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Monday, September 12, 2005

Psalm 137 - Exegetical Research

Psalm 137 – Exegetical Research

Research Paper Completed in Partial Fulfillment
Hebrew Poetry
Dr. John J. Davis

Jonathan Erdman
Grace Theological Seminary
November 20, 2002

Note: Footnotes are temporarily unavailable...Hope to resolve this soon!

Introductory Material


In terms of structure and form-critical analysis, Psalm 137 in truly unique. Despite their differences on interpretation, one thing that scholars and commentators nearly all agree upon is the inability to categorically stereotype this poem. Says Anderson, "The brief but difficult Psalm does not fit easily into any of the common psalm-types."1 Leslie C. Allen in the Word Biblical Commentary states, "Psalm 137 defies straightforward classification in form-critical terms."2

Despite the fact that this psalm does not fit neatly into a predetermined category, the composition does show an identifiable structure. Specifically, it seems to contain three strophes. The last strophe is verses 7-9. The other two are either 1-3 and 4-6 or the first strophe is lengthened through verse four: 1-4 and 5-6.

Verses 7-9 are clearly set apart in terms of language, but particularly in meaning. The imprecations against Edom and Babylon flow logically from the first six verse, but carry a very distinct tone. The psalmist turns his attention from the mourning and memory of Zion (verses 1-6) to specifically address those who destroyed the city and separated the exiles from her. (Some (Dahood, J. Magne3) would separate verse seven into a separate strophe, thereby creating four divisions.)

Thus the question centers on the division of the first six verses. Allen comments, "It is noteworthy that v 4 in a "we" sequence appears to cap the narrative of vv 1-3 with a differently structured sentence. Something similar occurs in the course of v 6: after the tightly bound ABB'A' patterning of vv 5-6, there is an extra line which breaks the pattern and changes to a third person reference to Jerusalem, while maintaining the first person singular subject and developing further the conditional clause of v 6a."2

An additional consideration is the parallelism of verses five and six. As mentioned above, they are follow an ABB'A' pattern in the form of a self-imprecating oath. ("may my right hand lose its skill....let my tongue stick to
the roof of my mouth") Verses five and six also set themselves apart from the poem by their incorporation of the conditional clause (if...then...then....if). These factors considered, verses five and six seem to operate as a unit with a specified purpose.

The discussion, it seems would center on whether verse four functions more as an introduction to verses five and six, or as a conclusion to verses one through three. While is certainly provides a transition into these verses, its theme corresponds most closely with verse three. The rhetorical question of verse four ("How can we sing the song of the LORD in the land of a foreigner?") provides the answer to the request of the "captors" when they ask them to sing a song of Zion (verse three).

Upon which strophe should the emphasis be placed? Scholars disagree. The emphasis is likely found in how one determines the theme.


The three themes that the three strophes represent are mourning, remembering Zion, and imprecating Edom and Babylon.

Hengstenberg prefers that the main theme occurs in the final strophe. "The proper sentiment of the Psalm lies in the last strophe. The two first were only intended to introduce the third and assign the motive for the wishes and prayers expressed in it." p. 478

Others would suggest that this is a community lament, and, as such, the theme lies in the act of mourning found in the first strophe. That the expression of love for Zion and the imprecations in verses 7-9 flow out of the grief of the first verses.

Another view is that the middle strophe, that which focuses on remembrance is the main theme. "Verses 1-4 express the exiles' grief. Verses 7-9 express the exiles' rage and desire for revenge. In between, the literary and conceptual heart of the poem, verses 5-6 focus the hearer's attention on the crucial activity of remembering. The chiastic structure (abba pattern) of the lines provides further emphasis..." 5

A final main theme is focus upon Zion as the theme of the Psalm and that it is love for Jerusalem that inspires all of the thoughts of the Psalm.

While each vantage point shows certain legitimacies, it is difficult to pinpoint a "main" theme, as such. Rather, it seems most appropriate to understand this Psalm in terms of several themes (mourning, remembrance of Zion, and imprecation) flowing out of unique experiences and significant theology.

Poetic Beauty

One of the literary fascinations with this Psalm centers on its beautiful poetry. The psalmist calls upon a variety of images and emotions to paint a very expressive picture of the hearts and souls of the exiles. The poem is not lengthy, yet conveys a great deal of feeling in addition to theology.

Dahood expresses the unique literary character of Psalm 137: "The language of this sixth-century lament is marked by originality and vividness. One encounters assonance (vss. 1-6), alliteration (vss. 3, 8), two wordplays (vss. 5, 9), vocative lamedh (vs. 7), double-duty suffix (vs. 7), the use of the independent personal pronoun as the direct object (vss. 1-6), and a word with double entendre (v. 7b)." 6

Date and Historical Context

Nebuchadnezzar invaded Palestine in approximately 606 B.C. and began deporting the Jews. In 538 B.C. Babylon was captured by the Persians. Seventy years after the deportation, in 536 B.C., Cyrus gave the decree that gave the Jews freedom to return to their homeland. This is the historical context for the writing of Psalm 137. It is written (verses 8 and 9) from the perspective of the exiles, and may have been written by one who had been exiled in Babylon.

Further historical context is the barbaric treatment of the Babylonians in their conquest of Jerusalem. Nahum 3:10 references their cruelty, "...also her small children were dashed to pieces at the head of every street; they cast lots for her honorable men, and all her great men were bound with fetters." (NAS)

There is a very convincing argument to favor dating this psalm as post-exilic. The linguistic characteristics argue for this point. The use of shom (~v) in verse 3 indicates that they are referencing a geographic location. Also, the use of the perfect tense implies that the experiences were complete, that is, in the past. It seems most likely that the psalmist is referencing the geographic location of the captivity as a whole whose experience was completed. See the commentary on verses one and three for the expanded argument.

Though the writing took place following the exile, it is most likely that the authorship was soon thereafter. The evidence for this claim is gained from the sheer emotion expressed. Only one personally familiar with these events could write a poem with such strength of feeling. The hearer/reader feels the deep pain of the exiles and their courageous loyalty to Zion, and then feels the anger in the imprecation against Babylon.

Additionally, Hengstenberg has noted that the use of the phrase "we dwelt" and "we wept" in verse one suggest personal involvement. 7

Most scholars agree that this psalm can be reliably dated as either exilic or post-exilic. Kraus makes the claim, "Psalm 137 is the only psalm in the psalter that can be dated reliably." 8


The LXX inscription is meant to say, "a Davidic song coming from the heart of Jeremiah" This, as Delitzsch states, is "erroneous," for a few reasons, not the least of which is that Jeremiah was never one of the Babylonian exiles.9

The psalm is, in fact, anonymous. No inscription is provided in other manuscripts, and there are no other evidences that credit any specific individual for the composition. On textual grounds, it is likely that one close to the exilic situation composed the psalm, but outside of this knowledge, nothing can be discerned.

Exegetical Commentary and Theological Application

Verse 1

lb,ªB' ŸtAr’h]n: l[; - By the rivers of Babylon

This reference is to introduce the colony of exiles in Babylon and their setting. The tAr’h]n: ("rivers") could be taken as the Euphrates, the Tigris, or the Chebar river mentioned in Ezekiel (1:1, 3:15). In 3:15, Ezekiel mentions a group that met at Tel Abib in Babylon.

Apart from these actual rivers there were many tributaries as well as an extensive irrigation system which produced many canals across the flat plains of the country.

The literal interpretation and most frequent usage of l[ is "on" or "upon". In this instance, however, it carries the idea of "by" or "beside", referring to the shore of the river.

lb,ªB refers to the literal kingdom of Babylon that had taken captives from the Israelite people after the initial conquest of Palestine in approx. 606 B.C. Some would take Babylon in the spiritual and allegorical sense in addition to the literal meaning. However, there is nothing textual within this passage or elsewhere in the cannon of Scripture to indicate that the author of Psalm 137 intended that Babylon should be taken in any other manner than the literal kingdom of conquerors.

According to Neale these gatherings may have taken place by the rivers for the practical purpose of the ceremonial washings required by Mosaic Law.1

Wnb.v;y"â ~v'ä - there we dwelt

The use of ~v in this verse but particularly in verse three, is an indicator as to the date of the dwelling. The primary function of the word is to indicate a particular place, most typically used to indicate an actual geographic setting.
This is the function in verse one: to indicate that the spatial location was by the rivers of Babylon, and it is in that location that they dwelt.

Wnb.v;y most usually deals with "dwelling" and carries the idea of remaining in a particular location. In this context it is also quite possible the idea of sitting is in focus; that these Jews maintained the posture of a seated position. Dahood mentions that, "It was a widespread custom among Semitic peoples to mourn seated upon the ground."2 (Dahood references Old Testament passages (Num. 11:4, Deut. 1:45, Jon. 3:6, Job 2:12-13, Lam. 2:10, and Neh. 1:4) as well as UT, 67:VI:13-16 "He (El) sat upon the ground. He poured ashes of grief upon his head, dust of wallowing upon his skull".)

Additionally, Anderson mentions the idea of being "settled down."3 The main focus of this word is that they gathered and "dwelt" by the rivers for the purpose of mourning and reflecting. The use of Wnb.v;y indicates that this gathering was not a hasty process without true purpose.

Another alternative understanding of this "dwelling" is that the author is referring to the place where the community actually lived. And that the mourning was not, necessarily, a formal gathering, but that grief was the general mindset of the exiles as they remembered their homeland of Zion.

This viewpoint is possible, however it is rather unlikely. Most scholars see this as a planned and/or formal gathering for the purpose of expressing their grief as a community.

If this was, indeed, a community gathering, this raises the question of the nature of this "dwelling" by the river. Some, in the tradition of Gunkel and Mowinkle would suggest cultic symbolism behind the communal gatherings. That these gatherings inferred cultic significance in the performing of rituals - particularly the use of songs and the reminiscence of Zion. Anderson, however, states, "it is not imperative, however, to assume that the author was speaking of religious gatherings of the captives and that 'weeping' and the 'remembering of Zion' must refer to cultic activities."

The gatherings may also have been as simple as that of reminiscence about the land from which the Jews were exiled.

"In connection with Psalm 137 the question has often come up how the worship meetings of the exiled Jews can be understood. We can hardly think of the birth of a synagogue in the time of the exile. Much rather, it is fully conceivable that the exiles gathered at specified places (e.g., in the houses of the elders or at the canals). These gatherings would have pursued two aims: (1) lamentation over the ruined sanctuary in Jerusalem and prayer for a change of fortunes; (2) a look toward prophetic proclamation about future events. From 1 Kings 8:46ff. we can deduce that the praying assembly at such occasions assumed the "direction of prayer" (Kibla) facing toward Jerusalem" 4

Whatever the exact purpose for this gathering, whether formal or informal, the author, at the very least, expresses that the exiles mourned and grieved together at the rivers edge.

Wnyki_B'-~G: - moreover, we wept

The choice of the word ~G is an interesting one, and its purpose in this passage is disputed. The first view is that it is used as a particle conjunction connecting the clauses and introducing a new idea (the new idea being that of weeping). This is the standard lexical categorization for this context.

Dahood and others have suggested that ~G is actually an adverb to indicate the intensity of the weeping, "loudly we wept." 5

Additionally, we could interpret ~G as an emphasizing particle introducing a climax. This would invoke the usage of "yea" or "moreover" to indicate the climactic nature of the clause.

!AY*ci-ta, Wnreªk.z"B.÷ - when we remembered of Zion

It is interesting to note the usage of the suffix Wn in the first three verses. The suffix occurs nine times and emphasizes the focus of the author upon the exiles and their community. Linguistically, the repetition of "our" and "we" trains the mind upon exiled Jews. This exclusive focus of the author is due to the nature of the cruelty and the efforts of the group to express their
lament. Textually, this focus on the nation's grieving process will then translate into a national curse against Edom and Babylon.

The object (marked by the particle -ta) of remembrance is !AY*ci "Zion." Mentioned initially in verse one, Zion remains a focus of the Psalm, and is the focus of the gatherings at the rivers.

Verse 2

Wnyte(ArNOKi WnyliªT Hk'_AtB. ~ybiîr'[]-l[;( - on willows, in their midst, we hung our harps

It does not seem reasonable to suggest that the exiles literally "hung their harps upon the willows." Rather, it seems more rational to view this as metaphor that further describes their mourning. It is a poetic expression of the cessation of their music and, thereby, their joy. This verse builds upon the preceding verses' proclamation of sorrow. Hanging their instruments upon the willows forms creates a vivid image of their sorrow. This would have had a particularly profound effect upon those exiles who were familiar with the geography and could visualize, in their minds eye, the stringed instruments and trees of which the psalmist speaks.

Says Lange, "This expression, if not exactly a proverbial one (Geier, Michaelis) is, at all events, a poetical method of referring to the hushing of their joyful and festal songs, especially those in which the harp was employed, and whose silencer indicated public misfortune and national grief." 6

~ybiîr'[ refers to the willow or poplar tree. "The willow and viburnum, those trees which are associated with flowing water in hot low-lying districts, are indigenous in the richly watered lowlands of Babylon."7 Faussett further describes the Babylonian willow: "The willow of Babylon has long, pointed, lance-shaped leaves, and finely serrated, smooth, slender, drooping branches."8

Interesting to note is the change of the use of the willow as a metaphor in the Old Testament. "Before the date of the Babylonian captivity the willow was associated with joy, after it with sorrow, probably owing to Ps. 137." 9

The "harps" (rANKi) refer to stringed instruments that could also mean the lyre. "The harp was the earliest of all musical instruments, and the national instrument of the Hebrews. They used it, not as the Greeks, for expressing sorrow, but on occasions of joy and praise (Gen. 31:27; 2 Chr. 20:28; Ps. 33:2); therefore, it was hung on the willows in the Babylonian captivity (137:2; Job 30:31)."9 This further illustrates that the hanging of the harp symbolized the setting aside of their joy.

The imagery used in verses one and two is a powerful expression of the grief and pain that the nation felt while in exile. Their longing remained for their homeland.

Verse 3

~v'’ yKiÛ - For there

These particles are important because they connect and expound on the experiences of the first two verses.

yK is best to be understood as a particle connecting a causal clause with verses one and two. Lexically speaking, this word is "A particle expressing a temporal, causal, or objective relationship among clauses expressed or unexpressed."10 In this context, the only appropriate usage is to translate the particle as "for" to show that verses three and following are a (or the) reason for the grief expressed in verses one through two. This is important in understanding the meaning of the text, because it connects several thoughts.

First, it connects the mourning of the exiles with the taunts/requests of the captors. They mourn because they are taunted. Second, it connects the reason for the cessation of music with the requests of the captors for songs. They cease their musical expression (at least to a limited degree) because their captors are tormenting them. Lastly, it continues the focus upon Zion as the object of music and joy.

As mentioned previously, the word "there" provides an opportunity to speculate upon the time period in which this psalm was composed. ~v is used to identify a particular place - usually spatial or geographic. Verse three is no exception. A particular geographic place is being identified. Is the author specifically referring to the river bank, or is he referring to the exiled country of Babylon?

If he is referring to Babylon, then it becomes clear that this Psalm can be dated post-exilic. In this case the expression "For in Babylon, our captors asked us...." would adequately express the idea of the author. It is also possible that the author is still referring to the rivers edge, meaning, "For upon the rivers of Babylon, our captors asked us...." In this case, the psalmist is referring back to verse one when he stated "upon the rivers of Babylon, there we dwelt..." Yet, even with this interpretation, it still becomes most plausible to view the poet as looking back into the exile from his homeland. The word tAr’h]n ("rivers") is plural, giving one the idea that he is referring to all the rivers where the exiles gathered; that the whole nation of Babylon is in view. This would be rather strange language to use if the psalmist were still within the nation of Babylon. In other words, why would he reference himself within the nation of Babylon if he were residing in Babylon? (In this case, "For here we dwell" would be preferred to "For there we dwelt.")

Another strong indicator, in regards to a post-exilic authorship, is the verbal use of the perfect tenses. The wording would be a bit awkward to express the ideas of someone who is currently in Babylon describing the conditions that he is currently experiencing. The Hebraic use of the perfect tense is that of perfection. It carries the idea of completeness. When this is applied to verse three, the idea is that the exile is completed.

"Most scholars understand from the perfect verbs and repeated adverb ~v
'there' the psalmist's distance in time and space from exilic conditions."11

`!AY*ci ryViîmi Wnl'÷ª Wryviî hx'_m.fi Wnyleäl'Atw> ryviâ-yreb.DI Wnybe‡Av WnWláaev.( - our captors asked us the words of a song, and our tormentors, joy, saying "sing us a song of Zion"

These clauses are best viewed as a parallelism:

Captors asking for the words of a song

our tormentors asking "sing us a song of Zion"

The words Wnybe‡Av and Wnyleäl'At should be examined in conjunction with one another based on their complimenting function within the structure of the text. The first of these words (Wnybe‡Av) is straightforward in its meaning "to take captive," or when used as a participle and combined with a suffix, "our captors." The second word is less forthcoming. In fact, this is its only usage in the Old Testament and the meaning is uncertain. The typical treatment is to use Wnyleäl'At as "tormentor" or "spoiler," following the parallelism of these clauses and following the general context of the passage. If it is related to the word ll;y' (y¹lal), then it would carry the idea of "to howl" or "howling". Dahood has suggested the usage of "to make a fool of, to mock."12

The second group of terms completing the parallelism is ryviâ-yreb.D and !AY*ci ryViîmi. The first term ryv is simply to be interpreted as "song." There does not seem to be any particularly special nuance to the root. It is used in a variety of ways in the psalter including usage in the titles.

Some have suggested (Gunkel, Freedman) that the usage in this passage has a collective idea. That we are dealing with a collection of songs. This finds support when reference is made to a "song of Zion."13

The phrase !AY*ci ryViîmi "song of Zion" completes the parallelism. It is interesting to note the second reference to Zion. In this poem Zion becomes synonymous with joy and is further expounded upon by the poet in verses 5 and 6. The exiles' separation from Zion is the source of their grief in verse one, and the captors capitalize on this by suggesting that the exiles sing of Zion.

Are the songs of Zion a specific work or collection? Hermann Gunkel lists the "songs of Zion" as a class of hymns and describes them as follows, "In several of these poems this praise of the holy place appears especially strong, meaning that we call these poems "Zion songs" (Pss 84; 87; 122), according to Ps 137:3. One can also compare Jer 17:12f where God and sanctuary are addressed and magnified simultaneously in the introduction to a complaint song. Egyptian literature also contains songs that praise the
sanctuary....One may well imagine that this kind of poem was sung at particular occasions that celebrated Jerusalem's majesty...."14

The reference to hx'_m.fi "joy" made by the captors indicates that they intentionally requested songs of mirth and joy. The Hebrew word used here has many usages in the psalter and the Old Testament. The TWOT states, "The root denotes being glad or joyful with the whole disposition as indicated by its association with the heart (cf. Exo 4:14; Psa 19:8 [H 9]; Psa 104:15; Psa 105:3), the soul (Psa 86:4); and with the lighting up of the eyes (Pro 15:30)."15 Additional uses involve both the righteous and wicked in both sacred and secular contexts.

One view of this passage is that of Anderson who suggests that this was simply a new framing of the age old taunt, "Where is your god?" "The request may be tinged with sarcasm: 'sing about that indestructible Jerusalem and its so-called Almighty God'." Anderson p. 898 This was, undoubtedly, a part of the taunt. The defeat of Israel, in the minds of the Babylonians, was also a defeat of their God.

An interesting observation is made by Hengstenberg. Were the Babylonians merely wanting the Israelites to settle in to their captivity and forget about their native land? "The desire rather proceeds from the wish, that the Israelites might reconcile themselves to their lot, that they would forget the old and true Zion....and would in their imaginations find a new one in Babylon"16

This also seems possible in light of the way captives were treated by ancient civilizations. Additionally, it may be that this is why the psalmist chooses the language used in verses 5 and 6 regarding the curse to the right hand. Saying, "If I were ever to sing the songs of Zion (and thereby forget Jerusalem) may my right hand no longer have the skill to play these songs. This observation would also tie in the image of the harp in verse two.

While this view is very interesting and important to note, it seems less likely given the language of this particular text and other considerations.

First, the Babylonians did not, necessarily have a reputation for graciousness towards their conquered nations. As discussed in verse nine, their form of conquest was often brutal and devastating, in every sense of the word.
Secondly, they requested songs of Zion. It would seem odd to suggest that the captives sing a song of the homeland if it was the homeland that they were to put out of their minds. Lastly, the words chosen to describe the Babylonians ("captors" and "tormentors, mockers") do not suggest a sympathetic crowd in this particular context.

Although Hengstenberg's explanation does not entirely suffice, it does, however, add an additional dimension. The Babylonians, in addition to taunting the exiles desired to dash their glorification of the city of Zion. This seems the most plausible meaning of the text; that the captor's taunts had the dual purpose of mockery and degradation of the city of Zion. This most adequately considers both the context of the verse and the terminology used.

Verse 4

rk")nE tm;îd>a; l[;÷ª hw"+hy>-ryvi-ta, ryviîn" %yae - how can we sing the song of the LORD in the land of a foreigner?

Verse four is a source of disagreement amongst scholars. The dissention centers on the simple question, "Why could they not sing the song of YHWH in a foreign land?"

One answer is suggested by Kraus, "...but such Yahweh hymns cannot be sung in a foreign land. Cultic practice is not possible here (cf. 1 Sam 26:19; Hos. 9:3). The land is unclean (cf. Ex. 4:13). And yet, this explanation in verse 4 does not preclude having a service of lamentation in a foreign land (cf. 1 Kng. 8:46)."17 The idea being that the cultic ceremonies were prohibited according to the references listed. There is certainly a good measure of accuracy to this point. There were, indeed, aspects of cultic activity that were not possible while in exile, particularly in regard to the temple. However, these specific references, and others similar, do not, explicitly forbid the songs of YHWH, or categorically forbid cultic practices of worship.

Perhaps the focus then, is upon the unclean soil of the foreign land. "A foreign land is essentially an unclean land (Amos 7:17) and even its food is unclean (Exodus 4:13, Hosea 9:3, crf. Jeremiah 29:5). Perhaps the meaning of verse 4 is, 'How can we who are unclean (in that we are punished) sing
Yahweh's praises to an unclean people in an unclean land?'"18

It is legitimate and correct to observe that the soil of a foreign land was unclean. There is also textual support for this view in the use of tm;îd>a; l[;÷ª , which, literally means "upon the ground (or soil)". So, there is legitimacy in emphasizing the land. However, there is not, necessarily a logical connection between the unclean nature of the foreign land and the prohibition of the songs of YHWH. There is no connection mentioned in the text or in other portions of the Mosaic Law.

A key question to ask in answering the question of why the sons of YHWH could not be sung is to ask what hw"+hy>-ryvi ("song of the LORD") signifies. The context would seem to connect the phrase !AY*ci ryViîmi ("song of Zion") with hw"+hy>-ryvi. That is, in response to the captors request for a song of Zion the psalmist references the song of YHWH. This seems to make them somewhat synonymous in the mind of the author. Apart from this textual evidence, there does not remain anything to suggest that the "song of YHWH" had any particular significance other than the use as a poet expression in responding to the captors request for a "song of Zion."

What seems to emerge as an important factor in examining verse four is to emphasize the emotional context and the flow of the text. There is no textual indication in Psalm 137 that the reason for cessation of these songs was due to a prohibition by the Law of Moses. On the contrary, verses one and two indicate that singing, in a general sense, as well as joy, had ceased because of the extreme sorrow of the exiles as they reminisced about Zion. However, in this reminiscence of Zion an important point emerges: a full and true worship of YHWH was not possible outside of Jerusalem. This is what scholars and commentators all emphasize. Zion was significant to the Israelites. Their worship and joy centered on the land that was given to them by YHWH. The fullness of joy and thanksgiving was not possible until the exiles were geographically present in the land.

It is for this reason that Zion is the primary focus of the first six verses. The Law did not prohibit the songs of YHWH, nor did the unclean nature of foreign soil demand an total absolution of these songs. However, the full expression of worship was not possible except in Zion. Although they were free to sing the songs of YHWH/Zion, they were not inspired to do so because they were separated from the land of their blessing.

The land, then, is an important factor. It was only in the land of Israel that the exiles would feel the full effects of YHWH's blessing and could thus be inspired to sing the song of Zion and of YHWH.

Delitzsch reinforces this line of thought, "The meaning of the interrogatory exclamation is not that the singing of sacred songs in a foreign land is contrary to the law, for the Psalms continued to be sung even during the Exile, and were also enriched by new ones. But the shir had an end during the Exile, in so far as that it was obliged to retire from publicity into the quiet of the family worship and of the houses of prayer..."19

A further observation is that their absence from Zion was a constant reminder of the reason for their deporture and their unfavorable status before YHWH. The exiles were exiled for a reason, and that reason was punishment for their wickedness and unfaithfulness to the LORD's covenant. The covenantal blessing, again, was closely associated with dwelling in the land God had promised to give them.

Verse 5

ynI¥ymiy> xK;îv.Ti ~÷Il'ªv'Wry>) %xEïK'v.a,-~ai - If I would forget you, O Jerusalem, my right hand would forget

Verses 5 and 6 introduce a self-imprecation with the intention of affirming love and loyalty for Jerusalem. The psalmist uses two conditional clauses to show the condition of not honoring Jerusalem with a consequence of physical harm. In addition, a parallelism is created between the two verses to further clarify their meanings.

These two verses are, to some degree, an expansion of the response to the request for a song of Zion. As Kraus says, "Thus vv. 5 and 6 would intend to say: To be sure, in a strange land I cannot sing joyful sons of Zion, but I will never forget Jerusalem, for me it is the best of all my joys!"20

Verse five utilizes wordplay between %xEïK'v.a and xK;îv.T, essentially creating a pun, "if I forget, then my right hand will forget." This type of play on words is used in verse nine as well.

The root word xkv simply carries the meaning "to forget" or "to ignore." It can mean both a loss of cognitive memory as well as a deliberate effort to suppress. This would be the case when Israel "forgot" the laws of the LORD. In this particular context, the first usage of this word, "If I would forget you, O Jerusalem" probably refers to a lack of honor given to Jerusalem resulting in a view that is less than magnificent. This is reinforced in the parallelism of verse 6. The "forgetting" of Jerusalem is not, necessarily, a loss of memory over the existence of the city, rather, it is a failure to have the city remain the focal point of joy.

The first conditional clause in verse 5 is introduced by the word ~a, the most common word used to introduce such clauses. This sets up the condition of forgetting Jerusalem. The psalmist then lays out the condition of forgetfulness which is that his right hand would forget.

This consequence (xK;îv.T) can be interpreted in different ways. Most translations supply an ending "forget its skill" (NIV) or "forget her cunning" (KJV). Dahood, as well as others, would use the word "wither" rather than "forget" which would read "may my right hand wither."21 Hengstenberg references the harp of verse two and notes a connection made between the hanging of the harps and the curse to the right hand if Jerusalem should be "forgotten."22 The skill of the right hand should be rendered useless if it is used to sing the joyful songs of Zion.

Verse 6

yti¥x'm.fi varoå l[;÷ª ~÷Il;_v'Wry>-ta, hl,[]a;â al{å-~ai ykireîK.z>a,ñ al{á-~ai éyKixil. ŸynI“Avl.-qB;îd>T - let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you; if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy

Verse six is the 2nd part of the parallelism started in verse five. It involves the use of a conditional clause that establishes two conditions.

The consequence "let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth" seems to further support Hengstenberg's thought that the psalmist would rather lose the capacity to sing the songs of Zion than to sing them, and, in so doing, forget Jerusalem.

The word qB;îd>T refers to "cleaving to" or "sticking to" something, whether that be a physical part of the body, to another person (eg. "cleave to his wife"), or to God and His commands. Additionally, the phrase "cleave to the roof of the mouth" has interesting uses in Hebrew. "The expression, 'tongue cleaving to mouth,' apart from denoting thirst, is an idiom in the Hebrew for being speechless. Ezekiel's dumbness may indicate the gravity of the impending destruction of Jerusalem or perhaps the importance of waiting to speak Yahweh's word only. The idiom was used in imprecations and oaths (cf. Psa 137:6)."23 The idea of being speechless is perhaps the metaphor that the psalmist is using.

In this particular case, the conditions of this imperative oath follow the consequence. The first follows the use of the word "forget" from verse five, "if I do not remember." As was mentioned, to not remember does not exactly mean that memory of Jerusalem would be erased form the mind. Rather, context dictates that this "not remembering" concerns the disposition and exaltation of Jerusalem in the hierarchy of the thoughts of the psalmist. Interesting to note is that rkz is also used in verse one in reference to Zion. In this usage, the meaning is found more in terms of internal reflection and actually deals more specifically with the cognitive aspect of memory; the exiles were "bringing to mind" memories of Zion.

The phrase yti¥x'm.fi varoå l[;÷ª ~÷Il;_v'Wry>-ta, hl,[]a;â al{å-~ai ("if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy") sheds the greatest light upon the meaning that the psalmist wishes to convey in verses five and six. The author does not simply wish to maintain the cognitive memory of Jerusalem, he is expressly intent on maintaining Jerusalem as his highest joy.

This phrase is somewhat unique. Dahood translates as "upon my head of celebration!"24

The use of the root l[ twice in this clause is interesting. The first usage is as a verb, while the second use is as a participle preposition. It seems to add force to the psalmists idea of priority. Jerusalem is "exalted" and is "above" all other joys. The root carries the meaning "to go up" or "to ascend."

The noun hx'm.fi used here for "joy" is the same used in verse three when the tormentors were calling for joy. There is some irony to the fact that the songs of joy would not be sung, but Jerusalem was to remain the "highest"

or "chief" (var) of the exiles' joy. This irony communicates the importance of actually residing and worshiping in the Holy City.

Verse 7

HB'( dAsïy>h; d[;÷ª Wr["+ ŸWr["Ü ~yrIm.aoåh'â ~÷Il'îv'ñWry>) ~AyÝ étae ~Adªa/ ynEíb.li Ÿhw"“hy> rkoÝz> - Remember, O LORD the sons of Edom on the day of Jerusalem, saying, "Lay it bare! Lay it bare to its foundation!"

Regardless of how scholars divide the strophes of the first six verses, most all are in agreement that verse seven begins the last strophe of the psalm.

The first of two imprecations begins with the Edom and focuses upon a specific historical situation - the Edomites reaction to the fall of Jerusalem. In 587, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, the Edomites not only refused to aid "her brother," but actually participated in the looting of the city and the killing of her fugitives. The book of Obadiah shed light upon the event: "On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates...You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction...You should not march through the gates of my people...nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster. You should not wait at the crossroads to cut down their fugitives, nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble." (NIV)

A form of the root rkz is once again used. This reference, as in verse six is not concerned with cognitive memory. In this case, the context dictates that it is a remembrance that leads to an action. In fact, the act of recalling to the mind is not even in view in this case due to the fact that the appeal is to the omniscient God. Rather, the use of the word "remember" is to a course of action. To "remember" is to avenge. This idea is reinforced by Ezekiel 25:12-14 and 35:5-15. In these passages God's judgment against Edom is promised.

"The day" (~AyÝ) is most certainly a reference to the historical event of the fall of Jerusalem and Edom's role in it. The reference to Edom's reaction in this verse ("lay it bare, lay it bare!") along with the above mentioned Ezekiel references is weighty evidence to support this conclusion.

The mention of Jerusalem (~÷Il'îv'ñWry>)) continues to develop the focus upon the city and its importance, not only in the destiny of the Israelites and their prosperity, but also in the destiny of Edom and Babylon.

There are some interesting points to be made regarding the phrase Wr["+ ŸWr["Ü ("lay it bare, lay it bare"). First it is primarily used in the intensitive stems; piel in this case. Second, in this verse the term is used twice; probably to emphasize the point.

One of the nuances of the term is that of nakedness. Many translations use the word "raze." This is probably to agree with the word dAsïy>h; ("foundation") which has obvious reference to a physical structure such as a building. Dahood, on the other hand, prefers the idea of nakedness or "strip." As he says, "Here Jerusalem is depicted as a woman being despoiled of her clothing; compare Isaiah 47:2-3; Ezekiel 16:37; Lamentations 1:8. The traditional version of "Rase it, rase it!" (RSV) is not sustained by collateral texts." Dahood also explains that dAsïy> has a "double sense, namely 'buttocks,' and 'foundation.'"25

An additional Biblical reference to note is that, according to Numbers 20:14 and Deuteronomy 23:7-8, Israel was to treat Edom as a brother. Yet it was with very "un-brotherlike" hostility that Edom repayed Israel.

Verse 8

hd'îWdñV.h; lb,ªB'-tB; - Daughter of Babylon, who is destroyed

The reference to lb,ªB'-tB "Daughter of Babylon" is a reference to Babylon itself. There is little controversy surrounding this term. Dahood, however, provides a very interesting analysis. He dismisses the traditional "Daughter of Babylon" preferring the translation "Daughter Babylon." "The 'genitives' which follow the construct bat, 'daughter,' are explanatory or appositional."25 Regardless, Babylon is in view here and is the object of the imprecations of verses eight and nine.

The phrase hd'îWdñV.h "the destroyer" is less clear. The question revolves around whether Babylon is "the destroyer" or "destroyed one." The verb is a
passive participle and is typically rendered "destroyed one" or "to be destroyed" by most translators. However, many scholars prefer to designate as "the destroyer," as Allen comments, "An active form is favored by most scholars. The context seems to require a ground of punishment, as a counterpart to 'those who said' in the second line of verse 7."26 In this light, then, the psalmist used the verb in the active sense to law down the premise for his imprecation of Babylon. Babylon the destroyer would, themselves, be destroyed.

The TWOT comments on the usage of ddv in relation to Babylon, "The verb sh¹dad has an interesting usage. In one sense it is applied to Babylon (in the Jeremiah passages obviously) as the 'destroyer' of Jerusalem (Jer 6:26; Jer 12:12, inter alia). This militaristic world power, far from being an independent entity, is an actor chosen for the cast by God. Its function is to be the medium through which God's holy anger is outpoured on his own covenant children. Babylon itself will subsequently become the object of equal devastation (Jer 51:48, 53, 55, 56; Psa 137:8). The ferocity of shadad is indicated by its coupling with the activities of a wolf (Jer 5:6) who pursues, attacks, and mauls its victim."27

In addition, the uses of the word in relation to Babylon are used in the active descriptive sense, which is yet another reason that scholars prefer the use "the destroyer." This is the typical function of the word when used of Babylon. However, the form of the word used in 137:8 is unique to the Old Testament. For this reason, it may require a unique usage.

If used strictly as a passive participle ("destroyed one"), the question arises as to whether Babylon was actually yet devastated. Even when Persia captured Babylon in 538 B.C., the city was not destroyed, certainly not in the usage of the word ddv. If used in this sense, it would most certainly be a prophetic reference. "The coming doom of Babylon had been declared by the prophet long before the event, and there can be little doubt that this psalm, albeit composed after the ruin of the imperial city, records a real expression of the exile's confidence in the speedy fulfillment of her doom..."28 For this reason, some translators use the term "to be destroyed."

Regardless of whether the term is translated as "the destroyer" or "to be destroyed" does not, necessarily, hold theological significance. The prophets make clear that Babylon was a "destroyer" who would themselves
"be destroyed." Additionally, the translation does not add or subtract from the imprecations of verses eight and nine.

yreîv.a; - happy is the one

The word yreîv.a; seems very curious in this passage. It is used both in verse eight and nine to describe the person committing acts of cruelty of a most barbaric form. A closer examination is imperative to understanding this term's role in these imprecatory verses.

yreîv.a occurs most frequently in the psalms. It is typically translated as "blessed" or "happy." Although it is a word of "blessing," it is to be distinguished from the typical term for blessing. The TWOT notes the difference between the blessing and happiness:

"There are two verbs in Hebrew meaning "to bless." One is b¹rak and the other °¹shar. Can any differences between them be tabulated? For one thing b¹rak is used by God when he "blesses" somebody. But there is no instance where °¹shar is ever on God's lips. When one "blesses" God the verb is b¹rak, never °¹shar. One suggestion to explain this sharp distinction, i.e. that °¹shar is reserved for man, is that °¹shar is a word of envious desire, "to be envied with desire is the man who trusts in the Lord." God is not man and therefore there are no grounds for aspiring to his state even in a wishful way. Similarly God does not envy man, never desires something man is or has, which he does not have, but would like to have. Therefore God never pronounces man "blessed" (°ashrê) (Janzen). It should also be pointed out that when b¹rak is used the initiative comes from God. God can bestow his blessing even when man doesn't deserve it. On the other hand, to be blessed (°ashrê), man has to do something. Finally, b¹rak is a benediction, °¹shar more of a congratulation. The former is rendered by eulog¢tos in the LXX and the latter bymakarios."29

At first, the context of yreîv.a does not appear to be typical. In many instances it is used in reference to those who are doing righteous or "good" acts ("not walking in the counsel of the wicked" Ps. 1:1, "taking refuge" in God 34:9, "dwell" in God's house 84:4, "trusts" in the LORD 84:13, "maintain justice" 106:3, "keep his statutes" 119:2), not for those committing the heinous deeds
described in verses eight and nine. However, a closer examination of the word reveals that the purpose of the word is not so much to describe the action that the person is currently performing, but to describe the consequential state of being of that person.

Leslie Allen very accurately maintains, "It describes a state to be emulated."30 A few examples in the Psalm further demonstrate this usage: "Blessed is the man you discipline" (94:12) "Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not count iniquity" (32:2) "Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them [children]" (127:5). The person who is yreîv.a stands in an enviable position. The focus is not upon the action being carried out, but upon the resultant consequence.

It is clear, then, that in 137:8-9 the usage is not abnormal. Rather, it is consistent with usages in the Old Testament and particularly the Psalms. From a textual standpoint, this meaning must not be lost or diminished in this passage. The decision to use the word twice (verses eight and nine) further demonstrates the psalmists very deliberate choice of the term. "The one who performs this act will be in a favored and maintain an enviable state of being." Theologically speaking, the phrase may or may not be preferred, but from a strictly textual point of view, the meaning is clear.

Wnl'( T.l.m;îG"v %leªWmG>÷-ta, %l"+-~L,v;y>v, - who will pay to you the recompense you dealt out to us

Lex talionis (Latin for "law of retaliation") is clearly in view in this verse. This is the same concept that is in view in verse seven, but in verse eight it is stated more explicitly. The law of retaliation, as such, has its Old Testament roots in Ex. 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:17-22.

~lv is the root of %l"+-~L,v;y>v. This root word carries the idea of completion and completeness. It appears here in the intensive stem to indicate vindictive vengeance. In other stems, the term can mean "peace." This is interesting, because it is carrying different ideas. The one meaning that remains present, however, is that of a fulfilled (or in the process of fulfilling a) relationship. "The apparent diversity of meanings between the two stems can be accounted for in terms of the concept of peace being restored through payment (of tribute to a conqueror, Josh 10:1), restitution (to one wronged, Exo 21:36), or simple payment and completion (of a business transaction,
2Kings 4:7)."31 The idea of payment is very interesting, adding to the psalmists thought that Babylon must be "paid" what was due to them.

The author gives more force to the idea of restitution by the dual use of the root word lmG. It is first used as a noun. In this form, it is used in the Old Testament to speak of God's repayment of evil. The usage here, then, is very normative and speaks to the psalmists desire for vengeance.

The second form is that of a verb in the qal stem, and carries a very similar meaning in that something positive or negative is done towards someone.

Together, these words show that the psalmist is calling down on Babylon exactly what Babylon had done to Israel. The use of the same word makes this case very strong. In English the same word is not used. The typical translation is to say "happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us--" (NIV). Therefore, a bit of the force seems to be lost. In the Hebrew, however, the same root word would actually be spoken twice and would reinforce the idea of "an eye for an eye." This is why lex talionis is so clearly seen in this passage.

An important contrast should be drawn between verses seven and eight. In verse seven the psalmist merely calls God to "remember" Edom, thus he leaves judgment in the hands of God. In verses eight and nine, the author does not make utilize the same strategy. For this reason, it is important to note the moral authority that the psalmist assumes.

The psalmist has chosen both the punishment ("do to them what was done to us") and the means ("anyone"). This is done without referencing the LORD or citing the word of a prophet. The moral authority is assumed. This does not mean that the psalmist believes he has the authority in and of himself. It is simply that the poet believes that this is the right and sure judgment. That leaving this situation in the hands of God or quoting is not necessary, rather, the rightness of this judgment is assumed.

The author goes further to say that anyone who carries out this judgment will be happy. That is, they are to be envied! This feature of Psalm 137 makes it unique among the Imprecatory Psalms. The typical Imprecatory Psalm calls upon YHWH to intervene. Psalm 137 as well as 109 differ in that they call on others to dole out punishment. Yet the tone of Psalm 137 remains unique and exceptionally strong. In Psalm 109, David is addressing
God and asks God to "appoint" one to carry out punishment - there remains the sense of God's involvement. In 137, however, the tone is more independent, and the author not only calls down judgment but declares that the one who performs this judgment will be "happy."

In mentioning the independence of tone in verses eight and nine, it is important to note that the poet likely felt that the matter was so clear and that the punishment so deserved, that leaving the matter in the hands of God's judgment was unnecessary. The authority of the psalmist need not be independent of the moral absolutes of God's judgment. Rather, it is likely that this independence in attitude comes from the fact that the author believed that God's judgment upon Babylon was a certainty; so certain, in fact, that the psalmist need not even specifically address God, or cite YHWH's authority. The matter was settled, and the imprecation right and just. Thus, the one who carried it out would be happy.

Verse 9

[l;S'(h;-la, %yIl;ªl'[o÷-ta,( #PeìnIw> zxe¦aYOv, ŸyreÛv.a; - blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them to the rock

Another unique attribute of Psalm 137 is the intense degree of the imprecation. It is, literally speaking, horrific. Dashing a baby against a rock is an unspeakable act of terror. Is this, however, the proper understanding of this text? Does the author mean that the recompensor should literally perform this brutal act?

The word zxe¦aYOv simply means "to take hold of" or "to grasp." It is usually seen with the qal stem, which is how it appears in this verse.

#pn is also straight-forward, meaning "to shatter." It is important to note the use of the intensive stem (piel) which carries the idea of "shattering to pieces." There is no mistaking the meaning that the psalmist conveys with this verb.

It is clear that the root used (ll'A[) refers to children. The context seems to dictate that infants/babes are in view simply due to the practical difficulty of dashing an older child to the rocks. However, the usage of the noun form
refers, not infrequently, to older children.32 Dahood chooses "infants," and most translators prefer to use this term or "little ones."33

[l;S'(h;-la, ("to the rock") is an interesting term. Though it is used to describe the actual physical object, it is expanded by other Scriptures to allegorically teach a truth. In the New Testament, the rock is used to speak metaphorically of Christ. However, in the form used here, the only Old Testament references are to the actual physical object of a rock (or in some cases, a cliff). This is the form's only occurrence in the Psalms, though the root occurs in eight other instances (Ps. 18:3; 31:4; 40:3; 42:10; 71:3; 78:16; 104:18; 141:6).

Dahood makes an interesting observation about this term ([l;S'(h;-la), "Just as the psalmist played on words in v. 5, so here he resorts to punning on sela, "rock," but also a place name in Edom (some identify sela with Petra), and vs. 8, "Edom."33

Sela was the capital of Edom, and was a very rocky region. The possible reference here to Edom has led some to speculate on whether the author is eluding to Edom and if they are, in some way, connected with the imprecations of verses eight and nine. This speculation is even more curious when one considers that the geography of Babylon was more of a flat plain compared to the rock lands of Sela.

If there is an elusion to Edom, the reason for this reference is not clear. In other words, the text does not give a clear indication as to why Edom is referenced in verse nine and what this implies. The language not allow us to derive any further meaning that would be theologically relevant. To claim that Edom is being imprecated in verses eight and nine would be to stretch the point. It may simply be a form of a pun used by the psalmist to poetically remind the reader of Edom's imprecation in verse seven. Or, it is possible, that the author did not intend to pun with the word sela.

Another important textual note is that verse nine is a poetical extension of verse eight. In verse eight the judgment is that the Babylonians should suffer the same measure of pain that they had inflicted upon Israel. Verse nine expands that thought by mentioning a specific way in which they should be recompensed. The Psalm takes on even greater emotional depth when one realizes that the "dashing of the little ones to the rocks" is exactly
what the nation of Israel had suffered. It is likely that either the author lived through the conquest or (more likely) had spoken to those who had witnessed the Babylonian cruelty first-hand. The "recompense" demanded by the psalmist is precisely what his nation had suffered.

Interpreting Verse 9

Regarding the meaning of this text ("blessed is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them to the rock"), some would take this as being a metaphor for the spiritual struggle, "...and who takes the children of the flesh, the first motions of evil thoughts, while they are still new and weak, and dashes them against the Rock which is Christ."34

To do this, however, would be to present an interpretation of the text that empties it of any literal strength based solely upon a previous a theological bias. In this case, Scripture is not interpreting theology, it is simply used as a metaphor for theological ideas which, by definition, are not based upon Scripture. Thus, authority ultimately rests in the individual, rather than upon revelation.

Interpreting this only as a metaphor for a spiritual or mystical truth does not satisfy the context of the text itself. That is, it does not bring forth the meaning set forth by the psalmist. The author has provided context for verses eight and nine, and nothing within the context would suggest to the reader that verses eight and nine should be treated as a spiritual metaphor. Rather the flow of the text, indicates quite the opposite.

Another suggestion is that this is metaphorical for the conquest of Babylon. That the psalmist is not actually wishing this extreme horror (the slaughter or babies) upon Babylon, but is simply speaking poetically in regards to Babylon, as a nation, being conquered. This theory recognizes many very valid points.

First, it is true that "dashing infants against the rocks," i.e. destroying even the young was typical of ancient warfare. The modern concept of being "civil" to the conquered and providing generous terms of surrender was not the common practice of antiquity. We see this both Biblically and historically. (For Biblical examples, see Nahum 3:10, 2 Kings 15:16, 2

Chronicles 25:12. Dahood comments, "The practice of Oriental warfare spared neither women nor children in a war of extermination."35)

It is implied, then, that rather than taking the full impact of verse nine, the reader is allowed to think of the synonym ("conquer the nation") rather than the brutal poetic expression, which is given only as a metaphor for conquest. It is thought that this fact softens the force of verse nine. In all actuality, it does not accomplish its goal.

Although it is true, that "dashing little ones to the rock" is synonymous with ancient conquest, the use of the synonym does not take away from the meaning of the phrase itself. Even if the wording were changed to say, "Conquer the Babylonians according to the customs of ancient warfare," this would still mean "dashing the little ones to the rock." (Because ancient warfare involved the slaughter of children.) The reason is that the two are synonymous and usage of one does not diminish the meaning of the other. How much more that the author chose to use the expression that conveyed the maximum amount of cruelty! Using this phrase as a metaphor for conquest is certainly appropriate, but it still does not take away from the literal meaning of the actual phrase ([l;S'(h;-la, %yIl;ªl'[o÷-ta,( #PeìnIw> zxe¦aYOv,).

It remains, then, that a literal approach to verse nine is the consistent and appropriate way to view the imprecation. That the psalmist literally meant that the one who recompenses Israel by "dashing their infants" against the rocks would be blessed, in every sense that Hebrew word yreÛv.a is used. To use this verse in a less than literal way is to do injustice to the language and customs of the time. As disturbing as this fact may be, from a literary point of view, the verse must be received as it was given.

In developing an interpretation of verse nine, as well as the entire psalm, two factors must be considered. First, the emotional force of the psalm must be recognized, and, second, a serious inquiry must be made into the theological point made by this psalm.

It is important not to minimalize the emotional tone of Psalm 137. The poet is not simply a stoic theologian who is imparting the most logical imprecations. It is important to allow the emotion to come through and bring it's rich meaning to the text. The images of weeping, discarding instruments of joy, taunting, self-imprecating oaths, and violence all come
together in only a few lines. It is, literally, packed with emotion. Even the verbal character speaks to its emotional intensity. As Delitzsch says, "…the language is classic; and the rhythm, at the beginning softly elegiac, then more and more excited, and abounding in guttural and sibilant sounds, is so expressive that scarcely any Psalm is so easily impressed on the memory as this, which is so pictorial even in sound."36

This emotion is an intrical part of the meaning of the text. The psalmist uses the vivid pictures to illustrate to the hearer/reader the deep sorrow of the exiles, their fierce loyalty towards Jerusalem, and their intense anger and desire for vindication. This all brings meaning to the text. These emotions are all bound up in the concluding imprecations and cannot be separated from their meaning. Humanity is on display in Psalm 137. The many dimensions of suffering are seen, and there is much to learn from these feelings.

"Grief is a more acceptable emotion than rage and the desire for revenge, which accompanies anger. But what Psalm 137 teaches is that grief and anger are inseparable, and it does so in an artistic way. The structure and vocabulary of the poem make the point..."37

A Theology of Psalm 137

Despite the important role that emotions play, it is imperative that the psalm's theological meaning is not diminished. The theological message of the Psalm should not be dismissed out of hand simply because it is emotional in nature. Kidner suggests this general line of thought. He describes the "New Testament view" which entrusts all judgment to God and then comments, "This, we may feel, is what the psalmist would have said in a cooler moment. But we are not given it in that form: it comes to us white-hot."38

Psalm 137 makes a very crucial theological point, and this theological point should not be discarded simply because the experiences of the sufferer were dramatic. The strong emotion involved does not, ipso fact, make it theologically inconsistent or unprofitable.

Also, it is crucial not to disregard Psalm 137 because it does not fit a pre-existing theological mold. If this is the case, then it is appropriate to question how the mold was created. If one does not allow the whole of Scripture to speak, then one's theology has been formed based upon extra-Biblical philosophy, and is, by definition, un-Biblical.

The theological point made by Psalm 137 (specifically verses 8 and 9) is simple: It is that a specific imprecation was made against a specific people in regards to specific crimes against a specific nation. The imprecation was the brutal and horrific conquest of Babylon in regards to Babylon's brutal and horrific conquest of Israel. It reveals that an imprecation is, not only acceptable, but also appropriate given the appropriate circumstances.

It is important to note, that the theology of this imprecation is not Biblically contradicted. Rather, it is supported. It is prophetically justified in that the doom of Babylon was foretold by God's prophets. Therefore, the psalmist calls down and imprecation that has the full support of the Prophetic Word of God.

Secondly, the imprecation is supported by God's covenantal promise to Israel. That is, the Abrahamic promise of "I will bless those who bless you" (Gen. 12:2-3) was repeated throughout God's establishment of his covenant.

The New Testament reference most typically cited is in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48). The argument is that Jesus is overturning the principle of lex talionis. However, it is questionable whether Jesus is, indeed, overturning the Old Testament principle or if he is simply questioning its understanding and application. The overturning of any Old Testament theological point seems odd in light of Jesus' words in the same sermon, "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets." (Matthew 5:17 (NIV))

An interesting New Testament passage that reflects the tone of Psalm 137 is Revelation 6:10 where the martyred saints cry to God, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (NIV)

And, even if the principle of lex talionis was overturned by Jesus, the imprecations of Psalm 137 still stand upon God's prophetic promise to avenge those who had brutal abused God's covenantal people. The imprecations are still justified according to God's own Word.


To conclude, then, Psalm 137 holds a very significant position in the Psalms and in the Scriptures as a whole. It is a beautiful expression of poetry that vividly captures the deep suffering of the exilic Israelites, while, at the same time, teaching deep theological truths about imprecation.


Anderson, A.A. The Book of Psalms. Somerset, England: Marshal, Morgan & Scott, 1972.

Allen, Leslie C. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1983.

Dahood, Mitchell. The Anchor Bible - Psalms. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Delitzsch, Franz. Biblical Commentary on the Psalms. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1898.

Faussett. Faussett Bible Dictionary. HERMENEUTIKA Bible Research Software: International Bible Translators, Inc., 1998.

Gunkel, Hermann. An Introduction to the Psalms. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998.

Harris, R. Laird, Archer, Gleason L., Jr., Waltke, Bruce K. The Theological Workbook of the Old Testament. HERMENEUTIKA Bible Research Software: Moody Press, 1980.

Hengstenberg, E.W. Commentary on the Psalms. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1854.

Kidner, Derek. Psalms: A Commentary. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973.

Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms - A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989.

Lange, John Peter. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.

McCann, J. Clinton. A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993

Neale, J.M. A Commentary on the Psalms. London: Joseph Masters & Co., 1888.


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liz said...

I am doing an EXEGESIS PAPER and struggling terribly! I am trying to start with my thesis, but seem to cannot get it down. I was wondering if you would give me your thoughts or help to Psalms 137 and the way my teacher would like it?
This is his criteria:

• You must use a thesis statement. Your thesis should include only 3 parts, maximum of 3 sentences total: 1) Explain what the author originally intended to communicate through this passage [This will be your thesis claim] 2) Explain reason(s) for concluding part 1 [This will be your main point(s) for your paper]. 3) Explain briefly, but specifically how part 1 is relevant now [This will form the basis for your contextualization section at the end of your paper].
• Your thesis MUST be in the following format [as outlined in class]: In light of [your main points] it is evident that [the author of your book] intended to communicate that [your main claim about author’s intent]. This can be contextualized for the 21st century in that…[brief but concise statement of how the author’s intent is relevant for 21st century living].
you can always email me as well! thank you

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hi Liz,

I'd be happy to help out in any way that I can. It seems like a standard approach to an exegesis paper. Is this a research paper on Psalm 137?

My main thought is that I need to know where you are getting stuck. A few questions might help clarify. First, how much research have you done? What kind of books have you read? As with most exegesis papers, it is important to understand why the passages were written and what the author of the passage wanted to say.

Psalm 137 is a work of poetry. It is a poem. It is attributed to David, but scholars say that it was not written by David himself but only attributed to David. (Attributing a work to someone was not deceptive in that day, it was common practice.)

Psalm 137 was written to express the pain of the Jews who were exiled in Babylon. As such it begins by saying, "By the rivers of Babylon we wept...." It is an expression of pain and longing for the homeland. It was likely written after they returned from Babylon but probably with the memory still very fresh in their minds, perhaps the author was even him/herself an exile who had returned.

Those are a few basic facts about Psalm 137. I'd be happy to talk more about what is causing you grief, but I think perhaps I need to know more about what kind of research you have done so far.

I don't see your email, so I'll just give you mine, and you can email me if you want to talk further: