These notes are based on the NASB text.
What is the background of Psalm 137?
The historical setting of this psalm was the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Although the writer is not mentioned by name, he was doubtless a victim of the exile. He expressed the homesickness on the part of those carried off into exile in a foreign land. The psalm is both patriotic and vindictive in tone.
137:1 By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
137:2 Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
The psalmist painted a sad scene in these verses. The exiles sat along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Babylon and wept as they remembered Zion (a reference to Jerusalem and its Temple). They hung their harps on the branches of the willow trees which grew along the banks of the rivers.
This scene was the result of their stubborn refusal to turn away from their sin. This was the result of turning a deaf ear to the words and warnings of the prophets. Their determined and stiff-necked disobedience led them to Babylon. And now, they were like the prodigal in the far country. They were homesick and nostalgic. Their memories were mingled with tears. They longed for the sights of their own country. They were painfully aware of how sin had impoverished them.
Practical Consideration: We often fail to value things until we lose them.
Someone observed, “The well is never prized until it is dry.” And so it was with the exiles. They repeatedly refused to heed the warnings, exhortations, and entreaties of the prophets. They refused to forsake their affair with idolatry. They continued in their rebellion against God. They moved at break-neck speed toward spiritual apostasy. And, at last, they experienced the judgment of God.
They lost the privilege of living in their own land. They were marched into exile. Only then did they come to their spiritual senses. Only then did they come to the realization that their sin had robbed them of precious privileges previously taken for granted. Only from foreign soil were they finally able to see what they refused to see on native soil. Only then did they see the value in what they had previously spurned and lost.
Practical Consideration: Sin robs us of joy.
The exiles wept as they reflected on privileges lost. They wept and hung their harps on the weeping branches of the willow trees. What a sad picture of the dividends of sin. Sin always pays in the currency of sorrow and misery.
137:3 For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
137:4 How can we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land?
In addition to the pain brought on by homesickness, their grief was intensified as their captors mockingly demanded music from them. The psalmist and his fellow exiles refused to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.” The weight and sorrow of their situation suppressed the song in their hearts. Perhaps there were two missed opportunities in the refusal to sing. First, there was the missed opportunity to witness through song to their pagan captors. Second, there was the missed opportunity to find encouragement in songs of the faith.
Practical Consideration: We should not miss opportunities to witness.
The exiles, understandably, refused to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.” Their hearts were sorrowful. But, the Lord’s song should be sung in a foreign land. The Lord’s song should be sung among those who have never heard its melody.
137:5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
137:6 May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.
The psalmist’s patriotism is seen in these verses. He pronounced a curse on himself should he ever forget Jerusalem. The psalmist reaffirmed his intense loyalty to his homeland. He vowed never to forget Jerusalem. He vowed to place the remembrance of Jerusalem above his chief joy.
Practical Consideration: We should set God’s interests above all others.
The psalmist vowed to remember and exalt Jerusalem above his chief joy. God’s interests would have the highest priority in his life as a result of the lessons learned in exile. We too, should seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). We should set our “minds on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). God should have the highest place and priority in our lives.
137:7 Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it,
To its very foundation.”
137:8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
137:9 How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock.
The psalmist turned his attention to Edom and Babylon. He prayed that God would remember the treachery of Edom (the neighboring nation) and Babylon (a growing world super-power) and repay them for their cruelty.
The Edomites were the half-brothers of the Israelites through Esau. Obadiah 10-14 and Amos 1:11 speak of Edom’s spiteful attitude and role against the Israelites.
The Babylonians, under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.. The psalmist’s intense hatred for his enemies is demonstrated in verse 9.
The term “little children” may refer to all who were citizens of the wicked mother Babylon. The psalmist probably witnessed many terrible atrocities at the hands of the Babylonians, including the callous and brutal murder of children. He prayed that they would be repaid in kind.
Spurgeon writes regarding the imprecatory tone of this psalm: “Let those find fault with it who have never seen their temple burned, their city ruined, their wives ravished, and their children slain; they might not, perhaps, be quite so velvet-mouthed if they had suffered after this fashion.”