Making Sense of Psalm 137’s Disturbing Coda

March 9, 2016 | Eliezer Finkelman
About the author:

Psalm 137 famously depicts Israelite exiles sitting “by the rivers of Babylon” mourning their lost homeland. Required by their captors to “sing . . . one of the songs of Zion,” they begin with the oft-quoted “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” But the less well-known final verses of the psalm strike a very different note:

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Citing Wordsworth’s understanding of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” Eliezer Finkelman attempts to explain this troubling image:

Let’s try to imagine ourselves in [the exiles’] place. . . . How would we answer [our captors’] taunts? We would want to give them an answer so cruel that it would stop their smug mockery [and] so heartless that it would haunt their dreams, and make them regret having spoken to us at all. We would remind them that they are vulnerable humans, as we are, and they too are destined to be broken on the wheel of history. . . .

We would pray for the next victor, who will do to them what they have done to us. We would praise those who will come and slaughter their babies.

[However], the words of Psalm 137 do not tell us what a pious person should do. We do not recite them now to find out how to treat babies, even the babies of our mortal enemies. We recite them to relive the bitterness of our ancestors, who faced defeat, destruction, humiliation, exile, and slavery. We should remember how they felt.