Printed texts of the Septuagint, in a superscription that is lacking in the Masoretic Text and in Codex Alexandrinus, either include the name David or the names David and Jeremiah. The psalm relates to the time the Israelites found themselves exiled in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem, indicating that the composition has no link to David.
The “rivers of Babylon” may denote the Euphrates, the Tigris, and their tributaries and canals. Sitting on the river banks, the exiled Israelites wept when they “remembered” or thought about Zion or Jerusalem. Perhaps they had brought their instruments to accompany themselves when singing mournful dirges. Unable to bring themselves to comply with the request of their captors to sing, they would hang their harps on the branches of nearby popular trees.
Their Babylonian captors would ask them for “words of a song,” apparently other than a dirge. “Mockers” would want them to sing “songs of Zion” or the joyous compositions of praise they used to sing in Jerusalem. The Septuagint indicates that they wanted to hear a “hymn.” (Regarding the word “mockers” and other remarks, see the comments on verse 3 in the Notes section.)
The exiles refused to grant such requests. How could they possibly sing a song of praise to YHWH in a foreign land? It was not appropriate in the setting of their exile to sing joyfully about YHWH’s love and mercy.
For a musician to lose the use of his right hand would mean that he could no longer play his musical instrument skillfully. The psalmist portrays a musician as saying that, if he were to forget or become unmindful of how he should feel about Jerusalem as the city YHWH had chosen as his place of residence, his right hand should “forget” or cease to function in playing his instrument. Moreover, his tongue should cling to his palate, making it impossible for him to sing, if he ceased to remember Jerusalem and did not place this remembrance above his greatest joy. (See the Notes section on verse 6 for additional comments.)
The psalmist recalled the hateful spirit of the Edomites at the time the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem. He asked YHWH to remember, with displeasure directed against the Edomites, their saying, “Raze it, raze it, down to its foundation.” The psalmist’s reference to the “day of Jerusalem” may be understood as denoting the time when the calamities befell the city.
The expression “daughter of Babylon” applies to the city, which is then linked to a form of the word shadád (“destroy,” “devastate,” “despoil,” or “deal violently with”). This term could be understood as either indicating that Babylon would be destroyed or that Babylon had devastated other lands and cities. Both meanings are found in translations—“Fair Babylon, you destroyer” (NAB), “Fair Babylon, you predator” (Tanakh), “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction” (NIV), and “Fair Babylon, who are to be destroyed” (Tanakh, footnote). In the Septuagint, the “daughter of Babylon” is called hé talaíporos (“the wretched” or “the miserable”). The psalmist pronounced as fortunate or in an enviable position the one who would repay the “daughter of Babylon” for what she had done to his people.
The psalm concludes with the words, “Fortunate will be the one seizing your children and dashing them against a rock.” This was the gruesome manner in which the Babylonians had dealt with children of conquered peoples. In keeping with retributive justice, such would be the treatment to be meted out to the Babylonians. From the standpoint of filling a role in executing retributive justice, those doing so are pronounced fortunate. The destruction of members of the future generation would assure the annihilation of the enemy.
A Dead Sea Scroll reads “rivers in Babylon” (not “rivers of Babylon”).
In verse 2, the Hebrew word ’araváh may designate the Euphrates poplar. The Septuagint rendering is itéa, meaning “willow.”
There is considerable uncertainty about the meaning of the Hebrew word tolál (in verse 3). If the term may be linked to the verb halál, which can either mean “praise” or to “make a fool of,” it could apply to those who make a mockery of others. The Septuagint rendering is a form of apágo (“to lead away,” “to carry off”) and so could designate those who had led the Israelites into exile. In the Masoretic Text, the noun simcháh (“gladness,” “mirth,” or “joy”) follows the word tolál, but there is nothing in the verse to specifically link this noun to the rest of the sentence. This accounts for a variation in renderings with different meanings. “There our captors asked us for the words of a song; our tormentors, for a joyful song: ‘Sing for us a song of Zion!’” (NAB) “For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (NRSV) “For our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’” (Tanakh)
In relation to the rest of the sentence (in verse 6), the expression “above the top of my joy” has been variously rendered—“if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour” (Tanakh), “if I do not exalt Jerusalem beyond all my delights” (NAB), “if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy” (NRSV), “if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy” (NIV), and “if I don’t think about you [Jerusalem] above all else” (CEV). The Septuagint reads, “if I do not prefer Jerusalem as the first of my joy.”