Rev. Margaret Minnicks is an ordained Bible teacher. She writes many articles that are Bible lessons.
Psalm 137 is a corporate lament written while God's people were in exile after they were captured by the Babylonians. When you read and study the psalm, you will clearly see the use of plural pronouns such as "we, us, and our." It was not about an individual's situation. Everyone was lamenting for their home in Jerusalem.
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. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
There is a lot of information we learn from the first four verses of Psalm 137. The psalm is a corporate lament over the fact that the Israelites had been captured and forced to be enslaved in Babylon.
The psalm paints a vivid picture of a group of Israelites sitting down together near a river in Babylon. They reminisce about their home in Jerusalem while they are far away in a foreign land. At the time, it seemed like they would never go back home. Therefore, they wept. What did they weep about?
They had many things to weep over.
- They wept over the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
- They wept over the death of many loved ones they will never see again.
- They wept over losses of almost everything they had.
- They wept over the mistreatment they are receiving from their Babylonians captors.
- They wept over the bleak future they anticipated.
- They wept over their sin that prompted God's judgment.
They were so sad about what their future would be like that they no longer sang the songs they used to sing. Therefore, they hung their harps on a weeping willow tree. Some people say the people had lost faith because they were no longer playing their musical instruments. Some say they still had some faith that they would play their instruments again because they did not break them into pieces or throw them into the river.
The Babylonians taunted the Israelites by asking them to sing. God's chosen people responded, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" They refused to give a performance and provide pleasure for their captors while they were in pain.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Verses 5 and 6 show that there is an individual speaker who turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem. He no longer uses the plural pronouns. Notice, he uses the word "I" three times and the word "my" four times in just two verses to express his feelings about the home he left behind.
The speaker vowed that he would never forget Jerusalem, God’s holy city. He even pronounced a curse upon himself if he did. The curse was that his right hand would lose its skill to play the harp and his tongue would lose its ability to sing.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
The psalmist ends Psalm 137 with his words to God. He asks God to remember the people of Edom who rejoiced when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. The psalmist predicts that soon someone will destroy Babylon. In the meantime, he asks God to oppose Edom and to judge the nation for gloating over Jerusalem's destruction and the Israelites' captivity.
So, what does it mean when you hang up your harp on a willow tree? It means you are lamenting because life is not what it once was, and you don't know when your situation will get better. Besides that, the people who made your life miserable still want you to do what you once did in the midst of your pain and sorry.
According to what we know about God and His love for us, we should remember that we will sing again, and we will play our harps again.
Robert Odell Jr from Memphis, Tennessee on September 15, 2020:
Thank you very much for this thought-provoking and meditative explanation.