Psalm 137 – By the Rivers of Babylon


Psalm 137


The exiles in Babylon cannot sing because of their distress. They weep and pray for deliverance.


Psalm 137 is at once one of the most poignant and most troubling of the psalms. The poignancy comes in its personal description of the distress of Babylonian exile; the trouble is in its terrible outburst against the oppressors.

The first part of the psalm tells the story of exile in Babylon (587-538 B.C.E.). The captive Israelites cannot sing, not only because of their personal distress but also because there is no temple for the formal song of worship. Yet the enemy taunts them, asking for the impossible songs.

In exile, the pray-ers remind themselves to remember–to remember God, Jerusalem, and the destruction God’s people have suffered. Israel wills itself not to sink into apathy, not to give up, but to remember what has been taken and who took it. The prayer is not unlike “Remember the Alamo!” or present Judaism’s Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust, combining loss and hope, pain and determination.

The psalm now turns to ask for the downfall of the oppressors: the Edomites, who aided and abetted the Babylonians in their attacks (Obadiah 8-14; Ezekiel 25:12-14; 35:2-9), and the Babylonians themselves for their devastating terror. In their misery, the survivors want to see retribution, to see Babylon receive exactly what it gave in the siege of Jerusalem: the deaths of innocent children (see Lamentations 2:11-12; 3:64-66; 4:4, 10).

In the final stanza of his Reformation-era hymn based on this psalm (“By the Rivers of Babylon”), Wolfgang Dachstein, a contemporary of Martin Luther, provides another understanding for this harsh prayer: just as Babylon had tried to wipe out any memory of Israel by destroying Jerusalem (which Israel seeks to avoid by never ceasing to remember), now Israel asks that Babylon’s memory be lost through the death of a next generation: “May you your infants now bemoan, / Their heads dashed hard against the stone, / That you too are forgotten” (my translation).

Will God answer such desperate and terrible prayers? The fierce outcries against the enemies have a place in the Psalter for a variety of reasons–especially when directed against those understood to be unjust and oppressive marauders (see the discussion above under Psalm 69). Israel gives all its pain and anger to God, and God will respond as God chooses–perhaps by overturning the oppression, perhaps by transforming the pray-ers.