Ps. 137: Entering Psalm 137

Andrew R. Davis is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University and an MTS from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

 

Let’s start with the hardest part of this psalm: its concluding image of Babylonian babies being dashed against rocks is a horrific one. Even worse, the action is extolled as an occasion of blessing. The repulsiveness of verse 9 to our contemporary sensibilities has led to the omission of Psalm 137 from Jewish and Christian liturgies, and when the psalm does occur, its offending conclusion is usually left out. Is there any way for a modern reader to make meaning of verse 9? For the most part, the answer is No. The verse is so at odds with our ethics that we would be prudent to reject it, as our liturgical traditions have done. 

The best we can do is situate it in its historical and literary setting. For this we should read verse 9 in light of its preceding verse, which blesses the one who repays (Heb. šlm) Babylon the pain it has inflicted. This suffering consisted of the exile of thousands to Babylon and, prior to that, the destruction of Jerusalem, including the slaughter of Judahite children (cf. 2 Kgs 25:6-7). Within Psalm 137 and perhaps among some exiled Judahites, the violent death of Babylon’s children represented the recompense for horrors its army had committed against Judah.

If not for verse 9, Psalm 137 would probably rank among the most popular texts in the entire collection because of the poignant longing for Zion it expresses. Its genre is difficult to identify.  Its account of suffering in exile and the word “How?” in verse 4 suggest a lament, but it lacks other elements that commonly define this genre (invocation, petition, expression of trust). Far from being a shortcoming, however, Psalm 137’s lack of clear genre indicates the unique contribution to the Psalter.

The psalm divides into three stanzas. The first stanza (verses 1-3) introduces the dislocation of exile. The scene is set by the rivers and poplars of Babylon, but the focus is on Zion, whose references in verses 1 and 3 frame the stanza. The singers’ captors ask for a song about Zion, presumably one of the psalms which exalt the city and its Temple. Ironically, Psalm 137 is itself a song of Zion; it is just not like the songs of ascent which pilgrims would have sung on their way to the Temple. 

Because those songs of Zion are too painful to sing in exile (verse 4), those in Babylon must for the time being sing of their longing for Zion. In the second stanza that longing is expressed in self-curses. The exiled singers have already lost so much, but they invite further hardship on themselves if they should ever forget Jerusalem. Like Zion in verses 1-3, the name Jerusalem bookends verses 5-6.

The last stanza (verses 7-9) asks for recompense against Judah’s enemies, not only Babylon, as we have seen, but also Edom. This kingdom in southern Transjordan apparently joined the Babylonian army in plundering Jerusalem (see, for example, Lamentations 4:21; Ezekiel 25:12-14; 36:5; Obadiah 8-14), and therefore must face the consequences of its treachery. 

Psalm 137 is an exceptional poem that gives voice to the pain of being separated from what you most love, but the psalm also contains a warning. The horrifying last line shows how easily our pain can give way to violence. For this reason, we should not be too quick to excise verse 9 from Psalm 137; perhaps it is better to let it stand as a cautionary tale, a reminder of our human capacity for violence. May our rejection of the brutality it promotes lead us to reject our own temptation to react with violence out of our painful experiences.

Key Term:

  • There is a play on words in verse 5 with the Hebrew škḥ, which in one root means “to forget” and in another root “to wither.” According to this pun, the violation of the self-curse and the punishment for the violation are one and the same.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Which words or images in Psalm 137 are most striking to you? What is your reaction to its concluding scene of violence?

 

  • Which songs give you comfort when you are separated from something or someone you love? Which songs make it even harder to be separated?

 

  • How do you (or might you) use his psalm liturgically? Do you (or would you) include the last line? Should it still be set off in some way?

 

Psalm 137 Text and Translations

 

 

עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת ׀ בָּבֶ֗ל שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זָכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן׃

עַֽל־עֲרָבִ֥ים בְּתוֹכָ֑הּ תָּ֝לִ֗ינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵֽינוּ׃

כִּ֤י שָׁ֨ם שְֽׁאֵל֪וּנוּ שׁוֹבֵ֡ינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁ֭יר וְתוֹלָלֵ֣ינוּ שִׂמְחָ֑ה שִׁ֥ירוּ לָ֝֗נוּ מִשִּׁ֥יר צִיּֽוֹן׃

אֵ֗יךְ נָשִׁ֥יר אֶת־שִׁיר־יְהוָ֑ה עַ֝֗ל אַדְמַ֥ת נֵכָֽר׃

אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלִָ֗ם תִּשְׁכַּ֥ח יְמִינִֽי׃

תִּדְבַּ֥ק־לְשׁוֹנִ֨י ׀ לְחִכִּי֮ אִם־לֹ֪א אֶ֫זְכְּרֵ֥כִי אִם־לֹ֣א אַ֭עֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַ֑ם עַ֝֗ל רֹ֣אשׁ שִׂמְחָתִֽי׃

זְכֹ֤ר יְהוָ֨ה ׀ לִבְנֵ֬י אֱד֗וֹם אֵת֮ י֤וֹם יְֽרוּשָׁ֫לִָ֥ם הָ֭אֹ֣מְרִים עָ֤רוּ ׀ עָ֑רוּ עַ֝֗ד הַיְס֥וֹד בָּֽהּ׃

בַּת־בָּבֶ֗ל הַשְּׁד֫וּדָ֥ה אַשְׁרֵ֥י שֶׁיְשַׁלֶּם־לָ֑ךְ אֶת־גְּ֝מוּלֵ֗ךְ שֶׁגָּמַ֥לְתְּ לָֽנוּ׃

אַשְׁרֵ֤י ׀ שֶׁיֹּאחֵ֓ז וְנִפֵּ֬ץ אֶֽת־עֹ֝לָלַ֗יִךְ אֶל־הַסָּֽלַע׃

 

NJPS (New Jewish Publication Society)

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.

2 There on the poplars we hung up our lyres,

3 for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

4 How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;

6 let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.

7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall; how they cried, “Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!”

8 Fair Babylon, you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us;

9 a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!

 

NIRV (New International Reader’s Version)

1 We were sitting by the rivers of Babylon.

    We wept when we remembered what had happened to Zion.

2 On the nearby poplar trees

    we hung up our harps.

3 Those who held us as prisoners asked us to sing.

    Those who enjoyed hurting us ordered us to sing joyful songs.

    They said, “Sing one of the songs of Zion to us!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord

    while we are in another land?

5 Jerusalem, if I forget you,

    may my right hand never be able to play the harp again.

6 If I don’t remember you,

    may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth so I can’t sing.

May it happen if I don’t consider Jerusalem

    to be my greatest joy.

7 Lord, remember what the people of Edom did

    on the day Jerusalem fell.

“Tear it down!” they cried.

    “Tear it down to the ground!”

8 People of Babylon, you are sentenced to be destroyed.

    Happy is the person who pays you back

    according to what you have done to us.

9 Happy is the person who grabs your babies

    and smashes them against the rocks.

 

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