About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Kevin Spawn at Simpson University during my sophomore year in a class on the Psalms.
It seems that some portions of the Bible are hard to make sense of. In many cases, people come to difficult Scriptures and they end up reading it only at face value not knowing how to interpret it. Psalm 137 is such an example of a biblical text that is hard to understand when read at prima facie (face value). How can Scripture—the inspired Word of God—ask to kill babies even if they are of the enemy? Are not the Scriptures supposed to be completely good? It is because of Scriptures like Psalm 137 that many people want nothing to do with God for they read them at face value resulting in a misunderstanding of the Scripture. However, a historical-cultural and literary analysis of Psalm 137 highlights the personal relationship between the psalmist and God, revealing the value of what seems to be a troublesome psalm for many Christians. It is important to read the Scriptures responsibly, meaning that it should not be read just at prima facie but also within their own contexts in order to fully understand them.
In order to understand Psalm 137 beyond the prima facie level, it must be understood in light of its historical-cultural contexts; in other words, it must be read in regards to the time which it was written in, and it must be read in accordance to how the biblical audience would have read and understood it. Psalm 137 was written after the Exile in 537 BC (Stuhlmueller 1983, 188). Understand that being in exile was a theological commentary of the relationship between the Judeans and God; by being in Exile implied that the Jews were not at right standing with God and were undergoing punishment for their disobedience to Him. And it is in Exile, or thereafter, that the psalmist writes this psalm. Keep in mind that “After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carted most of the inhabitants into Exile, the Edomites moved in to loot and kill” (Stuhlmueller 1983, 190). The Edomites sought out the destruction of Jerusalem, and for that, the psalmist asks for retribution against them. These historical-cultural facts illumine the mood of Psalm 137; however, these facts only address the communal level.
At a more personal level for the psalmist, it is important to realize that in the annals of Sennacherib, we are told that “male and female singers were taken captive as booty from Jerusalem, to provide entertainment in the Assyrian court” (Stuhlmueller 1983, 188-9), not to mention that the Babylonians knew quite well about “the fame of Judean music” (Leslie 1949, 257). Therefore, it is likely that “for sake of [the Babylonian’s] own amusement these very officers, who entered [the Jews’] Zion sanctuary with pagan tread and plundered and burned it, now call out to their captives: ‘Sing us a Zion song!’” (Leslie 1949, 257). The Jews were being asked to sing for mere pleasure; the songs specifically created for Zion were songs that could only be sung while in Zion, and to be asked to sing a song of Zion outside of it and for mere pleasure was insulting. The biblical audience would have understood Psalm 137 as a cry for revenge as well as a challenge to stay faithful to Jerusalem. The historical-cultural context yields a sad, angry, and revengeful tone for this psalm; this is to be duly noted for its interpretation.
In order to understand Psalm 137, its historical-cultural context should be grasped and so should its literary context; in other words, this means that it should be understood within the context that it has been written. In Psalm 136, the theme is to praise God; in Psalm 138, the theme is to praise God. Psalm 137 is sandwiched in between two psalms that give a call to praise; yet, Psalm 137 has no praise or call to praise. Psalm 137 is also organized into Book V of Psalms. The tone of Book V is to praise the Lord, or to give thanks to the Lord. Psalm 107, the first psalm of Book V (a seam psalm which sets the tone for all of Book V), charges for all those that have been delivered from their enemies to praise the Lord; however, the psalmist of Psalm 137 does not praise the Lord. The psalmist charges the people of the Lord to praise him for saving them out of their distress; however, the psalmist of Psalm 137 seeks not to praise the Lord but seeks retribution. The theme to praise the Lord for deliverance is seen throughout all of Book V; however, this theme is non-existent in Psalm 137 which tells nothing of praising God. In relation to Psalm 1 which says, “Blessed is the man who does not … sit in the seat of mockers” (v. 1), it shows that the psalmist was not “blessed,” or rather, “happy,” for he was sitting in the seat of mockers. Both the immediate and broad literary contexts show it is surrounded by a call to praise; yet, Psalm 137 contains no praise and its tone is sad and angry rather than joyous and glad; this too is to be duly noted for its interpretation.
The Anguish of the Psalmist (137:1-4)
In the beginning verses of Psalm 137, the psalmist identifies first and foremost that they (being the Jews that were in Exile) sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept, so as to represent themselves sitting in their grief (Leslie 1949, 256). And in their grief they remembered Zion, which was now destroyed. They were so upset and depressed that they retired their harps. This is important because every place in Scripture, the harp, or instrument, was always picked up, played, used for praising God in some fashion, but “nowhere else are they set down, let alone hung up” (Savran 2000, 45). The fact that they stopped singing and playing music is noteworthy in itself for it was the only time which they did. It is with a “heaviness of heart” (Milton 1954, 69) that they sit, weep, remember Zion, and hang up their harps.
What is the cause for their emotional condition? Indeed it is partly due to the destruction of Jerusalem as well as being exiled, but it is also partly due to the insults given by their captors. The Exile was part of the problem, but “As though the sorrow of exile in Babylon were not enough, when faith was perplexed and songs had turned to sobs, the captors demanded entertainment: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” (White 1984, 199). Remembering the historical-cultural context, this proves to be a problem because many men and women had been Exiled for the purpose of performing music for the entertainment of the Babylonians; in this captivity, the Babylonians ask the impossible of the Jews: sing songs of joy and sing songs of your beloved city—Zion—which has fallen and been destroyed! This was insulting and very problematic for the Jews. The psalmist, by quoting the Babylonians, makes clear “that they suffer ongoing humiliation at the hands of these captors” (Savran 2000, 47). They were in fact in the seat of mockers and were not happy, for the request of the Babylonians cut too deep:
Their request is indefinite—any song of Zion will do. What is desired is a pleasing melody
which will entertain the guards, or a mocking reference to the once-great Judean capital. For the exiles,
however, this not only offends their national pride, but provokes a more painful theological question:
>>where is their God?<< Can they even address God in this distant land? Is God at all attentive to their prayers, or has the relationship been severed? In this sense the question becomes not one of national spirit, but of religious identity and expression. (Savran 2000, 48)
The request to sing a song of Zion was more than just for pleasure—it was a challenge against them and their relationship with God. It was an insult as if to say, “Sing a song of your great city, a city that is destroyed! Where is your God? He is not found! You have been deserted by your own God!” This was not a question simply for satisfaction, but it was also an attack against the Jews’ political and religious identities. When these insults were added to the weight of the Exile, it is no wonder why the Jews were dismayed.
In these first four verses the psalmist concludes his anguish with a question in verse four: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” The psalmist answers the request of the Babylonians with a question—not a song. He is too “full of … outraged grief” (White 1984, 199) to sing and it was the captors’ request that poses his own question, “How can we sing?” The psalmist “exhibits … the most exquisite feeling of grief, longing, and loyalty for the ruined city of God” (Terrien 1952, 131); the anguish of the psalmist is too deep to sing and all he can do is express it by sitting down and weeping.
The Psalmist’s Imprecatory Against Himself (137:5-6)
Here the psalmist makes “A passionate refusal” (White 1984, 199) to the request of the Babylonians. The psalmist makes two vows to Jerusalem—vows that were curses against himself should he not abide by them. In verse 5 he makes a vow that should he forget Jerusalem, his right hand would forget its skill; in verse 6 he makes another vow that should he forget Jerusalem, his tongue would cling to the roof of his mouth. Notice that the psalmist was most likely a musician that was exiled for the mere pleasure of the Babylonians; the taking away of his skillful hand and his tongue was to take away his life. Seen here is a “fervency of religion and patriotism combined in an undying remembrance of Jerusalem” (Milton 1954, 169); the psalmist has a strong will to remember Jerusalem and displays his patriotism and devotion to his city, displaying “complete commitment to Jerusalem and its significance” (Ogden 1982, 89). He was willing to give up his life and all which he knew—music—if he was to forsake Jerusalem. The psalmist was one of many that “refused to forget Jerusalem. The violence of the double imprecation (vss. 5-6) reveals the power of the temptation which they endured, and overcame” (Terrien 1952, 131). The psalmist’s imprecations against himself show his unwillingness to forget Jerusalem and it shows his complete devotion to his city. The Jews were so adamant about staying faithful to Jerusalem that they were willing to give up their way of life, as in the case of the psalmist.
The Psalmist’s Imprecatory Against the Nations (137:7-9)
Here the psalmist moves to call out revenge against those which put them in their dismay. First, he asks for God to recall what the Edomites did to them on the day Jerusalem fell; keep in mind that the Edomites sought out the destruction of Jerusalem and then they ravaged the city for all its worth after it fell: “That little nation most closely related to Israel … turned against the Judeans at the Chaldean crisis in Jerusalem … and aided the Chaldeans … at that breakup of her national life” (Leslie 1949, 258). Noteworthy is the name of Jerusalem itself: “Here >>Shalem<< is taken as >>compensation<<, and the expected punishment of the Edomites and the Babylonians is contained in the very name of the city they destroy” (Savran 2000, 56-7). The city which was destroyed spelled out the punishment for its destroyers. Those that participated in its fall and plight would be equally recompensated; the psalmist sought equal recompensation to the Edomites for what they did to Jerusalem: “As the psalmist has vowed never to cease speaking of Jerusalem, he now gives voice to the >>recompense<< which is promised—as they destroyed Jerusalem, so their future will be destroyed” (Savran 2000, 57). Note also that this call to “‘Remember against’ means ‘remember to punish’” (Milton 1954, 199). And what does the psalmist charge the Edomites to be punished for? In the NIV, he charges them with a quote in verse 7: “‘Tear it down,’ they cried, / ‘tear it down to its foundations!’” The King James Version says “raise” rather than “tear down;” the term “‘Raze it’ is literally ‘lay it bare [to its foundations]’” (White 1984, 199). The Edomites sought for the foundations to be torn down and laid desolate, and the psalmist sought retribution from the Lord for what they had done.
Second, after seeking divine retribution, “with intense passion the psalmist turns to Babylon, capital of the world empire, destroyer of Judah, and to him the very epitome of evil” (Leslie 1949, 258) and gives an “even more emotion-packed desire for a just judgment against Babylon in terms of war” (Milton 1954, 169). He claims that the one who avenges the Jews will be blessed, or happy. The psalmist’s heavy desire for revenge is made evident in his hope that Babylon’s infants will be taken and dashed against the rocks (v. 9). Here, “The ironical ‘bitter beatitudes’ of verses 8 and 9, the very reverse of true religion, are among the most repellent words in Scripture. But only those who have seen their own babes brutally slaughtered and have not felt insanely wild with anger have any right to be consensorious” (White 1984, 200). It can be easy to understand why the psalmist would be so eager for violent retribution for he “lived in an age of violence among people whose sense of justice was exacerbated into a total blindness of hate” (Terrien 1952, 132). Many have said that the hope that Babylon’s babes would be taken and dashed against the rocks is figurative:
Keel suggests that the >>babes<< are only figurative of Babylon’s future, just as >>Mother
Babylon<< is not to be taken literally, but as a term for the city of Babylon. He would translate
>>Happy is he who puts an end to your self-renewing domination<<. The desire for revenge is often
coupled with the plea for deliverance in biblical laments, and it has a number of important functions—reassurance of divine support for the victim; relief for the overwhelming powerlessness of victimization that is usually described in the lament; a reassertion of the idea of >>measure for measure<< in punishment, which has been called into question by the suffering described. (Savran 2000, 54-5)
However, because of the age of violence that the psalmist lived in, it is more likely that he was being literal rather than figurative; therefore, “the brutality of the resentment here expressed should not be minimized by any modern interpreter” (Terrien 1952, 132). The imprecatory against the Babylonians is most likely literal, not figurative, and it is important for interpreters to not water down the fierceness of this imprecatory. The psalmist—hurt, sad, and angry—seeks revenge for the deeds done to him and his people; he voices his hope for revenge against the Babylonians and he means every word of it.
In light of all this, what can the Christian see in Psalm 137 that is pertinent to their own life? Realize that one of the functions of the Psalms “is to ‘give us inspired models of how to talk and sing to God’” (Duvall and Hays 2001, 351); therefore, Psalm 137 becomes very beneficial having a model for every Christian to follow: be real with God in all aspects of life. Some people may think that because Psalm 137 was written so long ago that it no longer applies to them, or because they have not been exiled or commanded to sing a song of Zion that they cannot relate to it at all. Still, others think that because they are not seeking the death of their enemies’ children that Psalm 137 is irrelevant to their lives and that the curses do not apply to them in verses 5 and 6 because they are devoted to Christ rather than to Jerusalem. However, the time will come for a Christian when they will be insulted in an uncomfortable place and their heart will burn for revenge; how they respond to that is important, and that is where Psalm 137 comes into play. If Psalm 137 were not written, the model to be real with God even when hurt and enraged would be lost.
The model to follow in Psalm 137 is that when down in the pits, when in the worst times, when put in an unimaginable position, go to God with it! The psalmist was in his worst times—oppressed, mocked, and exiled—but in his worst times he chose to go to God with it; however, he chose to hold nothing back. The psalmist said everything he felt as it was in his heart—not giving a sugar-coated prayer to God concerning the Babylonians, asking for their sins to be forgiven; rather, he asked exactly what he felt, that God would allow them to be justly punished in the same manner which the Babylonians dealt with them. Notice the realism in his graphic request; he did not just say a general request to God to punish them as He saw fit. Rather, he requested a rather vivid punishment—an acceptable, suitable punishment as he saw it. The model here in Psalm 137 is to go to God with anything and everything, and be real with God, not giving standardized prayers but being completely honest with God in prayer.
What does the New Testament have to say concerning Psalm 137? Jesus commanded to not seek retribution but to seek love for everyone—including enemies. Christians can follow the model of this psalm to be completely real and honest with God; however, Jesus said that his disciples are to pray for those that persecute them and to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44, NASB). Therefore, Christians should understand that it is important to be completely honest with God, but instead of seeking revenge, pray love on the enemy.
Psalm 137 demonstrates the importance of being real with God; the psalmist had an intimate relationship with God, a relationship which he did not fake, and he said things as they were. The value of this psalm lies in this relationship; the historical-cultural and literary contexts of this psalm highlight this relationship: when the psalmist was sad, angry, and hateful, and when he was too hurt to give praise, he went to God with his problem and said exactly what was on his heart. Psalm 137 presents a challenge to all Christians: be real with God in all circumstances! It is important to pray to him and to tell him everything that is on the heart. It is a relationship that Christians have with God; relationships involve communication on both ends and complete honesty in all things. Therefore, in light of Psalm 137—in lieu of its model, and with respect to the relationship between the psalmist and God—Christians should talk to God and hold nothing back!
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