5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget.
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if do not I exalt Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Harris, W. H., III, Ritzema, E., Brannan, R., Mangum, D., Dunham, J., Reimer, J. A., & Wierenga, M. (Eds.). (2012). The Lexham English Bible (Ps 137:5–6). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
5. If I shall forget thee, O Jerusalem! This confirms what was said in the former verse, and leaves us in no difficulty to understand what the Psalmist meant by it. For here God’s people declare, and with the solemnity of an oath, that the remembrance of the holy city would be ever engraven upon their hearts, and never, under any circumstances, effaced. Having spoken of song, and of the instruments of music, the Psalmist’s appeal is made in terms which correspond—that his hand would forget its cunning, and his tongue cleave to his palate, or the roof of his mouth. The meaning is, that the Lord’s people, while they mourn under personal trials, should be still more deeply affected by public calamities which befall the Church, it being reasonable that the zeal of God’s house should have the highest place in our hearts, and rise above all mere private considerations. The second part of the sixth verse some interpret—If this be not my chief joy to see Jerusalem once more in a flourishing condition. Others—Joy will never enter my heart more, till I be gladdened by the Church’s restoration. Both meanings are in my opinion comprehended in the words of the Psalmist. The one cannot be separated from the other; for if we set Jerusalem above our chiefest joy, the height of this joy must arise from the consideration of its prosperity, and, if this be the case, the grief we feel under its calamities will be such as effectually to shut out all worldly joys.
The Confession of Confidence (137:5–6)
5–6 Lament and sorrow focus on the profound love for Zion, which is not separate from love for God. For the exiles, love for God and for Jerusalem were intertwined because of the temple. Though the temple was in ruins, the godly community, possibly remembering Solomon’s prayer for those in exile (1 Ki 8:48–49), focused its attention on Jerusalem.
Loyalty lies in remembering (v. 1) instead of forgetting (v. 5). The godly could not forget Jerusalem and everything it stood for—covenant, temple, the presence and kingship of God, atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They vowed never to forget God’s promises and to persevere while waiting for the moment of redemption. As part of the vow, the godly took on themselves a formula of self-cursing: “may my right hand wither” (NIV, “forget its skill”) and “may my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth” (v. 6; cf. La 4:4; Eze 3:26)!
The center of the psalm focuses on “Jerusalem.” The remembrance of Jerusalem leads to a renewed devotion to the Lord. The self-malediction (“my right hand” and “my mouth”) includes acts and speech and may also extend to the playing of musical instruments with one’s “right hand” and to singing the songs of Zion with one’s mouth (cf. Weiser, 796; Allen, 242).
5–6 Verses 5 and 6, characterized as an “oath,” are the only portion of Psalm 137 sung by an individual voice. The mingling of individual and community voices is not unusual, though, in the community lament psalms. The same phenomenon may be observed in Book Five in Psalms 108 and 123.
In vv. 5a, 6ab and 6b, an individual psalm-singer, speaking on behalf of the community of singers, voices three oaths, all formulated with the particle ʾim, which introduces the protasis of a real conditional oath—one that is capable of being fulfilled. The ʾim-clauses of vv. 5a and 6ab—If (ʾim) I forget you, O Jerusalem and if (ʾim) I do not remember you—form an inclusio around their apodoses in vv. 5b and 6a—may my right hand forget and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. If the psalmist forgets (from the verbal root šāḵaḥ) the Lord, then the psalmist’s right hand will forget (šāḵaḥ). The forgetting of Jerusalem will result in the forgetting of the right hand, i.e., the right hand being unable to function as a right hand. The consequence to the tongue is that it will cleave to the roof of the mouth, i.e., be unable to speak. Some suggest that the terms right hand and tongue are a merism, referring to all human action, thus condemning completely the one who forgets Jerusalem. Others maintain that the reference is to the right hand that strums the harp and the tongue that sings, meaning that the psalmist vows never to sing again if he or she forgets Zion.
The third oath formula, found in v. 6b, does not contain an apodosis, but rather acts as the closing, summary statement of the psalm-singer’s vow.
137:5–6 / Now the speaker engages in a self-curse: if he were to forget and not remember … Jerusalem, he would wish his right hand forget its skill of playing “our harps.” He would also wish his tongue would cling to the roof of his mouth, thus disabling him from ever singing. We must not misunderstand this passionate attachment to Jerusalem as a mere reflection of cultural identity or nostalgia. In the context of the Songs of Zion (esp. Pss. 46; 48; 87) Jerusalem had been where Israel met with God.
5, 6. For joyful songs would imply forgetfulness of their desolated homes and fallen Church. The solemn imprecations on the hand and tongue, if thus forgetful, relate to the cunning or skill in playing, and the power of singing.
Ver. 5.—If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning; literally, let my right hand forget; but the words supplied in the Authorized Version are necessary to bring out the sense, which is, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, so far as to desecrate thy sacred songs by making them an entertainment for the heathen, may I never have power to strike a note again!”
Joyful commitment to Jerusalem (137:5–6). Thankfully that scene of absolute misery belongs to the past. However, the wound, though closed over by return, still aches with pain. The ruined city bears sad witness to the mystery of fact in conflict with faith. But faith manages to triumph. The psalmist doffs his role as voice of the community and speaks for himself, in expression of his heightened emotion and as mentor to his fellow worshipers. He pledges his personal commitment to Jerusalem and echoes the note of joy associated with the solo songs of Zion, Pss 84 and 122. His devotion takes the form of a solemn vow invoking upon himself the penalty of physical handicap (cf. Matt 5:28–30). May he never be able to play the lyre again nor sing again, should he forget! Just as in the songs of Zion, praise of Zion represents praise of God, so here his expression of loyalty to Jerusalem is a measure of loyalty to Yahweh since the city, the very “city of God” (עיר אלהים, Ps 46:5 ), symbolizes divine presence.
5. “If I forget thee, 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 art 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 dishonour Jehovah to glorify Belus and gratify his votaries. Solemnly they imprecate vengeance upon themselves should they so false, so faithless prove.
6. “If I do not remember thee, 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 dishonour her sacred hymns, and give occasion to the oppressor to ridicule her worship. If such 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 honour, 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 congregations of the saints because they have forgotten the gospel, and God has forgotten them.
7 Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
137:5–6. This is the heart of this psalm: If I forget you, O Jerusalem … If I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy then let judgment fall upon me, may I become lame in my right hand and may I become unable to speak. Their determination to remember Jerusalem is founded in their worship of God who chose Zion as the seat of His earthly rule as Israel’s true King (cf. 2:6; 9:11). The affirmation in turns bears out the reason for the exile which, though accomplished by means of an ungodly people, was intended by God as correction for Israel’s failure to recognize Him as their ultimate authority—a failure epitomized by their idolatry (Ezk 20:27–32) and failure to observe God’s command concerning the land’s sabbatical rest (2Ch 36:21).
Faithfully remembering Jerusalem (137:5–6)
137:5–6. The psalmist vowed to retain Jerusalem in his memory. He wished that his right hand would forget its skill and that he would become mute if he failed to remember … Jerusalem, his highest joy. The people’s intense grief over the destruction of their city (where the tribes gathered to praise the Lord) is contrasted here with their greatest joy.
137:5, 6 Now that he is back in the land the psalmist expresses the enormous determination of his people to have Jerusalem at the center of their life—and we remember here that Jerusalem stands for the Lord who dwelt there. Should the time ever come when he no longer has that inexplicable, instinctive attachment to Zion, then a fitting retribution would be that his right hand should wither and never again be able to sweep the strings of the harp. Yes, if it should ever happen that Jerusalem doesn’t have first place in his heart, then he concurs that his tongue should cling to the roof of his mouth so that he could never sing the sweet old songs of Zion again.
 deClaissé-Walford, N., Jacobson, R. A., & Tanner, B. L. (2014). The Songs of the Ascents: Psalms. In E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, & R. L. Hubbard Jr. (Eds.), The Book of Psalms (p. 955). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 387). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 766). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.