Psalm 137 has three short sections: it begins with a mournful remembrance of the Babylonian exile, expresses an oath of commitment to Jerusalem, and ends with vindictive words of hate for Edom (a nation to the SE of the Dead Sea) and the Babylonian Empire.
The photo depicts the Euphrates river in accordance with v. 1, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.” I chose a black and white photograph because vv. 1-4 seems to be a distant memory; the psalm was probably said by the Jews who had already returned from Babylon.
1-4. Mournful recollection 1-2. Account of trouble 3. Taunt of enemies 4. Plaintive answer 5-6. Oath to Jerusalem 7-9. Imprecations 7. Implicit curse of Edom 8-9. Implicit curse against Babylon
Psalm 137 is difficult to classify in form-critical terms. Many view it as a complaint: vv. 1-4 mentions a dire situation, vv. 5-6 is an oath (similar to the vows found in complaints), and the imprecations in vv. 7-9 are similar to petitions. Yet, Psalm 137 is by no means a regular complaint: there is no introduction, the “complaint” in vv. 1-4 is a narrative, the “affirmations” are a vow, and there is no petition. Consequently, others label it a “Zion song,” but this is because of its content and not its structure. [It is interesting to note that the term “Zion song” actually comes from our psalm’s v. 3.] Due to the psalm’s form-critical ambiguity, some scholars label it a “folk song” or a genre unto itself.
The psalm begins with a recollection of exile: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.” This section describes the deportations to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 and 587 BCE. The people are accompanied by their lyres, an instrument sometimes used for mourning (cf. Job 30:31). The people are asked to sing a “Zion song,” but are unable to: “How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?” This phrase begins with the word ‘eikh, a “lament participle “(cf. Judg. 16:15, 2 Sam 1:19).
While the mournful recollection is written in the first person plural (“we sat… we wept… we remembered…we were asked… etc.”), the oath to Jerusalem is written in the first person singular (“if I forget… let my tongue stick… if I do not remember… etc.) This section takes the form of an oath: “if I don’t do X then let Y occur to me.” The phrase “let my tongue stick to my palate” is found in other mournful passages, e.g. Ezek. 3:26 and Job 29:10.
The imprecations in vv. 7-9 are directed towards Edom and Babylon. v. 7 asks God to “remember” what Edom did on “the day of Jerusalem,” and the word zekhor “remember” can be used both positively and negatively (compare Neh. 6:14, 13:29 with Neh. 5:19, 13:14). The psalmist does not clarify what Edom did “on the day of Jerusalem,” and there are no other allusions in Tanakh to this event.
The imprecation of Babylon is one of the harshest in Tanakh, and takes the form of a positive beatitude (e.g. “fortunate is he who…”): “blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!” Imprecations as harsh as this are rare (but see Ps. 109:6-15), and Gerstenberger calls it a ““deplorable example of deep-rooted ethnic hatred.”
When was Psalm 137 composed? While vv. 1-4 might be speaking of a contemporary exilic experience, the use of perfect verbs and the use of the word sham “there” (vv. 1,3) imply a distance in both space and time from the event. Also, it is possible that the mention of Babylon hashedudah “the predator” or “the destroyed one” means that Babylon has already been “destroyed,” i.e. taken over by Cyrus. Thus, it seems that the psalm was written by those who have already returned to Jerusalem. Yet, vv. 1-4 might have been a preexisting folk song.
When and where was Psalm 137 recited? Passages like Zech. 7:3-6, 8:13 mention days of mourning and fasting, and it is possible that our psalm was recited on those days.
V. Important verses
v. 1: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion
v. 4: How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?
v. 5: If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
v. 9: a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!