Psalm 137:1
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
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(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.”

Psalm 137:1. By the rivers of Babylon — Of the city, or rather of the territory of Babylon, in which there were many rivers, as Euphrates, which also was divided into several streams or rivulets, and Tigris, and others; there sat we down — The usual posture of mourners, Ezra 9:4; Job 2:12; Isaiah 47:1; Isaiah 47:5. It is supposed by some, that they were employed in draining the marshy parts of the country; but it seems more probable, that their present distress did not arise from that circumstance, but from their reflecting on Zion, and their banishment from it: and that they seated themselves down by the rivers from choice, retiring thither from the noise and observation of their enemies, as they had opportunity, in order that they might unburden their oppressed minds before the Lord, and to one another. We wept when we remembered Zion — He means, either their former enjoyments in Zion, which greatly aggravated their present misery, Lamentations 1:7, or Zion’s present desolation. “What an inexpressible pathos is there in these few words! How do they, at once, transport us to Babylon, and place before our eyes the mournful situation of the Israelitish captives! Driven from their native country, stripped of every comfort and convenience, in a strange land among idolaters, wearied and broken- hearted, they sit in silence by those hostile waters. Then the pleasant banks of Jordan present themselves to their imaginations; the towers of Salem rise to view; and the sad remembrance of much loved Zion causes tears to run down their cheeks!”137:1-4 Their enemies had carried the Jews captive from their own land. To complete their woes, they insulted over them; they required of them mirth and a song. This was very barbarous; also profane, for no songs would serve but the songs of Zion. Scoffers are not to be compiled with. They do not say, How shall we sing, when we are so much in sorrow? but, It is the Lord's song, therefore we dare not sing it among idolaters.By the rivers of Babylon - The streams, the water-courses, the rivulets. There was properly only one river flowing through Babylon - the Euphrates; but the city was watered, as Damascus now is, by means of canals or water-courses cut from the main river, and conveying the water to different parts of the city. For a description of Babylon, see the introductory notes to Isaiah 13. If the reference here is to Babylon proper, or the city, the allusion would be to the Euphrates flowing through it; if to Babylonia, the allusion would be to the Euphrates, and the other rivers which watered the country, as the Tigris, the Chaboras, and the Ulai. As it is most probable that the captive Hebrews were not scattered through the empire, but were concentrated in one or a few places, it is, perhaps, not improper to understand this of Babylon itself.

There we sat down - There we were sitting. Perhaps a little company of friends; perhaps those assembled for worship; perhaps those who happened to come together on some special occasion; or, perhaps, a poetic representation of the general condition of the Hebrew captives, as sitting and meditating on the desolations of their native land.

Yea, we wept - We sat there; we meditated; we wept. Our emotions overpowered us, and we poured forth tears. So now, there is a place in Jerusalem, at the southwest corner of the area on which the temple was built, where the Jews resort on set occasions to weep over the ruins of their city and nation.

When we remembered Zion - When we thought on our native land; its former glory; the wrongs done to it; the desolations there; when we thought of the temple in ruins, and our homes as devastated; when we thought of the happy days which we had spent there, and when we contrasted them with our condition now.


Ps 137:1-9. This Psalm records the mourning of the captive Israelites, and a prayer and prediction respecting the destruction of their enemies.

1. rivers of Babylon—the name of the city used for the whole country.

remembered Zion—or, Jerusalem, as in Ps 132:13.

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3 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.

4 How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Psalm 137:1

"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down." Water-courses were abundant in Babylon, wherein were not only natural streams but artificial canals: it was a place of broad rivers and streams. Glad to be away from the noisy streets, the captives sought the river side, where the flow of the waters seemed to be in sympathy with their tears. It was some slight comfort to be out of the crowd, and to have a little breathing room, and therefore they sat down, as if to rest a while and solace themselves in their sorrow. In little groups they sat down and made common lamentation, mingling their memories and their tears. The rivers were well enough, but, alas, they were the rivers of Babylon, and the ground whereon the sons of Israel sat was foreign soil, and therefore they wept. Those who came to interrupt their quiet were citizens of the destroying city, and their company was not desired. Everything reminded Israel of her banishment from the holy city, her servitude beneath the shadow of the temple of Bel, her helplessness under a cruel enemy; and therefore her sons and daughters sat down in sorrow.

"Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." Nothing else could have subdued their brave spirits; but the remembrance of the temple of their God, the palace of their king, and the centre of their national life, quite broke them down. Destruction had swept down all their delights, and therefore they wept - the strong men wept, the sweet singers wept! They did not weep when they remembered the cruelties of Babylon; the memory of fierce oppression dried their tears and made their hearts burn with wrath: but when the beloved city of their solemnities came into their minds they could not refrain from floods of tears. Even thus do true believers mourn when they see the church despoiled, and find themselves unable to succour her: we could bear anything better than this. In these our times the Babylon of error ravages the city of God, and the hearts of the faithful are grievously wounded as they see truth fallen in the streets, and unbelief rampant among the professed servants of the Lord. We bear our protests, but they appear to be in vain; the multitude are mad upon their idols. Be it ours to weep in secret for the hurt of our Zion: it is the least thing we can do; perhaps in its result it may prove to be the best thing we can do. Be it ours also to sit down and deeply consider what is to be done. Be it ours, in any case, to keep upon our mind and heart the memory of the church of God which is so dear to us. The frivolous may forget, but Zion is graven on our hearts, and her prosperity is our chief desire.

Psalm 137:2

"We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. The drooping branches appeared to weep as we did, and so we gave to them our instruments of music; the willows could as well make melody as we, for we-had no mind for minstrelsy. In the midst of the willows, or in the midst of the rivers, or in the midst of Babylon, it matters little which, they hung their harps aloft - those harps which once in Zion's halls the soul of music shed. Better to hang them up than to dash them down: better to hang them on willows than profane them to the service of idols. Sad indeed is the child of sorrow when he grows weary of his harp, from which in better days he had been able to draw sweet solaces. Music hath charms to give unquiet spirits rest; but when the heart is sorely sad it only mocks the grief which flies to it. Men put away their instruments of mirth when a heavy cloud darkens their souls.

Psalm 137:3

"For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song." It was ill to be a singer at all when it was demanded that this talent should go into bondage to an oppressor's will. Better be dumb than be forced to please an enemy with forced song. What cruelty to make a people sigh, and then require them to sing! Shall men be carried away from home and all that is dear to them, and yet chant merrily for the pleasure of their unfeeling captors? This is studied torture, the iron enters into the soul. It is indeed "woe to the conquered" when they are forced to sing to increase the triumph of their conquerors. Cruelty herein reached a refinement seldom thought of. We do not wonder that the captives sat them down to weep when thus insulted. "And they that wasted us required of us mirth." The captives must not only sing but smile, and add merriment to their music. Blind Samson in former days must be brought forth to make sport for Philistines, and now the Babylonians prove themselves to be loaves of the same leaven. Plundered, wounded, lettered, carried into captivity and poverty, yet must the people laugh as if it were all a play, and they must sport as if they felt no sorrow. This was wormwood and gall to the true lovers of God and his chosen land. "Saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion." Nothing would serve their turn but a holy hymn, and a tune sacred to the worship of Jehovah. Nothing will content the Babylonian mockers but one of Israel's Psalms when in her happiest days she sang unto the Lord whose mercy endureth for ever: this would make rare fun for their persecutors, who would deride their worship and ridicule their faith in Jehovah. In this demand there was an insult to their God, as well as a mockery of themselves, and this made it the more intensely cruel. Nothing could have been more malicious, nothing more productive of grief. These wanton persecutors had followed the captives into their retirement, and had remarked upon their sorrowful appearance, and "there" and then they bade the mourners make mirth for them. Could they not let the sufferers alone? Were the exiles to have no rest? The daughter of Babylon seemed determined to fill up her cup of iniquity, by torturing the Lord's people. Those who had been the most active agents of Israel's undoing must needs follow up their ferocities by mockeries. "The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." Worse than the Egyptians, they asked not labour which their victims could have rendered, but they demanded mirth which they could not give, and holy songs which they dared not profane to such a purpose.

Psalm 137:4

continued...THE ARGUMENT

The penman of this Psalm is uncertain; the occasion of it was unquestionably the consideration of the Babylonish captivity; and it seems to have been composed either during the time of that captivity, or presently after their deliverance out of it.

The sad complaint of the Jews in captivity, Psalm 137:1-3. Of the scoffing of their enemies, yet their constancy to remember Jerusalem, Psalm 137:4-6. Judgments imprecated upon Edom and Babylon, Psalm 137:7-9.

Rivers of Babylon; either,

1. Of the city of Babylon, and then the river is Euphrates, here called rivers for its greatness, and by a common enallage of the plural for the singular, as Tigris also is, Nahum 2:6, yea, and Jordan, Psalm 74:15. Or,

2. Of the territory of Babylon, in which there were many rivers, as Euphrates, which also was divided into several streams or rivulets; and Tigris and others. Here they were either by the appointment of their lords for the making or repairing of the works beside the river; or by choice, retiring themselves thither from the noise and observation of their enemies, as they had opportunity, that they might disburden their oppressed minds before the Lord.

We sat down; the usual posture of mourners, Ezra 9:4, &c.; Job 2:13 Isaiah 47:1,5.

When we remembered Zion; either,

1. Our former enjoyments in Zion, which greatly aggravated their present misery, Lamentations 1:7. Or,

2. Zion’s present desolations and pollutions.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,.... If by Babylon is meant the country, then the rivers of it are Chebar, Ulai, Tigris, Euphrates, and others; see Ezekiel 1:1; but if the city itself, then only Euphrates, which ran through it; and is expressed by rivers, because of the largeness of it, and because of the several canals cut out of it, for the service of the city; hence Babylon is said to dwell upon many waters, Jeremiah 51:13; upon the banks whereof the captive Jews were; either through choice, where they could be alone, and mourn their fate, indulge their sorrows, and give vent to their grief; or by the order of these who carried them captive, there to be employed, either in taking goods from ships here unloaded, or to repair and maintain the banks of the rivers, or to do some servile work or another; see Ezekiel 1:1; and where they would sometimes "sit down" pensive, as mourners used to do, and lament their case, Job 2:8. Or this phrase may express their residence here, and the continuance and length of their captivity, which was seventy years: yea, Babylon itself may be meant by the waters of it; just as Thebes, in Pindar (w) is called the Dircaean waters, near to which it was;

yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion; they imitated the flowing stream by which they sat, and swelled it with their tears; they wept for their sins, which brought them thither; and it increased their sorrow, when they called to mind what privileges they had enjoyed in Zion, the city of their solemnities; where they had often seen the tribes of Israel bowing before and worshipping the God of Israel; the daily sacrifices and others offered up; the solemn feasts kept; the songs of Zion, sung by the Levites in delightful harmony; and, above all, the beauty of the Lord their God, his power and glory, while they were inquiring in his sanctuary: and also when they reflected upon the sad condition and melancholy circumstances in which Zion now was; the city, temple, and altar, lying in heaps of rubbish; no worship and service performed; no sacrifices offered, nor songs sung; nor any that came to her solemn feasts; see Lamentations 1:2.

(w) Pythia, Ode 9. d. v. 6.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we {a} sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

(a) That is, we abode a long time, and even though the country was pleasant, yet it could not stay our tears, nor turn us from the true service of our God.

1. the rivers of Babylon] Not only the Euphrates and its tributaries, such as the Chebar (Ezekiel 1:1; Ezekiel 3:15), but the numerous canals with which the country was intersected. Babylonia was characteristically a land of streams, as Palestine was a land of hills; it was the feature of the country which would impress itself upon the mind of the exiles. Cp. Jeremiah 51:13. They may have resorted to the banks of the rivers and canals to mourn; partly for the sake of the shade of the trees which grew there, partly because such places were suitable to melancholy meditation.

It is hardly likely that there is any reference to places of prayer chosen near water for the sake of ceremonial lustrations (Acts 16:13).

sat down] As mourners. Cp. Isaiah 47:1; Isaiah 47:5.

Zion] The name is chosen specially to suggest the sacred memories of the city.

1–3. The silence of sacred song in the sorrow of exile.Verse 1. - By the rivers of Babylon The Euphrates and the canals derived from it, which were many, and filled with running, not stagnant, water. These would present themselves to the exiles as "rivers." There we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. The exiles had their leisure hours - they were not kept by their masters at hard work continually. During these leisure hours they naturally "sat down" by the rivers of Babylon, as the most pleasant and attractive places. They brought their harps with them (ver. 2), with some idea, perhaps, of indulging in mournful strains. Grief, however, overpowered them - Zion came to their recollection-and they could do nothing but weep. Up to this point it is God the absolute in general, the Creator of all things, to the celebration of whose praise they are summoned; and from this point onwards the God of the history of salvation. In Psalm 136:13 גּזר (instead of בּקע, Psalm 78:13; Exodus 14:21; Nehemiah 9:11) of the dividing of the Red Sea is peculiar; גּזרים (Genesis 15:17, side by side with בּתרים) are the pieces or parts of a thing that is cut up into pieces. נער is a favourite word taken from Exodus 14:27. With reference to the name of the Egyptian ruler Pharaoh (Herodotus also, ii. 111, calls the Pharaoh of the Exodus the son of Sesostris-Rameses Miumun, not Μενόφθας, as he is properly called, but absolutely Φερῶν), vid., on Psalm 73:22. After the God to whom the praise is to be ascribed has been introduced with ל by always fresh attributes, the ל before the names of Sihon and of Og is perplexing. The words are taken over, as are the six lines of Psalm 136:17-22 in the main, from Psalm 135:10-12, with only a slight alteration in the expression. In Psalm 136:23 the continued influence of the construction הודוּ ל is at an end. The connection by means of שׁ (cf. Psalm 135:8, Psalm 135:10) therefore has reference to the preceding "for His goodness endureth for ever." The language here has the stamp of the latest period. It is true זכר with Lamed of the object is used even in the earliest Hebrew, but שׁפל is only authenticated by Ecclesiastes 10:6, and פּרק, to break loose equals to rescue (the customary Aramaic word for redemption), by Lamentations 5:8, just as in the closing verse, which recurs to the beginning, "God of heaven" is a name for God belonging to the latest literature, Nehemiah 1:4; Nehemiah 2:4. In Psalm 136:23 the praise changes suddenly to that which has been experienced very recently. The attribute in Psalm 136:25 (cf. Psalm 147:9; Psalm 145:15) leads one to look back to a time in which famine befell them together with slavery.
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