George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 137

1. Structure

The scorn of the captors
Nostalgia for Zion
Bitter invective against the enemy

2. Historical setting

The name Babylon (vv. 1,8) has shaped the conclusions of generations of commentators that this psalm belongs to the post-Zedekiah captivity. And this in turn has become the ground for the blithe assumption that therefore many another psalm also belongs to the same period.

The difficulties in the way of these conclusions are considerable:

Context: Leaving 137 out of consideration, all the rest of the Psalter (except perhaps 90 and 91) are readily traceable to either the times of David or the times of Hezekiah.
What evidence is there of Edom’s association (see v. 7) with Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem? But there is ample evidence for Edom rendering assistance to the Assyrians in their invasions of the Promised Land (2 Chron. 28:17; Isa. 34:6; 63:1-6; Obad. 15-19).
Jeremiah bade the captives of his day pray for the peace of Babylon (29:7), and to settle down there in relative comfort for at least seventy years. The spirit of this psalm is exactly the opposite.
Babylon, who art to be destroyed (v. 8). Babylon was never destroyed. It continued in prosperity for a thousand years after Zedekiah, and then it was not destroyed but gradually wilted away.

Over against these considerations is the well-known fact of the constant “confusion” by Old Testament writers of the names of Babylon and Nineveh/Assyria (see details, Par. 6). (Not that they did not know the difference — they assuredly did! But rather that they wrote as though there were no difference.) Once this fact is recognized, the way is open for reference of this psalm to the time of Hezekiah. The followings facts are relevant:

Sennacherib took away from Judea no less than 200,000 captives, and settled some of them (probably most of them) in Babylon (Taylor Prism; cp. Mic. 4:10), which he had recently captured and in fact depopulated, a process begun by his predecessors (2 Kings 17:24). This was, until the days of Nazi Germany, by far the largest deportation and resettlement in all of Jewish history (it was four times the number of Nebuchadnezzar’s captivity, and seven times the number of Sargon’s captivity of Samaria — just to name the two most famous Biblical “captivities”).
Herodotus calls Sennacherib “the king of the Arabians and Assyrians” (cp. vv. 7,8 here). An inscription mentions that Edom, Moab, and Ammon all helped Sennacherib in his Judean campaign.
The Taylor Prism inscription mentions specifically “men singers and women singers” among Sennacherib’s Judean captives (cp. vv. 2,3 here). It so happens that a relief from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh portrays a situation not unlike this, with three prisoners of war playing lyres as they are marched along by an armed soldier (Kidner, citing M.A. Beek, Atlas of Mesopotamia).
The drastic prophecies in Isaiah 34; 63:1-6; Joel 3:19; and Obadiah — all against Edom (and all of them contemporary prophecies) — illuminate the “Edom” reference here.

3. Details of Hezekiah’s day

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. 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. These verses, with their past tense, read as though the misery of captivity is now a thing of the past. The destruction of Sennacherib’s army and the consequent immediate release of a flood of Judean captives, was foretold as about to take place, quickly, in a Year of Jubilee release (Isa. 27:6,12,13; 35:10; 37:30,31; 42:6,7; 48:20,21; 49:17-26; cp. Psa. 70:11; 85:1,11; 136:22-25; etc.).

Compare Isa. 61:3: “them that mourn in Zion” should read “the mourners of Zion” (Rotherham) — even though in Babylon!
By the rivers of Babylon. The Jewish custom was apparently to have special places of prayer located near running water (for purposes of washing?): see Ezek. 1:1; Dan. 8:2; 10:4; Acts 16:13. At any rate, the land around Babylon was intersected by numerous natural streams and irrigation canals. (Likewise, the “Babylon” of the Apocalypse sits on many “waters”: Rev. 17:1,5,15.)

There we sat down. Sitting on the ground was a posture denoting deep distress (Job 2:13; Lam. 2:10; 3:28). The same idea is also represented, in a more intensified form, in Jer. 6:26 and Mic. 1:10.

Yea, we wept. The rivers of water flowing under their feet found their counterpart in the rivers of tears flowing from their eyes (cp. similar figures in Jer. 9:1,18; Lam. 2:11,18; 3:48; etc.).
The songs of Zion are temple hymns (v. 4: songs of the Lord). This proud mockery expresses the deep religious motive behind this invasion of Judah. It was seen as a contest between the “gods” of Assyria and Israel’s God.

The Greek historian Strabo says that, some three or four centuries later, Hebrew singing girls were known to be the best in the world.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? This and v. 2 suggest that in the shameful period of appeasement, when Hezekiah’s sickness put the reins of government into the hands of other (and faithless) princes, the Assyrian king demanded the temple choir and orchestra as hostages (Taylor Prism). The earlier equally shameful episode in Ahaz’s reign, when part of the temple was handed over to an Assyrian garrison (cp. Psa. 79:1; 74:6,7; 2 Chron. 28:21), had left in some Assyrian minds a strong and envious memory of the splendor of the temple service.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Note the italics. Instead, read: “... let my right hand forget me”. Or, as the RSV, by an emendation: “... let my right hand wither”. Compare the idea of Psa. 76:5.
If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. These words are difficult to apply to a Jerusalem in ruins in the time of Nebuchadnezzar (contrast Jer. 39:8). But regarding the Hezekiah period, there is no difficulty.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. The Edomite hatred persisted unabated through the centuries, as foreshadowed in the time of their progenitor Esau (Gen. 27:41). The prophecy of Obadiah has some classic expressions of this bitter hostility. From the time it turned against Israel, Edom sank slowly downward in esteem and power, becoming subservient to Babylon and Rome, losing its former territory and being forced to dwell among the Jews, and at last being annihilated by the Roman conquerors of Palestine. So, said the Lord, “I will curse him that curseth thee” (Gen. 12:3).

Notice that this verse does not say ‘in the day when Jerusalem fell’! This confirms — or at any rate allows — the earlier application of the psalm, to Hezekiah’s day rather than to Zedekiah’s.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed. Does this mean “the virgin daughter” (i.e., impregnable city) of Babylon/Nineveh itself? Or does it mean a “satellite” of Babylon/Nineveh, i.e., Edom? Either way, these are empty words when applied to the literal city of Babylon. But they are full of ominous truth regarding the literal city of Nineveh, for less than a century later, that city was utterly and completely swept out of existence by Nebuchadnezzar’s father, to remain a pathetic desolation until discovered by Layard in the last century. Thus ended the centuries-old rivalry between two great cities.

Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

“And they [Jacob and Israel] shall take them [Babylon/Assyria] captives, whose captives they were; and they shall rule over their oppressors... I will break the Assyrian in the land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot: then shall his yoke depart from off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders” (Isa. 14:2,25).
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. War was as cruel (almost as cruel?) then as it is now (2 Kings 8:12; 15:16; Hos. 10:14; 13:16; Amos 1:13). Nevertheless, this is a terrible verse, and utterly repulsive as a prayer to God until it is read with strong emphasis on the word thy. Then it can be seen as the instinctive reaction (of a distraught parent?) who has heard a brutal Assyrian threat to “dash thy little ones against the Rock”, i.e., the altar of burnt offering which the Assyrians held in special abomination. This verse links directly with Isa. 13:16:

“Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished”,...

and had its sequel in what Nah. 3:10 also foretold against Nineveh:

“Yet was she carried away, she went into captivity: her young children also were dashed in pieces at the top of all the streets.”

And so the bestial Assyrians (see Par. 6) — and Edomites — no doubt suffered the same atrocities which they had visited (or sought to visit) on the people of Israel. The God who, through Christ, destroyed a wicked “tree” would not shrink from destroying its soon-to-be wicked “fruit” (cp. Matt. 21:19)! (Thirtle, Old Testament Problems, p. 136; in general, Psalms Studies, Book #1, Introduction, Par. 3.)

4. The last days

The prophetic scenario includes this sequence:

Arab invaders overthrow Israel.
Many Jews are taken into captivity.
A prophet of godliness comes with a message of hope.
This develops a repentant spirit in Israel.
In response to prayers of the faithful Jews, the Messiah comes.
There is executed divine judgment upon the invaders.
Jesus begins to rule as King in Jerusalem.
Jewish captives return to their own land.
A punitive expedition is launched against Edom.
There follows an extraordinary Year of Jubilee.

The above details, all easily established from other Scriptures, build up a marvellous correspondence with the events of Hezekiah’s reign. (Note that the above sequence is very incomplete. Such items as resurrection and judgment, and the fulfillment of Psalm 2, Ezekiel 38, 1 Corinthians 15, etc. have been deliberately excluded.)

5. Details of the last days

Here is the scorn of those who have long wished to see the state of Israel overthrown. At last their holy war has achieved triumph (Ezek. 35:10,12; 36:2; Psa. 79:10; Rev. 11:10). All this is to be followed by a marked contrast when the Jews, now a true “Israel” (Prince with God), will rejoice in mount Zion for ever — and then, in an outpouring of joy, the harps will play again (Rev. 14:2)!
Nearly every Edom prophecy anticipates the bitter hatred of Arabs for Jews in the Last Days. Psalm 83 is outstanding in this respect.
He... that rewardeth thee as thou (Babylon) hast served us. Compare the fate of the Last Days “Babylon” (Rev. 18:6-9), which surely must now be seen as some power that has oppressed or will oppress Jews in their own Land. Who?
In a symbolic sense this will happen to the “children” — i.e., disciples — of Mohammed; they will dash themselves in vain against the Rock of the State of Israel!

6. The confusion between Assyria and Babylon

During the time of Isaiah and Hezekiah, the two countries of Assyria and Babylon were so closely identified in the minds of the prophets as to be almost interchangeable; consequently, each occurrence of either name needs to be studied on its own merits.

Assyria and Babylon spoke virtually the same language. There was, for certain periods during Old Testament times, an intense rivalry between the two. Thus, the kings of Assyria took a special pride, when appropriate, in using their title “King of Babylon”. There is ample evidence of this in the inscriptions: Tiglath-pileser III was the first Assyrian monarch to be also king of Babylon; it was a title he was especially proud of because his grandmother Semiramis had been a Babylonian princess. Later, Shalmaneser V asserted with great glee that he was king of Babylon even before he became king of Assyria. And later still, Sargon called himself “Vicar of the gods of Babylon”.
Isaiah 13,14 is called “the burden of Babylon”. But Isaiah 14:25 reads: “I will break the Assyrian in the land”. This must be Sennacherib, not Nebuchadnezzar! Why, for that matter, would Isaiah ever have been moved to foretell the ruin of a city-state which did not even become a threat to his own nation for more than one hundred years? But... if “Babylon” = “Assyria” here — which was the imminent (and eminent) threat to Israel and Judah — all becomes much clearer.
Isaiah 13:8 = Psalm 48:5,6 (which is definitely about the Assyria of Sennacherib).
Isaiah 13 has four references to Joel, which is certainly not about Babylon, but which fits the Assyrian era exceedingly well.
Micah 4:10: This prophecy is entirely Assyrian in its references (note 5:5; 7:12; and the whole of ch. 1). And Micah 4:10 says: “Now... !” — not 100-plus years from now!
2 Chronicles 33:11 speaks of the king of Assyria carrying Manasseh captive to Babylon.

And, in the following, Assyria means Babylon:

Amos 5:2: cp. Acts 7:43, where Stephen interchanges the two.
2 Kings 23:29: Josiah did not fight against the king of Assyria, but against the king of Babylon.
Ezra 6:22: Darius the king of Babylon is called “the king of Assyria”.
Lamentations 5:6; Zechariah 10:10,11.

(J.W. Thirtle, Old Testament Problems, pp. 130-140; H.A. Whittaker, “The Assyrian-Babylonian ‘Mix-up’ ”, The Testimony, April 1966, Vol. 36, No. 424, pp. 137-139)

7. Postscripts

We sat down by Babel’s streams,
And dreamt soul-saddening memory’s dreams,
And dark thoughts o’er our spirits crept,
Of Zion, and we wept! we wept!
Our harps upon the willows hung,
Silent and tuneless, and unstrung:
For they who wrought our pains and wrongs
Asked us for Zion’s pleasant songs.

How shall we sing Jehovah’s praise
To those who Baal’s altars raise?
How pour forth Judah’s free-born hymns
With Babel’s fetters on our limbs?
How chant thy lays, dear fatherland,
To strangers on a foreign strand?
Ah, no! we’ll bear grief’s keenest sting,
But dare not Zion’s anthems sing.

Place us where Sharon’s roses blow,
Place us where Siloam’s waters flow,
Place us on Lebanon, that waves
Its cedars o’er our fathers’ graves.
Place us upon that holy mount,
Where stands the Temple, gleams the fount;
Then love and joy shall loose our tongues
In chosen Zion’s pleasant songs.

If I should e’er, earth’s brightest gem,
Forget thee, O Jerusalem!
May my right hand forget its skill
To wake the slumbering lyre at will!
If from my heart, e’en when most gay,
Thine image e’er should fade away.
May my tongue rest within my head
Mute as the voices of the dead!

Author unknown

Sing to me lest I grow weary
        Waiting for the dawn of day;
Sing, that I may hear sweet echoes
        As I tread my lonely way.

Sing of peace, the world’s wild clamor
        Hath no music in its din;
Sing of hope, lest hope deferred
        Make the whole heart sick within.

Sing of love, the Sun, the center
        Of redemption’s glorious plan;
Sing of joy, the risen Day-Star,
        Which the beams of hope out-ran.

Sing the song of ransomed Zion,
        With Messiah crowned, her King;
Call to mind the loud Hosannahs
        Which from all earth’s tribes shall spring.

Sing to cheer the long night-watches,
        Sing to gild the dawning gray,
Till the Hallelujah Chorus
        Peals to greet the endless day.

F.L. Wright
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