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Psalm 137


An Experience of the Captivity
No MT Intro
Longing for Zion in a Foreign Land Prayer for Vengeance on Israel's Enemies
(A Lament)
A Lament of Israelites in Exile Song of the Exiles
137:1-3 137:1-3 137:1-3 137:1-3 137:1-2
137:4-6 137:4-6 137:4-6 137:4-6 137:4-5
137:7-9 137:7-9 137:7-9 137:7 137:7
      137:8-9 137:8-9

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Etc.



 1By the rivers of Babylon,
 There we sat down and wept,
 When we remembered Zion.
 2Upon the willows in the midst of it
 We hung our harps. 

3For there our captors demanded of us songs,
 And our tormentors mirth, saying,
 "Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

137:1 "By the rivers of Babylon" Possibly a better translation would be "by the waterways." The water system of Babylon of that day involved not only rivers but also manmade canals, like the Canal Chebar (cf. Ezek. 1:1).

We learn from Acts 16:13 that it was an ancient custom for cities with no synagogue to meet by the local river for worship. This may be the case here.

▣ "There we sat down and wept" Because of the combination of the words "sat" and "wept" this seems to relate to a funeral dirge setting. Sitting flat on the ground was a Jewish form of mourning.

▣ "we remembered Zion" It is interesting that in the Bible it was important for humans to remember (cf. Ps. 137:5 [implied],6,7). The term "exalt" in Ps. 137:6 is translated by the Jewish Publication Society of America, in their new translation, as "keep Jerusalem in memory as my happiest hour."

The term "Zion" is a synonym for the entire city of Jerusalem and the temple area located on Mt. Moriah (see Special Topic: Moriah, Salem, Jebus, Jerusalem, Zion). It is very hard for us to understand the full implication of Israel in exile. She had been promised a Davidic king forever (2 Sam. 7:10,13,16). She had been protected during the invasion of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, in Hezekiah's day (cf. Isaiah 37). However, Jeremiah told them that exile was imminent unless they repented and turned back to God. The Covenant (see SPECIAL TOPIC: COVENANT) had always been conditional (cf. 1 Sam. 13:12,13), but they relied on ancient traditions instead of personal relationships. Therefore, God's covenant was made inoperative (i.e., exile) in their day.

137:2 "the willows" Horticulturalists tell us that willows do not grow in the ANE but that this tree (BDB 788 II) is probably a type of poplar tree that grows along the Euphrates and Jordan Rivers. See UBS, Fauna and Flora of the Bible, p. 170. Some even suggest that the branches of this particular tree were used during the Feast of Tabernacles to build the booths that the people lived in.

▣ "We hung our harps" It is interesting to note that all of the verbs in Ps. 137:1-3 are in the perfect tense, which may imply that the author lived sometime later than the exile and was writing about a bitter past experience.

The RSV translates the term "harps" (BDB 490) as "lyres." It is very difficult to ascertain the exact kind of musical instruments involved because the names changed from culture to culture, as did the design of the instruments. It was a small stringed musical instrument.

137:3 "For there our captors. . .our tormentors" It has been suggested by some commentators that this verse is an example of the mockery committed by the Babylonian captors, but the term translated by NASB, "demanded," is, in reality, the much more simple Hebrew word "ask" (BDB 981, KB 1371, Qal perfect). It is quite possible that the Babylonians were only interested in the new type of music which the Jews produced. However, for the Jews, they could not sing religious songs in a foreign land because they were committed to the worship of YHWH, who had seemingly been defeated by Marduk. This was a time of great confusion for the Jews during this period of history. There was the concept in the ANE that whoever won the battle was empowered by their national gods. YHWH was willing for His own name to be impugned in order for His people to turn back in trust to Him.

Notice there are several words that begin with שׁ.

1. Ps. 137:3 verb, "ask" - BDB 981, KB 1371, Qal perfect

2. Ps. 137:3 participle, "captors" - BDB 985, KB 1382, Qal participle

3. Ps. 137:3 noun, "songs" - BDB 1010

4. Ps. 137:3 noun, "mirth" - BDB 970

5. Ps. 137:3 verb, "sing" - BDB 1010, KB 1479, Qal imperative

6. Ps. 137:4 noun, "songs" - BDB 1010

7. Ps. 137:4 verb, "sings' - BDB 1010, KB 1479, Qal imperfect

8. Ps. 137:4 noun, "song" - BDB 1010

9. Ps. 137:5 verb, "forget" - BDB 1013, KB 1489, Qal imperfect

 10. Ps. 137:5 verb, "forget" - BDB 1013, KB 1489, Qal imperfect used in a jussive sense

 11. Ps. 137:6 noun, "joy" - BDB 970


▣ "our tormentors" This word (BDB 1064, KB 1700) is found only here. It could be

1. a parallel to "our captors" of Ps. 137:3a

2. "those who led us away" (REB), LXX, Peshitta, Vulgate

3. from another Hebrew root (הלל - BDB 237), "make a mockery of"


 4How can we sing the Lord's song
 In a foreign land?
 5If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
 May my right hand forget her skill.
 6May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
 If I do not remember you,
 If I do not exalt Jerusalem
 Above my chief joy.

137:4 "How can we sing the Lord's song
 In a foreign land"
Some have identified this statement with the concept of national deities, but it seems to me that it refers more to the religious character of the songs and that it was impossible to sing praises to YHWH in the midst of such judgment and alienation. I'm sure that the Jews really wondered if God's covenant was forever broken, if He would ever love them again, and if there was any hope for their nation. God would answer these questions in a positive way in the future but at this period of time there was great confusion and misunderstanding.

▣ "Lord's" This is YHWH. See Special Topic: Names for Deity.

137:5 "If I forget you, O Jerusalem" This shows their faith amidst dark times. Psalm 137:5-6 is a self curse used for literary intensity!

▣ "May. . .May" These are both Qal imperfects used in a jussive sense.

▣ "my right hand forget her skill" Notice that the words "her skill" are italicized in the NASB, which means that they are not in the MT. Because the context is singing this may be an allusion to the fact that these Jewish musicians were apostacizing by singing religious songs while in captivity and may have lost their skill as musicians. This seems to be the emphasis in Ps. 137:6, which implies the loss of singing ability.

137:6 "If I do not exalt Jerusalem

Above my chief joy" The literal phrase, "above head," is unique and may refer to some cultic gesture or symbolic head covering. The LXX takes "head" as "beginning" or "origin" (see Special Topic: Head).

As is so often with these rare poetic words, it is best to remember that

1. the parallel gives us a clue

2. the etymology of cognate roots is often a pointer to meaning

3. the thrust of the Psalm as a whole

JPSOA has "keep Jerusalem in memory at my happiest hour."

 7Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
 The day of Jerusalem,
 Who said, "Raze it, raze it
 To its very foundation."
 8O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
 How blessed will be the one who repays you
 With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
 9How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
 Against the rock.

137:7 "Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom" As humans are to remember God's grace, God is encouraged to forget (Qal imperative used in prayer) Israel's sins, for when God remembers it is usually in the context of judgment. That is exactly the purpose of this statement, that the God of vengeance, Deut. 32:35, will act fairly and justly toward the sons of Edom who violated their own relatives (i.e., the Jews). There is much biblical evidence that Edom participated in the siege, fall, and sack of Jerusalem (cf. Ps. 87:4-8; Jer. 49:7-22; Lam. 4:21; Ezek. 25:12-14; 35:1ff; Amos 1:11; Joel 3:19; and especially Obadiah 10-14). See SPECIAL TOPIC: EDOM AND ISRAEL.

▣ "Who said, ‘Raze it, raze it'" This is supposedly the words (two Piel imperatives) of the Edomites in the day that Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar's army. However, the new translation of the Jewish Publication of America has, "strip her, strip her." This is quite possible in light of Isa. 47:2-3; Lam. 1:8; Ezek. 16:37. The metaphor here is of a woman who is publicly shamed. This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that in the next phrase, "to its very foundation," can be translated as "buttocks" (BDB 414, KB 417, AB, p. 273). I think the first option is better.

137:8 "O daughter of Babylon" It is quite common to call nations by the term, "daughter of." This is a Hebrew idiom used to include an entire population. See full note at Jer. 46:11 online. It is interesting that the three verbs of Ps. 137:8 are repeated in Jer. 51:56.

NASB"you devastated one"
NKJV"you who are destroyed"
NASB margin"you devastator"
TEV"you will be destroyed"
NJB"doomed to destruction"
Targums"you predator"
REB"the destroyer"

The UBS Text Project, p. 419, gives "devastated one" a "B" rating (some doubt). The differences between the options are

1. דודהשה - devastated one

2. דדהשה - devastating one


▣ "How blessed will be the one who repays you

 With the recompense with which you have repaid us" This is simply the OT example of the "eye for an eye" justice of Lev. 24:19-22; Deut. 19:19; repeated in Jeremiah 51. We Reap what we sow (often called "the two ways," cf. Job 34:11; Ps. 28:4; 62:12; Pro. 24:12,29; Eccl. 12:14; Jer. 17:10; 32:19; Matt. 16:27; 25:31-46; Rom. 2:6; 14:12; 1 Cor. 3:8; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:7; 2 Tim. 4:14; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 2:23; 20:12; 22:12).

There are six imprecatory (i.e., cursing) Psalms, i.e., Psalms 55; 59; 69; 79; 109; 137.

137:9 "dashes our little ones" This was a common practice in the ANE (cf. 2 Kgs. 8:12; Isa. 13:16,18; Hosea 10:14; Nahum 3:10). It is interesting to note that the specific prophecy mentioned in Isa. 13:16 was against Babylon. This seems to be a horrible example of the truth that what we sow, we reap. The historian, Prideaux, tells us that when Babylon came under siege that the women and children were killed in order that more food would be preserved for the military defenders of the city.

▣ "the rock" The noun (BD 700) has the definite article. It could refer to

1. a name for Petra (often called "the red" city), a capital in Edom (BDB 701, cf. 2 Kgs. 14:7)

2. a way of referring to idolatry, which is opposite of YHWH, "the true rock"

3. some emend the term to "Aram" (a country)

4. a way of referring to a hard surface, like a wall or side of a house. This fits the context and parallelism best.



This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why was the Babylonian captivity such a theological crisis? 

2. How do these historical examples in the life of the nation of Israel apply to us in the Church?

3. Discuss the words "forget" and "remember" and how they are used in an OT setting. 

4. How does one compare the ancient practices of war in a moral sense with our own modern practices?

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