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 : 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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