Psalm 137

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Psalm 137
Eadwine psalter - Trinity College Lib - f.243v.jpg
Psalm 137 in the Eadwine Psalter (12th century)
BookBook of Psalms
Hebrew Bible partKetuvim
Order in the Hebrew part1
CategorySifrei Emet
Christian Bible partOld Testament
Order in the Christian part19

Psalm 137 is the 137th psalm of the Book of Psalms in the Tanakh.[1] In English it is generally known as "By the rivers of Babylon", which is how its first words are translated in the King James Version of the Bible. Its Latin title is "Super flumina Babylonis".[2]

This psalm is Psalm 136 in the slightly different numbering system of the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate versions of the Bible.

The psalm is a communal lament about remembering Zion, and yearning for Jerusalem while dwelling in exile during the Babylonian captivity. The psalm forms a regular part of liturgy in Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and other Protestant traditions. It has often been set to music and paraphrased in hymns.

Context and content[edit]

The journey of the Judean exiles to Babylon in the first decades of the 6th century BC.
Psalm "By the rivers of Babylon" from Chludov Psalter (9th century).

After Nebuchadnezzar II's successful siege of Jerusalem in 597 BC, and subsequent campaigns, inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah were deported to Babylonia, where they were held captive until some time after the Fall of Babylon (539 BC). The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river.

Psalm 137 is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people during their Babylonian exile. In its whole form of nine verses, 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,[3] and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: "For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity."[4]

Verses 1–4[edit]

The early lines of the psalm describe the sadness of the Israelites in exile, while remembering their homeland, weeping and hanging their harps on trees. Asked to "sing the Lord's song in a strange land", they refuse.

001.  By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
002.  We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
003.  For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
004.  How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

Methodist writer Joseph Benson reflects on the "inexpressible pathos ... in these few words! How do they, at once, transport us to Babylon, and place before our eyes the mournful situation of the Israelitish captives! Driven from their native country, stripped of every comfort and convenience, in a strange land among idolaters, wearied and broken-hearted, they sit in silence by those hostile waters." He argues that the reference to harps reflects "all instruments of music" and that the words can probably be interpreted to mean that the singers were Levites used to the performance of music in the service of the temple.[5]

Verses 5–6[edit]

In verses 5–6 the speaker turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem:

005.  If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [her cunning].
006.  If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Verses 7–9[edit]

The psalm ends with prophetic predictions of violent revenge.

007.  Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
008.  O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
009.  Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Liturgical uses[edit]

Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue Wall Painting
Psalm 137 (136) in the St. Albans Psalter, 12th century


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.[citation needed]

Psalm 137 is traditionally recited before the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) on a weekday. However, on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and at the celebratory meal accompanying a Jewish wedding, brit milah, or pidyon haben, Psalm 126 is recited before the Birkat Hamazon instead.[6]

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 over the destruction of the Temple.[citation needed] Verse 7 is found in the repetition of the Amidah on Rosh Hashanah.[7][full citation needed]

Psalm 137 is one of the ten Psalms of the Tikkun HaKlali of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.[8][9]

Eastern Christianity[edit]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

This psalm is also solemnly chanted at Matins (Orthros) after the Polyeleos on the three Sundays preceding the beginning of Great Lent.[citation needed]

Western Christianity[edit]

Following the rule of St. Benedict (530 AD), the Roman Breviary adopted the "Super flumina Babylonis" psalm for Vespers on Wednesdays.[10][11] In the Roman Missal, before the Vatican II reforms, the first verse of the psalm was the Offertory in the Mass on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost.[12]

In Lutheranism, a well-known hymn based on the psalm has been associated with a Gospel reading in which Jesus foretells and mourns the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–48).[13]

After the Second Vatican Council, the last three verses of the psalm were removed from Catholic liturgical books because of their cruelty perceived to be incompatible with the gospel message.[14] In the post-Vatican II three-year cycle of the Catholic mass liturgy, the psalm is part of the service on Laetare Sunday, that is the fourth Sunday in Lent, of the "B" cycle.[citation needed]

Similarly, the Prayer Book of the Anglican Church of Canada has also removed these verses.[15]

Translations, versifications and settings[edit]

Dachstein's "An Wasserflüssen Babylon" in a 1541 edition of the Straßburger Gesangbuch (Strasbourg Hymnal)
Early version of Bach's An Wasserflüssen Babylon chorale prelude, BWV 653
Psalm 137 set to music in a French Protestant psalm book of 1817
By the rivers of Babylon, painting by Eduard Bendemann, c. 1832
By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
By the rivers of Babylon, painting by Gebhard Fugel, c. 1920

The psalm has been set to music by many composers. Many settings omit the last verse. The hymnwriter John L. Bell 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."[16]

16th to 18th century[edit]

Latin settings ("Super flumina Babylonis") as four-part motets were composed by Costanzo Festa,[17] Nicolas Gombert,[18] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina[19] and Orlando Lassus.[20] Philippe de Monte[21] and Tomas Luis de Victoria set the text for eight parts.[22] French Baroque settings were written by Henry Dumont,[23] Marc-Antoine Charpentier, 2 settings, H.170 (1670) and H.171-H.171 a (? late 1670)[24] and Michel-Richard Delalande.[25]

Wolfgang Dachstein's "An Wasserflüssen Babylon", a German rhymed paraphrase and setting of the psalm, was first published in 1525.[26] It was soon adopted as a Lutheran hymn, and appeared in publications such as the Becker Psalter.[27][28] A manuscript written in the early 17th century and a 1660s print illustrate that Dachstein's version of the psalm was adopted in Ashkenazi culture.[29] Four-part chorale settings of Dachstein's hymn were realised by, among others, Johann Hermann Schein[30][31] and Heinrich Schütz.[28][32] Schütz also set Luther's prose translation of Psalm 137 ("An den Wassern zu Babel", SWV 37, included in the Psalmen Davids, Op. 2, 1619).[33][34] Organ compositions based on Dachstein's hymn include Johann Adam Reincken's An Wasserflüssen Babylon, and one of Johann Sebastian Bach's Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes.[26]

The first composition in Eustache Du Caurroy's Meslanges de la musique, published in 1610, a year after the composer's death, is "Le long des eaux, ou se bagne", a six-part setting of Gilles Durant de la Bergerie's paraphrase of Psalm 137.[35][36][37] Salamone Rossi (1570–1630) set the psalm in Hebrew (עַל נַהֲרוֹת בָּבֶל, Al naharot Bavel) for four parts.[38] Matthew Locke's Super flumina Babylonis motet is an extended setting of the first nine verses of the psalm.[39][40] The psalm's first two verses were used for a musical setting in a round by English composer Philip Hayes.[41] William Billings adapted the text to describe the British occupation of Boston in his anthem "Lamentation over Boston".[42][43]

Artemy Vedel composed two choral concertos based on the psalm in Ukrainian, Na rekakh Vavilonskikh.[44]

19th century[edit]

Lord Byron's "We sat down and wept by the waters", a versified paraphrase of Psalm 137, was published in his Hebrew Melodies in 1815. The poetry was set by, among others, Isaac Nathan (1815) and Samuel Sebastian Wesley (c. 1834). The poem was translated in French by Alexis Paulin Paris, and in German by Adolf Böttger. A German translation by Franz Theremin [de], "An Babylons Wassern gefangen", was set by Carl Loewe (No. 2 of his Hebräische Gesänge, Op. 4, 1823). Another German translation was set by Ferruccio Busoni ("An Babylons Wassern wir weinten" in Zwei hebräische Melodien von Lord Byron, BV 202, 1884).[45][46]

Psalm 137 was the inspiration for the famous slave chorus "Va, pensiero" from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Nabucco (1842).[47] Charles-Valentin Alkan's piano piece Super flumina Babylonis: Paraphrase, Op. 52 (1859), is in the printed score preceded by a French translation of Psalm 137.[48][49] Charles Gounod set "Près du fleuve étranger", a French paraphrase of the psalm, in 1861.[50][51] In 1866 this setting was published with Henry Farnie's text version, as "By Babylon's wave: Psalm CXXXVII".[52][53]

In 1863, Gabriel Fauré wrote a Super Flumina Babylonis for mixed chorus and orchestra.[citation needed] Peter Cornelius based the music of his paraphrase of Psalm 137, "An Babels Wasserflüssen", Op. 13 No. 2 (1872), on the "Sarabande" of Bach's third English Suite.[54][55] Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) set verses 1–5 to music as No. 7 of his Biblical Songs (1894).[56][57]

20th and 21st centuries[edit]

20th and 21st-century settings based on, or referring to, Psalm 137 include:

In literature[edit]

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

Historical instances of use[edit]


  1. ^ Mazor, Lea (2011). "Psalms, Book of". In Berlin, Adele; Grossman, Maxine (eds.). The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-973004-9.
  2. ^ Parallel Latin/English Psalter / Psalmus 136 (137) Archived 2017-05-07 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ James L. Kugel, "Psalm 137", in In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994)
  4. ^ Translated from the Greek Septuagint by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (1974). The Psalter According to the Seventy. Vol. 1987, second printing. Boston MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery. p. 241. ISBN 0-943405-00-9.
  5. ^ Benson, J., Benson Commentary Archived 30 January 2018 at the Wayback Machine on Psalm 137, accessed 23 June 2022
  6. ^ Scherman, Rabbi Nosson (2003). The Complete Artscroll Siddur (3rd ed.). Mesorah Publications, Ltd. p. 183. ISBN 9780899066509.
  7. ^ The Complete Artscroll Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, page 324
  8. ^ Weintraub, Rabbi Simkha Y. (2018). "Psalms as the Ultimate Self-Help Tool". My Jewish Learning. Retrieved 25 September 2018.
  9. ^ Greenbaum, Rabbi Avraham (2007). "The Ten Psalms: English Translation". Retrieved 25 September 2018.
  10. ^ Règle de saint Benoît, traduction de Prosper Guéranger, (Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, réimpression 2007) p47.
  11. ^ Psautier latin-français du bréviaire monastique, p. 514, 1938/2003.
  12. ^ Super flumina Babylonis (Offertory): Free scores at the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
  13. ^ Leahy, Anne (2011), J. S. Bach's "Leipzig" Chorale Preludes: Music, Text, Theology, Scarecrow Press, p. 37, ISBN 978-0810881815
  14. ^ Marc Girard (May 2006), Faut-il prier au complet le psaume 136 (137)? Archived 5 December 2020 at the Wayback Machine (in French) at (website of the Dominican Order of Canada)
  15. ^ "The Psalter". 9 December 2013.
  16. ^ Bell, John L. (1993). Psalms of Patience, Protest and Praise. Wild Goose Publications. ISBN 0-947988-56-4.
  17. ^ Super flumina Babylonis (Festa, Costanzo): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  18. ^ Super flumina Babylonis (Nicolas Gombert): Free scores at the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
  19. ^ Super flumina Babylonis (Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  20. ^ Super flumina Babylonis (Lassus, Orlande de): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  21. ^ Super flumina Babylonis / Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) Archived 3 July 2018 at the Wayback Machine Hyperion
  22. ^ Super flumina Babylonis (Victoria, Tomás Luis de): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  23. ^ VIAF, ID VIAF : 174850718 (oeuvre). "Super flumina Babylonis".
  24. ^ Super flumina Babylonis . H 171 / psaume / Marc Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) Archived 25 August 2018 at the Wayback Machine French National Library
  25. ^ Super flumina Babylonis, S.13 (Lalande, Michel Richard de): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  26. ^ a b Terry, Charles Sanford. "Bach's Chorals. Part III: The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works". Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  27. ^ Becker, Cornelius (1602). "Der CXXXVII. Psal.". Der Psalter Dauids Gesangweis: Auff die in Lutherischen Kirchen gewöhnliche Melodeyen zugerichtet (in German). Leipzig: Jakob Apel.
  28. ^ a b SWV 242 / Becker Psalter - Psalm 137 - An Wasserflüssen Babylon Archived 4 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine Heinrich-Schütz-Haus
  29. ^ Matut 2011, I: pp. 50–55, 64; II: pp. 101–108.
  30. ^ Johann Hermann Schein (1627). Cantional, Oder Gesangbuch Augspurgischer Confession. Leipzig: Schein. pp. 325–327.[dead link]
  31. ^ Gottfried Vopelius (1682). Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch. Leipzig: Christoph Klinger, pp.706–709
  32. ^ Becker Psalter, Op.5 (Schütz, Heinrich): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  33. ^ Psalmus 136 (137) / Psalm 136 (137) Archived 5 July 2018 at the Wayback Machine at LiederNet website.
  34. ^ Psalmen Davids sampt etlichen Moteten und Concerten, Op.2 (Schütz, Heinrich): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  35. ^ BNF 42964084c
  36. ^ DU CAURROY, Eustache (1549-1609) : MÉLANGES Archived 23 August 2020 at the Wayback Machine at
  37. ^ Le long des eaux, où se bagne Archived 5 July 2018 at the Wayback Machine at LiederNet website.
  38. ^ Cantiques, chants, psaumes et hymnes (Rossi, Salamone): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  39. ^ Buelow 2004, pp. 298299.
  40. ^ Matthew Locke: Anthems, Motets and Ceremonial Music Archived 30 September 2020 at the Wayback Machine at Hyperion website.
  41. ^ The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons by Philip Hayes (London, 1786)
  42. ^ Stowe 2016, pp. 68–74.
  43. ^ Stowe (2012). "Babylon Revisited: Psalm 137 as American Protest Song". Black Music Research Journal. 32 (1): 95–112. doi:10.5406/blacmusiresej.32.1.0095. JSTOR 10.5406/blacmusiresej.32.1.0095. S2CID 154371943.
  44. ^ 3 "Vedel, Artemy". Orthodox Sacred Music Reference Library. p. 2. Retrieved 25 February 2023. {{cite web}}: Check |url= value (help)
  45. ^ We sat down and wept by the waters Archived 27 September 2020 at the Wayback Machine, We sat down and wept by the waters / An den Wassern zu Babel Archived 5 July 2018 at the Wayback Machine and Zwei hebräische Melodien von Lord Byron für eine Singstimme mit Klavierbegleitung at LiederNet website.
  46. ^ Loewe-Album (Loewe, Carl), Lyrische Fantasien, Alledorien, Hymnen und Gesänge. Hebräische Gesänge (Loewe, Carl), 2 Lieder, Op.15, BV 202 (Busoni, Ferruccio): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  47. ^ Cullen Schippe; Chuck Stetson (2006). The Bible and Its Influence. BLP Publishing. pp. 176–. ISBN 978-0-9770302-0-0.
  48. ^ Robert Rimm (2002). The Composer-pianists: Hamelin and The Eight. Hal Leonard Corporation. pp. 300–. ISBN 978-1-57467-072-1.
  49. ^ Super flumina Babylonis, Op.52 (Alkan, Charles-Valentin): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  50. ^ Près du fleuve étranger Archived 5 July 2018 at the Wayback Machine at LiederNet website.
  51. ^ "Près du fleuve étranger" (Gounod, Charles): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  52. ^ OCLC 47878235
  53. ^ By Babylon's wave (score) at website.
  54. ^ Psalmus 136 (137) / An Babels Wasserflüssen Archived 5 July 2018 at the Wayback Machine at LiederNet website.
  55. ^ 3 Psalmlieder, Op.13 (Cornelius, Peter): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  56. ^ James Laster; Diana Reed Strommen (2003). Catalogue of Vocal Solos and Duets Arranged in Biblical Order. Scarecrow Press. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-8108-4838-2.
  57. ^ Biblical Songs Archived 4 May 2020 at the Wayback Machine at
  58. ^ Leytens, Luc. "Van Nuffel, Jules, Biografie". Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  59. ^ Robert Ignatius Letellier (23 June 2017). The Bible in Music. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 283–. ISBN 978-1-4438-6848-8.
  60. ^ S. Andrew Granade (2014). Harry Partch, Hobo Composer. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 225–. ISBN 978-1-58046-495-6.
  61. ^ James H. Laster (11 June 1996). Catalogue of Choral Music Arranged in Biblical Order. Scarecrow Press. p. 625. ISBN 978-1-4617-2664-7.
  62. ^ David Amran (1969). By the rivers of Babylon: women's chorus (SSAA) a cappella and soprano solo. Archived 12 December 2022 at the Wayback Machine C. F. Peters
  63. ^ Music: the AGO & RCCO Magazine, Vol. 3 (1969) Archived 12 December 2022 at the Wayback Machine, page 28.
  64. ^ Stowe 2016, pp. 51–56, 205.
  65. ^ Paul R. Laird (10 April 2014). The Musical Theater of Stephen Schwartz: From Godspell to Wicked and Beyond. Scarecrow Press. pp. 38–. ISBN 978-0-8108-9192-0.
  66. ^ Stowe 2016, pp. 56–.
  67. ^ Andrew Shenton (10 May 2018). Arvo Pärt's Resonant Texts: Choral and Organ Music 1956–2015. Cambridge University Press. pp. 54–. ISBN 978-1-107-08245-8.
  68. ^ Music and Musicians. 1981. p. 45.
  69. ^ Jeff Burger (1 April 2014). Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. Chicago Review Press. pp. 491–. ISBN 978-1-61374-758-2.
  70. ^ Stowe 2016, pp. 63–64.
  71. ^ 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 6 September 2014. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  72. ^ Siobhán Dowling Long; John F. A. Sawyer (3 September 2015). The Bible in Music: A Dictionary of Songs, Works, and More. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8108-8452-6.
  73. ^ information and recording Archived 5 September 2022 at the Wayback Machine at the composer's official website.
  74. ^ Ferrall, Charles (2001). Modernist Writing and Reactionary Politics. Cambridge University Press. p. 88. ISBN 0-521-79345-9.
  75. ^ Lewis, Sean. King Spawn #1. IMAGE COMICS, Portland, OR, Aug. 25, 2021.
  76. ^ "Frederick Douglass Project: 5th of July Speech | RBSCP".


External links[edit]