Psalm 137 – Interpretive Overview

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.

I inhibit a context, a social, cultural and geographical location. “Our locations naturally set the agenda and determine the assumptions we bring with us to any reading of Scripture” (Erickson, Reading From Location PDF, 1). In this unit’s learning, we have been asked to bring an interpretation from the world in front of the text. If I’m honest, this seems daunting and even dangerous to attempt without first doing some historical-critical, and textual research in what is a particular lament, from a particular location in history. 

The Psalm is located in the fifth book of the collection and is most likely dated between 538-515 BCE. We know this because Babylon still exists, and the temple has yet to be rebuilt. The people of Israel, therefore, are in exile with the destruction of Jerusalem (586 BCE) still fresh in the rear view mirror. As the Psalm begins, God’s people are oppressed, captured and very far from home.

Textually, the lament begins in 1-4 with a scene of poetic despair. “By the rivers of Babylon,” a title given through history to this famous Psalm, sums up the situation! As captors, the people of God are mourning their political situation. Taunted by their captors to entertain them with song, the Psalmist confesses the impossibility of rejoicing while fresh memories of destruction and dread fill their hearts in 5-6. The lament closes in 7-9 with a call for justice for the wickedness heaped upon their nation, families, and even children. The last phrase concerning children being “dashed against the rock” was not a literal call for vengeance, but an ancient 

I’m a Canadian born, American dual-citizen who has enjoyed an incredible amount of mobility throughout my life. Travel has been mostly a positive experience and my destinations, chosen! When I read this lament, I’m reminded that I have never experienced the reality of being a refugee, imprisoned or held against my will for more than a few hours. As Gorman states, a posture of humility is needed when approaching scripture as we all bring certain limitations in knowledge and perspective (Gorman 2020, Elements, p 142). As I consider the human element of witnessing my friends and family being killed, or the screams of bloodshed that might have haunted those caught in the throes of war, I find myself even fearful of relating a lament like Psalm 137 within my cozy, privileged location. 

When I meditate on this Psalm, I’m filled personally with grief over the evils in our world. The world, for me, seems quite peaceful, even though I’m near Russian aggression to the east of Ukraine. There are, tonight, many crying out verbally and in silence, for a God to show up and deliver them. There’s a certain befuddlement, a disillusionment in a lament, and I’m left quite speechless as to how I can truly synthesize this in my own world. I am, however, surrounded by deeper levels of suffering among the poor, the widow and orphan. Perhaps, this is more of a confession on my part, that I have more opportunity to enter the suffering of others, and must. 

As far as questions, I’m curious how Israel actually employed a psalm like 137 in history, whether in the Temple or in other settings? I’ve yet to participate in a corporate lament through song. I’m also wondering if the final verse in it’s violent description has a linguistic history that might be revealing, and whether the psalmist is bringing comfort, in an Old Testament justice sort of way? Perhaps lamenting the sorrys of parents who saw their own children taken from them during the siege?