Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
At the Babylonish captivity the established order of God’s worship was overthrown, and the Psalmist complains, in the name of the Church at large, of the taunts which the enemy east upon the name of God, addressing at the same time a word of comfort to his people under their captivity, to cheer them with the hope of deliverance.
1. By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down, we even wept when we remembered thee, O Zion! 2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. 3. Then they that carried us away captive required of us the words of a song, and mirth when we were in suspense, saying, Sing to us one of the songs of Zion. 4. How shall we sing Jehovah’s song in a foreign land?
1. By the rivers of Babylon 178 there we sat down I have elsewhere said, that it is a great mistake to suppose that it is David who here prophetically apprises the people of God of the captivity which should come upon them. The Prophets in speaking of future events employ very different language. What is brought under notice is the event as now historically come, and matter of experience. We shall briefly explain the scope of the Psalmist. There was danger that the Jews when cast off in such a melancholy manner should lose hold altogether of their faith and of their religion. Considering how ready we are, when mixed up with the wicked and ungodly, to fall into superstition or evil practices, it was to be feared that they might wax profane amongst the population of Babylon. The people of the Lord might be thrown into despondency, besides, by their captivity, the cruel bondage they were subjected to, and the other indignities which they had to endure. The writer of this Psalm, whose name is unknown, drew up a form of lamentation, that by giving expression to their sufferings in sighs and prayers, they might keep alive the hope of that deliverance which they despaired of. Another end he has in view, is to warn them against, the decline of godliness in an irreligious land, and against; defilement with the contaminations of the heathen. Accordingly he denounces merited judgment upon the children of Edom, and declares that Babylon, whose prosperity, shortlived as it was destined to be in itself, eclipsed at that time the rest of the world, was an object of pity, and near to destruction. The length of time during which the captivity lasted, may of itself convince us how useful and even necessary it must have been to support the fainting minds of God’s people. They must have been ready to acquiesce in the corrupt practices of the heathen, unless endued with surprising mental fortitude through a period of seventy years.
When they are said to have sat, this denotes a continued period of captivity, that they were not only torn from the sight of their native country, but in a manner buried and entombed. 179 The demonstrative adverb of place, שם, sham, there, is emphatical, setting the subject, as it were, before the eyes of the reader. Though the pleasantness of the country, irrigated by streams, might have had an effect in soothing their dejected minds, we are told that the Lord’s people, so long as they dwelt there, were continually in tears. The particle גם, gam, even, is used as being intensative, to let us know that the true fearers of the Lord could not be tempted by all the luxuries of Babylon to forget their native inheritance. The language is such as to intimate at the same time that they were not so entirely overwhelmed by their calamities as not to recognize in them the deserved chatisement of God, and that they were not chargeable with obstinately struggling against him; for tears are the expression of humility and penitence, as well as of distress. This appears still more plainly from its being Zion they remembered, which proves that what had charms for them was not any advantage of a worldly kind they might there enjoy:, but the worship of God. God had erected his sanctuary like a flag upon mount Zion, that as often as they looked to it, they might be assured of his salvation. Fair then and fertile as was the region where they dwelt, with charms which could corrupt effeminate minds, and long as they ‘were detained in it, tears, which are proverbially soon dried up, never ceased to stream from their eyes, because they were cut off from the worship of God, upon which they ‘were wont to attend, and felt that they were torn from the inheritance of promise.
2. We hanged our harps upon the willows 180 He deplores the suspension of the songs of praise, which God had enjoined in his Temple. The Levites were set over the department of singing, and led the way among the people in this devotional exercise. Is it asked how they had carried their harps with them so far from their native land, we have in this another proof mentioned by the Psalmist of their faith and fervent piety, for the Levites when stripped of all their fortunes had preserved their harps at least as a piece of precious furniture, to be devoted to a former use when opportunity presented itself. We may suppose that those who truly feared God put a high value upon the relics of his worship, and showed the greatest care in preserving them, till the period of their restoration. 181 When willows are mentioned, this denotes the pleasantness of the banks, which were planted with willows for coolness. But the Psalmist says that these shades, however delightful, could not dispel a grief which was too deeply seated to admit of common consolations or refreshment. As they sat upon the banks of the rivers covered with the shadows of the trees, this was just the place where they might have been tempted to take up their harps, and soothe their griefs with song; but the Psalmist suggests that their minds were too heavily wounded with a sense of the displeasure of the Lord to deceive themselves with such idle sources of comfort. He would even go farther, and intimate that joy of a good and holy kind was at this time suspended. For though it was neither right nor well judged to encourage their grief, we cannot wonder if the singing of praises in public was given up till their return from the captivity, called as they were by the chastisements of God to mourning and lamentation.
3. Then they that carried us away captive, etc. We may be certain that the Israelites were treated with cruel severity under this barbarous tyranny to which they were subjected. And the worst affliction of all was, that their conquerors reproachfully insulted them, and even mocked them, their design being less to wound the hearts of these miserable exiles, than to cast blasphemies upon their God. The Babylonians had no desire to hear their sacred songs, and very likely would not have suffered them to engage in the public praises of God, but they speak ironically, and insinuate it as a reproach upon the Levites that they should be silent, when it was their custom formerly to sing sacred songs. Is your God dead, as if they had said, to whom your praises were formerly addressed? Or if lie delights in your songs, why do you not sing them? The last clause of the verse has been variously rendered by interpreters. Some derive תוללינו, tholalenu, from the verb ללי, yalal, to howl, reading — they required mirth in our howlings. Others translate it suspensions of mirth. 182 Some take it for a participle of the verb הלל, halal, to rage, and read, raging against us. But as תלינו, talinu, the root of the noun here employed, is taken in the preceding verse as meaning to suspend, I considered the reading which I have adopted the simplest one.
4. How shall we sing, etc. The Psalmist puts a lofty and magnanimous answer into the mouth of the Lord’s people to their insolent reproach, which is this, that they abstained from their songs, as from their legal sacrifices, because the land where they now were was polluted. The Chaldeans thought the Jews were bound down permanently to this place of their exile; the Psalmist, when he calls it a foreign land, suggests that it was but the place of their temporary stay. But the main idea is, that Chaldea was not worthy of the honor of having God’s praises sung in it. No doubt the children of God wherever they have lived have always been strangers and foreigners in the world, but the land of Canaan was the sacred rest provided for them, and the Psalmist well describes them as being foreigners and sojourners when they were in other climes. He would in this way have them to be always ready and prepared for their return, tacitly enforcing what Jeremiah had prophesied, when, in order to prevent them from forgetting their native country, he had definitely foretold the time during which their exile should last, (Jer 25:11; Jer 29:10.) He would in the meantime animate them to constancy, and have them not to coalesce with the Babylonians through motives of fear. In our own day under the Papacy, great as the danger may be to which the faithful expose themselves by not conforming to the example around them, the Holy Spirit makes use of such a barrier as this to separate them from sinful compliances. 183 To those, whether Frenchmen, Englishmen, or Italians, who love and practice the true religion, even their native country is a foreign clime when they live under that tyranny. And yet there is a distinction between us and God’s ancient people, for at that time the worship of God was confined to one place, but now he has his Temple wherever two or three are met together in Christ’s name, if they separate themselves from all idolatrous profession, and maintain purity of divine worship. The Psalmist by the language which he employs would by no means put down every attempt on their part to celebrate God’s praises. He rather exhorts them under their affliction to wait with patience till the liberty of publicly worshipping God was restored, saying’ upon the matter — We have been bereft of our Temple and sacrifices, we wander as exiles in a polluted land, and what remains but that in remembrance of our outcast state we should sigh and groan for the promised deliverance.
5. If I shall forget thee, O Jerusalem! let my right had forget. 184 6. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not, if I set not Jerusalem over the head of all my joy. 7. Remember, O Jehovah! the children or Edom, in the day of Jerusalem, saying, Lay it bare, lay it bare even to the foundation thereof. 8. O daughter of Babylon laid waste. 185 happy he who shall pay thee back the retribution wherewith thou retributedst us! 9. Happy he who shall take and dash thy little ones upon the stones. 186
5. If I shall forget thee, O Jerusalem! This confirms what was said in the former verse, and leaves us in no difficulty to understand what the Psalmist meant by it. For here God’s people declare, and with the solemnity of an oath, that the remembrance of the holy city would be ever engra-yen upon their hearts, and never, under any circumstances, effaced. Having spoken of song, and of the instruments of music, the Psalmist’s appeal is made in terms which corre-spond — that his hand would forager its cunning, and his tongue cleave to his palate, or the roof of his mouth The meaning’ is, that the Lord’s people, while they mourn under personal trials, should be still more deeply affected by public calamities which befall the Church, it being’ reasonable that the zeal of God’s house should have the highest place in our hearts, and rise above all mere private considerations. The second part of the sixth verse some interpret — If this be not my chief joy to see Jerusalem once more in a flourishing condition. Others — Joy will never enter my heart more, till I be gladdened by the Church’s restoration. Both meanings are in my opinion comprehended in the words of the Psalmist. The one cannot be separated from the other; for if we set Jerusalem above our chiefest joy, the height of this joy must arise from the consideration of its prosperity, and, if this be the case, the grief we feel under its calamities will be such as effectually to shut out all worldly joys.
7. Remember, O Jehovah! the children of Edom Vengeance was to be executed upon the other neighboring nations which had conspired to destroy Jerusalem, so that they are all doubtless included here under the children of Edom, who are specified, a parr, for the whole, either because they showed more hatred and cruelty than the rest, or that theirs were not so easily borne, considering that they were brethren, and of one blood, being the posterity of Esau, and that the Israelites had, by God’s commandment, spared the Edomites, when they devoted all beside them to destruction. (De 2:4.) It was, therefore, the height of cruelty in them to invite the Babylonians to destroy their own brethren, or fan the flames of their hostility. We are to notice, however, that the Psalmist does not break forth into these awful denunciations unadvisedly, but as God’s herald, to confirm former prophecies. God both by Ezekiel and Jeremiah had predicted that he would punish the Edomites, (Eze 25:13; Jer 49:7; and Lam. 4:21, 22) and Obadiah distinctly gives the reason, answerable to what is here stated — that they had conspired with the Babylonians. (Ob 1:11.) We know that God intended in this way to comfort and support the minds of the people under a calamity so very distressing, as that Jacob’s election might have seemed to be rendered frustrate, should his descendants be treated with impunity in such a barbarous manner, by the posterity of Esau. The Psalmist prays, under the inspiration of the Spirit, that God would practically demonstrate the truth of this prediction. Anti when he says, Remember, O Jehovah! he would remind God’s people of the promise to strengthen their belief in his avenging justice, and make them wait for the event with patience and submission. To pray for vengeance would have been unwarrantable, had not God pro-raised it, and had the party against whom it was sought not been reprobate and incurable; for as to others, even our greatest enemies, we should wish their amendment and reformation. The day of Jerusalem,, is a title given by him, and of frequent occurrence in Scripture, to the time of visitation, which had a divinely appointed and definite term.
8. O daughter of Babylon 187 laid waste! The Psalmist discerns the coming judgment of God, though not yet apparent, by the eye of faith, as the Apostle well calls faith “the beholding of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1.) Incredible as it might appear that any calamity should overtake so mighty an empire as Babylon then was, and impregnable as it was generally considered to be, he sees in the glass of the Word its destruction and overthrow. He calls upon all God’s people to do the same, and by faith from the elevation of heaven’s oracles, to despise the pride of that abandoned city. If the divine promises inspire us with hope and confidence, and God’s Spirit attemper our afflictions to the rule of his own uprightness, we shall lift up our heads in the lowest depths of affliction to which we may be east down, and glory in the fact that it is well with us in our worst distresses, and that our enemies are devoted to destruction. In declaring those to be happy who should pay back vengeance upon the Babylonians, he does not mean that the service done by the Medes and Persians, in itself met with the approbation of God; 188 for they were actuated in the war by ambition, insatiable covetousness, and unprincipled rivalry; but he declares that a war which was carried on in a manner under God’s auspices, should be crowned with success. As God had determined to punish Babylon, he pronounced a blessing upon Cyrus and Darius, while on the other hand Jeremiah (Jer 48:10) declares those cursed who should do the work of the Lord negligently, that is, fail in strenuously carrying out the work of desolation and destruction, to which God had called them as his hired executioners. It may seem to savor of cruelty, that he should wish the tender and innocent infants to be dashed and mangled upon the stones, but he does not speak under the impulse of personal feeling, and only employs words which God had himself authorized, so that this is but the declaration of a just judgment, as when our Lord says,
“With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Mt 7:2.)
Isaiah (Isa 13:16) had issued a special prediction in reference to Babylon, which the Psalmist has doubtless here in his eye — “Behold God has sharpened the iron, and bent the bows; he sends forth the Medes and Persians, which shall not regard silver and gold; they shall thirst for blood only,” etc.
By “Babylon” is meant, not the city, but the kingdom; and the mention of rivers, according to the suggestion of Rosenmuller, is because the synagogues were usually built near rivers, for the greater convenience of the Jews, who were obliged to wash their hands before prayer. But as they had no synagogues in Babylon, they might frequent such localities as would, be suitable sites for places of worship, and there in the open air perform divine service. It is conjectured by Chrysostom that the Jewish captives were not suffered at first to dwell in any of their conquerors’ towns or cities, but were dispersed all along several rivers of the country, where they built for themselves tabernacles or cottages.
It may also be observed that sitting on the ground is a posture which indicates mourning and deep distress. Thus it is said in Isa 3:26, where the captivity of the Jews in Babylon is foretold, “And she [Judea] being desolate shall sit upon the ground.” And the Prophet Jeremiah, in portraying the sorrow which afflicted his pious and patriotic countrymen under the desolation of their country, says,
“The elders of the daughter of Zion
sit upon the ground and keep silence.” (La 2:10 )
“We find Judea,” says Mr. Addison, “on several coins of Vespasian and Titus in a posture that denotes sorrow and captivity. I need not mention her sitting on the ground, because we have already spoken of the aptness of such a posture to represent an extreme affliction. I fancy the Romans might have an eye on the customs of the Jewish nation, as well as those of their own country, in the several marks of sorrow they have set on this figure. The Psalmist describes the Jews lamenting their captivity in the same pensive posture: ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Zion!’” — Addison on Medals, Dial. 2.
“On the banks of the Babylonian rivers (say the Euphrates and Tigris) there are no woods or forests, or any considerable trees besides the cultivated date-palm. But these rivers are in some parts rather extensively lined with a growth of tall shrubs and bushes, interspersed with some small, and a few middling trees, amongst which the willow is at this day the most frequet and remarkable.” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible. Hence Isa 15:7 calls the Euphrates “the brook or river of willows.”
“It is probable that the Levites, (Ezr. 2:40, 41,) who were the singers and the musicians of the temple, had taken their harps with them to Babylon, and that their captors, having heard of their skill in music, demanded of them a specimen of it.” — Cresswell.
“Others have it from. תלה, he suspended, as thought, they demanded joy on our suspended ones, i.e., harps which we had suspended from the willows.” — Bythner.
“Toutesfois le Sainct Esprit leur met ia comme une barre pour les separer de toute simulation perverse, comme aussi elle emporteroit impiete.” — Fr.
Let my right hand forget The sentence ends abruptly, and some supplementary word is necessary to render it complete. The Chaldee version, by altering the person of the verb, has avoided the ellipsis, May I forget, my right hand. The Syriac reads, May my right hand forget.me. The Septuagint has a passive verb, viz., ἐπιλησθείν, as if the original were תשכח. Calvin, in his Commentary, makes the same supplement as the translators of our English Bible — Let my right hand forget its cunning; and the correctness of this view is supported by the following verse, where we have, Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, etc. The object of both verses is to express a deep, heart-felt interest in Jerusalem; and should he lose that interest, the Psalmist wishes that the two members of the body, by which both instrumental and vocal music are performed, may be rendered incapable of doing their work — that the tongue may be unable to utter, and the right hand may forget the art of playing, or its cunning. “There here is a striking and appropriate point in this which has been overlooked. It is, that as it is customary for people in the East to swear by their possessions, so one who has no possessions — who is poor and destitute, and has nothing of recognised value in the world — swears by his right hand, which is his whole stake in society, trod by the ‘cunning’ of which he earns his daily bread. Hence the common Arabic proverb, (given by Burckhardt, No. 550,) reflecting on the change of demeanour produced by improved circumstances: ‘He was wont to swear by the cutting off of his right hand! He now swears by ‘the giving of money to the poor.’” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible.
Bishop Horsley translates, “O daughter of Babylon, that delightest in destruction.”
“This is not the language of imprecation, but of prophecy, and predicts the horrors which would accompany the taking and sacking of the city of Babylon; and amongst these the atrocious cruelty of ‘dashing the children against the stones.’ (See Isa 13:16; Jer 51:62; Ho 13:16.) Homer mentions the unnatural practice as not uncommon in ancient times —
Against the ground, in dire hostility.’
— I1, 22 5 63.” — Warner.
“Happy he,” etc., is merely declarative of the general opinion which would be reputed happy, would be celebrated as having done good service in the world, by destroying a power so universally hated for its oppression.
Daughter of Babylon penotes. the inhabitants of the Babylonish empire. The inhabitants of a city or kingdom are frequently spoken of in Scripture as its daughter. (See Ps 45:13; Isa 47:1; Zec 9:9.)
“Il n’entend pas que le service des Perses et Medes ait este agreable a Dieu,” etc. — Fr.