Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
By the Rivers of Babylon
The Hallelujah Ps 135 and the Hodu Ps 136 are followed by a Psalm which glances back into the time of the Exile, when such cheerful songs as they once sang to the accompaniment of the music of the Levites at the worship of God on Mount Zion were obliged to be silent. It is anonymous. The inscription Τῷ Δαυίδ (διὰ) Ἱιερεμίου found in codices of the lxx, which is meant to say that it is a Davidic song coming from the heart of Jeremiah,
(Note: Reversely Ellies du Pin (in the preface of his Bibliotque des Auteurs Ecclsiastiques) says: Le Pseaume 136 porte le nom de David et de Jeremie, ce qu'il faut apparement entendre ainsi: Pseaume de Jeremie fait l'imitation de David.)
is all the more erroneous as Jeremiah never was one of the Babylonian exiles.
The שׁ, which is repeated three times in Psa 136:8., corresponds to the time of the composition of the Psalm which is required by its contents. It is just the same with the paragogic i in the future in Psa 136:6. But in other respects the language is classic; and the rhythm, at the beginning softly elegiac, then more and more excited, and abounding in guttural and sibilant sounds, is so expressive that scarcely any Psalm is so easily impressed on the memory as this, which is so pictorial even in sound.
The metre resembles the elegiac as it appears in the so-called caesura schema of the Lamentations and in the cadence of Isa 16:9-10, which is like the Sapphic strophe. Every second lien corresponds to the pentameter of the elegiac metre.
Beginning 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 (Eze 1:3) and Daniel (ch. Dan 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 Isa 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 (Lev 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 Psa 137:3, Psa 137:3 and Psa 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 = שׁלל. It might more readily be referred back to a Poel תּולל (= 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 = תּהולל, like מהולל, Psa 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 Psa 35:20; Psa 65:4; Psa 105:27; Psa 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 Psa 137:4 "song of Jahve," which, as in Ch2 29:27, cf. Ch1 25:7, denotes sacred or liturgical songs, that is to say, songs belonging to Psalm poesy (including the Cantica).
Before Psa 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 Psa 137:5 and Psa 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 Psa 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.
The second part of the Psalm supplicates vengeance upon Edom and Babylon. We see from Obadiah's prophecy, which is taken up again by Jeremiah, how shamefully the Edomites, that brother-people related by descent to Israel and yet pre-eminently hostile to it, behaved in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldaeans as their malignant, rapacious, and inhuman helpers. The repeated imper. Piel ערוּ, from ערה (not imper. Kal from ערר, which would be ערוּ), ought to have been accented on the ult.; it is, however, in both cases accented on the first syllable, the pausal ערוּ (cf. כּלוּ in Psa 37:20, and also הסּוּ, Neh 8:11) giving rise to the same accentuation of the other (in order that two tone-syllables might not come together). The Pasek also stands between the two repeated words in order that they may be duly separated, and secures, moreover, to the guttural initial of the second ערוּ its distinct pronunciation (cf. Gen 26:28; Num 35:16). It is to be construed: lay bare, lay bare (as in Hab 3:13, cf. גּלּה in Mic 1:6) in it (Beth of the place), of in respect of it (Beth of the object), even to the foundation, i.e., raze it even to the ground, leave not one stone upon another. From the false brethren the imprecation turns to Babylon, the city of the imperial power of the world. The daughter, i.e., the population, of Babylon is addressed as השּׁדוּדה. It certainly seems the most natural to take this epithet as a designation of its doings which cry for vengeance. But it cannot in any case be translated: thou plunderer (Syriac like the Targum: bozuzto; Symmachus ἡ λῃστρίς), for שׁדד does not mean to rob and plunder, but to offer violence and to devastate. Therefore: thou devastator; but the word so pointed as we have it before us cannot have this signification: it ought to be השּׁדודה, like בּגודה in Jer 3:7, Jer 3:10, or השּׁדוּדה (with an unchangeable ā), corresponding to the Syriac active intensive form ālûṣo, oppressor, gōdûfo, slanderer, and the Arabic likewise active intensive form Arab. fâ‛ûl, e.g., fâshûs, a boaster, and also as an adjective: ǵôz fâshûs, empty nuts, cf. יקוּשׁ = יקושׁ, a fowler, like nâṭûr (נאטור), a field-watcher. The form as it stands is part. pass., and signifies προνενομευμένη (Aquila), vastata (Jerome). It is possible that this may be said in the sense of vastanda, although in this sense of a part. fut. pass. the participles of the Niphal (e.g., Ps 22:32; Psa 102:19) and of the Pual (Psa 18:4) are more commonly used. It cannot at any rate signify vastata in an historical sense, with reference to the destruction of Babylon by Darius Hystaspes (Hengstenberg); for Psa 137:7 only prays that the retribution may come: it cannot therefore as yet have been executed; but if השׁדודה signified the already devastated one, it must (at least in the main) have been executed already. It might be more readily understood as a prophetical representation of the executed judgment of devastation; but this prophetic rendering coincides with the imprecative: the imagination of the Semite when he utters a curse sees the future as a realized fact. "Didst thou see the smitten one (maḍrûb)," i.e., he whom God must smite? Thus the Arab inquires for a person who is detested. "Pursue him who is seized (ilḥaḳ el̇ma'chûdh)," i.e., him whom God must allow thee to seize! Thy speak thus inasmuch as the imagination at once anticipates the seizure at the same time with the pursuit. Just as here both maḍrûb and ma'chûdh are participles of Kasl, so therefore השּׁדוּודה may also have the sense of vastanda (which must be laid waste!). That which is then further desired for Babylon is the requital of that which it has done to Israel, Isa 47:6. It is the same penal destiny, comprehending the children also, which is predicted against it in Isa 13:16-18, as that which was to be executed by the Medes. The young children (with reference to עולל, עולל, vid., on Psa 8:3) are to be dashed to pieces in order that a new generation may not raise up again the world-wide dominion that has been overthrown, Isa 14:21. It is zeal for God that puts such harsh words into the mouth of the poet. "That which is Israel's excellency and special good fortune the believing Israelite desires to have bestowed upon the whole world, but for this very reason he desires to see the hostility of the present world of nations against the church of God broken" (Hofmann). On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the "blessed" of this Psalm is not suited to the mouth of the New Testament church. In the Old Testament the church as yet had the form of a nation, and the longing for the revelation of divine righteousness clothed itself accordingly in a warlike garb.