The Exiles’ Remembrance of Zion
1 By the rivers[b] of Babylon
we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 [c]There on the poplars
we hung up our harps.
3 For it was there that our captors
asked us to sing them a song,
and, tormenting us, demanded a joyful song:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4 But how could we sing songs of the Lord
while living in a foreign land?[d]
5 [e]If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand fail me.
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not regard Jerusalem
as the greatest of my joys.
7 [f]Remember, O Lord, the cruelty of the Edomites
on the day when Jerusalem fell,[g]
how they shouted, “Tear it down!
Tear it down to its very foundations!”
8 O Daughter[h] of Babylon, you destroyer,
happy will he be who repays you
for the suffering you inflicted upon us!
9 Happy will he be who seizes your babies
and smashes them against a rock![i]
- Psalm 137:1 Let us imagine the setting in which this psalm was sung for the first time. Some Levites, after returning from the Exile, have gathered for a penitential liturgy. They are unable to suppress the memory of the humiliations they suffered on the banks of the Euphrates, where, to heighten their sadness, they were compelled not to sing the songs they loved, since it would have been a profanation to make these known in a foreign land for the amusement of idolaters. Now their cry of attachment to Jerusalem becomes vehement and their song leads to an outburst of vengeful anger that, though in keeping with the custom of the time, seems to us cruel beyond description (see notes on Pss 5:11; 35).
Events now in the distant past become symbols; the psalm speaks of Edom, but the singers think of all the forces united to destroy the People of God and the righteous; the psalm mentions Babylon, but this suggests the most hateful wickedness. This same wickedness the Book of Revelation will later image forth in the monstrous figure of “Babylon the Great,” mother of blasphemers (see Rev 17:5).
We can pray this psalm as citizens of heaven (see Phil 3:20) living in exile on earth (see 2 Cor 5:6f). Strangers to a world that does not acknowledge us as its own, we are hated and persecuted by it for this reason (see Jn 15:18f; 17:14-18). We are cognizant that our exile deprives us of our true home and our Father and dooms us to divers physical and moral miseries including death, and we “groan inwardly as we wait for . . . the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).
- Psalm 137:1 Rivers: the Euphrates and Tigris, as well as the numerous irrigation-canals that branched off from them (see Ezr 8:21; Ezek 1:1; 3:15). Sat: the posture of mourning (see Job 2:8, 13; Lam 2:10); it could also refer to the idea of being settled in accord with the word of the prophet Jeremiah who urged the exiles to work for a living, to multiply, and to seek the peace and prosperity of the land (see Jer 29:4-9). Wept: see Isa 24:8; Jer 25:10; Lam 3:48; 5:14.
- Psalm 137:2 The exiles were tauntingly requested to sing the songs of Zion on their harps. The taunts were tantamount to the question “Where is your God?” (Pss 42:4, 11; 79:10; 115:2), and might have concerned the “songs of Zion” that celebrated the Lord’s majesty and protection (see Pss 46; 48; 76; 84; 87; 122).
- Psalm 137:4 The exiles could not bring themselves to sing any of the holy songs while they rested on foreign, unclean soil; that would be a profanation (see Hos 9:3; Am 7:17).
- Psalm 137:5 The exiles could not forget Jerusalem and what it symbolized: covenant, temple, God’s presence and kingship, atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They vowed to wait for the redemption promised by God.
- Psalm 137:7 See notes on Pss 5:11; 35.
- Psalm 137:7 On the day when Jerusalem fell: literally, “the day of Jerusalem” or “that day at Jerusalem.” The “day” in question is either the ninth day of the fourth month (June–July 587 B.C.) when the Babylonians broke through the walls of Jerusalem (see Jer 39:2; 52:7) or the tenth day of the fifth month (July–August 587 B.C.) when the temple was set afire (see Jer 52:12; Zec 7:5; 8:19). The Edomites collaborated with the besiegers and did everything they could to disgrace Judah and keep the people from escaping (see Lam 4:21f; Ezek 25:12; 35:12; Ob 11), and their name became a symbol of Israel’s enemies, as well as an object of the Lord’s judgments (see Isa 63:1-4; Jer 49:7-22; Ezek 25:8, 12-14; 35; Ob 1-21).
- Psalm 137:8 Daughter: a personification of Babylon, on whom the Lord had passed judgment (see Isa 13; 21:1-10; 47; Jer 50–51; Hab 2:4-20).
- Psalm 137:9 Happy will he be who seizes . . . : in accord with the ruthless practice of ancient warfare, this scene was often played out during the sacking of a city after its fall (see 2 Ki 8:12; 15:16; Isa 13:16, 18; Hos 10:14; 14:1; Am 1:13; Nah 3:10). A beatitude is here transformed into a terrible curse.