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The constancy of the Jews in captivity. The prophet curseth Edom and Babel.
THIS melancholy song, says Mr. Mudge, was composed by one of the captives, just upon their coming to Babylon: In it the author remembers his country with great affection, and the enemies of it, particularly Edom and Babylon, with much sacred indignation. It has been thought that Jeremiah composed this psalm, and sent it to the captives of Babylon upon hearing of the scorn wherewith their insulting enemies treated them in that strange land; which, he here foretels, God would severely punish by the hands of some other cruel people, who would shew them as little mercy as they had shewn the Israelites. I should rather think for my own part, that the psalm was written by one of the captives on the spot, than by Jeremiah; and I cannot help favouring Mr. Bedford's idea, who supposes that the writer was the prophet Ezekiel; placing the date of it in the year 583 before Christ. See his Scrip. Chronol. p. 710.
Psalms 137:1. By the rivers of Babylon, &c.— They seem to be just then resting themselves after the fatigue of their captivity, when they were called upon to sing one of their country songs. This they refused and, instead of gratifying such an insulting request, hanged their harps upon the willows which grew in the province of Babylon. St. Chrysostom thinks, that, at the beginning of their captivity, the Jews were dispersed all along several rivers in the country, and not suffered to dwell in the towns of the province of Babylon. Bishop Patrick has followed him in this: and he supposes that the waters, or rivers of Babylon, are here mentioned as a circumstance which aggravated their distress; nay, it is supposed by some, that they were employed in draining the marshy parts of the country: But it seems more probable, that no part of their distress consisted in this circumstance, but in their reflecting upon Zion; indeed, their being seated by rivers of waters may equally well be considered as a circumstance in their favour. Mr. Johnson says, the captive Jews were obliged to dwell in the watery marshy parts of Babylon, and refers to Eze 1:1 to prove it. But Ezekiel only says, The word of the Lord came to him as he was among the captives by the river Chebar; and this river is thought by the best judges to be in Mesopotamia, the soil whereof being dry and sandy, the vicinity of a river must certainly be deemed an agreeable circumstance. This allowed, it seems to heighten the beauty of the psalm, if we imagine the person here speaking was endeavouring to amuse and divert himself, at least to soothe his melancholy with his instrument. But the reflection on the loss of Zion, cast such a damp over him, that he was obliged to desist from his purpose. He unstrung his harp; he laid it by as useless, while tears flowed from him instead of melody. In one word, the thought here appears to be much the same with that of Isaiah's in his prophetical description of this captivity, ch. Psalms 24:7-8. All the merry-hearted do sigh; the mirth of tabrets ceaseth; the noise of them that rejoice endeth; the joy of the harp ceaseth.
Psalms 137:3. And they that wasted us, &c.— Mudge renders this clause, And our destroyers' mirth.
Psalms 137:5-6. Let my right hand forget her cunning, &c.— There is nothing for her cunning in the original. The plain meaning is, "May my right hand forget to play upon the harp; may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, disenabling me from singing, if I prefer not, or according to the original, if I advance not Jerusalem in the beginning of my joy;" that is, "If again I sing any such festival songs, till that joyful day shall come, when I shall see Jerusalem and her holy solemnities restored."
Psalms 137:7. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom— "Who instead of pitying Jerusalem, as became neighbours and relations, were glad to see the day of its desolations." The time when God's judgments are executed, is frequently called, emphatically, the day. See Obadiah 1:12-13; Oba 1:15 and Psalms 37:13. The Edomites, who thus rejoiced at the desolations of Jerusalem, were the descendants of Esau. See Ezekiel 25:12. And for this their malicious joy, God's judgments came upon them. See Jeremiah 49:7; Jeremiah 49:39.
Psalms 137:8-9. O daughter of Babylon, &c.— O daughter of Babylon, the destroyed; [not Babylon the proud, as she now is; but Babylon the destroyed, for so she certainly shall be, when it comes to her turn;] How happy he that shall, &c. The sense is, "God will give a prosperous success to the Persians and Medes, against the Babylonians or Chaldeans." See Jeremiah 9:26. Isaiah 13:19; Isaiah 13:22. It has been objected, that the imprecations in these verses against Babylon do not well comport with God's directions to his captive people to pray for the peace of Babylon. Jeremiah 29:7. But here we must distinguish between the ordinary rule of practice and the extraordinary commissions 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 mean while the safety of the Jewish captives depended upon 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. Isaiah had prophesied of the destruction of Babylon above 150 years before, and in terms not unlike what we find in this psalm. He had said, chap. Isaiah 13:16. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes. The Psalmist further adds, that the instrument under God in punishing Babylon shall be happy; shall be blessed, and praised in his deed; as having done a glorious work in executing the divine justice upon her, and at the same time rescuing and delivering the people of God. This prophecy or denunciation was fulfilled, as we remarked, by the Medes and Persians, under the conduct of Cyrus the servant and chosen of God: and now what harm could there be in the Psalmist's presignifying in a pathetic style these high and marvellous things?
Certainly the ordinary rule to go by is, Bless, and curse not; a rule so sacred, that men are effectually tied up from all cursings of their own; and have no power left in that case, except it be to declare God's curses, and those general only, or in the very words of Scripture. See Numbers 23:8. As to any thing more special, God seems to have reserved it to his own special directions; which have ceased long ago, ever since prophesies have ceased. See Waterland's Script. Vind. part 3: p. 28.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, This psalm is the composition of a mournful muse; and while we meditate thereon, scarcely can the sympathetic heart forbear to mingle her tears with those of the afflicted captives. We have,
1. Their mournful condition. By the rivers of Babylon, far from the gates of Zion, under a heavy yoke, either employed in servile labours near these streams, or stealing thither sadly to muse on their wretched state, we sat down, yea we wept, indulging their melancholy reflections, and swelling the torrent with their tears, when we remembered thee, O Zion; Zion, Zion, arose before their eyes, her palaces in smoky ruins lay, her temple in heaps, her altars overturned, her sacrifices ceased, and sullen silence reigned in the once-thronged gates: such desolations pierced their hearts with anguish, while deep reflection on their sins, the cause of all, called forth still bitterer sorrows; their instruments of music on willows hung neglected by, their hearts untuned, their harps unstrung, and all their songs turned into sighs and groans.
2. Their oppressors insulted over them; not content with plundering their substance, and enslaving their persons, they required songs from their heavy hearts; and, scoffing at the songs of Zion, would turn these sacred services into profane mirth. Note; (1.) It is doubly cruel to insult the afflicted. (2.) The songs of Zion have often been the butt of scoffers' wit; but God is not mocked, he is jealous and avengeth.
3. Their reply. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? These sacred songs ill-suited the company of the profane; nor ought these holy things to be given to dogs; better exasperate their masters by a refusal, than anger their God by sinful compliance.
4. Their rooted affection to Jerusalem. Deeply engraven on their hearts, nor time, nor distance, banished the loved image from their thoughts; they longed to be there, they hoped the time was near, and ceaseless thitherward directed their faces and their prayers; they preferred it to their chief joy; all personal prosperity and comfort were nothing so near or dear to them as the interest of Zion: much rather therefore did they wish to forget their skill in music, or that their withered arm might shrink, and their tongue cleave to the roof of their mouth, than forget the city of their solemnities, cease to remember her with honour and delight, or dare by base compliances to entertain the sons of Babylon, or serve their gods, with Zion's sacred music. Note; (1.) The interests of Christ's church and kingdom will be ever dearer to his people than their own. (2.) When the path of duty is clear, however dangerous, we are called to steadfast adherence to it; better lose our limbs or life than lose our souls.
2nd, Not revenge, but zeal for God's glory, dictates these desires.
1. Edom's malice in the day of Jerusalem's affliction was cruel; they sharpened the Chaldeans' fury, and wished them to rase the city and temple to their foundations: for this, a complaint is lodged against them with that God who is the avenger of his people's wrongs, and they shall not go unpunished. The persecutors of God's people will assuredly be reckoned with, and every hard speech against them be remembered in the day of recompence.
2. The doom of Babylon is read. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; such is the divine decree, and nothing can prevent its execution: happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us; as Cyrus did, when, executing the counsels of God, he entered that devoted city, and retaliated on them the cruelty they had shewn their captives. Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth the little ones against the stones; and as Babylon thus fell of old, Babylon mystical shall meet the same destruction from the righteous judgment of God, and all antichristian oppressors of God's church and people sink as a millstone cast into the sea, and never rise up again.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Psalms 137". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent