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Psalms: Chapter 137

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1By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. 2There on the poplars we hung up our lyres, 3for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, a Meaning of Heb. uncertain. for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” 4How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil? 5If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; b Others “forget its cunning.” 6let 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. 7Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem's fall; how they cried, “Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!” 8Fair Babylon, you predator, a With Targum; others “who are to be destroyed.” a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us; 9a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!

Notes:

a Meaning of Heb. uncertain.

b Others “forget its cunning.”

a With Targum; others “who are to be destroyed.”

Text Commentary view alone

Ps. 137 :

A lament for Jerusalem, in its final form from the postexilic era; the Babylonian captivity (vv. 1, 2, 4, 8 ) is there (v. 1 n. ). The main theme is remembering Zion. This psalm is often recited on the 9th of Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple, and before the grace after meals on weekdays.

1 :

Rivers of Babylon: Babylonia was known for its network of irrigation canals, in contrast to Israel where the seasonal rainfall provided irrigation. There we sat: “There” indicates that the speaker is now somewhere else; not in Babylonia but (most likely) in the land of Israel. There, along with alien soil (v. 4 ), stresses the otherness of the place of exile.

2–4 :

The Babylonian captors demand musical entertainment but the captives, who can only cry, hang up their instruments and refuse to make music. They cannot express joy as long as they are in exile. Joy, which is synonymous with being in God's presence, is no longer possible when the Temple is destroyed. Exile is equated with descent into the world of the dead; like the dead, the exiles are unable to praise God ( 30.10; 88.11–13 ).

2 :

The poplars, or willows, grow along the canals.

3–4 :

Songs of Zion, some scholars identify Zion songs as specific types of hymns about the Temple (46; 48) or as the pilgrimage psalms ( 84; 120–134 ). More likely, the Babylonians are asking for any native Judean song. The psalmist equates them with a song of the Lord, that is, any song sung in the Temple, and therefore they can no longer be sung.

5–6 :

An oath never to forget Jerusalem. This is a central idea in Jewish tradition, enshrined in the liturgy, in the practice of leaving an interior wall facing Jerusalem undecorated or with a “mizraḥ” (plaque indicating the east), and in the breaking of the glass at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony (which symbolizes, according to one explanation, placing the memory of the destruction of Jerusalem above one's greatest joy, that of being wed). Right hand wither, or become useless, paralyzed. My tongue stick to my palate, be unable to utter a sound (Ezek. 3.26; Lam. 4.4 ). The paralysis of the right hand and tongue make it impossible to play the lyre and to sing (Radak).

7 :

Just as Israel must remember Jerusalem, God must remember who destroyed it. The Edomites, who joined Babylonia in the attack on Jerusalem (Obad. 11–14 ) are cursed.

8–9 :

Thoughts of retribution are commonly found in laments ( 5.11; 35.4–8; 69.23–28; 79.10; Lam. 1.21–22; 3.64–66; 4.21–22 ). On dashing babies against rocks, see 2 Kings 8.12; Isa. 13.16; Hos. 14.1; Nah. 3.10 . Against the rocks, Heb “ha‐sela‘,” “the Rock” (possibly Petra), the fortress‐city of Edom and also an epithet for Edom (2 Kings 14.7 ). The gist of this pun is that the rock‐fortress protecting Edom will become the vehicle for Edom's punishment.

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