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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 137

Verses 1-9

Psalms 137:1-9

THE captivity is past, as the tenses in Psalms 137:1-3 show, and as is manifest from the very fact that its miseries have become themes for a psalm. Grief must be somewhat removed before it can be sung. But the strains of triumph heard in other psalms are wanting in this, which breathes passionate love for Jerusalem, tinged with sadness still. The date of the psalm is apparently the early days of the Return, when true-hearted patriots still felt the smart of recent bondage and sadly gazed on the dear ruins of the city. The singer passes in brief compass from tender music breathing plaintive remembrance of the captives’ lot, to passionate devotion, and at last to an outburst of vehement imprecation, magnificent in its fiery rush, amply explicable by Israel’s wrongs and Babylon’s crimes, and yet to be frankly acknowledged as moving on a lower plane of sentiment than is permissible to those who have learned to repay scorn with gentleness, hate with love, and injuries with desires for the injurer’s highest good. The coals of fire which this psalmist scatters among Israel’s foes are not those which Christ’s servants are bidden to heap on their enemies’ heads.

Nothing sweeter or sadder was ever written than that delicate, deeply felt picture of the exiles in the early verses of the psalm. We see them sitting, as too heavy-hearted for activity, and half noting, as adding to their grief, the unfamiliar landscape round them, with its innumerable canals, and the monotonous "willows" (rather, a species of poplar) stretching along their banks. How unlike this flat, tame fertility to the dear homeland, with its hills and glens and rushing streams! The psalmist was probably a Temple singer, but he did not find solace even in "the harp, his sole remaining joy." No doubt many of the exiles made themselves at home in captivity, but there were some more keenly sensitive or more devout, who found that it was better to remember Zion and weep than to enjoy Babylon. "Alas, alas! how much less it is to hold converse with others than to remember thee!" So they sat, like Michaelangelo’s brooding figure of Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel, silent, motionless, lost in bittersweet memories.

But there was another reason than their own sadness for hanging their idle harps upon the willows. Their coarse oppressors bade them sing to make mirth. They wished entertainment from the odd sounds of foreign music, or they were petulantly angry that such dumb hang-dog people should keep sullen faces, like unilluminated windows, when their masters were pleased to be merry. So, like tipsy revellers, they called out "Sing!" The request drove the iron deeper into sad hearts, for it came from those who had made the misery. They had led away the captives, and now they bid them make sport.

The word rendered plunderers is difficult. The translation adopted here is that of the LXX and others. It requires a slight alteration of reading, which is approved by Hupfeld (as an alternative), Perowne, Baethgen, Graetz, etc. Cheyne follows Halevy in preferring another conjectural alteration which gives "dancers" ("and of our dancers, festive glee"), but admits that the other view is "somewhat more natural." The roystering Babylonians did not care what kind of songs their slaves sang. Temple music would do as well as any other; but the devout psalmist and his fellows shrank from profaning the sacred songs that praised Jehovah by making them parts of a heathen banquet. Such sacrilege would have been like Belshazzar’s using the Temple vessels for his orgy. "Give not that which is holy to dogs." And the singers were not influenced by superstition, but by reverence, and by sadness, when they could not sing these songs in that strange land. No doubt it was a fact that the Temple music fell into desuetude during the Captivity. There are moods and there are scenes in which it is profanation to utter the deep music which may be sounding on perpetually in the heart. "Songs unheard" are sometimes not only "sweetest," but the truest worship.

The psalmist’s remembrances of Babylon are suddenly broken off. His heart burns as he broods on that past, and then lifts his eyes to see how forlorn and forgotten-like Jerusalem stands, as if appealing to her sons for help. A rush of emotion sweeps over him, and he breaks into a passion of vowed loyalty to the mother city. He has Jerusalem written on his heart. It is noteworthy that her remembrance was the exiles’ crown of sorrow; it now becomes the apex of the singer’s joy. No private occasion for gladness so moves the depths of a soul, smitten with the noble and ennobling love of the city of God, as does its prosperity. Alas that the so called citizens of the true city of God should have so tepid interest in its welfare, and be so much more keenly touched by individual than by public prosperity or adversity! Alas that so often they should neither weep when they remember its bondage nor exult in its advancement!

Psalms 137:5 b is emphatic by its incompleteness. "May my right hand forget!" What? Some word like "power," "cunning," or "movement" may be supplied. It would be as impossibly unnatural for the poet to forget Jerusalem as for his hand to forget to move or cease to be conscious of its connection with his body.

Psalms 137:6 d reads literally "Above the head of my joy": an expression which may either mean the summit of my joy-i.e., my greatest joy; or the sum of my joy-i.e., my whole joy. In either case the well-being of Jerusalem is the psalmist’s climax of gladness; and so utterly does he lose himself in the community founded by God, that all his springs of felicity are in her. He had chosen the better part. Unselfish gladness is the only lasting bliss; and only they drink of an unfailing river of pleasures whose chiefest delight lies in beholding and sharing in the rebuilding of God’s city on earth.

The lightning flashes of the last part of the psalm need little commenting. The desire for the destruction of Zion’s enemies, which they express, is not the highest mood of the loyal citizen of God’s city, and is to be fully recognised as not in accordance with Christian morality. But it has been most unfairly judged, as if it were nothing nobler than ferocious thirsting for vengeance. It is a great deal more. It is desire for retribution, heavy as the count of crimes which demands it is heavy. It is a solemn appeal to God to sweep away the enemies of Zion, who, in hating her, rebelled against Him. First, the psalmist turns to the treacherous kinsmen of Israel, the Edomites, who had, as Obadiah says, "rejoiced over the children of Judah in the days of their destruction," {Obadiah 1:12} and stimulated the work of rasing the city. Then the singer turns to Babylon, and salutes her as already laid waste; for he is a seer as well as a singer, and is so sure of the judgment to be accomplished that it is as good as done. The most repellent part of the imprecation, that which contemplates the dreadful destruction of tender infants, has its harshness somewhat softened by the fact that it is the echo of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Babylon, {Isaiah 13:16-18}, and still further by the consideration that the purpose of the apparently barbarous cruelty was to make an end of a "seed of evil-doers," whose continuance meant misery for wide lands.

Undoubtedly, the words are stern, and the temper they embody is harsh discord, when compared with the Christian spirit. But they are not the utterances of mere ferocious revenge. Rather they proclaim God’s judgments, not with the impassiveness, indeed, which best befits the executors of such terrible sentences, but still less with the malignant gratification of sanguinary vengeance which has been often attributed to them. Perhaps, if some of their modern critics had been under the yoke from which this psalmist has been delivered, they would have understood a little better how a good man of that age could rejoice that Babylon was fallen and all its race extirpated. Perhaps, it would do modern tender heartedness no harm to have a little more iron infused into its gentleness, and to lay to heart that the King of Peace must first be King of Righteousness, and that Destruction of evil is the complement of Preservation of Good.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 137". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".