While they were exiled in Babylon, the Jewish people missed Jerusalem so much that they wept. They could not even sing the songs of Zion.
VERSE 1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
the rivers of Babylon. That is, the Euphrates river and the canals and waterways stemming from it
we wept, when we remembered Zion. Being away from Jerusalem is a sad thing indeed.
VERSE 2. On the willows in that land, we hung up our harps.
we hung up our harps. Being far away from Jerusalem was so sad for them that they couldn’t sing their praise songs.
VERSE 3. For there, those who led us captive asked us for songs. Those who tormented us demanded songs of joy: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
asked us for songs. Their abusers demanded that they sing. Abusers always demand things of their victims.
VERSE 4. How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
in a foreign land. Many of the children of Israel had a mistaken notion about the LORD God. They believed he was a territorial god.
- A territorial god is limited to a specific geographic region. Outside of that region, a territorial god is powerless.
- In the fullness of time, God would reveal to them his fuller truth about this matter.
- In his great mercy, the LORD God reveals himself to us gradually, over the course of centuries.
VERSE 5. If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.
let my right hand forget its skill. That is, let my right hand “wither.”
VERSE 6. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you; if I don’t prefer Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Jerusalem above my chief joy. We are to make Jerusalem our greatest joy.
VERSE 7. Remember, LORD, against the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem, who said, “Raze it! Raze it even to its foundation!”
VERSE 8. Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be happy who rewards you, as you have served us.
NLT translation: Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!
When they read this verse, many people are horrified. They imagine it is about murdering babies.
However, the Philokalia offers a very substantial insight into this otherwise-troubling verse. It interprets that this verse as speaking about spiritual warfare: specifically, the overcoming of one’s own unholy passions.
The idea is that when an unholy thought first emerges into our awareness, we need to “kill” it. Right then, while it is still a “baby.” Otherwise, it will grow up and become stronger and stronger, eventually defeating us.
Here are two quotes from Chapter Five of the Philokalia:
St. Neilos the Ascetic: The Psalms praise those who do not wait for the passions to grow to full strength but kill them in infancy.
St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic: For first the thought begins to darken the intellect through the passible aspect of the soul, and then the soul submits to the pleasure, not holding out in the fight. This is what is called assent, which–as has been said–is a sin. When assent persists, it stimulates the passion in question. Then little by little it leads to the actual committing of the sin. This is why the prophet calls blessed thoe who dash the children of Babylon against the stones.
smashes them against the rocks. In the grief and sorrow of their exile, the Hebrew people expressed all sorts of things that were out-of-character. The Bible records these things, accurately capturing them for us to read, without necessarily endorsing them.
Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this page are from the World English Bible and the World Messianic Edition. These translations have no copyright restrictions. They are in the Public Domain.