Psalm 137

“By the waters of Babylon.” You know this poem or something about it, right? My file on this case is almost funny. People regularly get the story on this poem mixed up, even though the evidence is right there in front of us. Getting the story right (this poem happens after Cyrus the Persian captures Babylon) helps clear up what kind of a poem it is (not a lament!) and why it ends with a violent outburst (smashing babies, which will still make us squirm).

Aside from that, the poem has more loose ends than a professor’s tweed. Let me give you some examples. ☝️ The speaker in the poem (Judeans in Babylon) switches between “we” and “I” (1st person plural and 1st person singular). Why does that happen, right? I’m no easy student but experience is a hard teacher and I’ve learned this: most of the time you can’t ever know why. Often, it doesn’t even matter. The right question is, what’s the effect? How does it work

✌️ Between them, the two different speakers address four different addressees (themselves, Jerusalem, Yahweh, and Babylon) and two of them are cities, namely, they are personifications. I’ve seen plenty of addressee-switching in my time, some might say too much, but nothing like this. 

3️⃣ This poem has plenty of alliteration (when consonants and vowels repeat a lot) and plenty of internal rhyming (when word-endings repeat a lot). But it has no clear rhythm and line-length (prosody). Sometimes it feels like there is a lurching rhythm. A line begins with a mouthful, then concludes really quickly like an afterthought. But often even that rhythm feels loose, forced, or even defied. It’s like you have a story and you’re forcing it onto the facts when they don’t fit any better than last year’s skinny jeans👖.

4️⃣ Then there’s the stanzas. In most poems, stanzas share a bunch of specific words and word-forms that signal the beginnings and the ends. Often, they have the same number of lines too. In this poem, almost nothing repeats from stanza to stanza. Instead, the stanzas are made by what’s in them. A topic, address, imagery, and mood make up a stanza, and then they just change and a new stanza begins. In other words, the poem feels like it has no structure. If you remember the case of Psalm 93, in that poem the structure was a platform for the content. In this poem, there is no structure other than the content itself. It’s like someone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Instead, a few thematic words of one stanza show up in the next, linking them in a chain of associations ⛓.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d call this a prose poem. But another sleuth out there, by my lights a super-sleuth, said that with biblical poems we gotta be working the free verse angle, and that sleuth’s gotta be right. Either way, the first half of the poem is about not singing. You have to figure that a poem about not singing might be unconventional by design, an anti-poem. But I can’t tell if an “anti-poem” poem is an oxymoron or just moronic. I’ll leave that nut for other sleuths to crack.

The point is, this poem’s got more question marks ??? than the Riddler. A case like this calls to me like a chorus of flashing sirens. Of course I can’t resist. Hey, that’s a chorus of flashing sirens on the way to a crime scene! What do you think I am — a Greek poet? Get your head out of Homer and back in the gutter where it belongs.

One last thing. You can probably tell, but we’re going to be here till closing time. Sorry, but there’s no quick fix in this business. So pour yourself a tall one 🍺. Better yet, order regular refills 🍺🍺🍺. But if you know this poem in Hebrew or in English, I did dig up a few surprises, and I hope you like them better than the drinks.

PS. I separated stanzas by indenting off and on. This should help you see that each stanza has a different speaker, addressee, and topic. Also, I chose to enjamb the words “and our drivers joy” to make the line-lengths closer, but let me tell you, it’s got my stomach in knots. Not that the other way would be any better. I’ll explain about that later.

Psalm 137

1     By the canals of Babylon,

       There we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion.

2     On willows in it we hung our lyres,

3     Because there our captors asked us for lyrics

       and our drivers joy, Sing us songs of Zion!

4     How could we sing songs of Yahweh on foreign land!?

5          If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right (hand) forget (to play);

6          May my tongue stick to my cheek, if I do not remember you,

            If I do not raise Jerusalem above my chief joy!

7      Remember, Yahweh, about the Edomites the day of Jerusalem,

        Who were saying, Strip! Strip! To its very foundation!

8          Daughter Babylon who is plundered —

            Oh, the joy of who gets to pay you the deed you did to us!

9          Oh, the joy of who gets to seize and smash your sucklings against stones!

תהילים קל״ז

א     עַל נַהֲרוֹת בָּבֶל

       שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִינוּ בְּזָכְרֵנוּ אֶת־צִיּוֹן

ב     עַל־עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ תָּלִינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ

ג     כִּי שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁיר

       וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה שִׁירוּ לָנוּ מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן

ד     אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת־שִׁיר־יְהוָה עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר

ה          אִם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלַםִ תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי

ו           תִּדְבַּק־לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי אִם־לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי

            אִם־לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלַםִ עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי

ז      זְכֹר יְהוָה לִבְנֵי אֱדוֹם אֵת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁלַםִ

       הָאֹמְרִים עָרוּ עָרוּ עַד הַיְסוֹד בָּהּ

ח          בַּת־בָּבֶל הַשְּׁדוּדָה

            אַשְׁרֵי שֶׁיְשַׁלֶּם־לָךְ אֶת־גְּמוּלֵךְ שֶׁגָּמַלְתְּ לָנוּ

ט          אַשְׁרֵי שֶׁיֹּאחֵז וְנִפֵּץ אֶת־עֹלָלַיִךְ אֶל־הַסָּלַע

The poem starts, “By the canals of Babylon.” There’s two points here. ☝️ It’s canals, not rivers. A little digging through maps and atlases turns up that Babylon was built on both sides of the Euphrates — one city spanning a single river. No “rivers.” But Babylon did have many irrigation canals that took advantage of the river. The kings who built and rebuilt all those canals loved to make hay out of it, especially one Nebuchadnezzar (the 2nd), the king who ended Judean kingship, destroyed Judea, and deported Judeans to Babylon, in the 590s and 580s BCE.

This brings me to point ✌️. “By the canals of Babylon” sounds exactly like so many other headings in Psalms that give a context for the poem right before the poem begins. But when you continue reading, it turns out it’s not a heading at all. It’s part of the poem. “By the canals of Babylon, there, we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion.”

Two interesting points. Now if we add them up we get this: People, in Hebrew (in the Bible it’s called “Judean”), talking about remembering Zion, by Nebuchadnezzar’s canals in Babylon. See? Nebuchadnezzar reveled in being a builder, of canals and other things; the Judeans contrast that with his being a destroyer, of Zion. In my line of work, that is a very promising beginning to a case.

Now this poem is always said to be a lament over Zion by the exiles, not too long after they were exiled. One eagle-eyed sleuth noticed that doesn’t square ⏹ with the poem, because the speakers in it don’t actually lament. Also, there’s overlooked evidence that makes the poem much later than that, in completely different circumstances. In the opening stanza, the speakers talk from a distance. The canals are “there” not here. Sitting, weeping, demanding songs of Zion, hanging the instruments — all the verbs used for these signal the past that is over and done with. The speakers are not by the canals and not sitting and weeping. When are they? Well, the last stanza begins by calling out Daughter Babylon who is plundered. This plundering happened over two generations later.

Stay with me while I get into the details of this story. Cyrus (the 2nd, aka “the Great”) was a Persian king who took control of Babylon in 539 BCE on his way to building the Persian empire. Not long before that, the Babylonian king Nabonidus had gathered fancy divine statues from temples around Babylonia in Babylon. Why? Sleuths today have different theories. Either way, some Babylonians at the time saw this as begging the gods for major trouble. Anyway, when Cyrus got control of the city, he emptied it of those divine statues. His PR machine put the word out that he returned them to their proper homes and he was just making the gods happy. You know the line, I’m not wrecking anything or taking what’s not mine; I’m just restoring things to the way they were and they way they ought to be. But the Judeans in Babylonia, they saw it differently. This looked exactly like Babylon was plundered

Get it? If the poem is about Judeans in Babylonia after Cyrus captured and plundered it, then their mood wouldn’t be lamenting exile. It would be vengeful glee and a smidgeon of hope. That’s why the poem ends so forcefully, expressing that whoever gets to kill off Babylon’s future deserves immense joy. Now that sentiment shows they think the situation isn’t fully over. They’re hoping the Persians’ll come back to finish the job. The imagery is grisly and upsetting (smashing babies). But like any movie or book you enjoy that has hard scenes, it’s all just part of the poem’s world. The poem doesn’t quote people; it creates them. You could say, it creates kinds of people. It’s always just for our consideration. That’s one of my personal principles.™ Not everyone works like this, you know. 

About the smidgeon of hope I mentioned, it has to hit you that the speakers in the poem do not jump for joy that they are returning to Judea. They don’t know any Cyrus proclamation about going home again. They only promise never to forget Jerusalem. So we have at best what I called a smidgeon of hope.

Here’s where I see a little bit of structure. Both the first and last stanzas begin by pointing their finger 👉🏼 at Babylon, “By the canals of Babylon” and “Daughter Babylon who is plundered” (three words each in Hebrew ). Plus, both stanzas have a mood of defiance. In the first, the speakers say how when their captors taunted them to sing Zion songs, they hung up their lyres and refused. (That works best if they threw the lyres into the trees, but what do I know about lyres, willows, and poetic images?) In the last stanza, they exclaim the joy of Babylon’s total destruction.

I should explain the taunt and the defiance. I looked into poems about Zion, and they all tell the same story, that Zion can’t be defeated. To demand that the exiles of Zion sing about Zion’s guaranteed security is a vicious joke. When the speakers say, how could they sing songs of Zion in a foreign land, they mean it’d be devastating to do so. Some sleuths have a theory the songs are sacred and the lands outside are profane, like it’s not allowed. But the poem isn’t about that at all, and I haven’t seen evidence for such an idea elsewhere either. 

Anyway, the match between the first and last stanzas brings me to the next point. All the stanzas move from one to another by a chain of association. In the first stanza, the “we” talk about how back then and over there the music died with Zion. They refused to sing. Since they don’t name an addressee, they’re talking to themselves. In my line of work you see all kinds of things. People talking to themselves isn’t close to off the grid.

The idea of refusing to play Zion music leads to the next stanza, where a single “I” is speaking, not “we.” The “I” addresses Jerusalem (aka Zion) like a single person, female, and confirms that they have not forgotten her and still know how to play music for her. The speaker swears a self-curse, that if they forget Jerusalem, they’ll forget how to play for anyone altogether. The single “I,” the direct address to Jerusalem, and the oath make the stanza real personal and intimate, like lovers, a scene you’ve seen a hundred times. That’s the effect, what it does, how it works. By the way, the Hebrew doesn’t mean the right hand should “wither” or anything like it, definitely to “forget” — how to play. I don’t know what some other sleuths are thinking.

The two themes of Jerusalem and remembering lead to the third stanza. In this stanza, you can’t tell who is talking, “I” still or “we” again. But now the speaker talks directly to Yahweh, and demands that he remember how the Edomites were calling for Jerusalem to be razed completely, which implies taking revenge.

The image of Jerusalem’s destruction and the idea of revenge lead to the final stanza. The “we” returns and now speaks to Babylon, addressing her as a daughter (namely, a young woman) — a rival of Jerusalem. The speakers gloat that the table has turned, things have come full circle. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, but now Babylon is destroyed. And whereas Judea has a population that lives on in Babylon, Babylon should have no continuity whatsoever.

One last point you might appreciate. The poem is up front about portraying memory and hope; but underneath it also portrays what they both depend on, time, and how it works. Each stanza has a different way of representing time. In stanza 1, the speakers keep going backwards in time. They start out in the past (crying and remembering Zion), then explain what came before that (hanging up their lyres), then what came before that (captors demanding Zion songs), then explain the whole with a timeless feeling (how could we do such a thing). In stanza 2, the speaker talks about the future, but a future that shouldn’t happen (a self-curse about forgetting Jerusalem). In stanza 3, the speaker talks about the past again and the future (Yahweh should remember what the Edomites did). And the final stanza talks about the future again (the joy of whoever fully destroys Babylon). Each one and all of them together show that feelings and time have a tangled up relationship.

There you have it, the big picture on this poem. It’s a poem of resistance, faithfulness, comeuppance, memory and time. You can see it becoming an anthem for a beaten down people.

Now if, like I always say, you trust no one, I’ll put some of the dry details here, what I tied up and what’s still a loose end. ⚠️ There’s a lot going here. 

• The Greek Bible has a heading, “By David,” as if David knew Babylon would destroy Judea and force Judeans to return with them in 400 years. This shows perfectly my rule about headings, which I told you about at the very beginning of Psalm 93. A similar case is Psalm 30, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

• וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ “and our drivers” – Many sleuths figure this tough word for a noun, probably because of the waw + ḥolem and the qameṣ. But the noun doesn’t appear anywhere else. The root would be י-ל-ל “wail” and the word something like “our wails” or “our wailers,” which don’t fit the context. Also, in the poetic line, the word stands parallel to שׁוֹבֵינוּ (“our captors”), which is a participle not a noun and it refers to activity done to the speakers. So I asked a sidekick, one of my sleuths-in-training, to track down the form we want and meanings for it. This sleuth marshaled the right resources and came up with this cunning solution: to analyze it as וְתֹלְלֵינוּ, a G masc. pl. part. of ת-ל-ל meaning either “lead, drive” (note H “lead astray, mislead” התל) or “plunder” (like ש-ל-ל). I went with the first option. The Greek Bible has it this way too (ἀπαγαγόντες ἡμᾶς), but you never know if the translator too was sleuthing rather than simply transcribing. 

You didn’t figure me for a team of trainees, did you? Even a lone sleuth leads a double life, one on the inside and one the outside. Look, you don’t go into my line of work if you don’t have that split, because it takes one to know one. You can’t get behind the surface unless you know what’s it like to have one. If you know what I mean, you know what I mean. Anyway, then I can call on them when I need backup or an extra pair of eyes. Yeah, I can be selfish that way.

• וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה “and our drivers joy” – I put this phrase on the next line because otherwise it’d be part of a really long line, and the next phrase, “Sing us songs of Zion,” would be a really short line. But the formulation of this phrase, which is missing elements, depends heavily on what comes before it (“because there our captors asked us for lyrics”), as if it ought to say, and there our drivers asked us for (words of) joy. This is a classic form of a poetic line in the Bible. A full first part is followed by a second part that assumes some of the words said already and adds a bit more to the idea. Separating the second part and putting it on the next line — enjambing it like that — seems pretty unusual. To be frank, I haven’t looked for this before, but I’ll be on the lookout for it now. That’s how I work. Start a file and build it slowly over time. Play the long game.

• אִם־לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלַםִ עַל־רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחַתִּי “If I don’t raise Jerusalem above my chief joy” – This clause presents a real problem. On the one hand, the topic (forgetting Jerusalem) and repeating the phrase “If I don’t” make it a continuation of what came before in stanza 2. On the other hand, referring to Jerusalem in the third person breaks with stanza 2 and matches the next stanza (3), and the “If I don’t” formulation fits with stanza 3 too: If I don’t remember Jerusalem, hey, Yahweh, at least you ought to (by way of the Edomites). Back on the first hand, that’s a weird idea, only if the speaker forgets, then Yahweh should remember? In my line of work, sometimes we meet certain facts that can go two ways. Most of the time you’re missing clues and just can’t decide between them. But sometimes, it’s facts that are always meant to go two ways. In most of those cases, there’re two meanings to the same word, and both fit the context. But sometimes, it’s two different ways of reading a whole clause, whether it completes what comes before or heads up what comes next, and both fit. Only the real mad geniuses cook this up. I push my hat back and exhale in awe when I find it. We have a name for it, a pivot pun. OK, that’s my name for it. And I cribbed it from Japanese literature. They have sleuths there too, you know. Some damn sharp ones. Anyway, Bible sleuths call this Janus parallelism, but Janus is cryptic (a two-faced god, no positive vibe there), and in most cases there’s no parallelism (like here). So pivot pun. By the way, if this phrase is part of stanza 3, then stanza 3 is voiced by “I” not “we,” and we have a nice structure. The outer stanzas (1 & 4) are voiced “we,” and the inner stanzas (2 & 3) are voiced “I.”

• אַשְׁרֵי “Oh, the joy of” – Just about all sleuths everywhere translate this “Blessed is.” The Greek Bible got this wrong, using an adjective, and everyone’s followed ever since. The form of this word is a noun in construct, “(the) joy of.” This makes a well known kind of a sentence, an exclamation: “Oh, the joy of (whoever)….” it doesn’t need a verb. So that’s what I did here, and what I do everywhere אַשְׁרֵי shows up in the Bible.

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2 thoughts on “Psalm 137

  1. Fantastic post! I’m an MFA working out of Virginia Commonwealth University–I plan to teach my creative writing class Psalm 137 next semester. I knew some of the context of this incredible anti-poem, but I loved reading your translation and interpretation. I’d be interested to see a post on Psalm 110–that one also is full of striking (quite literally) imagery, and (mis)interpreted in the new testament as evidence for Christ… I’m so curious what the Hebrew writers actually said! Thanks again.

    –Nolan Capps

  2. Simeon Chavel

    Love the love. A sleuth like me scrapping out cases and cash in the great rat race isn’t used to it. Psalm 110, eh? Let’s see. Short? √ (seven verses). Intriguing aspects? √ (opens really unusually). Unusual imagery? √ (setting next to Yahweh). Multiple voices? √ (have to be sorted out). OK, I’ll add it to the docket. Hey, you look hungry, so I’ll do it pro bono. Which doesn’t mean I’ll do it for a certain Irish singer. It’s lawyer-speak for I’ll do it for you as a favor. No cost, buddy.

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