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Psalm 137

Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem


By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.


On the willows there

we hung up our harps.


For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”



How could we sing the L ord’s song

in a foreign land?


If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!


Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

above my highest joy.



Remember, O L ord, against the Edomites

the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!

Down to its foundations!”


O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back

what you have done to us!


Happy shall they be who take your little ones

and dash them against the rock!

1. By the rivers of Babylon 178178     By “Babylon” is meant, not the city, but the kingdom; and the mention of rivers, according to the suggestion of Rosenmuller, is because the synagogues were usually built near rivers, for the greater convenience of the Jews, who were obliged to wash their hands before prayer. But as they had no synagogues in Babylon, they might frequent such localities as would, be suitable sites for places of worship, and there in the open air perform divine service. It is conjectured by Chrysostom that the Jewish captives were not suffered at first to dwell in any of their conquerors’ towns or cities, but were dispersed all along several rivers of the country, where they built for themselves tabernacles or cottages. there we sat down I have elsewhere said, that it is a great mistake to suppose that it is David who here prophetically apprises the people of God of the captivity which should come upon them. The Prophets in speaking of future events employ very different language. What is brought under notice is the event as now historically come, and matter of experience. We shall briefly explain the scope of the Psalmist. There was danger that the Jews when cast off in such a melancholy manner should lose hold altogether of their faith and of their religion. Considering how ready we are, when mixed up with the wicked and ungodly, to fall into superstition or evil practices, it was to be feared that they might wax profane amongst the population of Babylon. The people of the Lord might be thrown into despondency, besides, by their captivity, the cruel bondage they were subjected to, and the other indignities which they had to endure. The writer of this Psalm, whose name is unknown, drew up a form of lamentation, that by giving expression to their sufferings in sighs and prayers, they might keep alive the hope of that deliverance which they despaired of. Another end he has in view, is to warn them against, the decline of godliness in an irreligious land, and against; defilement with the contaminations of the heathen. Accordingly he denounces merited judgment upon the children of Edom, and declares that Babylon, whose prosperity, shortlived as it was destined to be in itself, eclipsed at that time the rest of the world, was an object of pity, and near to destruction. The length of time during which the captivity lasted, may of itself convince us how useful and even necessary it must have been to support the fainting minds of God’s people. They must have been ready to acquiesce in the corrupt practices of the heathen, unless endued with surprising mental fortitude through a period of seventy years.

When they are said to have sat, this denotes a continued period of captivity, that they were not only torn from the sight of their native country, but in a manner buried and entombed. 179179     It may also be observed that sitting on the ground is a posture which indicates mourning and deep distress. Thus it is said in Isaiah 3:26, where the captivity of the Jews in Babylon is foretold, “And she [Judea] being desolate shall sit upon the ground.” And the Prophet Jeremiah, in portraying the sorrow which afflicted his pious and patriotic countrymen under the desolation of their country, says,
   “The elders of the daughter of Zion
sit upon the ground and keep silence.” (Lamentations 2:10 )

   “We find Judea,” says Mr. Addison, “on several coins of Vespasian and Titus in a posture that denotes sorrow and captivity. I need not mention her sitting on the ground, because we have already spoken of the aptness of such a posture to represent an extreme affliction. I fancy the Romans might have an eye on the customs of the Jewish nation, as well as those of their own country, in the several marks of sorrow they have set on this figure. The Psalmist describes the Jews lamenting their captivity in the same pensive posture: ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Zion!’” — Addison on Medals, Dial. 2.
The demonstrative adverb of place, שם, sham, there, is emphatical, setting the subject, as it were, before the eyes of the reader. Though the pleasantness of the country, irrigated by streams, might have had an effect in soothing their dejected minds, we are told that the Lord’s people, so long as they dwelt there, were continually in tears. The particle גם, gam, even, is used as being intensative, to let us know that the true fearers of the Lord could not be tempted by all the luxuries of Babylon to forget their native inheritance. The language is such as to intimate at the same time that they were not so entirely overwhelmed by their calamities as not to recognize in them the deserved chatisement of God, and that they were not chargeable with obstinately struggling against him; for tears are the expression of humility and penitence, as well as of distress. This appears still more plainly from its being Zion they remembered, which proves that what had charms for them was not any advantage of a worldly kind they might there enjoy:, but the worship of God. God had erected his sanctuary like a flag upon mount Zion, that as often as they looked to it, they might be assured of his salvation. Fair then and fertile as was the region where they dwelt, with charms which could corrupt effeminate minds, and long as they ‘were detained in it, tears, which are proverbially soon dried up, never ceased to stream from their eyes, because they were cut off from the worship of God, upon which they ‘were wont to attend, and felt that they were torn from the inheritance of promise.

2. We hanged our harps upon the willows 180180     “On the banks of the Babylonian rivers (say the Euphrates and Tigris) there are no woods or forests, or any considerable trees besides the cultivated date-palm. But these rivers are in some parts rather extensively lined with a growth of tall shrubs and bushes, interspersed with some small, and a few middling trees, amongst which the willow is at this day the most frequet and remarkable.” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible. Hence Isaiah 15:7 calls the Euphrates “the brook or river of willows.” He deplores the suspension of the songs of praise, which God had enjoined in his Temple. The Levites were set over the department of singing, and led the way among the people in this devotional exercise. Is it asked how they had carried their harps with them so far from their native land, we have in this another proof mentioned by the Psalmist of their faith and fervent piety, for the Levites when stripped of all their fortunes had preserved their harps at least as a piece of precious furniture, to be devoted to a former use when opportunity presented itself. We may suppose that those who truly feared God put a high value upon the relics of his worship, and showed the greatest care in preserving them, till the period of their restoration. 181181     “It is probable that the Levites, (Ezra 2:40, 41,) who were the singers and the musicians of the temple, had taken their harps with them to Babylon, and that their captors, having heard of their skill in music, demanded of them a specimen of it.” — Cresswell. When willows are mentioned, this denotes the pleasantness of the banks, which were planted with willows for coolness. But the Psalmist says that these shades, however delightful, could not dispel a grief which was too deeply seated to admit of common consolations or refreshment. As they sat upon the banks of the rivers covered with the shadows of the trees, this was just the place where they might have been tempted to take up their harps, and soothe their griefs with song; but the Psalmist suggests that their minds were too heavily wounded with a sense of the displeasure of the Lord to deceive themselves with such idle sources of comfort. He would even go farther, and intimate that joy of a good and holy kind was at this time suspended. For though it was neither right nor well judged to encourage their grief, we cannot wonder if the singing of praises in public was given up till their return from the captivity, called as they were by the chastisements of God to mourning and lamentation.

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