Psalm 137:2
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
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(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).

Psalm 137:2. We hanged our harps upon the willows, in the midst thereof. — These are, not without great probability, supposed to be the words of some holy Levites, who had been accustomed to music, both vocal and instrumental, in the service of the temple. Harps are here put, by a synecdoche, for all instruments of music. It is further to be observed, that although the harp was used by the Greeks in mourning, yet it was used by the Hebrews in rejoicing, as is manifest from Genesis 31:27; 2 Chronicles 20:27-28; Psalm 43:4. This passage is to be understood, either, 1st, Figuratively, signifying only, that they abandoned all signs and means of comfort; or rather, 2d, Properly, as the songs are which the Babylonians required them to sing to their harps, Psalm 137:3. Upon the willows — Which commonly grow upon the banks of rivers, as they did on the banks of the Euphrates, in such an abundance that from thence it is called the brook, or torrent, or river, (as נחלmay be properly rendered,) of willows, Isaiah 15:7. Thus “the sincere penitent, like these captives, hath bidden adieu to mirth; his soul refuseth to be comforted with the comforts of Babylon; nor can he sing any more till pardon and restoration shall have enabled him to sing in the temple a song of praise and thanksgiving.”

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.We hanged our harps upon the willows - The harps once used to accompany the songs of praise and the service of God in the temple; the harps with which they had sought to beguile their weary hours, and to console their sad spirits in their captivity. The word rendered "willows" - ערבים ‛ărâbiym - used only in the plural, denotes the willow or osier, so called from its white, silvery leaves. Gesenius, Lexicon. Compare Isaiah 15:7. It is probable that the weeping willow - the willow with long pendulous branches - is here referred to. Trees in desert lands spring up along the courses of the streams, and appear, in the wide desolation, as long and waving lines of green wherever the rivers wind along. The course of a stream can thus be marked by the prolonged line of meandering green in the desert as far as the eye can reach. It has been objected to the statement here that the willow is not now found in the neighborhood of ancient Babylon, but that the palm is the only tree which grows there. I saw, however, in 1852, in James' Park in London, a willow-tree with a label on it, stating that it was taken from the site of ancient Babylon; and there seems no reason to doubt the correctness of the account. The willow may be less abundant there now than it was in former times, as is true of the palm. tree in Palestine, but there is no reason to doubt that it grew there. All that the psalm, however, would necessarily demand in a fair interpretation would be that there should have been even a single clump of these trees planted there, under which a little band of exiles may have seated themselves when they gave utterance to the plaintive language of this psalm.

In the midst thereof - In the midst of Babylon; showing that this referred to the city proper. They could not sing, such was their grief, though they had their harps with them; and they hung them up, therefore, on the branches of the trees around them; or, poetically, they were as dumb as if they had hung up their harps there.

2. upon the willows—which may have grown there then, if not now; as the palm, which was once common, is now rare in Palestine. These are, not without great probability, supposed to be the words of some holy Levites, who had been accustomed to music, both vocal and instrumental, in the service of the temple. Harps are here put by a synecdoche for all instruments of music. It is further to be observed, that although the harp was used by the Grecians in mourning, yet it was used by the Hebrews in rejoicing, as is manifest from Genesis 31:27 2 Chronicles 20:27,28 Psa 43:4, &c. This passage is to be understood either,

1. Figuratively, signifying only that they abandoned all signs and means of comfort; or rather,

2. Properly, as the following songs are, which the Babylonians required them to sing to their harps. And these harps they might either,

1. Bring from Jerusalem, which they might desire to do to preserve those sacred utensils, and their enemies might either permit or command them to do for their own delight: or,

2. Procure in Babylon, that they might sometimes solace themselves with the practice of some of the temple music, which they desired and intended to do; but when they came to the trial, they were not able to do it, and therefore laid them by. Upon the willows; which commonly grow upon the banks of rivers, as they did by Euphrates in such plenty, that from thence it is called the brook of willows, Isaiah 15:7.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. These were musical instruments, used in the temple service by the Levites, who seem to be the persons here speaking; who took care of them, and preserved them from the plunder of the enemy; and carried them with them to Babylon, in hope of returning with them to use them as before, or to solace themselves and others in captivity; though now they had no heart to make use of them, their sorrow was so great, and therefore hung them upon the willows as useless things: these willows grew upon the banks of the rivers where they were, as such trees usually do; hence called willows of the brook (x), and willows by water courses, Leviticus 23:40; and particularly upon the banks of the river Euphrates, which ran through the midst of Babylon, with which the phrase here agrees; and therefore Babylon itself is thought to be called "the brook", or "valley, of the willows", Isaiah 15:7. And, according to Ovid (y), not only reeds and poplars, but willows, grew on the banks of the Euphrates. Now the state of these people was an emblem of the case of the backsliding children of God; who, through the prevalence of corruption, the force of temptation, and the snares of the world, are brought into a kind of captivity to the law of sin and death, though not willingly; nor is it pleasing to them when sensible of it, Romans 7:23; who, though they are called out of the world, and are not of it; yet sometimes are so overcome with it, and immersed in the things of it, that they are as it were in Babylon. An emblem of this world, of the confusion in it, as its name signifies; of the fading glories of it, and the wickedness and idolatry it abounds with: and here they sit by the rivers of carnal pleasures in it for a while, till brought to themselves; and then they weep over their sins, and lament them; especially when they remember what opportunities they have formerly had in Zion, and what a low condition she is now in through the conduct of themselves and others: these make use of their harps when Zion is in good and prosperous circumstances, Revelation 14:1; but when there are corruptions in doctrine, neglect or abuse of ordinances, animosities and divisions prevail, declensions in the life and power of religion, and the lives of professors disagreeable; then they hang their harps on willows, and drop their notes.

(x) "Amnicolae salices", Ovid. Metamorph. l. 10. Fab. 2. v. 96. "Fluminibus salices", Virgil. Georgic. l. 2. v. 110. (y) "Venit ad Euphratem----Populus et cannae riparum summa tegebant, spemque dabant salices----". Ovid. Fasti, l. 2.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst {b} thereof.

(b) That is, of that country.

2. Upon the willows in the midst thereof,

We hung out harps.

the willows] Cp. Isaiah 44:4. The tree meant, however, was probably not the weeping willow, but the populus Euphratica.

Verse 2. - We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. The superfluous "harps" were "hung" up upon the trees that grew by the watercourses. These are called "willows," or, according to some, "poplars," but were probably of a different species from any of the trees that grew in Palestine. The chief Babylonian tree was the palm, which grew in the greatest luxuriance along the courses of all the streams (Herod., 1:193; Atom Man., 24:3; Zosim., 3. pp. 173-179). Tamarisks, poplars, and acacias were also common, but true "willows" hardly appear to have ever been a product of the country. The 'arabah of our author was probably either a poplar or a tamarisk. Psalm 137:2Beginning with perfects, the Psalm has the appearance of being a Psalm not belonging to the Exile, but written in memory of the Exile. The bank of a river, like the seashore, is a favourite place of sojourn of those whom deep grief drives forth from the bustle of men into solitude. The boundary line of the river gives to solitude a safe back; the monotonous splashing of the waves keeps up the dull, melancholy alternation of thoughts and feelings; and at the same time the sight of the cool, fresh water exercises a soothing influence upon the consuming fever within the heart. The rivers of Babylon are here those of the Babylonian empire: not merely the Euphrates with its canals, and the Tigris, but also the Chaboras (Chebar) and Eulaeos ('Ulai), on whose lonesome banks Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:3) and Daniel (ch. Daniel 8:2) beheld divine visions. The שׁם is important: there, in a strange land, as captives under the dominion of the power of the world. And גּם is purposely chosen instead of ו: with the sitting down in the solitude of the river's banks weeping immediately came on; when the natural scenery around contrasted so strongly with that of their native land, the remembrance of Zion only forced itself upon them all the more powerfully, and the pain at the isolation from their home would have all the freer course where no hostilely observant eyes were present to suppress it. The willow (צפצפה) and viburnum, those trees which are associated with flowing water in hot low-lying districts, are indigenous in the richly watered lowlands of Babylonia. ערב (ערבה), if one and the same with Arab. grb, is not the willow, least of all the weeping-willow, which is called ṣafsâf mustahı̂ in Arabic, "the bending-down willow," but the viburnum with dentate leaves, described by Wetzstein on Isaiah 44:4. The Talmud even distinguishes between tsaph-tsapha and ‛araba, but without our being able to obtain any sure botanic picture from it. The ערבה, whose branches belong to the constituents of the lulab of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40), is understood of the crack-willow [Salix fragilis], and even in the passage before us is surely not distinguished with such botanical precision but that the gharab and willow together with the weeping-willow (Salix Babylonica) might be comprehended under the word ערבה. On these trees of the country abounding in streams the exiles hung their citherns. The time to take delight in music was past, for μουσικὰ ἐν πένθει ἄκαιρος διήγησις, Sir. 22:6. Joyous songs, as the word שׁיר designates them, were ill suited to their situation.

In order to understand the כּי in Psalm 137:3, Psalm 137:3 and Psalm 137:4 must be taken together. They hung up their citherns; for though their lords called upon them to sing in order that they might divert themselves with their national songs, they did not feel themselves in the mind for singing songs as they once resounded at the divine services of their native land. The lxx, Targum, and Syriac take תּוללינוּ as a synonym of שׁובינוּ, synonymous with שׁוללינוּ, and so, in fact, that it signifies not, like שׁולל, the spoiled and captive one, but the spoiler and he who takes other prisoners. But there is no Aramaic תּלל equals שׁלל. It might more readily be referred back to a Poel תּולל ( equals התל), to disappoint, deride (Hitzig); but the usage of the language does not favour this, and a stronger meaning for the word would be welcome. Either תּולל equals תּהולל, like מהולל, Psalm 102:9, signifies the raving one, i.e., a bloodthirsty man or a tyrant, or from ילל, ejulare, one who causes the cry of woe or a tormentor, - a signification which commends itself in view of the words תּושׁב and תּלמיד, which are likewise formed with the preformative ת. According to the sense the word ranks itself with an Hiph. הוליל, like תּועלת, תּוכחה, with הועיל and הוכיח, in a mainly abstract signification (Dietrich, Abhandlungen, S. 160f.). The דּברי beside שׁיר is used as in Psalm 35:20; Psalm 65:4; Psalm 105:27; Psalm 145:5, viz., partitively, dividing up the genitival notion of the species: words of songs as being parts or fragments of the national treasury of song, similar to משּׁיר a little further on, on which Rosenmller correctly says: sacrum aliquod carmen ex veteribus illis suis Sionicis. With the expression "song of Zion" alternates in Psalm 137:4 "song of Jahve," which, as in 2 Chronicles 29:27, cf. 1 Chronicles 25:7, denotes sacred or liturgical songs, that is to say, songs belonging to Psalm poesy (including the Cantica).

Before Psalm 137:4 we have to imagine that they answered the request of the Babylonians at that time in the language that follows, or thought thus within themselves when they withdrew themselves from them. The meaning of the interrogatory exclamation is not that the singing of sacred songs in a foreign land (חוצה לארץ) is contrary to the law, for the Psalms continued to be sung even during the Exile, and were also enriched by new ones. But the shir had an end during the Exile, in so far as that it was obliged to retire from publicity into the quiet of the family worship and of the houses of prayer, in order that that which is holy might not be profaned; and since it was not, as at home, accompanied by the trumpets of the priests and the music of the Levites, it became more recitative than singing properly so called, and therefore could not afford any idea of the singing of their native land in connection with the worship of God on Zion. From the striking contrast between the present and the former times the people of the Exile had in fact to come to the knowledge of their sins, in order that they might get back by the way of penitence and earnest longing to that which they had lost Penitence and home-sickness were at that time inseparable; for all those in whom the remembrance of Zion was lost gave themselves over to heathenism and were excluded from the redemption. The poet, translated into the situation of the exiles, and arming himself against the temptation to apostasy and the danger of denying God, therefore says: If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, ימיני תּשׁכּח. תּשׁכּח has been taken as an address to Jahve: obliviscaris dexterae meae (e.g., Wolfgang Dachstein in his song "An Wasserflssen Babylon"), but it is far from natural that Jerusalem and Jahve should be addressed in one clause. Others take ימיני as the subject and תּשׁכּח transitively: obliviscatur dextera mea, scil. artem psallendi (Aben-Ezra, Kimchi, Pagninus, Grotius, Hengstenberg, and others); but this ellipsis is arbitrary, and the interpolation of מנּי after ימיני (von Ortenberg, following Olshausen) produces an inelegant cadence. Others again assign a passive sense to תשׁכח: oblivioni detur (lxx, Italic, Vulgate, and Luther), or a half-passive sense, in oblivione sit (Jerome); but the thought: let my right hand be forgotten, is awkward and tame. Obliviscatur me (Syriac, Saadia, and the Psalterium Romanum) comes nearer to the true meaning. תּשׁכּח is to be taken reflexively: obliviscatur sui ipsius, let it forget itself, or its service (Amyraldus, Schultens, Ewald, and Hitzig), which is equivalent to let it refuse or fail, become lame, become benumbed, much the same as we say of the arms of legs that they "go to sleep," and just as the Arabic nasiya signifies both to forget and to become lame (cf. Gesenius, Thesaurus, p. 921b). La Harpe correctly renders: O Jerusalem! si je t'oublie jamais, que ma main oublie aussi le mouvement! Thus there is a correspondence between Psalm 137:5 and Psalm 137:6 : My tongue shall cleave to my palate if I do not remember thee, if I do not raise Jerusalem above the sum of my joy. אזכּרכי has the affixed Chirek, with which these later Psalms are so fond of adorning themselves. ראשׁ is apparently used as in Psalm 119:160 : supra summam (the totality) laetitiae meae, as Coccejus explains, h.e. supra omnem laetitiam meam. But why not then more simply על כּל, above the totality? ראשׁ here signifies not κεφάλαιον, but κεφαλή: if I do not place Jerusalem upon the summit of my joy, i.e., my highest joy; therefore, if I do not cause Jerusalem to be my very highest joy. His spiritual joy over the city of God is to soar above all earthly joys.

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