Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This fine song, blended as it is of tears and fire, with its plaintive opening and its vindictive close, is one of the clearest records left in Hebrew literature of the captivity, but whether it dates immediately from it, or looks back with a distant though keen and clear gaze, is difficult to decide. Babylon may only have been on the verge of its doom, or she may already have fallen. (See Note on Psalm 137:8.) It is possible that just as long afterwards another great power was symbolised under the name, so here the ruin of the Persian or Grecian dominion may be covertly invoked under the symbol “daughter of Babylon.” The rhythm characteristic of the “songs of degrees” reappears here.
The LXX. prefix a curious title “To David of Jeremiah;” Vulg., “Psalmus David Jeremias,” which has been explained “a David-like song by Jeremiah.”
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.(1) By the rivers . . .—Mentioned as the characteristic feature of the country, as we say “among the mountains of Wales.” The canals which irrigated Babylonia made it what an ancient writer called it, the greatest of “cities of river places.”
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.(2) Willows.—It is perhaps not necessary to attempt to identify the trees mentioned in this verse, since the touching picture may only be a poetical way of expressing the silence during the exile of all the religious and festal songs. The ‘ereb’ is certainly not the willow, a tree not found in Babylonia, but the poplar (Populus Euphraticus).
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.(3) A song.—See margin. The expression is generally regarded as pleonastic, but may be explained as in Psalm 105:27, where see Note. Perhaps “some lyric thing” would express the original. No doubt it is a Levite who is requested to sing.
They that wasted us.—A peculiar Hebrew word which the LXX. and Vulg. take as synonymous with the verb in the first clause. The modern explanation, “they that make us howl,” is far preferable. Those whose oppression had raised the wild Oriental scream of lamentation, now asked for mirth.
Songs of Zion—or, as in the next verse, songs of Jehovah, were of course the liturgical hymns. Nothing is more characteristic than this of the Hebrew feeling. The captors asked for a national song, as the Philistines asked for sport from Samson, to amuse them. The Hebrew can think only of one kind of song, that to which the genius of the race was dedicated.
How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?(4) Strange land.—The feeling expressed in this question is too natural to need any such explanation as that it was contrary to the Law to sing a sacred song in a strange land. Nehemiah’s answer (Nehemiah 2:2-3) offers a direct illustration.
Of Jerusalem’s choir in Babylon it might truly be said:
“Like strangers’ voices here they sound,
In lands where not a memory strays.
Nor landmark breathes of other days,
But all is new unhallowed ground.”
TENNYSON: In Mcmoriam.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.(5) Her cunning—i.e., the skill of playing on the harp. If at such a moment the poet can so far forget the miserable bondage of Jerusalem as to strike the strings in joy, may his hand for ever lose the skill to touch them.
Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.(7) Remember . . .—Remember, Jehovah, for the children of Edom the day of Jerusalem. The prophecy of Obadiah gives the best comment on this verse: “For thy violence against thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off for ever. In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day that the strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even thou wast as one of them. But thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother in the day that he became a stranger; neither shouldest thou have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress” (Obadiah 1:10-12.) (See Excursus on the date and authorship of that book.)
Rase . . .—Literally, make naked or bare. (Comp. a similar use of another verb, Micah 1:6.) The LXX. and Vulg. have “empty out, empty out.”
Thereof.—Literally, in it.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.(8) Daughter of Babylon—i.e., Babylon itself. (See Psalm 9:14, Note.)
Who art to be destroyed.—Considerable doubt attaches to the meaning of the Hebrew word here. Our version is that of Theodotion. Aquila and Jerome have “wasted” (comp. Prayer Book version); Symmachus, “robber;” the LXX. and Vulg., “wretched.”
As pointed, the word is a passive participle, and must be rendered as by Aquila, “wasted” or “destroyed,” but with the recollection that a Hebrew would thus speak proleptically of a doom foreseen though not accomplished. Delitzsch quotes an Arab saying: “Pursue the caught one “—i.e., sure to be caught.
The “luxury of revenge” is well expressed in this beatitude, pronounced on him who can carry out to all its bitter end the lex talionis. Commentators have in turn tried to disguise and justify the expression of passion. Happily the Bible allows us to see men as they were without taking their rules of feeling and conduct as ours. “The psalm is beautiful as a poem—the Christian must seek his inspiration elsewhere.”
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.(9) Little ones.—Literally, sucklings.
Stones.—Better, cliff or rock.
For this feature of barbarous cruelty with which ancient war was cursed see 2Kings 8:12; Isaiah 13:16; Hosea 10:14, &c; and comp. Homer, Iliad, xxii. 63: “My bleeding infants dashed against the floor.”