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The first colophon (or first two colophons, perhaps) of Psalm 137 reads,

1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
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 Yahweh's song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

These verses are beautiful and emotive, but they, particularly verse 4, cause a knot of confusion in my mind, best expressed by untangling it into the following overlapping questions:

  • What are the "songs of Zion" or "Yahweh's song"?
  • Why is it wrong to sing them in Babylon?—oughtn't the songs of the homeland be sung all the more to keep the memory alive (verse 5) and to shun the land of deportation?
  • Is this a refusal to sing while in Babylon, or a refusal to sing the sacred songs to pagans for their entertainment?
  • Is this a refusal to sing songs of joy, restricting themselves to songs of lament, or is a refusal to sing all types of sacred songs?
  • Is Psalm 137 being sung in Babylon itself, or was it composed after the return?
  • Is this refusal related to the doctrine of Jerusalem as the one true place of worship? Are temple songs specifically in view?
  • Do we have other historical sources on whether the Jews sang Psalms in Babylon?

I put all these questions into one post because it seems to me that they need to be treated together.

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The emotive side is well expressed by Sons of Korah, and with more freedom with the words tho perhaps even more powerfully, by Lamb. –  Kazark Sep 2 '12 at 19:28
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1 Answer 1

This Psalm was possibly written by Jeremiah in the Captivity. The Septuagint version of the psalm has the superscription: " For David, a Psalm of Jeremias. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat; and wept when we remembered Sion."

I think the Psalm is not to be taken absolutely literally, but is poetically expressing the feelings of those in captivity. In the state of mourning for their homeland it was not a time of rejoicing and singling, but it was a time to mourn and to do it publically. They hung up their lyres on the willows 'for all to see' indicating that they wanted to publically show their sorrow to those who may have unreasonably expected them to be happy in their downcast state.

Possibly some of their captors actually requested that they sing their sacred hymns that they sung at home, their Psalms, here called as Songs of Zion. Possibly this was just out of interest, or maybe out of ridicule to put salt in their wounds. In either case this Psalm shows the true sorrow of one among stangers and longing for their homeland.

One way the depth of he meaning of this Psalm can be found is by looking at its counterparts. The 'Psalms of Ascent' are a collection of 15 psalms (Psalm 120-134), which were sung by the pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the annual feasts of Israel. Here we see how they viewed Jerusalem. Jerusalem to the Jew was the true home of his soul, and the longings of his heart. This is why they could not sing the their Psalms in a strange land, they were sad. For example, here is what they sung as they approached Jerusalem:

I rejoiced with those who said to me,“Let us go to the house of the Lord.” (NIV Psalm 122:1)

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore. (NIV Psalm 125:1-2)

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. (NIV Psalm 126:1-3)

I could quote many more but the point is away from Jerusalem was sorrow and in her gates was great joy!

I would not say it was wrong to sing songs in Babylon and I am sure they did as the Synagogue and all its practices were born and developed in Babylon. Rather the idea is that overall this could not be a place of rejoicing but of mourning until they might again be restored into the holy city. There were like a bride without their bridegroom.

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