Psalm 137: Entering the Psalm


“By the Waters of Babylon”

The composer(s) of Psalm 137 take us to the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, beckoning us to behold the terrible sight of a displaced and downtrodden people. Where does the narrator sit in relation to this exilic scene? What roles do music and memory play in this text? How might we respond to closing cry for violent retribution?

Rabbi Joshua Greenberg

Psalm 137 is a text of dramatic lament and longing. Its lines convey a sense of the deep sorrow, traumatically recalling the horror caused when others completely upend one’s life. The poet recalls the abuse and humiliation suffered by the Judeans at the hands of their Babylonian captors.

עַל־עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ תָּלִינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ׃:
כִּי שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁיר וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה שִׁירוּ לָנוּ מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן׃
אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת־שִׁיר־יְהֹוָה עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר׃
אִם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלָ͏ִם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי׃
תִּדְבַּק־לְשׁוֹנִי  לְחִכִּי אִם־לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי אִם־לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלַ͏ִם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי׃
זְכֹר יְהֹוָה  לִבְנֵי אֱדוֹם אֵת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָ͏ִם הָאֹמְרִים עָרוּ  עָרוּ עַד הַיְסוֹד בָּהּ׃
בַּת־בָּבֶל הַשְּׁדוּדָה אַשְׁרֵי שֶׁיְשַׁלֶּם־לָךְ אֶת־גְּמוּלֵךְ שֶׁגָּמַלְתְּ לָנוּ׃
אַשְׁרֵי  שֶׁיֹּאחֵז וְנִפֵּץ אֶת־עֹלָלַיִךְ אֶל־הַסָּלַע׃

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!

1 By the rivers of Babylon
there we sat weeping
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the poplars in its midst
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors asked us
for the words of a song;
Our tormentors, for joy:
“Sing for us a song of Zion!”
4 But how could we sing a song of the Lord
in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget.
6 May my tongue stick to my palate
if I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
beyond all my delights.

7 Remember, Lord, against Edom
that day at Jerusalem.
They said: “Level it, level it
down to its foundations!”
8 Desolate Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed,
blessed the one who pays you back
what you have done us!
9 Blessed the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock.

1Junto a los ríos de Babilonia nos sentábamos, y llorábamos al acordarnos de Sión.
2 En los álamos que había en la ciudad colgábamos nuestras arpas.
3 Allí, los que nos tenían cautivos nos pedían que entonáramos canciones; nuestros opresores nos pedían estar alegres; nos decían: «¡Cántennos un cántico de Sión!»
4 ¿Cómo cantar las canciones del Señor en una tierra extraña?
5 Ah, Jerusalén, Jerusalén, si llegara yo a olvidarte,
¡que la mano derecha se me seque!
6 Si de ti no me acordara, ni te pusiera por encima de mi propia alegría, ¡que la lengua se me pegue al paladar!
7 Señor, acuérdate de los edomitas el día en que cayó Jerusalén. «¡Arrásenla —gritaban—,
arrásenla hasta sus cimientos!»
8 Hija de Babilonia, que has de ser destruida,¡dichoso el que te haga pagar por todo lo que nos has hecho!
9 ¡Dichoso el que agarre a tus pequeños
y los estrelle contra las rocas!


Entering the Psalm

By Rabbi Joshua Greenberg

Psalm 137 is a text of dramatic lament and longing. Its lines convey a sense of the deep sorrow, traumatically recalling the horror caused when others completely upend one’s life. The poet recalls the abuse and humiliation suffered by the Judeans at the hands of their Babylonian captors.

Amidst the heartrending description of degradation and loss, the writer does manage to retain a glimmer of hope in the possibility of salvation and homecoming.

The poem takes a darker turn in the last three verses: while the sense of longing from the opening lines is revisited, the poet now expresses a desire for, at best, what could be described as unforgiving justice, and at worst, violent revenge. The narrator’s rage pushes them to the point of wishing the worst not only for their abusers, but also for the helpless among them. The Psalm’s concluding vengeance wish leaves many readers in an uncomfortable, but perhaps all too relatable position.

In Jewish tradition, Psalm 137 is read on the eve of Tisha b’Av, the “9th of the month of Av.” This is considered the saddest day on the annual Jewish calendar, as it marks the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the city itself, and the eventual loss of Judean (and later Jewish) autonomy. Post-biblical Jewish authors associate other national calamities with this day, including the earlier biblical narrative of the “sin of the spies” (Numbers 13-14), to key events in the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you understand the relationship of the poet to the experience of exile? How close or far do you think the psalmist was from the scene described in the text?
  • Who does the Psalmist address directly and/or indirectly in this poem? Who might have been the original audience(s)?
  • How does memory figure in this piece? What about language, music, and culture?

Featured Commentaries

Frederick Douglass: "I hear the mournful wail of millions!"

How does Douglas use citations from Psalm 137 in this excerpt? How is the United States portrayed in this speech? Is it akin to Judea or Babylon?

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"By The Rivers Dark" by Leonard Cohen

“[‘By the Rivers Dark’] is a reference to the Book of Psalms (Psalm 137): the children of Israel are in exile, their captors asked them to sing, but they refuse because they can not celebrate sacred songs in a foreign land. In the psalm it is said: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let me arm fall, my tongue cleave to my palate.’ I got this idea of applying Jerusalem to Babylon. this song is about reconciliation between the profane and the sacred.” — Leonard Cohen


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More Multimedia Resources

“By the Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians (Music)

According to religious studies scholar Dr. David Stowe, “Brent Dowe, the lead singer of the Melodians, told Kenneth Bilby that he had adapted Psalm 137 to the new reggae style because he wanted to increase the public’s consciousness of the growing Rastafarian movement and its calls for black liberation and social justice. Like the Afro-Protestant Revival services, traditional Rastafarian worship often included psalm singing and hymn singing, and Rastas typically modified the words to fit their own spiritual conceptions; Psalm 137 was among their sacred chants.” The lyrics are available here.

As you listen to The Melodians’ rendition of the psalm, consider Stowe’s insight as you answer the following questions.

  1. Have you heard a version of this reggae before? What associations do you have, if any, as you listen to it now?
  2. Why do you think The Melodians chose to pair Psalm 19:14 and 137:1-4?
  3. Compare this rendering of the psalm with Don McLean’s “Babylon” (below). What similarities and differences do you note between the two?

As you listen (above) to Don McLean’s rendition of the psalm, consider the following questions. The lyrics are available here.

  1. Don McLean recorded “Babylon” on his 1971 hit album American Pie. He reworked Philip Hayes’s (1738-1797) song with the help of fellow folk musician Lee Hays. Given the political climate of the time, what might have his intentions have been with the song?
  2. Compare this rendering of the psalm with The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon.” What similarities and differences do you note between the two?

Examine each of the images in the slideshow below. As you look at the images, please consider the following questions:

  1. Which of these visual artistic works speaks to you most immediately? Why?
  2. Are there particular words, images, or verses from the psalm that these works evoke for you?

Copyright 2022. Lesson by Rabbi Josh Greenberg, Hebrew College rabbinical ordainee.