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Psalm 137 from the St Alban's Psalter

Psalm 137’s famous opening line, 'By the river(s) of Babylon we sat down and wept...', leads its hearers into a poem of yearning for a lost homeland. The psalm probably originated in the time of the the Babylonian exile, where it is set. It describes the communal grief experienced on the banks of the river, where the exiles’ captors demand 'songs of Zion', that is, songs of the holy city Jerusalem (v. 3). The central part of the poem, in the singular voice, expresses the refusal to 'sing Yhwh’s song in a foreign land' (v. 4) and calls for bodily repercussions, should the speaker forget Jerusalem. The final (and least used!) part of Psalm 137 implores Yhwh to remember the events that have taken place, seeking punishment on the singers' persecutors, and describes the one who will repay those persecutors as ashrei (happy/blessed). Although the ending has proved theologically problematic for many, the poem remains one of the most famous and influential ‘artefacts’ from the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of many of its inhabitants to Babylonia. Indeed, the psalm has a rich reception history—in recent years it has been used at the inauguration of the American President Donald Trump, been taken as inspiration for Paulo Coehlo’s novel By The River Piedra We Sat Down and Wept, and been interpreted as the earliest written record of middle cerebral arterial infarction (Saxby Pridmore and Jamshid Ahmadi, 'Psalm 137 And Middle Cerebral Artery Infarction', ASEAN Journal of Psychiatry 16/2 [2015]: 271). It is perhaps no surprise that it continues to capture the imagination: the sense of yearning and fear of forgetting are palpable throughout. The manuscript pictured, featuring Psalm 137 in Latin, is from the twelfth century CE St Alban's Psalter, currently housed in the Dombibliothek in Hildesheim, Germany.

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Gebhard Fugel's 'An den Wassern Babylons'

An der Wassern Babylons, by the German artist Gebhard Fugel, depicts the setting of Psalm 137: 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and could we sing Yhwh's song in a foreign land?' (vv. 1, 4). Exiles from Judah line the banks of a river, and multiple harps can be seen in the background. Psalm 137 moves between the collective and singular voice, from “we remembered Zion” (v. 1) and “our captors demanded of us words of a song” (v. 3) to “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you” (v. 6). Perhaps this is why Fugel chose to highlight one character in the centre of the picture: amid the mourning crowd, one figure lifts his eyes upwards, as the lighting on his hand and face set him apart. The majority of Fugel’s work concerned biblical and Christian themes, including his 136 so-called Schulwandbilder (school wall paintings). This work was painted around 1920.

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Michele Myers' 'By the Rivers of Babylon—Psalm 137'

California-based artist Michele Myers was inspired by Psalm 137:1–6 to create this striking picture. The vivid colours and unguarded expressions of the three figures in 'By The Rivers of Babylon—Psalm 137' bring to life the raw emotion of the psalm. The raised right hand of the central figure, so clearly outlined against the bold green of the trees, recalls the defiant cry of verse 5: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [its skill]!” Myers is by no means the first interpreter to be moved by the earlier parts of Psalm 137 rather than the latter. The end of the psalm calls for violent retribution, pronouncing “Happy is the one who seizes and smashes your children against the rock!” The threat has caused theological quandaries for Jewish and Christian readers alike. It is important to understand these words in their historical context. In the aftermath of exile, Psalm 137 was an honest response to the trauma of destruction and displacement, which had shaken the core of the exiles’ understanding of their relationship with their God, Yhwh.