Psalm 137

On the River of Babylon, there we lived[i]

And we wept as we remembered Zion.

In the midst of the willow trees we hung our lyre

Because our captors[ii] required us to sing a song

Our tormentors[iii] were happy; they commanded us to sing a song from Zion.


How can we sing a song about the Lord in a foreign land?

If I forget you Jerusalem

Let my right hand be unable to play Zion’s songs[iv]

Let me be unable to sing[v] if I do not remember you

If I do not consider Jerusalem more important than my own happiness[vi].


Lord remember the sons of Edom

They cried out: destroy her! On the day Jerusalem was laid waste.

Oh daughter of Babylon who will be destroyed.

Happy are they who repay you for what you are owed for what you have done to us.

Happy are those who seize your children and smash them on the rocks


[i] Lit. “there we sat.” In the OT, this is a very common idiom for describing the place one lives. In Ge. 4:16 “Cain sat in the land of Nod”, Ge. 11:31 “The came to the land of Haran and they sat there,” Ge. 14:12 “and he sat in Sodom.” In most versions of the bible these verses are translated with words like “dwell,” “live,” etc… but the word is the same as is used in Ps. 137:1.

[ii] This word carries a sense of “captivity” or “captors” i.e. the ones who caused our captivity.

[iii] This is assumed to be oppressors but the meaning is uncertain. This is the only occurrence in the OT.

[iv] This entire phrase is composed of only two words in Hebrew i.e. תשכח ימיני or lit. “my right will forget”; the meaning of this idiom is uncertain and has been translated various ways. “Let my right hand whither,” “May my right hand be crippled,” “May my right hand forget its skill,” “Let my right hand forget how to play the harp.” In context, I believe the Psalmist is trying to express the idea that one cannot play (vs. 5) or sing (vs. 6) the music of Jerusalem.

[v] Lit. ”let my tongue be glued to my cheek.” Figuratively this expresses the inability to sing the “songs of Zion”

[vi] Lit. “if I do not cause Jerusalem to go above the top of my happiness”

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  1. Brenda Boerger says:

    Hi, I tracked over from Better Bibles Blog.

    Here’s my poetic translation of PS 137.

    Psalm 137
    a historical psalm of retribution
    LXX: for David
    heroic octave variations

    1 We sat by streams in Babylon to cry.
    In sorrow heads were drooping down to weep,
    Recalling Zion, which had been destroyed.
    2 Along the rivers, stood some trees nearby.
    And in the spreading branches of those trees
    We set aside for good our harps of joy.
    3 “Say, serenade us,” our enslavers hissed.
    “So chant a Zion cadence, we insist.” [i]

    4 But we could not profane God’s liturgy,
    Performing it in our captivity!
    5 Each vowed, “If I forget Jerusalem,
    I’ll ask my hands to forfeit all their skill—
    Not pluck a lyre or strum a string again.
    6 If my great joy’s not still Jerusalem,
    Call me a liar. Tongue and lips be still
    And never cant another note again.”

    7 When Babylon all of Salem ripped apart,
    The Edomites said, “Strip her! Strip her bare!
    And leave just the foundations lying there.”
    So Yahweh Lord, remember Edom’s part.
    8-9 And Babylon, destruction is your due.
    May our avenger be blest in his wrath
    And bash your babes on rocks until their death.
    He’s blest who pays back all that’s owed to you.[iii]

    [i] 137:3 Verse three is filled with the hissing of [s], [sh], and [ts] sounds in Hebrew, showing the mocking of the captors. POET uses [s], [ch], [st], [ts] and [z] and compresses four lines into two lines for this effect in English.
    [ii] 137:5-6 137:5-6 There is intensification in verses 5-6 by means of a word play, which increases the formality of the self-directed oath. In it, Hebrew uses ‘forget’ twice in verse 5, which POET renders ‘forget’ and ‘forfeit.’ POET adds three further word plays in these two verses: can’t/cant, lyre/liar, and two meanings of ‘still,’ making the two halves of the oath sound parallel and ritualistic.
    [iii] 137:8-9 The sarcastic blessing in verses 8-9 is a type of ritualized curse practiced in the Ancient Near East. So, while talk of killing infants makes modern readers cringe, it was part of the formulaic language of such curses and a reality of the times. See 2 Kings 8:12, Isaiah 13:16, Hosea 13:16, Nahum 3:10, and Luke 19:44. See also Revelation 18:6 which talks about the judgment of Babylon. POET reverses the order of the two verses in 8 and 9 in order to make the relationship between the two verses clearer by showing that the curse formula is asking that Babylon be paid back in exactly the way they treated Israel.

    1. Mike Tisdell says:

      Thanks for sharing Brenda.

      I think that your translation is intriguing, I will have to think a little more about it but here are some of my initial thoughts.

      Vs. 1 in your translations seems to look back to a specific moment in time when they remembered Zion, but the sense I get from the text is that this is a more general feeling that was experienced daily as they remained in Babylon. Thoughts?

      Vs. 2 It seems to me that the idea that the harps were set aside for good, is a little stronger than is communicated in the text.

      Vs. 4, The loss of the interrogative in this verse is difficult. Admittedly, my opinion on this is influenced by hearing this sung so many times by so many different singers. But this line
      “איך נשיר את שיר אדוני” is always sung with such intense passion that it is hard to hear this any other way. I am also curious why you chose to translate this as “God” rather than “Lord,” “Johovah,” or “Yahweh?”

      Vs. 6, It seems to me that the call is to place the needs of Jerusalem ahead of our own happiness, but you have translated this as the CEB and NIV which make Jerusalem the source of the Joy. I am curious as to the reasoning for this choice? It seems like a difficult idea to get from the text itself. Where did “call me a liar” come from?