2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, judo not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest
7 Remember, O LORD, against the E’domites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
Psalm 137 is a deeply intense psalm, charged with human emotions. It reveals experiences of suffering and anguish, and tells of tremendous faith in the midst of religious uncertainty. At first reading, one cannot but feel the writer’s deep sense of loss and immense sadness as he describes his days of exile along the rivers of Babylon, mourning for the past. As the words continue, one notes his anger and indignation at the cruelty inflicted on his people, and his appeal to the almighty God to vindicate them and manifest His divine justice.
The Historical Setting
PSALM 137 IS SAID to be written by one of the deportees to Babylon. It provides a glimpse of life in captivity within a foreign heathen land. What then is the historical background to this Babylonian exile, and why did it invoke such emotions in the writer?
587 BCE marked the watershed in judean history. Babylonian troops under Nebuzaradan, the commander of the royal bodyguard, destroyed Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:8; Jer 52:12) after laying a two-year siege (Jer 37:7-9, 11; 34:2 1). The Temple, the royal palace and homes of citizens were burned. The city walls were pulled down (2 Kings 25:9-10; Jer 52:13f). Temple vessels and treasures were looted (2 Kings 25:13-17; Jer 52:17-23). The top priests, surviving royal officials, commanders and provincial leaders were rounded up and executed (2 Kings 25:18-21; Jer 52:24-27). Many were led away into exile (2 Kings 25:11-12). Archaeological excavations also show that many Judean cities as far apart as Lachish, Arad and Engedi suffered similar fates during this period of Nebuchadnezzar’s Palestinian campaigns. In Lachish, for example, 22 inscribed ostraca (or inscribed potsherds) were found belonging to the last years of Judah, and on them were references to battle preparations, the use of fire signals, etc; indicating perhaps the difficult final days of the kingdom.
Sizable groups were exiled to Babylon and the deportations frayed the very fabric of society, having siphoned off many of the upper and artisan classes. It also led to the redistribution of judean properties and wealth to those who remained (Eze 11:15).
Very little biblical material directly describes life in exile. Primary biblical sources are the prophetic books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah chapters 40-55. Jeremiah witnessed both captures of Jerusalem (in 592 BCE and 587 BCE), and participated in the life of Judean community during the rule of Gedaliah (2 Kings 25:22; Jer 40:7). Ezekiel’s ministry, spanning the period from 593 BCE (Eze 1:2) to 571 BCE (Eze 29:17), appears to have centred entirely on the Babylonian exile, and the book is a key source into the life of the exiles in Babylon. Much of Isaiah 40-55 provides historical records of the transitional period between the closing years of the Babylonian rule, and the rise of Persia under Cyrus.
There is no clear biblical evidence to suggest that the exiled community was forced to live in inhuman conditions. They appeared to have remained relatively free, and in no sense could be considered as slaves. The letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29 encouraged them to “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce; take wives and have sons and daughters” (Jer 29:5-6). In Ezekiel 8:1,14:1,20:1, “elders” gathered at the prophet’s house, suggesting some freedom of association. The genealogical records of the returning exiles (Ezra 2) show that family structures were preserved. Further analysis of the returnees also reveal that they had servants and some degree of wealth (Eze 1:6,2:68-69). The presence of the Davidic royal family members would also help to promote the sense of identity. For instance, during exile, years were reckoned by reference to Jehoiachin’s reign (Eze 1:2,33:21,40:1).
Non-biblical sources of this period are varied. The Babylonian royal cuneiform tablets refer to Jehoiachin in exile, mention foodstuffs that were given to him and his five sons as pensionary payments (ANET 308). Although such payments were common and do not in themselves reflect any preferential treatment, they do suggest a degree of humane treatment given to Jehoiachin and the Judean nobles. Furthermore, seal impressions unearthed in exca¬vations at several Judean sites bearing the inscription “Belonging to Eliakim steward of Yaukin (Jehoiachin)” suggest that even in exile, Jehoiachin was allowed to retain possession of some Judean crown property administered by Eliakim. Finally, tablets discovered in Nippur in 1893 dating from 455 to403 BCE(Persian era) which record the commercial activities of a certain Marashu family, also mention the names of some Jewish persons, indicating that the Judean exiles also became involved in the economic activities of the Babylonian communities.
The brief analysis above suggests that conditions for the exiles were tolerable. They were allowed to settle together and to generally get on with their lives. This being so, why did the writer of Psalm 137 express such bitterness? The real key to the disaster in 587 BCE lies in its spiritual and emotional impact. Essentially, it caused a theological crisis.
THE RELIGIOUS SETTING
The calamity in 587 BCE robbed the Jews of the very elements of their religious identity. The people witnessed the desecration of all that their religious faith stood for by the Babylonian invasion.
The land played a vital part in the religious thought of the people. The Shema call of “hear 0 Israel” (Deut 6:4) presupposed a close link between religion and the land. The people of Israel were seen as a clearly defined entity dwelling in a land promised to its ancestors (Deut 6:1, 7:1). The worship of God was intimately associated with the promised land, taken to be a divine gift to the nation. This concept formed a prominent and distinctive feature in the religious thinking of the people, eg, homilies of Deut 5-11 is directly related to the concern with the land. The annexation of the Northern Territories by Assyria around 721 BCE was bad enough—now to have lost Judah too to the Babylonians was the ultimate tragedy.
Closely related to the possession of the land was the concept of Israel as the “elect”, a people “holy to Yahweh, chosen to be a people for His own possession” (Deut 7:6-11). This theme runs through the traditions of the Patriarchs (Gen 12:2, 17:7-8), the exodus (Exodus 10:3), the settlement (Josh 2-4), and the military conquests of David. These events are seen as confirmation that Israel was favoured (2 Sam 5:10, 12). It therefore seemed almost inconceivable that the chosen people could suffer such a humiliation as to be exiled to an unclean heathen land.
The city of Jerusalem, captured from the Jebusites (2 Sam 5:7) and converted into the capital of his empire by I)avid, is the third important element in the religious thought of those days. For here lay the Temple, built by Solomon in the mid-tenth century, and where the Ark of the Covenant was housed. According to Deuteronomy 12:5, the Temple in Jerusalem was “the place where the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put His name and make His habitation there.” It was the focus of the religious life of Israel, most likely following the religious reforms of Josiah late in the seventh century (2 Kgs 22-23). It was also the only legitimate place of sacrifice (Deut 12:5-14). For these reasons, the holy city was, to many, impregnable — a notion supported by the turn of events in 700 BCE when the city was spared from the Assyrian attacks (2 Kgs 19:35-37; Is 29:5-8). But in 587 BCE Jerusalem suffered her greatest defeat: her Temple was destroyed and her treasures ransacked. It was no wonder that the author of Lamentations mourned over the fate of this city “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become. She that was great among the nations! ... The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things: yea, she has seen the nations invade her sanctuary, those whom Thou didst forbid to enter Thy congregation” (Lam 1:1, 10).
Finally, there is the concept of a permanent Davidic dynasty. Israel embraced monarchy some two centuries after the settlement (1 Sam 8:19-20). Following the prophet Nathan’s announcement of the divine promise of a permanent royal house of David (2 Sam 7:4-16), this concept became a powerful ideology, as the “royal Psalms” (i.e., Psalms relating to the king in Jerusalem) illustrate (e.g., the Davidic king was viewed as the “son” of God <Psalm 2:7>, sitting at God’s right hand <Psalm 110:1>). Yet in 597 BCE, King Jehoiachin was exiled and ten years later, his successor, King Zedekiah met with the same fate.
By 587 BCE, Judah had lost her land, and with it, her status as the “chosen” people of God. She had been stripped of her city, and not one but two of her kings, and her people were captured and exiled. To top it all, her Temple, the focus of her religion, was razed to the ground and the treasures ransacked. All in all, it would appear that the very nerve of the religious system was severed. It is no wonder that the writer of psalm 137 lapsed into such despair.
The Psalm offers no introduction, instead it moves straight into the key scene by the waters of Babylon (Psalm 137:1). Herodotus, the historian, described Babylon as having “a moat, deep, wide and full of water which runs entirely round it.” Also, “And the city consists of two divisions, for a river, called the Euphrates, separated it in the middle: this river is broad, deep and rapid. The wall on either bank has an elbow carried down to the river.” He also told of how all the streets lead to the river, and that at the end of each street “a little gate is formed in the wall along the river side ... they are all made of brass, and lead down to edge of the river.”
It could have been at such a place, by the waters of Babylon, that the writer together with the exiled community, sat and wept, when they remembered Zion. Zion, to them, represented the national centre of worship and is a name which applies to Jerusalem, or portions thereof since the time of David. The usage of the word has changed over time and it is difficult to pinpoint its precise location. Originally, it could have referred to a designated Jebusite fortress at the south-east spur of the hill, at the junction of the Kidron and Tyropoean valleys which David captured and renamed “City of David” (2 Sam 5:6-9). In prophetic writings, the name referred to the hill on which the Temple stood, which was metaphorically extended to mean the place where God’s name is present (Is 2-4, 8:18; Mic 4:1-5; Jer 3 1:6). In Hebrew psalmody, the term applied to the entire city of Jerusalem (Psalm 48; 125).
The songs of Zion are likely to he sacred songs — songs to magnify the power and majesty of God. In this heathen land, God seemed so far away. So how could they sing to Him?
The religious devotion of the author is illustrated in verses 5 to 7 in which he proclaimed that, should he ever forget Jerusalem, “may his right hand fail him and his tongue cling to the roof of his mouth.” This passionate proclamation expressed his religious fervour. The failing of his right hand implied his inability to play the harp which accompanied the sacred songs, an important part of his worship of God. Likewise, his tongue cleaving to his palate meant that he could not utter words of praise and thanksgiving to God. From these expressions, one may conclude that although he was in captivity and the very fabric of his religion torn, he remained loyal to his God and held fast to his beliefs
There is a sudden turn of thought in verse 7. The writer here wrote of the enemy nearer home, the Edomites who had been opponents of Israel throughout history (Num 20.14-20, 1 Kgs 11:14-17). Although they were descendants of Esau (Gen 36:1-17, 25:30), and occupied the land south of Judah to the Gulf of Aqabah, they had often sided with the enemies of Judah. The prophet Obadiah described their attitude when Jerusalem fell: “On that day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them” (Obad 11-14).
Verses 8 and 9 revert back to the main subject - Babylon, the devastator of 586 BCE, who displayed such cruelty as dashing children against the rocks. Such actions had existed before (2 Kgs 8:12; Is 13:16; Hos 13:16; Nah 3:10) and were now equally deplorable.
From verse 7 onwards, the writer appealed to God not to avenge for him the humiliation he had personally suffered, but to defend the divine sovereignty, and to manifest His divine justice. To the writer, such atrocities against God’s chosen people should not go unpunished. He wanted God to act, to show that He was still in charge.
Psalm 137 expresses feelings of separation from God, as when a believer is deprived of the opportunity to be in His presence within His Holy Temple. Yet, in these moments of apparent hopelessness, he remained assured that God was with His people. He held last to his faith and continued to yearn for Zion, the centre of his religious faith. He pleaded with God to avenge the humiliation and injustice done to His people.
As a twentieth century reader of this psalm, we ought to ask, “Will we still display such religious conviction if one day the very essence of all that we believe is threatened, or even apparently destroyed?”.