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Psalm 137

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Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon there we sat,
also we wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the poplars in the midst thereof we had hung up our lyres.
For there, those that led us captive asked of us words of a song
and our captors asked us to make merry.
'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'

How can we sing a song of YAHVEH in a foreign land?

If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don't remember you,
if I don't set Jerusalem as my greatest joy.

Remember YAHVEH, the children of Edom. The day of Jerusalem
who said, 'Destroy it! Flatten it even to the ground of its foundation!'

Daughter of Babylon you are to be destroyed.
Privileged is he who repays you as you have dealt with us.
Privileged is he who seizes and smashes your children against the rock.


Insights
Psalm 137 is one of the few manuscripts in the Psalms in which the time period and writing location of the work are generally agreed upon. The opening line places the location of Psalm 137 as by the rivers of Babylon, thus further implying the time period of its writing sometime shortly prior to1 or during the seventy-year exile of the Hebrew people in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.2 However, the overall content and implications of Psalm 137 are some of the more problematic themes to comprehend when approaching the texts from a theological standpoint.

The first section3, adapted and popularized in contemporary reggae music during the seventies by the Melodians, taken by itself is very straight forward. Even the next three verses generally do not pose much disagreement. It is the last two verses of this work that hit a nerve in many people when they read the entire text. It is the proverbial and idiomatic expression regarding "the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, but no one wants to talk about."

"Privileged4 is he who repays you as you have dealt with us.
Privileged is he who seizes and smashes your children against the rock."

The primary reason for this discomfort may be that for many, these two verses go very contrary not only to their own sensibilities as a human being, but also to a fundamental teaching of the Biblical texts to "love your neighbor as yourself."5 For many individuals, this opens up the "Pandora's Box" of whether all the Biblical texts were written directly by God's hand, from the viewpoint and perspective of a man, or a combination of both? It a concept that each of us must come to our own understanding and how it effects our personnel belief system and our approach to the Biblical texts.

Aside from these last two verses, Psalm 137 is a very reflective work by the original writer with overtones that reach into the lives of many of us today. Until such time as "the knowledge of YAHVEH fills the earth" as written by Jeremiah6, we are all waiting by the river of Babylon with our captors, struggling to make some sense of the things that are before us in our daily lives.


Traditional Translations
Jewish Publications Society
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps.
3 For there they that led us captive asked of us words of song, and our tormentors asked of us mirth: 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'
4 How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a foreign land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, against the children of Edom the day of Jerusalem; who said: 'Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.'
8 O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that repayeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock.

King James Version
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'
4 How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
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.


Lead Sheet
Psalm 137, page 1

Psalm 137, page 2


Footnotes
1 This time period, approximately ten and one-half years before the final exile of the citizens of Jerusalem in 609 B.C.E. to Babylon, occurred when Jeconiah (aka Jehoiachin), the twenty-first and last king of the nation of Judah, was taken captive and imprisoned along with the prominent citizens of Jerusalem. This group most likely included Ezekiel and some, if not all, of the Levite musicians and singers who served at the Temple. 2 King 24:10-17, 2 Chronicles 36:10
2 from the fall of Jerusalem in 609 B.C.E. to the decree of Cyrus in 539 B.C.E.
3 verses 1-4
4 in most traditional English translations, the Hebrew word äsh-ra' is translated as the word happy, which when taken on face value may imply a feeling of pleasure, joy, etc. In some instances within the English translations, the word blessed is also used when translating äsh-ra'. Are there the correct understandings implied by the original Hebrew word? If you search the Scriptures for the thirty-six times in which the Hebrew word äsh-ra' is found, you will find that the meaning more closely relates to a position of privilege, not a feeling of joy.
5 e.g. Leviticus 19:17-18; Matthew 5:43-48
6 Jeremiah 31:33-34