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HomeCommentaryBible Backstories: The most difficult Psalm in the Bible?

Bible Backstories: The most difficult Psalm in the Bible?

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Do you think this is the most difficult Psalm in the Bible?  One priest did.

PSALM 137, Jerusalem Bible

By the rivers of Babylon

we sat and wept

at the memory of Zion.

On the poplars there

we had hung up our harps.

For there our gaolers had asked us

to sing them a song,

our captors to make merry,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How could we sing a song of Yahweh

on alien soil?

If I forget you, Jerusalem,

may my right hand wither!

May my tongue remain stuck to my palate

if I do not keep you in mind,

if I do not count Jerusalem

the greatest of my joys.

Remember, Yahweh, to the Edomites’ cost,

the day of Jerusalem,

how they said, ‘Down with it!  Rase it to the ground!’

Daughter of Babel, doomed to destruction,

a blessing on anyone who treats you as you treated us,

a blessing on anyone who seizes your babies

and shatters them against a rock!

One priest called this “the hardest Psalm in the Bible.”

PSALM 137: A Revised Un-standard Version

Old Jerusalem Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue Painting Psalm 137/Wikipedia
Old Jerusalem Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue Painting Psalm 137/Wikipedia

I wandered toward the clump of willows as if I had no destination. Hoping for refuge, a place to cradle my grief as I once cradled my baby. Not remembering the red smear against the curb, his matted curls. Ephraim pulled out his harp, hidden under the willow and tuned it, soft as the sound of a dove at dawn. And we sang, whispered, the ancient melodies that kept our hearts together as we had been driven across the desert.

Yet they found us.  For all our care, they found us. “Here they are!” they called. “Oh, they’re singing! Keep singing!  We love those sad little tunes! So quaint! So ethnically delicious!

“Do you suppose they remember where we found them?” they whispered to each other, as if we were their pets.  And they sat down around us, smiling

Remember? As if we could find the bliss of forgetfulness. As if we could think, breathe, anything except our homeland and our songs: songs to call the chickens, songs to plow the fields and carry the water, songs to bless the Sabbath candles. The lullaby that eased my sweet Jacob to sleep.

Screaming, the invaders raced across the temple square, grabbing pigeons, twisting their necks and hurling them to the paving.  Slicing old men to bloody rags as they swayed begging Yahweh to save us.

Our golden vessels tumbled across the steps, stuffed into rucksacks. The pagan, the alien,

pressing the ram’s horn of Joshua against his lips—a donkey braying in the Holy Place.

Defiled. Our city. Our home. Our women. Me.

That day, the song they sang was Ruin.

My soul thirsts to see you defiled. Your palaces broken. Jackals crackling your bones. Vultures hovering, too fat to fly.

To sing as your baby is dashed against the stones.

Nostalgia, grief, bloody violence in rapid succession…does it sound familiar to you?

Judith Shadford
Judith Shadford
After a career in marketing and public relations in New York City and Santa Barbara, Calif., Judith Shadford moved to the Northwest to focus on writing.

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Tracy Simmons
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9 years ago

I just love this feature you write for SpokaneFAVS, thanks Judith!

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