Study Guide Psalm 137

Psalm 137 is one Psalm that can be tied to a particular historical event, the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, the ensuing destruction of the city and the Temple, and captivity and exile of the Jewish people.

Although that is true, there is some debate among scholars as to where it was written. That debate hinges upon verb tenses.   The first stanza suggests that the Psalm was written after the return to a ruined Jerusalem after Exile but the second stanza seems to have been written in Babylon.

In this guide, I want to offer another proposal (one that is interesting but not necessarily true!  There is room here for speculation…for ‘playing with the text.  I am assuming that this Psalm was written by a traumatized Jew who has returned to the ruins of Jerusalem.


To say that the Babylonian invasion and Exile was traumatic is an understatement.

The holocaust leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon was an unparalleled horror.

Nebuchadnezzar, who had crowned himself viceroy of the patron god of Babylon, Bel-Marduk and who called himself the King of Justice, surrounded the city in 587. His aim was to starve as many of its residents as possible

Children starved to death. Cannibalism is thought to have broken out. Archeological evidence taken from a sewer pipe that dated from the period showed that people were living on whatever plants or herbs they could find but were diseased with whipworms and tapeworms.

The actual razing of both the city and the Temple began 18 months after the King initially surrounded the city. The city was all but burned to the ground. Babylonian soldiers who raided the city found numerous people who had starved to death or died by their own hand. Emaciated women, blackened by the effects of starvation, were raped. And princes were hanged by one hand.

Meanwhile, the Edomites, Judea’s neighbor to the south, cheered the Babylonians on.

The Temple was destroyed. The gold and silver of the treasury were hauled away to Babylon. As many as 20,000 people were deported. The poor and the peasant were left to fend for themselves. Many of the priests were murdered on the spot.

However, when you add the significance of those acts to the Jewish people,  the horrors are only compounded. After all, what was Jerusalem? The City of the Great King (God). What was the Temple? The place of God’s presence.

Those who survived were bereft of everything and everybody that not only made the city and the Temple what it was. Absent the city and the Temple, the survivors must have felt that not only their nation had been destroyed but that their culture had burned with it.

The grief, the shame of defeat, the fear, the anger, the rage must have been palpable. The foundations had been kicked out from under them.

Who were they now that God had seemingly abandoned them? What was to be their future? How could they go in the face of such horror? And, what were they to make of the horror that haunted them in the great city of Babylon, the glorious city of Bel-Marduk with its population of over 250,000 idolaters?


In her book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, theologian Shelly Rambo describes some of the core characteristics of trauma.   The fundamental characteristic of trauma is that at least pieces of the traumatic event of the past intrude unexpectedly into the sufferer’s present, replete with intense bodily, emotional, and mental imagery.   Sometimes these intrusions are vestiges of a horror that could not be taken into the mind at the moment of the horror.  In other words, they are free-floating and evasive, emerging as if out of nowhere.  (18)

To quote Shelly Rambo: “The past does not stay…in the past.  Instead, it invades the present, returning in such a way that the present becomes not only an enactment of the past but an enactment about what was not fully known or grasped.” (19)

I call that experience ‘the haunting.’

Psalm 137

One of the several striking features of this Psalm is the shift in tenses between the first stanza and the remainder of the Psalm.  Stanza 1 is written in the past tense.   Stanza 2 and following was written in the present tense.  The first half of Stanza 3 was written in past tense while the second half shifts back to present tense.

My theory is that the remembrance of the anguish of the past in Babylon draws the writer back in such a way that he is back there again.   The Psalmist’s remembrance of the past (Stanza 1) glides into his present resulting into an intense self-examination and firm vow in the present. (Stanza 2.)

Then at the beginning of Stanza 3, he is back there again, this time castigating the traitorous Edomites but then he shifts again into a ‘ paradoxical blessing’ in the present.

The past is so real to him that as he reflects upon it he essentially enters into it.  He is back by the river when he calls out ‘How can we sing the songs fo the Lord/ while in a foreign land?”

Stanza 1

By the rivers of Babylon:

we sat
we wept
we hung our harps…


our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

(Note the parrallelisms above.)

Then the sudden shift to the present:

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?

Why does the writer think it impossible to sing the songs of the Lord
in a foreign land?  What prevents it?  Why wouldn’t the singing songs of Zion help
in his desire to remember Zion?  Might they have sung them had the Babylonians
not ridiculed them and demanded that they sing?

Why are their harps hanging poplar trees?

Stanza 2

“If I forget you, Jerusalem…”

Why is he afraid of forgetting Jerusalem?   What might happen if he forgot?

What is the significance of his curse upon his possible forgetting?

….may my right hand forget its skill.
….May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!

What is Jerusalem to the Psalmist?

Stanza 3

What is the petition in this Psalm?

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did

    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”

What is the nature of the ‘blessing’ the Psalmist extends to the Daughter of Babylon?  Why do you think he uses the term Daughter of Babylon?

The practice of blessing anything is to wish it life, health, and longevity.  So, how is it that his blessing is a curse?

What do you think this paradoxical blessing does for the Psalmist?

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

Why is this Psalm a good one for exploring the place of fear, grief, and rage in the act of lament?  How does it strike you as a Christian?

The Brug claims that every experience must be named before the Lord.  How do you feel about raging in the presence of God?