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Psa 137:1

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down, and yes, we wept when we remembered Zion-
Psalm 137 speaks of Judah in captivity, apparently initially as a result of Sennacherib’s invasion as recorded in 2 Kings 18:13. And yet it seems to have been re-written with reference to Judah’s captivity at the hands of the Babylonians some years later. This sort of thing would’ve happened with whole books. J.W.Thirtle claims that the original manuscripts of most Old Testament books were sealed with Hezekiah’s seal, as they had been re-written and edited during his time (J.W. Thirtle, Old Testament Problems (Printland Publishers reprint, 2004 facsimile of the 1914 edition) p. 301). Scripture itself testifies to him and his men re-organizing the writings of David. Isaiah, with its initial application to Hezekiah, and then its obvious reference to the captivity and restoration, is another example.

This weeping for Zion may have been intended to be in the spirit of Is. 30:19, where the weepers for Zion are to be restored to her. To "remember Zion" could mean that they were seeking to bring Zion to God's memory, in the spirit of Is. 62:6,7, so that He would fulfil the promises of her restoration.

Psa 137:2

On the willows in its midst we hung up our harps-
Their weeping was therefore not at the prison camps by the Chebar river, where Ezekiel was, but at the rivers in the midst of Babylon (:1). Perhaps they chose the willows in allusion to Is. 44:4, which predicted that the revived exiles would spring up like willows next to water. For these willows were next to the rivers of Babylon (:1). However, willows didn't grow in Babylon, and the only trees by the waters of Babylon appear to have been palms. Perhaps they are described as willows especially in order to highlight the connection with Is. 44:4.   

Psa 137:3

For there, those who led us captive asked us for songs. Those who tormented us demanded us songs of joy: Sing us one of the songs of Zion!-
The "songs of joy" were "Yahweh's song" (:4), the songs sung at the time of "the day of your gladness" (Num. 10:10; Ezra 6:22 s.w. "joy"). The exiles were unable to keep the feasts and so they didn't use these songs any more. But we may well enquire how their Babylonian captors knew about these songs. The prophets repeatedly point out that Israel prostituted Yahweh's religion with that of the gods of Babylon. This would explain why the Babylonians now mocked the Jews' religion.

Reasoning back from the addresses to the captives in later Isaiah, it appears they thought that Yahweh was a God who just operated in the land of Israel. The captives felt they couldn’t sing the songs of Yahweh in a Gentile land (Ps. 137). They thought that now they were outside His land and far from His temple, they were forgotten by Him (Is. 49:14,15), their cause ignored by Him (Is. 40:27) and they were “cast off” from relationship with Him (Is. 41:9). Hence Isaiah emphasizes that Yahweh is the creator and the God of the whole planet, and His presence is literally planet-wide.

"Tormented" is literally 'to make to howl'. But this kind of abuse was only on their initial reception in Babylon. By Esther's time, the Jews were a respected and prosperous community. "They that rule over them make them to howl" (Is. 52:5 s.w.). But the redemption was to be through the suffering servant which Is. 52 goes on to speak of. But this didn't happen. The soft life in Babylon meant that the exiles no longer wanted to be redeemed from it. Just prior to the captivity, the people had been asked to howl in repentance (s.w. Jer. 4:8; 25:34; Ez. 21:12; 30:2). They hadn't, and now they were made to howl in Babylon; but the intention was that they would do so in repentance, which would end the captivity.

Psa 137:4

How could we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land?-
The Babylonians taunted the captive Jews with requests to sing them the temple songs, "Yahweh's song" (Ps. 137:3,4).   This conscious mocking of Yahweh-worship shows how the Babylonians conceived of the conflict with Israel in terms of their gods being opposed to Yahweh, whom they claimed to have vanquished. Today's latter day Babylonians see their struggle within the similar construct of Mohammed against Israel's God, Yahweh.

Psa 137:5

If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill-
The attitude of the exiles was that God had forgotten Zion, although He protests that despite the 70 year exile, He has not done so (Is. 49:14,15; Lam. 5:20 s.w.). So this protestation that they had not forgotten Zion could be taken as implying they were more passionate than God for the restoration. The reality was that the exiles forgot their God (s.w. Is. 51:13; Jer. 2:32; 13:25; 18:15; 23:27; Ez. 23:35; Hos. 2:13), but not the external trappings of their religion, epitomized in Zion. This difference between religion and true spirituality remains an ever abiding issue for us all.  

The skill of the right hand may be an allusion to the harp playing of :2. Hence GNB "May I never be able to play the harp again if I forget you, Jerusalem!".

Psa 137:6

Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you; if I don’t prefer Jerusalem above my chief joy-
To be struck with dumbness was a curse for disobedience, experienced on behalf of the exiles by Ezekiel. The implication would then be that the psalmist felt personally innocent and undeserving of any curse. And this was the problem with the exiles; we compare this attitude with that of Nehemiah and Daniel, who fully accepted their personal part in the guilt of God's people. But as noted on :5, the context may still be that of worship and singing in :2,3. Although the captives refused to perform their songs for their captors, the psalmist implies he will continue praising God with the songs of Zion privately. hence GNB "May I never be able to sing again if I do not remember you".

This Psalm may well have originated in something David wrote about Jerusalem, perhaps whilst in exile from her at the time of Absalom's rebellion. I noted on Ps. 15:1 that "Yahweh, who shall dwell in Your sanctuary? Who shall live on Your holy hill?" was written before David took the hill of Zion from the Jebusites. He felt they shouldn't be living there because of how they lived so immorally, and was eager to make it his own inheritance by conquest; and it seems from Ps. 16:5,6 that David considered Zion his personal inheritance where he was to live. He considered Zion his great joy (Ps. 137:6), the ultimately pleasant place (Ps. 48:2).

Psa 137:7

Remember, Yahweh, against the children of Edom, the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it! Raze it even to its foundation!-
As a bitter man does, the psalmist's mind went from one hurt to another. He remembered how when Babylon had invaded, the Edomites hadn’t helped their Hebrew brethren (Obadiah 11,12). They had egged on the Babylonian soldiers in ripping down the temple, shouting [in a chorus?] “Raze it, raze it, even to its foundation”. The Edomite mercenaries were not a major part of the Babylonian confederacy which sacked Jerusalem, but they are singled out for particular condemnation because "Esau is Edom", they were Jacob's brother. God particularly judges unbrotherly behaviour; we have a special responsibility to our brethren in the body of God's people. Any nastiness against them is especially culpable.

Psa 137:8

Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be happy who rewards you as you have served us-
The exiles were reminded that the Babylon where they lived had wasted God's people, and thus she was to be wasted (Ps. 137:3,8 AVmg.). But human beings are so fickle. Because life was easy there, the captives came to prefer Babylon to the distant Zion, and by the time of Esther they were a prosperous, comfortable community. And the majority therefore didn't return to the land and rebuild it even when given every encouragement by Cyrus.

They wept, initially, when they remembered Zion- and yet according to Ez. 8, back there in Zion there were awful abominations and idolatry being committed in the temple of Zion. Their weeping was mere nostalgia; their refusal to sing the temple songs was mere stubbornness, there was no genuine commitment to Yahweh's way. And it was because of this that God confirmed them in their desire to stay in Babylon. He had elsewhere predicted that He would stop them returning "to the land whereunto their soul longeth to return" (Jer. 22:27 RV). And He did this by confirming them in their desire to remain in Babylon. These prophecies of the destruction of Babylon therefore didn't come true as was potentially possible. Because Judah didn't want to judge Babylon. And so the language of Babylon's judgment is reapplied in Revelation to the destruction of latter day Babylon.

Psa 137:9

Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock-
When we feel our enemies are unjust, we can:

1. Seek revenge. But this isn’t a response we can make, Biblically.

2. Deny the feelings of hurt and anger. And yet, they surface somehow. And we join the ranks of the millions of hurt people in this world, who ‘take it out’ in some way on others.

3. Or we can do as David seems to have done. Take these feelings, absolutely as they are, with no rough edges smoothed off them…to God Himself. Pour them all out in prayer and leave Him to resolve the matter. In passing, this fits in with the conclusions of modern psychiatry- that we can’t eliminate our feelings, so we must express them in an appropriate way.

This latter option is how I understand the imprecatory Psalms. Those outpourings of human emotion were read by God as prayers. The writer of Psalm 137, sitting angry and frustrated by a Babylonian riverside, with his harp hanging on a willow branch, being jeered (“tormented” Ps. 137:3 RVmg.)  by the victorious Babylonian soldiers who had led him away captive… he felt so angry with them. Especially when they tried to make him sing one of the temple songs (“sing us one of the songs of Zion”). And, as a bitter man does, his mind went from one hurt to another. He remembered how when Babylon had invaded, the Edomites hadn’t helped their Hebrew brethren (Obadiah 11,12). They had egged on the Babylonian soldiers in ripping down the temple, shouting [in a chorus?] “Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation”. And so in anger and bitterness this Jew prays with tears, as he remembered Zion, “O daughter of Babylon… happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock” (:8,9 RV). God read those angry words as a prayer, and in some sense they will have their fulfilment.  For these words are picked up in Rev. 18:8,21 and applied to what will finally happen to Babylon. Her spiritual children will be dashed against the rock of Christ, the stone of Daniel 2:44, at His return. He will dash in pieces the Babylon-led people that oppose Him.