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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 137

The preterit tense of the verbs “we sat,” “we wept,” “we hung our harps,” “they asked” us a song, etc., would indicate that the writer was not now in Babylon, but one of the recently returned exiles perhaps an aged Levite. This also coincides with his remembering “Zion” while in Babylon. Others, taking these evidences as indecisive, suppose the author is still in the bitterness of the captivity, and with this coincides the lament, “How shall we sing the song of Jehovah in a strange land?” and the solemn oath form, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem;” and especially the anathema of Babylon, (Psalms 137:8,) which does not suit the feelings of the Jews toward that people at the time of their liberation, (see on Psalms 126:2,) but well accords with the freshness of their sorrow in the early part of the captivity, and their degradation in the reign of Belshazzar. The eighth verse gives no definite clew to the date. See the note there. The vivid picture drawn, the lively grief, the tender memories of Jerusalem, and the unsparing vengeance denounced upon the pitiless enemies of his nation, indicate that the author had a living experience of the occurrences described. But he speaks from the heart of the nation, and from the standpoint of the theocracy as well. The psalm begins in a subdued, elegiac strain, but rises toward the close to the thunder tones of elevated and vengeful epic. On the harshness and vindictiveness of some of the expressions, see the notes, and Psalms 109:0. Its naturalness is wonderful. It is true to nature, true to the piety and patriotism of the Jewish character, true to the spirit of the age to which it belongs, and true to history. Its strophic divisions are three. Psalms 137:1-3, a reminiscence of the dishonour and sorrow of the captivity; Psalms 137:4-6, a solemn vow of affection and fealty to Jerusalem, as the earthly centre of all national and religious life; Psalms 137:7-9, an execration of the cruel enemies of the nation.

Verse 1

1. Rivers of Babylon Beside the Euphrates, Tigris, Chebar, (Chaboras,) (Ezekiel 1:1,) and Ulai, (Ulaeus,) near Susa, (Daniel 8:2; Daniel 8:16,) the vast plains of the Euphrates and Tigris were everywhere intersected with a network of canals, chiefly for irrigation.

We sat down The word may signify that they abode or dwelt there, or that they “sat down” for rest or conversation. It also indicates a habit of meeting, and that the captives were chiefly distributed throughout the rich province of Babylonia proper.

We wept… we remembered Zion An elegiac description of inimitable tenderness. The mention of these gatherings by the rivers seems to suggest that it was a custom, and Phillips supposes, that, as it was prior to the period of synagogues, they might nevertheless frequent such localities as suitable places for worship, and there, in the open air, perform divine service. Such an instance is recorded Acts 16:13; Acts 16:16. Hengstenberg thinks they met there to weep. Similar to this has been the Jewish custom, more or less regularly observed for fifteen hundred years, and regularly for about seven hundred years, of meeting at the “place of ‘wailing,” so called, by the southwest wall of the area of their ancient temple in Jerusalem, to bewail their ruined nation and altars.

Verse 2

2. We hanged our harps upon the willows The weeping willows, the Salix Babylonica of Linnaeus. They densely fringed the canals and artificial rivers of Babylonia. The ancient temple worship was joyful and attended with music, but these gatherings were with weeping, and their harps silent. The suspended harp was a symbol of mourning.

Verse 3

3. Required of us a song Urgently requested the words of a song. It does not appear that they enforced the request, but only pressed it earnestly. Neither is it necessary to suppose they made the request in derision, or to aggravate the sorrows of the captives. The Hebrew poetry was majestic and solemn, and their music earnest and reverent, superior to anything known to their heathen captors, who might naturally desire, on that account, to hear not only their music but the words of a song, as the Hebrew reads: and the Hebrew poetry, with its elevated themes, far surpassed all that heathen history or mythology could boast.

Verse 4

4. The Lord’s song in a strange land Jehovah’s song was the song that celebrated Him as king and in covenant with his people. The Hebrew psalms are highly national and theocratic, celebrating the great acts of Jehovah, and his love and faithfulness to his people. They were suited only to their national life, their temple worship, their faith and covenant. How, then, could they sing them when in captivity among the heathen?

Verses 5-6

5, 6. If I forget thee The form of language is that of an oath, and the forfeiture is terrible, (see note on Psalms 132:3,) while, as an outburst of patriotism and love for the national religion, it is sublime. The right hand and tongue are mentioned, not only as being chiefly employed in skilful music and song, but as among the distinguishing endowments of our being.

Verses 7-9

7-9. The bitter execrations of the enemies of Jerusalem follow the loving vows of remembrance.

Children of Edom That is, the Edomites, who, with the adjacent Syrian and Arabian nations, gladly assisted the army of Nebuchadnezzar in taking Jerusalem.

The day of Jerusalem The day of her downfall, for which see 2 Chronicles 36:11-21; Jeremiah 52:0.

Rase it, rase it Hebrew, Make bare, or, uncover; that is, utterly demolish the city walls and houses. This was the fierce battle cry of unsparing slaughter and rapine. Edom was conspicuous for cruelty among the nations represented in the army of Nebuchadnezzar. On their iniquity and their punishment see the prophecy of Obadiah.

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Verse 8

8. Daughter of Babylon A periphrasis for Babylonians, or the metropolitan cities of the empire. Who art to be destroyed. It is not certain whether the word “destroyed,” which is a passive participle, denotes indefinite future or an event impending, and in process of accomplishment. Gesenius: “ Soon to be destroyed, or perhaps we may regard the city as captured by Cyrus.” Furst:” Overtaken by violence.” Delitzsch: “ Wasted one.” Septuagint and Vulgate: “ Wretched.” Jerome:

Vastata.” The language is prophetic, and seems based upon such passages as Isaiah 13:19-22; Isaiah 21:9, Isaiah 21:10, 47, which see. The scene of Babylon’s catastrophe opened soon after the date of the psalm. Cyrus took Babylon B.C. 539, and removed the capital to Susa, on the eastern bank of the Choaspes, about forty miles southeasterly from Babylon, and left the city a province of the empire. Darius Hystaspes re-subjugated the revolted Babylonians twenty-three years after, removed the gates of the city, broke down its walls to one fourth their height, crucified 3,000 of its nobility, and left the city greatly humbled. In the beginning of the Christian era, Strabo says, “The vast city is a vast desert.”

Rewardeth thee as thou hast served us This is simply even justice, a vengeance yet to be literally inflicted on mystic Babylon (Antichrist) by eternal justice. See Revelation 18:6, where this same sentiment is advanced.

Verse 9

9. Dasheth thy little ones The barbarity of this expression, which, however, is to be understood as predictive, must be considered in connexion with the customs of war in there ages, and the fact that it is only parallel to the previous expression, “rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.” It was simply retributive justice, according to the custom of the times, and was fulfilled by the Babylonians themselves, when, to save provision at the siege by Darius Hystaspes, just mentioned, they put to death all useless persons, including all women and children in the city, except one wife for each man, and her maid. All the prophets who have spoken of Babylon’s fall have mentioned her cruelty to the Hebrews, and the corresponding severity of her own doom. See Isaiah 47:0; Jeremiah 51:0; Lamentations 5:10-13: and of Edom, Jeremiah 49:13-22; Lamentations 4:21-22, and Obadiah’s prophecy. On the Vindictive Psalms, see Psalms 109:0.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 137". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.