). [The translation in E. V.: They that wasted us, follows the Sept, Chald. and Syr. The word is thus regarded as an Aramaic form. But no such form exists; the one most resembling it being shôlal, which has a passive meaning and שׁ instead of ת. It is therefore now usually taken from ילל, to howl, and translated: those who made us to cry out—our torturers. The second clause of the verse is in E. V. rendered simply: a song. The Hebr. is: the words of a song. Del.: “Words of the songs, as portions or fragments of the national treasure of song, like מִשִּׁיר farther on, which Rosenmüller correctly explains: sacrum aliquod carmen ex veteribus illis suis Sionicis.Psalms 137:5. Perowne:Forget. Probably there is an aposiopesis, or we may supply either, as E. V.: “her cunning,” i.e. her skill with the harp, or more generally “the power of motion.”—J. F. M.]

Psalms 137:6-7.—The head of my joy is the highest joy (Exodus 30:23; Song Song of Solomon 4:14). [Wordsworth literally: “If I advance not Jerusalem above the head of my joy. If I set not Jerusalem as a diadem upon the head of my rejoicing and crown all my happiness with it.” J. F. M.]—The Edomites were particularly active in the destruction of Jerusalem (Amos 1:11; Joel 4:19; Obadiah 1:10 f), for which they are threatened with the divine vengeance (Jeremiah 49:7 f; Lamentations 4:21 f; Ezekiel 25:12 f; Isaiah 34:0; Isaiah 63:1 f). As the kindred of Israel, they were still more odious to them than the Chaldæans were, and possibly for this reason are here mentioned before the latter (Hupfeld). [See Stanley, Jewish Church, ii., p. 556, quoted by Perowne. Psalms 137:7 a b should be rendered: Remember, Jehovah, for the children of Edom, the day of Jerusalem. The day, according to the common Oriental usage of the word, is the day of calamity.—J. F. M.]

Psalms 137:8.—Thou that art destroyed. It is not admissible to substitute for this rendering: thou who art to be destroyed (Theodotion, Amyrald, J. H. Michaelis, et al.), or: thou destroyer (Rosenm., De Wette), or: thou murderess (Hitzig). or: robber (Syr., Chald., Symmachus). The form, according to the existing pointing, is the pass. part., and therefore means: vastata (Jerome). From this it does not follow, that there is an allusion here to the second capture of Babylon by Darius (Hengst.), which was the only one that could be connected with a real destruction. For the object addressed is the daughter of Babel, i.e., her population, and the process of destruction, already begun, is represented in the following wish as still to be completed before the final destruction can take place. It is therefore also unsuitable to assume, with some expositors, that in this expression that event is prophetically represented as having actually taken place. It is threatened against the Babylonians in Isaiah 13:16 f, also, that their children shall be dashed to pieces. The custom was not unknown to antiquity generally, comp. Homer, Iliad 22:63; 24:732, nor to the Israelites (2 Kings 6:12; Hosea 10:14; Hosea 14:1; Nahum 3:10). No new generation is to be permitted to raise from her ruins the shattered world-power (Isaiah 14:21 f).


There is a sorrow which becomes the pious and is pleasing to God, even though the world does not understand it.—No earthly calamity, no worldly pleasure, no allurement of men, should make us forget that which we have received from God as members of His people, or what we have still to expect from Him, or what, for these reasons it is due to Him, to ourselves, and to the Church, that we should leave undone as well as perform.—It is well for us if we do not begin to prize and love the highest blessings of life only when we are in danger of losing them!

Starke: Remember your blessings with hearty thanksgiving to God while you have them, lest they be taken from you for your ingratitude.—Many a one hungers and thirsts in captivity for the nourishment of the Divine word, to whom it was once distasteful when he had more abundant opportunities of listening to it.—A true Christian cannot rightly ridicule the word of God, or quote sacred songs or Scripture phrases in jest.—A Christian cannot be truly joyful in this world, for here he is not at home, but in a strange land; his Fatherland is above, in heaven.—No place, no country, no tyrant, no imprisonment, no created object whatever can sever from Christ the citizen of the spiritual Zion.—Citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem, compared to which everything which this world can give is only a shadow, must be the chief joy of a believer.—God’s punishment awaits not only those who make actual assaults upon His Church, but also those who by counselling, conniving, and inciting, become partakers of other men’s sins.

Arndt: It is the highest joy and delight of a true Christian to know, to extol, and to praise God, and to be in the society and citizenship of the heavenly Jerusalem.—Frisch: We should ever have before our eyes the Lord of all Lords, and never let dishonor be done to His name.—Diedrich: He who loves only the new nature, hates the old, and wishes his destruction.—Taube: The deep sorrow of God’s people in Babylon; their ardent zeal of love for Zion; their holy zeal of vengeance against Edom and Babylon.

[Matt. Henry: It argues a base and sordid spirit to upbraid those who are in distress, either with their former joys or present griefs, or to challenge those to be merry whom we know are out of time for it; this is adding affliction to the afflicted.—We must not serve common mirth, much less profane mirth, with anything that is appropriated to God, who is sometimes to be honored by a religious silence as well as by religious speaking.—The destruction of Babylon: (1) a just destruction; (2) an utter destruction; (3) a destruction which should reflect honor upon the instruments of it.—The fall of the New Testament Babylon will be the triumph of all the saints.—Bp. Horne: The hope of a return to Thee is my only comfort in this vale of tears, where I am and will be a mourner until my captivity be brought back, and my sorrow be turned into joy.—Barnes: 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.—J. F. M.]

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 137". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.