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Psalm 137

Psalm 137 (Greek numbering: Psalm 136) is one of the best known of the Biblical psalms. Its opening lines, "By the rivers of Babylon..." (Septuagint: "By the waters of Babylon...") have been set to music on several occasions.

The psalm is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 607 BCE. The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river (possibly the river Habor, the Chaboras, or modern Khabur, which joins the Euphrates at Circesium).[1] In its whole form, the psalm reflects the yearning for Jerusalem as well as hatred for the Holy City's enemies with sometimes violent imagery. Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah,[2] and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: "For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity."[3]

The early lines of the poem are very well known, as they describe the sadness of the Israelites, asked to "sing the Lord's song in a foreign land". This they refuse to do, leaving their harps hanging on trees. The poem then turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem. It ends with violent fantasies of revenge, telling a "Daughter of Babylon" of the delight of "he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." (New International Version).



  • Some Jewish communities recite Psalm 137 before the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) on days in which Psalm 126 (Shir Hama'allot) is not recited.
  • The psalm is customarily recited on Tisha B'Av and by some during the nine days preceding Tisha B'Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem.
  • Verse 7 is found in the repetition of the Amidah on Rosh Hashanah.[4]
  • Verses 5 and 6 are customarily said by the groom at Jewish wedding ceremony shortly before breaking a glass as a symbolic act of mourning on the destruction of the Temple.


In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches that use the Byzantine Rite, Psalm 137 (known by its Septuagint numbering as Psalm 136) is a part of the Nineteenth Kathisma (division of the Psalter) and is read at Matins on Friday mornings throughout the year, except during Bright Week (the week following Easter Sunday) when no psalms at all are read. During most of Great Lent it is read at Matins on Thursday and at the Third Hour on Friday, but during the fifth week of Great Lent it is read at Vespers on Tuesday evening and at the Third Hour on Friday.

This psalm is also solemnly chanted at Matins after the Polyeleos on the three Sundays preceding the beginning of Great Lent.

Musical settings

The psalm, generally under variants of its title By the waters of Babylon, has been set to music by many composers.

Many musical settings omit the last verse. John L. Bell, a hymnwriter who writes many challenging texts himself, comments alongside his own setting of this Psalm: "The final verse is omitted in this metricization, because its seemingly outrageous curse is better dealt with in preaching or group conversation. It should not be forgotten, especially by those who have never known exile, dispossession or the rape of people and land."[5]

In literature

Phrases from the psalm have been referenced in numerous works, including:

Historical instances of use

  • Pope Gregory X quoted Psalm 137 ("If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning") before departing from the Crusades upon his election by the papal conclave, 1268–1271.
  • In his "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"[10] speech, Frederick Douglass compared the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society asking him to deliver their Fourth of July speech to the actions of the antagonists asking the Jews to sing in a foreign land.


  1. ^ "Easton's Bible Dictionary". 1897. Retrieved 2008-03-09.  |chapter= ignored (help)
  2. ^ James L. Kugel, "Psalm 137," in In Potiphar's House (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994)
  3. ^ translated from the Greek Septuagint by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (1974). The Psalter According to the Seventy. Boston MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery (published 1987, Second printing). p. 241. ISBN 0-943405-00-9.  Check date values in: |publicationdate= (help)
  4. ^ The Complete Artscroll Machzor for Rosh Hashanah page 324
  5. ^ Bell, John L. (1993). Psalms of Patience, Protest and Praise. Wild Goose Publications. ISBN 0-947988-56-4. 
  6. ^ The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons by Philip Hayes (London, 1786)
  7. ^ Tavener, John; Rozario, Patricia; Josey, Christopher; Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (2004). "Lament for Jerusalem a mystical love song" (CD). Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC 476 160-5. Retrieved 2014-09-06. 
  8. ^ Ferrall, Charles (2001). Modernist Writing and Reactionary Politics. Cambridge University Press. p. 88. ISBN 0-521-79345-9. 
  9. ^ "Tavern in the Town". Folklorist. Retrieved 2014-03-15. 
  10. ^

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