Psalm 137

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Psalm 137 (Greek numbering: Psalm 136) is one of the best known of the Biblical psalms. Its opening lines, "By the rivers of Babylon..." (Septuagint: "By the waters of Babylon...") have been set to music on several occasions.

The psalm is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 607 BCE. The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river (possibly the river Habor, the Chaboras, or modern Khabur, which joins the Euphrates at Circesium).[1] In its whole form, the psalm reflects the yearning for Jerusalem as well as hatred for the Holy City's enemies with sometimes violent imagery. Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah,[2] and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: "For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity."[3]

The early lines of the poem are very well known, as they describe the sadness of the Israelites, asked to "sing the Lord's song in a foreign land". This they refuse to do, leaving their harps hanging on trees. The poem then turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem. It ends with violent fantasies of revenge, telling a "Daughter of Babylon" of the delight of "he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." (New International Version).


Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue Wall Painting


  • Some Jewish communities recite Psalm 137 before the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) on days in which Psalm 126 (Shir Hama'allot) is not recited.
  • The psalm is customarily recited on Tisha B'Av and by some during the nine days preceding Tisha B'Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem.
  • Verse 7 is found in the repetition of the Amidah on Rosh Hashanah.[4]
  • Verses 5 and 6 are customarily said by the groom at Jewish wedding ceremony shortly before breaking a glass as a symbolic act of mourning on the destruction of the Temple.


In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches that use the Byzantine Rite, Psalm 137 (known by its Septuagint numbering as Psalm 136) is a part of the Nineteenth Kathisma (division of the Psalter) and is read at Matins on Friday mornings throughout the year, except during Bright Week (the week following Easter Sunday) when no psalms at all are read. During most of Great Lent it is read at Matins on Thursday and at the Third Hour on Friday, but during the fifth week of Great Lent it is read at Vespers on Tuesday evening and at the Third Hour on Friday.

This psalm is also solemnly chanted at Matins after the Polyeleos on the three Sundays preceding the beginning of Great Lent.

Musical settings[edit]

The psalm, generally under variants of its title By the waters of Babylon, has been set to music by many composers.

Many musical settings omit the last verse. John L. Bell, a hymnwriter who writes many challenging texts himself, comments alongside his own setting of this Psalm: "The final verse is omitted in this metricization, because its seemingly outrageous curse is better dealt with in preaching or group conversation. It should not be forgotten, especially by those who have never known exile, dispossession or the rape of people and land."[5]

  • Latin settings (Super Flumina Babylonis) by Palestrina (1525–1594), Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594), Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495–c. 1560), Costanzo Festa (c. 1490-1545) as 4-voice motets and Philippe de Monte (1521–1603) in 8 parts. French baroque settings of the same Latin text by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Michel-Richard Delalande
  • A Hebrew setting (עַל נַהֲרוֹת בָּבֶל, Al naharot Bavel) by Salamone Rossi (1570–1630) for 4 voices.
  • William Billings adapted the text to describe the British occupation of Boston in his anthem "Lamentation over Boston".
  • 19th century French pianist-composer (1813–1888) Charles-Valentin Alkan's "Super Flumina Babylonis" Op. 52.
  • George Mursell Garrett (1834–1897) wrote a choral arrangement in English.
  • Franz Liszt wrote a setting for soprano, harp, violin, choir and organ. A performance can be found at "Pipedreams" for October 10, 2011.
  • It was the inspiration for the famous slave chorus Va, pensiero from the Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) opera Nabucco.
  • The second of the Harry Partch (1901–1974) "Two Psalms" (1931) is "By the Rivers of Babylon" (1931–41), originally for adapted viola & intoning voice, with kithara and chromelodeon added in 1955.
  • In the William Walton cantata Belshazzar's Feast a version of the opening section is set to music, as if sung by the Israelite captives in Babylon.
  • An English setting ("By the Rivers of Babylon") by David Amram (b. 1930), SSAA (S-Soprano).
  • It was set, as On the Willows, in the Stephen Schwartz Broadway musical Godspell.
  • "Rivers of Babylon" is a rastafarian song written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians in 1970. It is featured in the film The Harder They Come and well known through its rendition by Boney M in the 1970s. In 1992, the rock/reggae group Sublime released a live cover of the song on their 40 oz. to Freedom album.
  • Psalm 137:5–6 is the basis for the chorus of Matisyahu's single Jerusalem.
  • It was the inspiration for Leonard Cohen's "By the Rivers Dark" on his 2001 album Ten New Songs.
  • The first two verses were also used for a musical setting in a round by English composer Philip Hayes.[6] Don McLean covered the song as 'Babylon', which was the final track on his 1971 album American Pie. Another cover of the round was featured at the end of the episode Babylon during the first season of Mad Men.
  • The artist Fernando Ortega based the song "City of Sorrows" on Psalm 137.
  • "I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows" is a song by The Trashcan Sinatras about poet Robert Burns
  • An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653 is a chorale prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach based on a hymn tune setting of Psalm 137.
  • Psalm 137 is the central text of John Tavener's "Lament for Jerusalem – a mystical love song".[7]

In literature[edit]

  • The title of William Faulkner's If I Forget Thee Jerusalem (1939).
  • The Portuguese 16th century poet Luís de Camões's poem Sôbolos rios que vão por Babilônia is based on Psalm 137.
  • Welsh poet Evan Evans' work "A Paraphrase of Psalm CXXXVII" is a direct answer to Psalm 137 and parallels the plight of the Welsh bards with that of the Jews in the psalm.

Phrases from the psalm have been referenced in numerous works, including:

Historical instances of use[edit]

  • Pope Gregory X quoted Psalm 137 ("If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning") before departing the Crusades upon his election by the papal conclave, 1268–1271.
  • In his "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"[10] speech, Frederick Douglass compared the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society asking him to deliver their Fourth of July speech to the actions of the antagonists asking the Jews to sing in a foreign land.


  1. ^ "Easton's Bible Dictionary". 1897. Retrieved 2008-03-09.  |chapter= ignored (help)
  2. ^ James L. Kugel, "Psalm 137," in In Potiphar's House (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994)
  3. ^ translated from the Greek Septuagint by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (1974). The Psalter According to the Seventy. Boston MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery (published 1987, Second printing). p. 241. ISBN 0-943405-00-9.  Check date values in: |publicationdate= (help)
  4. ^ The Complete Artscroll Machzor for Rosh Hashanah page 324
  5. ^ Bell, John L. (1993). Psalms of Patience, Protest and Praise. Wild Goose Publications. ISBN 0-947988-56-4. 
  6. ^ The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons by Philip Hayes (London, 1786)
  7. ^ Tavener, John; Rozario, Patricia; Josey, Christopher; Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (2004). "Lament for Jerusalem a mystical love song" (CD). Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC 476 160-5. Retrieved 2014-09-06. 
  8. ^ Ferrall, Charles (2001). Modernist Writing and Reactionary Politics. Cambridge University Press. p. 88. ISBN 0-521-79345-9. 
  9. ^ "Tavern in the Town". Folklorist. Retrieved 2014-03-15. 
  10. ^

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