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Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Psalms 137

A.M. 3434. B.C. 570.

It is uncertain who was the author of this Psalm, but probably it was written by one of the captives, either just upon their coming to Babylon, or, at least, during the time of their continuance there. Herein the captives complain of the scoffs of their enemies, yet remember Jerusalem, and foresee the downfall of Babylon, Psalms 137:1-9 . The Psalm, says Dr. Horne, “admits of a beautiful and useful application to the state of Christians in this world, and their expected deliverance out of it.”

Verse 1

Psalms 137:1. By the rivers of Babylon Of the city, or rather of the territory of Babylon, in which there were many rivers, as Euphrates, which also was divided into several streams or rivulets, and Tigris, and others; there sat we down The usual posture of mourners, Ezra 9:4; Job 2:12; Isaiah 47:1; Isaiah 47:5. It is supposed by some, that they were employed in draining the marshy parts of the country; but it seems more probable, that their present distress did not arise from that circumstance, but from their reflecting on Zion, and their banishment from it: and that they seated themselves down by the rivers from choice, retiring thither from the noise and observation of their enemies, as they had opportunity, in order that they might unburden their oppressed minds before the Lord, and to one another. We wept when we remembered Zion He means, either their former enjoyments in Zion, which greatly aggravated their present misery, Lamentations 1:7, or Zion’s present desolation. “What an inexpressible pathos is there in these few words! How do they, at once, transport us to Babylon, and place before our eyes the mournful situation of the Israelitish captives! Driven from their native country, stripped of every comfort and convenience, in a strange land among idolaters, wearied and broken- hearted, they sit in silence by those hostile waters. Then the pleasant banks of Jordan present themselves to their imaginations; the towers of Salem rise to view; and the sad remembrance of much loved Zion causes tears to run down their cheeks!”

Verse 2

Psalms 137:2. We hanged our harps upon the willows, in the midst thereof. These are, not without great probability, supposed to be the words of some holy Levites, who had been accustomed to music, both vocal and instrumental, in the service of the temple. Harps are here put, by a synecdoche, for all instruments of music. It is further to be observed, that although the harp was used by the Greeks in mourning, yet it was used by the Hebrews in rejoicing, as is manifest from Genesis 31:27; 2 Chronicles 20:27-28; Psalms 43:4. This passage is to be understood, either, 1st, Figuratively, signifying only, that they abandoned all signs and means of comfort; or rather, 2d, Properly, as the songs are which the Babylonians required them to sing to their harps, Psalms 137:3. Upon the willows Which commonly grow upon the banks of rivers, as they did on the banks of the Euphrates, in such an abundance that from thence it is called the brook, or torrent, or river, (as נחל may be properly rendered,) of willows, Isaiah 15:7. Thus “the sincere penitent, like these captives, hath bidden adieu to mirth; his soul refuseth to be comforted with the comforts of Babylon; nor can he sing any more till pardon and restoration shall have enabled him to sing in the temple a song of praise and thanksgiving.”

Verse 3

Psalms 137:3. There they that carried us away Our new masters, who had made us their slaves, and carried us captives out of our own land; required of us a song דברי שׁיר , the words of a song: in the LXX., λογους ωδων , words of songs. They required us to entertain them with our music and singing. And they that wasted us Hebrew, ותוללינו , contumulatores nostri, they that laid us on heaps, namely, that laid Jerusalem and the temple in ruins, required of us mirth, שׁמחה , joy, or gladness; saying, Sing us of the songs (so it is in the Hebrew) of Zion Sing us some of those songs which were wont to be sung in the temple on occasions of public joy. This they required, probably partly out of curiosity, and partly by way of scoffing and insult over them and their temple and worship, not without “a tacit reflection on their God, who could not protect his favoured people against their enemies. Thus the faithful have been, and thus they will be insulted over in the day of their calamity.”

Verse 4

Psalms 137:4. How shall we sing the Lord’s song Those sacred songs which are appropriated to the worship of the true God in his temple, and are appointed by him to be sung only to his honour and in his service; in a strange land When we are banished from our own temple and country, and among those who are strangers and enemies to our God and his worship? How can you imagine that miserable slaves should be disposed to sing songs of joy? Or that we can frame our minds in the land where we are exiles, to sing those songs which recount the mercies of God unto us in our once flourishing country. How, indeed, says Dr. Horne, “could they tune their voices to festive and eucharistic strains, when God, by punishing them for their sins, called to mourning and weeping? But then Israel in Babylon foresaw a day of redemption; and so doth the church in the world; a day when she shall triumph, and her enemies shall lick the dust. No circumstances, therefore, should make us forget her and the promises concerning her.”

Verses 5-6

Psalms 137:5-6. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem If I do not retain a deep and sorrowful sense of thy desolations, though never so far removed from thee; or if I indulge myself in mirth and jollity, as if I had forgotten thee; let my right hand The hand chiefly used in playing on musical instruments, and in all other actions; forget her cunning That is, lose its skill of playing. In the Hebrew it is only, Let my right hand forget, without expressing what, to intimate the extent and generality of this wish; let it forget, or be disabled for every action, in which it was formerly used. If I do not remember thee With affection and sympathy, so as to damp my joys; let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth Become incapable of singing, speaking, or moving; if I prefer not Jerusalem, &c. If I do not value and desire Jerusalem’s prosperity more than all other delights, and consequently, if Jerusalem’s misery do not so deeply affect me as to hinder my delighting in any other thing. Hebrew, אם לא אלעה , literally, If I advance not Jerusalem in the beginning, or at the head, (as על ראשׁ properly signifies,) of my joy; that is, “if I again sing any such festive song till that joyful day shall come, when I shall see Jerusalem and her holy solemnities restored.” “The whole nation,” says Dr. Horne, “may be supposed, in these words, to declare as one man, that neither the afflictions nor the allurements of Babylon should efface from their minds the remembrance of Jerusalem, or prevent their looking forward to her future glorious restoration. If any temptation should induce them to employ their tongues and their hands in the service of Babel rather than that of Sion, they wish to lose the use of the former, and the skill of the latter.” Thus, “the thoughts and affections of true penitents, both in prosperity and adversity, are fixed upon their heavenly country and city: they had rather be deprived of their powers and faculties than of the will to use them aright; and the hope of glory hereafter to be revealed in the church is the flower and crown of their joy.”

Verse 7

Psalms 137:7 . Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom Their constant and inveterate enemies, who had no regard either to consanguinity or humanity, but, instead of pitying Jerusalem, as became kind neighbours and relations, were glad to see the day of its desolations; and encouraged their destroyers with their acclamations, saying, Rase it, rase it, &c. Hebrew, ערו ערו , make it bare, empty it, or lay it flat, even to the foundation thereof, or the ground on which it stands. Edom is charged with this unnatural behaviour, and threatened for it by God himself in the prophecy of Obadiah, Obadiah 1:10, and for it God’s judgments came upon them, as it was here foretold they should do.

Verses 8-9

Psalms 137:8-9. O daughter of Babylon By which he understands the city and empire of Babylon, and the people thereof, who art to be destroyed Who by God’s righteous and irrevocable sentence, art devoted to certain destruction, and whose destruction is particularly and circumstantially foretold by God’s holy prophets. For the subject of these two verses is the same with that of many chapters in Isaiah and Jeremiah; namely, the vengeance of Heaven executed upon Babylon by Cyrus, raised up to be king of the Medes and Persians for that purpose. Happy shall he be He shall be blessed and praised in his deed, as having done a glorious work in executing the divine justice upon Babylon, and at the same time, as an instrument in God’s hand, rescuing and delivering the people of God. Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones, &c. That retaliates upon thee the calamities thou didst bring upon us. It has been objected, that the imprecations, in these verses, against Babylon, do not well comport with God’s directions to his captive people, Jeremiah 29:7, to pray for the peace of Babylon. But here we must distinguish between the ordinary rule of practice and the extraordinary commission given to prophets. The psalmist was a prophet, and wrote by the special direction of the Holy Spirit; while the common people of Israel, and prophets also, in their private capacity, were to follow the ordinary rule of praying for those very enemies whose destruction was coming on, but in God’s own time. In the meanwhile the safety of the Jewish captives depended on the safety of Babylon, and was wrapped up in it; and so it concerned them, both in point of duty and interest, to submit peaceably and quietly to their new masters, and to pray for their prosperity: notwithstanding all which, they might justly hope for a deliverance at the seventy years’ end, and God might instruct his prophets to declare it before hand, together with the manner of it: “see Waterland’s Script. Vind., part 3. page 28. “The meaning of the words, happy shall he be,” says Dr. Horne, “is, He shall go on and prosper, for the Lord of hosts shall go with him, and fight his battles against the enemy and oppressor of his people, empowering him to recompense upon the Chaldeans the works of their hands, and to reward them as they served Israel. The slaughter of the very infants, mentioned in the last verse, is expressly predicted by Isaiah 13:16; Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished. The destruction was to be universal, sparing neither sex nor age. Terrible, but just, are thy judgments, O Lord! The fall of the mystical Babylon is described Revelation 18:0. in terms and phrases borrowed from this and other prophecies, relating primarily to the ancient city called by that name. Whoever will carefully read over the chapter referred to, with the three subsequent ones, concerning the triumph of Messiah, and the glory of the new Jerusalem, will be able to form proper ideas of the world and the church, and will know where to choose his portion.”

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Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 137". Benson's Commentary. 1857.