Psalm 137 – The Mournful Song of the Exiles
Because this psalm is a remembrance of Babylon, many commentators believe it was written after the return from exile. It may also have been written many years into the exile.
A. Singing to the self.
1. (1-3) Mourning by Babylon’s rivers.
By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept
When we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps
Upon the willows in the midst of it.
For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song,
And those who plundered us requested mirth,
Saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
a. By the rivers of Babylon: This song of the exile puts us on the shore of one of Babylon’s mighty rivers, likely the Euphrates. Judea and the whole of Israel had no mighty river comparable to the Euphrates, so it would certainly make an impression upon the forced refugee from Judea to Babylonia.
i. Rivers of Babylon: “These might have been the Tigris and Euphrates, or their branches, or streams that flowed into them. In their captivity and dispersion, it was customary for the Jews to hold their religious meetings on the banks of rivers. Mention is made of this in Acts 16:13, where we find the Jews of Philippi resorting to a river side, where prayer was wont to be made.” (Clarke)
ii. Based on verse 1, Horne suggested this cry of mourning from a repentant one: “O Lord, I am an Israelite, exiled by my sins from thy holy city, and left here to mourn in this Babylon, the land of my captivity. Here I dwell in sorrow, by these transient waters, musing on the restless and unstable nature of earthly pleasures.”
b. There we sat down, yea, we wept: The immense rivers of Babylon said to the exiled one, you’re not home any more. As they remembered Zion, they wept.
· They wept over the death of so many loved ones.
· They wept over the loss of almost everything they owned.
· They wept over the destroyed city of Jerusalem and her great temple.
· They wept over the agony of a forced march from Judea to Babylon.
· They wept over the cruelty of their captors.
· They wept over the loss of such a pleasant and blessed past.
· They wept over the forced captivity of their present.
· They wept over the bleak nature of their future.
· They wept over their sin that invited such judgment from God.
i. “The English words are sad, even mournful, but the words have an even sadder sound in the Hebrew language. Verses 1-3, which lead up to and explain the pathetic question of verse 4, repeat nine times the pronoun ending nu (meaning ‘we’ or ‘our’), which sounds mournful. It is like crying ‘ohhh’ or ‘woe’ repeatedly.” (Boice)
c. We hung our harps upon the willows: The singer used poetic liberty to present a striking scene. Large willow trees grew on the shores of the great river, and because there were no songs left in these captives, they hung their harps on those willow trees.
i. “Many singers were carried captives: Ezra 2:41. These would of course take their instruments with them.” (Horne)
ii. “The arabim or willows were very plentiful in Babylon. The great quantity of them that were on the banks of the Euphrates caused Isaiah, Isaiah 15:7, to call it the brook or river of willows.” (Clarke)
iii. “We notice that although the exiles were unable to sing the songs of Zion in Babylon, they nevertheless did not break their harps in pieces or throw them in the stream. Instead they hung them on the poplars, presumably saving them for what would surely be a better day.” (Boice)
d. Sing us one of the songs of Zion: This was the cruel demand of those who carried us away captive. They asked for one of the famous songs of Zion. The ones who plundered the people of God now wanted them to entertain them. Yet there was no song left in them; their harps had been hung in the trees.
i. “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.” (Maclaren)
ii. “A relief from Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, in the neighbouring land of Assyria, portrays a situation not unlike this, with three prisoners of war playing lyres as they are marched along by an armed soldier.” (Kidner)
iii. They did not sing, and as the following lines will show, they could not sing. “Yet, there was a song in the silence, not heard of the cruel oppressors, but heard of Jehovah Himself. It was the song of the heart, remembering Jerusalem, counting it the chief joy of life.” (Morgan)
2. (4-6) A vow to remember Jerusalem, even in exile.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song
In a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
If I do not remember you,
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.
a. How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? Though their conquerors wanted them to sing for their own amusement, the song simply wasn’t there. The songs of God’s people were more than performances; they came from their relationship with God. It would take a long time to sing those songs in a foreign land.
i. “They sought to be amused by these people of a strange religion, and the request was in itself an insult of their faith. It was impossible, and they refused to sing the song of Jehovah. To have done so would have been to play traitor to their own lost city, and to all that their citizenship stood for.” (Morgan)
ii. F.B. Meyer took the idea of not being able to sing and used it as an admonishment for Christians: “You have ceased singing lately. The joy of your religious life has vanished. You pass through the old routine, but without the exhilaration of former days. Can you not tell the reason? It is not because your circumstances are depressed, though they may be; for Paul and Silas sang praises to God in their prison. Is not disobedience at the root of your songlessness? You have allowed some little rift to come within the lute of your life, which has been slowly widening, and now threatens to silence all. And you never will be able to resume that song until you have put away the evil of your doing, and have returned from the land of the enemy.”
b. If I forget you, O Jerusalem: The singer vowed that he would never forget God’s holy city, and even gave a curse upon himself if he did. If he did forget, then his right hand could lose its skill to play the harp. If he failed to remember, then his tongue would lose its ability to sing.
i. “The godly could not forget Jerusalem and everything it stands for: covenant, temple, presence and kingship of God, atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They vowed never to forget God’s promises and to persevere, waiting for the moment of redemption.” (VanGemeren)
ii. Forget its skill: “In the Hebrew it is only forget, without expressing what, to intimate the extent and generality of this wish; Let it forget or be disenabled not only for playing, but for every action in which it was formerly used.” (Poole)
iii. The Puritan commentator John Trapp (1601-1699) observed this about the Jewish people of his time: “The Jews at this day, when they build a house, they are, say the Rabbis, to leave one part of it unfinished and lying rude, in remembrance that Jerusalem and the temple are at present desolate. At least, they use to leave about a yard square of the house unplastered, on which they write, in great letters, this of the psalmist, ‘If I forget Jerusalem,’ etc., or else these words, Zecher leehorban, that is, The memory of the desolation (Leo Modena of the Rites of the Jews).”
B. Singing about the nations.
1. (7) Remember Edom.
Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it,
To its very foundation!”
a. Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom: The psalmist directed his words to God, asking Him to remember the people of Edom (to the south east of Israel) for their conduct during the conquest of Jerusalem. In this case, the call to remember was a call to oppose and to judge.
i. “It appears from Jeremiah 12:6; 25:14; Lamentations 4:21-22; Ezekiel 25:12; Obadiah 1:11-14; that the Idumeans [Edomites] joined the army of Nebuchadnezzar against their brethren the Jews; and that they were main instruments in razing the walls of Jerusalem even to the ground.” (Clarke)
ii. The small book of Obadiah is a prophetic pronouncement against the Edomites for their part in the conquest of Judea. Nor should you have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; nor should you have spoken proudly in the day of distress (Obadiah 1:12).
b. Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation: The Edomites were a sister-nation to Israel, having descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob (Israel). They should have supported and sympathized with Jerusalem when the Babylonians came against it. Instead, they enjoyed Jerusalem’s agony and wanted the city to be completely destroyed.
i. “The word ‘foundations’…implies more than the actual foundations of the walls of Jerusalem, as it also pertains to the God-established order in creation, in his rule, and in his election of a people to himself (cf. Psalm 24:2; 78:69; 89:11; 104:5). The Edomites were hoping for the destruction of the ‘foundations’ of Yahweh’s rule on earth.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “It is horrible for neighbours to be enemies, worse for them to show their enmity in times of great affliction, worst of all for neighbours to egg others on to malicious deeds.” (Spurgeon)
2. (8-9) Judge Babylon.
O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!
a. O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed: The psalmist directed his words to future generations of the Babylonian empire, giving them notice that they themselves would be destroyed in God’s judgment.
i. It is interesting that the psalmist did not make this a prayer to God as he did regarding Edom in the previous verse. Perhaps he regarded the judgment of Babylon to be so certain that it didn’t need his prayer, only his pronouncement, especially in light of other prophecies.
b. Happy the one who repays you as you have served us: This is a blessing on the one who brings judgment against the Babylonians, and a judgment corresponding to what the Babylonians served unto Jerusalem and Judea.
i. “There is ample evidence that ‘to dash in pieces their little ones’ was a common enough sequel to a heathen victory, and that Babylon had been in no mood for restraint at the fall of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:7; Lamentations 5:11f.).” (Kidner)
c. Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock: This awful blessing is understood in light of the previous line. No doubt the singer had seen this done to the little ones of Jerusalem, and the horrible image was seared upon his mind. He prayed that the Babylonians would get as they had given.
i. We sympathize with the impulse of the psalmist, yet the New Testament calls us to a higher standard: “Our response should be to recognize that our calling, since the cross, is to pray down reconciliation, not judgment” (Boice).
ii. “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.” (Maclaren)
iii. “Let those find fault with it who have never seen their temple burned, their city ruined, their wives ravished, and their children slain; they might not, perhaps, be quite so velvet-mouthed if they had suffered after this fashion.” (Spurgeon)
iv. The psalmist also may have known of Isaiah’s prophecy that announced that just this would happen: Their children also will be dashed to pieces before their eyes (Isaiah 13:16).
v. “Today the fortresses of ancient Edom are a desolate waste, and the site of ancient Babylon is a ruin. God cannot be mocked.” (Boice)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – email@example.com