Treasury of David
This plaintive ode is one of the most charming compositions in the whole Book of Psalms for its poetic power. If it were not inspired, it would nevertheless occupy a high place in poesy, especially the former portion of it, which is tender and patriotic to the highest degree.
In the later verses (7-9), we have utterances of burning indignation against the chief adversaries of Israel—an indignation as righteous as it was fervent.
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.
It is one thing to talk of the bitter feeling which moved captive Israelites in Babylon, and quite another thing to be captives ourselves under a savage and remorseless power, which knew not how to show mercy, but delighted in barbarities to the defenseless.
The song is such as might fitly be sung in the Jews' wailing place. It is a fruit of the Captivity in Babylon, and often has it furnished expression for sorrows which else had been unutterable. It is an opalesque Psalm within whose mild radiance there glows a fire which strikes the beholder with wonder.
Verse 1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Water courses were abundant in Babylon, wherein were not only natural streams but artificial canals: it was a place of broad rivers and streams. Glad to be away from the noisy streets, the captives sought the river side, where the flow of the waters seemed to be in sympathy with their tears.
It was some slight comfort to be out of the crowd, and to have a little breathing room, and therefore they sat down, as if to rest a while and solace themselves in their sorrow. In little groups they sat down and made common lamentation, mingling their memories and their tears. The rivers were well enough, but, alas, they were the rivers of Babylon, and the ground whereon the sons of Israel sat was foreign soil, and therefore they wept.
Those who came to interrupt their quiet were citizens of the destroying city, and their company was not desired. Everything reminded Israel of her banishment from the holy city, her servitude beneath the shadow of the temple of Bel, her helplessness under a cruel enemy; and therefore her sons and daughters sat down in sorrow. Yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
Nothing else could have subdued their brave spirits—but the remembrance of the temple of their God, the palace of their king, and the center of their national life, quite broke them down. Destruction had swept down all their delights, and therefore they wept—the strong men wept, the sweet singers wept! They did not weep when they remembered the cruelties of Babylon; the memory of fierce oppression dried their tears and made their hearts burn with wrath: but when the beloved city of their solemnities came into their minds they could not refrain from floods of tears.
Even thus do true believers mourn when they see the church despoiled, and find themselves unable to support her: we could bear anything better than this. In these our times the Babylon of error ravages the city of God, and the hearts of the faithful are grievously wounded as they see truth fallen in the streets, and unbelief rampant among the professed servants of the Lord. We bear our protests, but they appear to be in vain; the multitude are mad upon their idols. Be it ours to weep in secret for the hurt of our Zion. It is the least thing we can do; perhaps in its result it may prove to be the best thing we can do. Be it ours also to sit down and deeply consider what is to be done. Be it ours, in any case, to keep upon our mind and heart the memory of the church of God which is so dear to us. The frivolous may forget, but Zion is graven on our hearts, and her prosperity is our chief desire.
Verse 2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. The drooping branches appeared to weep as we did, and so we gave to them our instruments of music; the willows could as well make melody as we, for we had no mind for minstrelsy. In the midst of the willows, or in the midst of the rivers, or in the midst of Babylon, it matters little which, they hung their harps aloft—those harps which once in Zion's halls the soul of music shed. Better to hang them up than to dash them down. Better to hang them on willows than profane them to the service of idols.
Sad indeed is the child of sorrow when he grows weary of his harp, from which in better days he had been able to draw sweet solaces. Music has charms to give unquiet spirits rest; but when the heart is sorely sad it only mocks the grief which flies to it. Men put away their instruments of mirth, when a heavy cloud darkens their souls.
Verse 3. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song. It was ill to be a singer at all when it was demanded that this talent should go into bondage to an oppressor's will. Better be dumb than be forced to please an enemy with forced song. What cruelty to make a people sigh, and then require them to sing! Shall men be carried away from home and all that is dear to them, and yet chant merrily for the pleasure of their unfeeling captors? This is studied torture: the iron enters into the soul. It is indeed "woe to the conquered" when they are forced to sing to increase the triumph of their conquerors. Cruelty herein reached a refinement seldom thought of. We do not wonder that the captives sat down to weep when thus insulted.
And our tormentors required of us mirth. The captives must not only sing but smile, and add merriment to their music. Blind Samson in former days must be brought forth to make sport for Philistines, and now the Babylonians prove themselves to be loaves of the same leaven. Plundered, wounded, fettered, carried into captivity and poverty—yet must the people laugh as if it were all a play, and they must sport as if they felt no sorrow. This was wormwood and gall to the true lovers of God and his chosen land.
Saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. Nothing would serve their turn but a holy hymn, and a tune sacred to the worship of Jehovah. Nothing will content the Babylonian mockers but one of Israel's Psalms when in her happiest days she sang unto the Lord whose mercy endures forever. This would make rare fun for their persecutors, who would deride their worship and ridicule their faith in Jehovah.
In this demand there was an insult to their God as well as a mockery of themselves, and this made it the more intensely cruel. Nothing could have been more malicious, nothing more productive of grief. These wanton persecutors had followed the captives into their retirement, and had remarked upon their sorrowful appearance, and there and then they bade the mourners make mirth for them. Could they not let the sufferers alone? Were the exiles to have no rest?
The daughter of Babylon seemed determined to fill up her cup of iniquity, by torturing the Lord's people. Those who had been the most active agents of Israel's undoing, must needs follow up their ferocities by mockeries. "The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." Worse than the Egyptians, they asked not labor which their victims could have rendered, but they demanded mirth which they could not give, and holy songs which they dared not profane to such a purpose, sufferings of the weary and oppressed exiles by their mirth and their indecency.
We are sorry to say that the resemblance still holds between the Jews in a state of captivity and the Christians in the state of their pilgrimage. We have also to sustain the mockery of the profane and the unthinking. Ridicule and disdain are often the fate of sincere piety in this world. Fashion and frivolity and false philosophy have made a formidable combination against us; and the same truth, the same honesty, the same integrity of principle, which in any other cause would be esteemed as manly and respectable, is despised and laughed at when attached to the cause of the gospel and its sublime interests.—Thomas Chalmers.
Verse 4. How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land? How shall they sing at all? Sing in a strange land? Sing Jehovah's song among the uncircumcised? No, that must not be; it shall not be. With one voice they refuse, but the refusal is humbly worded by being put in the form of a question.
If the men of Babylon were wicked enough to suggest the defiling of holy things for the gratification of curiosity, or for the creation of amusement, the men of Zion had not so hardened their hearts as to be willing to please them at such a fearful cost.
There are many things which the ungodly could do, and think nothing of the doing thereof, which gracious men cannot venture upon. The question "How can I?" comes of a tender conscience and denotes an inability to sin which is greatly to be cultivated.
Verse 5. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. To sing Zion's songs for the pleasure of Zion's foes, would be to forget the Holy City. Each Jew declares for himself that he will not do this; for the pronoun alters from "we" to "I." Individually the captives pledge themselves to fidelity to Jerusalem, and each one asserts that he had sooner forget the are which drew music from his harp strings than use it for Babel's delectation. Better far that the right hand should forget its usual handicraft, and lose all its dexterity, than that it should fetch music for rebels out of the Lord's instruments, or accompany with sweet skill a holy Psalm desecrated into a common song for fools to laugh at.
Not one of them will thus dishonor Jehovah to glorify the Babylonian God Belus and gratify his votaries. Solemnly they imprecate vengeance upon themselves should they so false, so faithless prove.
Verse 6. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. Thus the singers imprecate eternal silence upon their mouths if they forget Jerusalem to gratify Babylon. The players on instruments and the sweet songsters are of one mind: the enemies of the Lord will get no mirthful tune or song from them.
If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. The sacred city must ever be first in their thoughts, the queen of their souls. They had sooner be dumb than dishonor her sacred hymns, and give occasion to the oppressor to ridicule her worship.
If such is the attachment of a banished Jew to his native land, how much more should we love the church of God of which we are children and citizens. How jealous should we be of her honor, how zealous for her prosperity. Never let us find jests in the words of Scripture, or make amusement out of holy things, lest we be guilty of forgetting the Lord and his cause. It is to be feared that many tongues have lost all power to charm the regations of the saints because they have forgotten the gospel, and God has forgotten them.
Verse 7. Remember, O LORD, what the children of Edom did on the day Jerusalem fell. The case is left in Jehovah's hands. He is a God of recompenses, and will deal out justice with impartiality. The Edomites ought to have been friendly with the Israelites, from kinship; but there was a deep hatred and cruel spite displayed by them. The elder loved not to serve the younger, and so when Jacob's day of tribulation came, Esau was ready to take advantage of it.
The captive Israelites being moved by grief to lodge their complaints with God, also added a prayer for his visitation of the nation which meanly sided with their enemies, and even Urged the invaders to more than their usual cruelty.
"Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!" They wished to see the last of Jerusalem and the Jewish state; they would have no stone left standing, they desired to see a clean sweep of temple, palace, wall, and habitation. It is horrible for neighbors to be enemies, worse for them to show their enmity in times of great affliction, worst of all for neighbors to egg others on to malicious deeds.
Those are responsible for other men's sins who would use them as the tools of their own enmity. It is a shame for men to incite the wicked to deeds which they are not able to perform themselves.
The Chaldeans were ferocious enough without being excited to greater fury; but Edom's hate was insatiable. Those deserve to be remembered by vengeance, who in evil times do not remember mercy; how much more those who take advantage of calamities to wreak revenge upon sufferers. When Jerusalem's day of restoration comes, Edom will be remembered and wiped out of existence.
Verse 8. O daughter of Babylon, who is doomed to be destroyed. The destroyer would be destroyed, and the Psalmist in vision saw her as already destroyed. It is usual to speak of a city as a virgin daughter. Babylon was in her prime and beauty, but she was already doomed for her crimes. Happy shall he be that rewards you as you have served us. The avenger would be fulfilling an honorable calling in overthrowing a power so brutal, so inhuman.
Assyrian and Chaldean armies had been boastfully brutal in their conquests; it was fit that their conduct should be measured back into their own bosoms. No awards of punishment can be more unanswerably just than those which closely follow the law of retaliation, even to the letter. Babylon must fall, as she caused Jerusalem to fall; and her sack and slaughter must be such as she appointed for other cities.
The patriot-poet sitting sorrowfully in his exile, finds a solace in the prospect of the overthrow of the empress city which holds him in bondage, and he accounts Cyrus right happy to be ordained to such a righteous work. The whole earth would bless the conqueror for ridding the nations of a tyrant; future generations would call him blessed for enabling men to breathe again, and for once more making liberty possible upon the earth.
We may rest assured that every unrighteous power is doomed to destruction, and that from the throne of God justice will be measured out to all whose law is force, whose rule is selfishness, and whose policy is oppression.
Happy is the man who shall help in the overthrow of the spiritual Babylon, which, despite its riches and power, is "to be destroyed." Happier still shall he be who shall see it sink like a millstone in the flood, never to rise again. What that spiritual Babylon is, none need inquire. There is but one city upon earth which can answer to the name.
Verse 9. Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the stones. Fierce was the heart of the Jew who had seen his beloved city the scene of such terrific butchery. His heart pronounced like sentence upon Babylon. She should be scourged with her own whip of wire.
The desire for righteous retribution is rather the spirit of the law than of the gospel; and yet in moments of righteous wrath the old fire will burn; and while justice survives in the human breast it will not lack for fuel among the various tyrannies which still survive.
We shall be wise to view this passage as a prophecy. History informs us that it was literally fulfilled. The Babylonian people in their terror agreed to destroy their own offspring, and men thought themselves happy when they had put their own wives and children to the sword. Horrible as was the whole transaction, it is a thing to be glad of if we take a broad view of the world's welfare; for Babylon, the gigantic robber, had for many a year slaughtered nations without mercy, and her fall was the rising of many people to a freer and safer state.
The murder of innocent infants can never be sufficiently deplored, but it was an incident of ancient warfare which the Babylonians had not omitted in their massacres, and, therefore, they were not spared it themselves.
The revenges of providence may be slow, but they are ever sure; neither can they be received with regret by those who see God's righteous hand in them. It is a wretched thing that a nation should need an executioner; but yet if men will commit murders, tears are more fitly shed over their victims than over the assassins themselves. A feeling of universal love is admirable, but it must not be divorced from a keen sense of justice.
The captives in Babylon did not make music, but they poured forth their righteous maledictions, and these were far more in harmony with their surroundings than songs and laughter could have been. Those who mock the Lord's people will receive more than they desire, to their own confusion: they shall have little enough to make mirth for them, and more than enough to fill them with misery.
The execrations of godly men are terrible things, for they are not lightly uttered, and they are heard in Heaven. "The curse causeless shall not come;" but is there not a cause? Shall despots crush virtue beneath their iron heel and never be punished? Time will show!