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“There can be no doubt whatever,” says Perowne, “as to the time when this Psalm was written. It expresses the feeling of an exile who has but just returned from the land of his captivity. In all probability the writer was a Levite, who had been carried away by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar when Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed, and who was one of the first, as soon as the edict of Cyrus was published, to return to Jerusalem. He is again in his own land. He sees again the old familiar scenes, the mountains and the valleys that his foot trod in youth are before him. The great landmarks are the same, and yet the change is terrible. The spoiler has been in his home, his vines and his fig-trees have been cut down, the house of his God is a heap of ruins. His heart is heavy with a sense of desolation, and bitter with the memory of wrong and insult from which he has but lately escaped.
“He takes his harp, the companion of his exile, the cherished relic of happier days,—the harp which he could not string at the bidding of his conquerors by the waters of Babylon; and now with faltering hand he sweeps the strings, first in low, plaintive, melancholy cadence pouring out his griefs, and then with a loud crash of wild and stormy music, answering to the wild and stormy numbers of his verse, he raises the pæan of vengeance over his foes.
“What a wonderful mixture is the Psalm of soft melancholy and fiery patriotism! The hand which wrote it must have known how to smite sharply with the sword, as well as how to tune his harp. The words are burning words of a heart breathing undying love to his country, undying hate to his foe. The poet is indeed—
“ ‘Dower’d with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,
The love of love.’ ”
PRECIOUS, YET SORROWFUL, RECOLLECTIONS
The poet here expresses the deep sorrow of Israel during their exile from the land of their fathers, and their solemn vow never to forget the holy city. No song of praise was heard amongst them, their harps were hung upon the willows, and their recollections of Zion filled them with sadness. Attracted by a common sympathy, a fellowship of suffering, they assembled in companies upon the banks of the Babylonian streams, and expressed their deep grief in sighs and tears. The scene is intensely poetic; it awakens our sympathy, and excites our imagination. But our business is to elicit its teachings.
I. They wept at the recollection of lost privileges. “We wept when we remembered Zion.”
1. Their tears express their patriotism. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” &c. (Psalms 137:5-6). We all know something of love of country. Whatever may be the natural, political, or moral characteristics of the country which gave us birth and education, there is none like unto it in heart attractions. In everything else it may be greatly surpassed by other countries; but in its hold upon our heart it stands unrivalled. “No power can sever our heart from the land of our birth.” But if a country be beautiful or sublime in its scenery, fertile in its soil, wise and liberal in its institutions and government, and rich in historical associations, then its hold upon the heart of its people is more intense and close. Thus stood the case in respect of the Jews and their country. To them there was no land like Canaan. It was a magnificent country, with grand old mountains towering sky-ward, and delicious plains fertile and flower-clad, and watered by delightful streams. “A good land, a land of brooks of water,” &c. (Deuteronomy 8:7-9). Moreover, it was sacred to them by immortal and precious memories,—memories of Abraham and Moses, Joshua and Samuel, David and Solomon, Elijah and Elisha,—memories of the glorious doings of God on behalf of their fathers. Well may these Jews love such a country. But this country they had lost; and these tears bewail their loss.
2. Their tears express their yearning for freedom. Once they were free under their glorious theocracy. But their freedom they had lost. They had lost their civil liberty, and were captives; their religious liberty, and were in the land of idolaters. Their tears expressed their sorrow for the loss of their liberty, and their longing for its recovery. Their tears expressing their yearning for liberty tell us that man was not made for bondage, that in proportion to the force and fulness of his manhood will be his unwillingness to submit to bondage in any form. In the same proportion he will feel the degradation and smart of the yoke of the oppressor, and pine and struggle for liberty. God made man to be free. Freedom is the birthright of man as man, and of every man.
3. Their tears express their love for the house of God and the ordinances of worship. The loss of their country and of their political privileges was great, and was deeply felt by them; but their spiritual deprivation in being sundered from Zion was a greater loss, and was more deeply felt by them. “We wept when we remembered Zion.” (On Zion and its associations, see Hom. Com. on Psalms 48:1-3; Psalms 76:2; Psalms 132:13-14.) Zion was inseparably connected with the supply of their spiritual requirements, and the development of their moral and religious nature. The loss of those things which tend to ennoble and develop our higher nature—our true self—is the greatest of all losses. Having those things upon which the growth and progress of our soul depend we are rich, though in other respects we may be as destitute as Lazarus: without those things we are abjectly poor, though in other respects we may be as rich as he at whose gate Lazarus was laid. These most costly things, these divinest things, the Jews had lost. From Zion, with all its sacred mementoes, and delightful associations, and divine ordinances, and religious privileges, they were ruthlessly torn. They had lost all. Country lost, liberty lost, the Temple lost, the manifestation of God lost,—all lost! Well may they weep! Two facts are suggested by this portion of our subject:—
(1.) True love is independent of bodily presence or nearness. When far removed from Zion the love of the captive Jew for the sacred place became not cold, but more fervent. Material distance cannot quench the holy flame. Moral distance is the only thing which can.
(2.) True love endures through time and all its changes. Seventy weary years of deprivation and sorrow failed to extinguish the love of the pious and patriotic Jew for Zion. Neither duration nor change can exhaust genuine affection: it is a growing and abiding thing.
II. They wept at the recollection of privileges which they had lost by reason of their non-appreciation of them. They were removed from their country and their home because of their sins. They were carried to Babylon in consequence of their neglect of Divine ordinances, their idolatry, rebellion against God, and spiritual apostacy. No people were more favoured, or were so favoured as they were. They had been warned, exhorted, entreated, encouraged, &c. (Comp. Jeremiah 7:25-26; Jeremiah 25:1-11.) They were thoughtless, disobedient, stiff-necked, determined to pursue their own course; and it led them to Babylon with all its sorrows. And now in the sufferings of exile they begin to consider, now recollection plays its part, now their eye is turned upon themselves, and reflection brings self-reproach and added sorrow. How painful must have been their recollections of Zion! Zion which they had neglected, dishonoured, despised; and from which they were justly exiled;—Zion which once in the beauty of its situation they had regarded as “the joy of the whole earth,” now ruined and desolated by their Pagan foes, the fertile vales of Palestine all dreary and neglected, the walls of Jerusalem levelled to the ground, the city destroyed, the Temple desecrated—painful, indeed, must have been their recollections! Yet, could they forget their country and Zion? Never! Recollection constantly led them there, and their sins rose darkly before them. When they had their privileges they failed to appreciate them, neglected them; when they lost them they saw their value. “The well is never prized until it is dry.”
Observe here three important facts—
1. We are prone to disparage the ordinary and regular blessings of life. We see this as regards the blessings of the kind and pious home, the Christian ministry and means of grace, the Bible, and even salvation and the Saviour. Familiarity engenders neglect.
2. The disparagement of these blessings is an ample cause for their withdrawal. The Jews disparaged their privileges, and for seventy years God withdrew from them some of His most precious gifts. Let those who neglect the familiar blessings of this Christian land and age be warned. God may withdraw His most precious gifts from you, &c.
3. Should these blessings be withdrawn their value would then be felt—be felt when it is too late. The privileges of Zion were valued by the Jews in Babylon; they were valued when lost.
“Like birds whose beauties languish, half concealed,
Till mounted on the wing, their glossy plumes
Expanded shine with azure, green, and gold;
How blessings brighten as they take their flight!”
Let us be wise and appreciate Heaven’s gifts while we have them.
What a solemn view of life this subject presents! Every circumstance and action of life by the operation of memory is endless in its influence. Memory eternalises the records of life. Memory makes the fleeting present everlasting. How important then is life! Do you love Zion? Are you wisely estimating and using your religious advantages and opportunities? Or are you penitently sorrowing at the recollections of the past? What opportunities neglected, blessings depreciated! &c. Thank God! the blessings are not yet withdrawn; salvation is still offered, &c. Look from the guilty past to Jesus for pardon and life. Then take your harp from the willows, and join in the song of the ransomed, “Unto Him that loved us,” &c. Our responsibilities are proportioned to our privileges. The Jews were banished from their Temple and country for neglecting their privileges. This was the most bitter ingredient in their sorrow by the rivers of Babylon. How great, then, are the responsibilities of the people of this land and age!
HARPS ON THE WILLOWS
This is a beautiful and pathetic picture of the captive Jews and their sorrows in the land of Babylon.…
And is not that a picture of many conditions of your human life? Sorrow has invaded our lives. We wander by the side of some Babylonian stream. We hang our harp upon the willow that bends above it. We weep when we remember the happier moments that have fled.
There are three things that we would learn from this picture of sorrow.
I. Every man has a harp.
The harp was the well-known instrument for the accompaniment of song. Its music was sweet and delightful. When calamity fell upon the nation their harps were silenced, &c.
And thus it is with all our lives. We have the elements of joy in them, the powers of song and gladness, and there is no man who has not the capacity and the occasion for delightful mirth.
1. Just think of the constitution of our nature, wherein a place is secured for joy. The body is attuned to pleasure. God might have made us with organisations fitted for life, for recreation, for intelligence and activity, and yet altogether without the capacity of experiencing pleasure. Consider the sense of hearing. Sounds might have been so indistinct that to hear would have required the constant exercise of attention, the strain of effort painful and wearying; or they might have been so powerful that a whisper would be shocking, whilst the natural speech of our friends would be like the explosion of cannon close to the ear. And yet how exquisitely has God harmonised the sound and the sense!
2. What a harp man possesses in physical nature if he would only let its music be heard. Every sight and sound, every scene and action, all things fair and good, bright and godly, are but fingers of Nature’s skilful hand, which will touch the strings of the harp of our being, and wake their perfect tones of rapture.
3. Man has the harp for pleasant accompaniment of happy song in the region of the immaterial and the intellectual. What delights there are in intellectual operations! The joy of learning—when it is indeed learning worthy of the name; the discovery of the unknown; the pursuit of the law which underlies obscure phenomena; the search for causes; the enumeration of effects—these and others afford keen and lasting delight.
4. The pleasure which belongs to the still higher sphere which we are privileged to enter. I forbear to pursue the delights of our soul in its affections—the raptures of home; the loves of children, &c. Let me now only remind you of that sacred melody which is attuned when the joys of the spirit are experienced. The sinner seeks his Saviour, and finds the pardon of Father and of Friend. You remember the hour of forgiveness. Heaven’s clouds were cleared, the storm was bushed, the dread was dissipated, and a Father’s love received you through the mighty merits of a Saviour’s death. The best music of all the Christian poets falls far short of the rapture which dwells within the forgiven heart.
And with what language shall we tell of the occasions for harping that have occurred so often since the first forgiveness! Have there not been Bethels of a Divine covenanting, Horebs of refreshment, and Red Sea passages of deliverance and triumph? Prayer has had its blessed answers, and meditation its holy raptures. Nothing but song could express our heightened feeling; and we felt as if angel-hands were sweeping the cords of our harp of life, and making the glad accompaniment to our joyous mood. (Comp. Isaiah 51:11.)
Remember, this harp must be tuned and practised on. And yet it is the last thing some Christians think of—tuning their harp. Let Zion re-echo with your songs.
II. But sometimes the harp has to be hung upon the willows. In the land of Babylon the Israelites had no heart to sing. Tears were the only out-pourings of which they were capable. And so it is with the harps of life. We have to lay them aside or hang them upon willows that droop over rivers of sadness, by whose banks we sit and wail.
1. It is thus when disease invades our bodies or sorrow smites the soul. Songs are not suitable to funerals, and harpings in the house of mourning are out of place and impertinent.
2. There are some silences still more profound that fall upon the music of our life. The father whose eldest son forswears his father’s faith, and throws away his father’s virtues, and wins only a name that will be a dishonour among men—such a father has little heart for harpings, and is, indeed, in a silent land of bitter exile.
3. And then how useless is the harp when we ourselves are in the hours of spiritual distress. God is absent, and we know no gladness till He shows His face again. They sang a hymn when the Master was among them, even though when they rose from the supper it was to pass to Gethsemane, and Pilate’s bar, and Calvary. But their hearts had no desire for singing in the suspense and numb agony of the hour when the Christ lay dead. And so it is with the Christian still, &c.
III. But though there is no heart or place for song, and the harp must be laid aside, it needs not to be cast away.
They had been foolish and wicked men of Israel if they had flung their harps beneath the running river, and thus deprived themselves altogether of the means of melody when the days of joy came back again. (See Ezra 3:9-13.)
So, brethren, cast not away your harp. The weather will clear and the soul will awake to gladness when the sunshine comes.
And the sickness will depart, and the strengthened frame shall recover its wonted sense of health and vigour. Not always the darkened room, &c.
Yea, and there shall be some hours of gladness even for the wailing weary heart that sickens over the sinfulness of child and friend. It was a sad home when the prodigal was far away. But one day the father saw the returning son, ragged, worn, and disgraced, and that night there was music and dancing in the long silent homestead. Keep your harp, my friend, &c.
And thou, too, depressed and cast down Christian, throw not away thy harp. There shall be peace and joy and fulness of blessing yet for thee. God shall show Himself, and Christ will yet return.
The time when the harp shall be needed may not come until the moment of death. A life of sorrow, doubt, or conflict may not have one hour of leisure or delight, and only swan-like can be the song; and yet, then the harp will be needed, though only one chord may be struck from it upon earth—its strains sounding amid the music of heaven. Then, for all a harp will be gained, for all shall sing the new song of Moses and the Lamb.—Ll. D. Bevan, LL.B.
THE DIFFICULTY OF SINGING SONGS IN EXILE
I. What the world is to the Christian. “A strange land.” Like Babylon to the Israelites. There they had many comforts; for God “made them to be pitied of all those that carried them captives.” They were treated more like colonists than captives; and many of them grew wealthy and were even loth to return. But it was not their home. What Babylon was to Israel such is the present evil world to the Christian. Like a man born in a cottage, the son of a prince, to whom a rich inheritance belongs in another country, when he comes to know the secret of his birth, the rank he sustains, and the possessions that belong to him; then that which was his home ceases to be so, and he longs to cross the river, or climb the mountain, or set sail for his true country: so it is with the Christian who, though born a worldling, and once satisfied with his portion, now learns the secret of his true and nobler birth. Many of the sons of the captives were born in Babylon; but, having the heart of an Israelite, felt it not a home: it was “a strange land” to them.
On earth the Christian feels himself to be an exile—distant from his Father’s home—distant from near and beloved connections and friends who have got home before him. True, he has many comforts, &c. But still this is not his rest; not his birthplace; not the condition for which his faculties and affections were originally designed. There are times in which his hope is full of immortality, and he has bright glimpses of the better country in his hours of faith and devotion; and then he feels indeed a stranger and a pilgrim; he spurns the yoke; he mourns the chain; and, like a captive minstrel, hangs his harp upon the willows, and cries, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove,” &c.
II. Whence arises the difficulty of singing the Lord’s song in a world like this? It may be done; it is important that it should be done; provisions are made for doing it, for they had harps and they had the subject of their song, just as Christians have now the means, the materials, and the elements of their spiritual joy. Yet there are obstructions to the full enjoyment of the peace which the Gospel brings. Whence arises the hindrance?
1. From want of sympathy in those around us Their oppressors did not ask for the song from love to the religion, or sympathy with the captives, but to add insult to their misery by holding up their religion to contempt, and mocking at the hope and promise it contained. Here we admire the captives. They did not forget to take their harps with them to Babylon. They did not refuse to sing because they were ashamed of their religion, or would make a secret of it. They did not hide their harps, as if they were afraid of their avowal; and they did not break their harps, as if they were abandoned to despair; but they hung them upon the willows in sight of the foe, and only refused to sing because the company was uncongenial.
And is it not so still? Are not the peace and happiness of the children of Zion grievously diminished by the uncongenial society with which they are called to mingle—sometimes in their own families, when a believing wife is yoked to an unbelieving husband, or a religious husband to an irreligious wife? “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). How much less can two sing together? When Christians mingle with irreligious persons in the same house, the same shop, the same workroom, &c.
2. From the pressure of outward trial and of mental grief. I know that all the troubles of the wilderness ought not to put us out of tune for singing the songs of Zion; but they sometimes do. We have often observed a counter-effect produced for a season by the calamities of life—that whereas they are both designed and adapted to lead us at once and directly to God, yet under the first and immediate pressure an opposite effect is produced, till principle has time to rally and grace obtains her triumph. The cup intoxicates; the blow stuns. David expresses this in Psalms 60:3.
But even then the Christian does not break his harp: he only suspends it; and if he cannot find a song, he will at least hush the breath of murmuring and complaint. David corrects his despondency, and at the very worst anticipates brighter times (Psalms 42:11). Yet the Lord Jesus anticipates even His sufferings with a song (Matthew 26:30.)
3. Because our hearts are out of tune for the exercise. Under the consciousness of spiritual declension it is very difficult to “sing the Lord’s song.”
III. What answer shall be returned to the inquiry—“How shall we sing the Lord’s song”? &c.
1. If you would sing the Lord’s song in adversity, make yourself well acquainted with it in prosperity. It is bad to have our comforts to seek when we want to enjoy them; our anchor to provide when we want to use it; our song to learn, &c. (Isaiah 12:1).
2. Live close to God, and exercise renewed acts of faith in Christ. Retrace your steps if you have wandered. “Repent, and do thy first works.”
3. Be much in prayer. “Open Thou my lips,” &c.
4. Honour the work and agency of the Holy Spirit.—Samuel Thodey.
SONGS IN A STRANGE LAND
I. The Christian on earth is in a strange land—
1. As to his feelings.
2. As to his supplies.
3. As to his dangers.
II. The Christian on earth, although in a strange land, has songs—
1. Of gratitude.
2. Of penitence.
3. Of resignation.
4. Of hope.—George Brooks.
We have in these verses—
I. An important feature of the Divine government of the world. The designs of God are sometimes wrought out by wicked men, but this affords no excuse to such men, nor will it secure to them any exemption from the just consequences of their deeds. In the Babylonish captivity this is strikingly exemplified. The Jews were carried into Babylon by the permission of God as a punishment for their many sins, particularly their idolatry. And in one respect, at least, the captivity accomplished its purpose; for the Jews have never since relapsed into idolatry. So far the Babylonians did the work of God. But they did it unintentionally, unconsciously. They had no thought of working out the purposes of God in so doing, but simply of fulfilling their own proud and lawless designs. The captivity was overruled by God for the accomplishment of His designs, yet on the part of Babylon it was unjustifiable and wicked. And did she go unpunished? No. The hour of retribution struck, the strange fingers appeared in the royal banquet hall, the letters of doom with appalling distinctness and mystery were inscribed upon the wall, the enemy even then was close upon the city: “in that night was Belshazzar king of the Chaldeans slain,” and Babylon, “the lady of kingdoms,” was a kingdom no longer. We see the same principle in operation in the life of Joseph (Genesis 50:20; Psalms 76:10).
How magnificent is this aspect of the Divine government! All things in the universe are under the control of the Almighty, and the most malignant powers are used for the accomplishment of His glorious purposes. There is no real triumph of falsehood and evil. Their victories are only brief appearances. All things in the universe are aiding to enthrone the True and the Good.
II. A cry for retribution. “Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom,” &c. “Deepest of all,” says Dean Stanley, “was the indignation roused by the sight of the nearest of kin, the race of Esau, often allied to Judah, often independent, now bound by the closest union with the power that was truly the common enemy of both. There was an intoxication of delight in the wild Edomite chiefs, as at each successive stroke against the venerable walls they shouted, ‘Down with it! down with it! even to the ground!’ They stood in the passes to interrupt the escape of those who would have fled down to the Jordan valley; they betrayed the fugitives; they indulged in their barbarous revels on the Temple hill. Long and loud has been the wail of execration which has gone up from the Jewish nation against Edom. It is the one imprecation which breaks forth from the Lamentations of Jeremiah; it is the culmination of the fierce threats of Ezekiel; it is the sole purpose of the short, sharp cry of Obadiah; it is the bitterest drop in the sad recollections of the Israelite captives by the waters of Babylon; and the one warlike strain of the Evangelical Prophet is inspired by the hope that the Divine Conqueror should come knee deep in Idumean blood (Lamentations 4:21-22; Ezekiel 25:12-14; Obadiah 1:1-21; Jeremiah 49:7-22; Isaiah 63:1-4).”
This cry to the Lord for retribution to Edom implies—
1. The existence of the sense of justice in the human soul.
2. Belief in the righteous government of God.
3. Belief in the efficacy of prayer to God.
III. An illustration of the nature of retribution. “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.” Margin: “That recompenseth unto thee thy deed which thou didst to us.” Perowne, literally: “The requital wherewith thou hast requited us.” “Agreeably to His justice,” says Tholuck, “God exercises the justalionis. Justice is elastic; the unjust blow I inflict upon another, by the order of the moral world, recoils upon myself.” (Comp. Judges 1:6-7; Jeremiah 51:54-56.) “God has undertaken,” says Bushnell, “to dispense justice by a law of natural consequence. He has connected thus, with our moral and physical nature, a law of reaction, by which any wrong of thought, feeling, disposition, or act, provokes a retribution exactly fitted to it, and to the desert of it. And this law is just like every law of natural order, inviolable, not subject to suspension, or discontinuance, even by miracle itself. And justice is, in this view, a fixed principle of order, as truly as the laws of the heavenly bodies.”
IV. The desire for retribution is prone to develop into vindictiveness towards those who have injured us. “Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock.” In ancient warfare the indiscriminate slaughter of persons of all ages and of both sexes was common. Perhaps the Psalmist in this utterance “only acts as a Divine herald to confirm former predictions.” As a matter of fact Cyrus, the conqueror of Babylon, is reckoned amongst the heroes of history. But “there is great need to have the heart well guarded with the fear of God, for, otherwise to allow the dashing of little ones against the stones, might make a man guilty of savage cruelty.” Guard earnestly against a vindictive spirit.
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”—Shakespeare.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 137". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter