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Psalm 137

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Title: Psalm 137  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Psalms, Rivers of Babylon, Belshazzar's Feast (Walton), If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, Va, pensiero
Collection: Babylonia, Eastern Christian Liturgy, Psalms
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Psalm 137

Tehilim 137 with nikkud.

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.


  • Themes 1
  • Uses 2
    • Judaism 2.1
    • Roman Catholics 2.2
    • Christianity 2.3
  • Musical settings 3
  • In literature 4
  • Historical instances of use 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


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 New International Version).



Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue Wall Painting
  • 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.

Roman Catholics

Since the Middle Ages, this Psalm 137 was performed at the Vespers celebration of Wednesday, according to the rule of St. Benedict, set in 530AD[5][6]

In the present liturgy of the Mass, Psalm 137 is read or sang the 4th Sunday of Lent.[7]

In the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II, the last three verses of the psalm were removed from liturgiques books because of their perceived cruelty being in compatible with the Gospel message.[8]


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.It is solemnly sung at the Orthros at the three Sundays preceding Great Lent.

Musical settings

Psalm 137 set to music in a French protestant psalm book of 1817
By the rivers of Babylon 1983.

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

By the rivers of Babylon, painting by Gebhard Fugel, circa 1920

Many musical settings omit the last verse. [9]

  • Latin settings (Super Flumina Babylonis) by Palestrina (1525–1594), Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594), Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495–c. 1560), Costanzo Festa (c. 1490-1545) as 4-voice motets and Philippe de Monte (1521–1603) in 8 parts. French baroque settings of the same Latin text by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Michel-Richard Delalande
  • A Hebrew setting (עַל נַהֲרוֹת בָּבֶל, Al naharot Bavel) by Salamone Rossi (1570–1630) for 4 voices.
  • William Billings adapted the text to describe the British occupation of Boston in his anthem "Lamentation over Boston".
  • 19th century French pianist-composer (1813–1888) Charles-Valentin Alkan's "Super Flumina Babylonis" Op. 52.
  • George Mursell Garrett (1834–1897) wrote a choral arrangement in English.
  • It was the inspiration for the famous slave chorus Va, pensiero from the Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) opera Nabucco.
  • The second of the Harry Partch (1901–1974) "Two Psalms" (1931) is "By the Rivers of Babylon" (1931–41), originally for adapted viola & intoning voice, with kithara and chromelodeon added in 1955.
  • In the William Walton cantata Belshazzar's Feast a version of the opening section is set to music, as if sung by the Israelite captives in Babylon.
  • An English setting ("By the Rivers of Babylon") by David Amram (b. 1930), SSAA (S-Soprano).
  • It was set, as On the Willows, in the Stephen Schwartz Broadway musical Godspell.
  • "Rivers of Babylon" is a rastafarian song written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians in 1970. It is featured in the film The Harder They Come and well known through its 1978 rendition by Boney M. In 1992, the rock/reggae group Sublime released a live cover of the song on their 40 oz. to Freedom album.
  • Psalm 137:5–6 is the basis for the chorus of Matisyahu's single Jerusalem.
  • It was the inspiration for Leonard Cohen's "By the Rivers Dark" on his 2001 album Ten New Songs.
  • The first two verses were also used for a musical setting in a round by English composer Philip Hayes.[10] Don McLean covered the song as 'Babylon', which was the final track on his 1971 album American Pie. Another cover of the round was featured at the end of the episode Babylon during the first season of Mad Men.
  • The artist Fernando Ortega based the song "City of Sorrows" on Psalm 137.
  • "I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows" is a song by The Trashcan Sinatras about poet Robert Burns
  • It is referenced in The Mountain Goats' "September 15th 1983" off of Heretic Pride.
  • An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653 is a chorale prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach based on a hymn tune setting of Psalm 137.
  • Psalm 137 is the central text of John Tavener's "Lament for Jerusalem – a mystical love song".[11]

In literature

  • The title of If I Forget Thee Jerusalem (1939).
  • The Portuguese 16th century poet Luís de Camões's poem Sôbolos rios que vão por Babilônia is based on Psalm 137.
  • Welsh poet Evan Evans' work "A Paraphrase of Psalm CXXXVII" is a direct answer to Psalm 137 and parallels the plight of the Welsh bards with that of the Jews in the psalm.
  • In Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded," Pamela adapts psalm 137 to describe her spiritual exile from home.

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

Historical instances of use


  1. ^ "Easton's Bible Dictionary". Chebar. 1897. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  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. 1987, second printing. Boston MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery. p. 241.  
  4. ^ The Complete Artscroll Machzor for Rosh Hashanah page 324
  5. ^ Règle de saint Benoît, traduction de Prosper Guéranger, (Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, réimpression 2007) p47.
  6. ^ Psautier latin-français du bréviaire monastique, p. 514, 1938/2003.
  7. ^ Le cycle des lectures des messes du dimanche se déroule sur trois ans.
  8. ^
  9. ^  
  10. ^ The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons by Philip Hayes (London, 1786)
  11. ^  
  12. ^ Ferrall, Charles (2001). Modernist Writing and Reactionary Politics.  
  13. ^ "Tavern in the Town". Folklorist. Retrieved 2014-03-15. 
  14. ^

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
  • Hebrew text of verses 5–6, translation, transliteration, and recordings on the Zemirot Database
  • Psalm 137 at the Bible Gateway, NIV
  • the Bible on the Internet
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