Why on July 4 we should remember the psalm ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’

What is the meaning of the 2,500-year old Hebrew psalm for oppressed groups? Gebhard Fugel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(The Conversation) On the anniversary of America’s independence, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass made a biblical Psalm – Psalm 137 – best known for its opening line, “By the Rivers of Babylon,” a centerpiece of his most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”.

Douglass told the audience at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, that for a free black like himself, being expected to celebrate American independence was akin to the Judean captives being mockingly coerced to perform songs in praise of Jerusalem.

Not only did it inspire the famous abolitionist; this 2,500-year-old Hebrew psalm has long served as an uplifting historical analogy for a variety of oppressed and subjugated groups, including African-Americans.

Origins of the psalm

Psalm 137, the subject of my most recent book, “Song of Exile,” is unique in the Bible. The only one out of 150 psalms to be set in a particular time and place, it relates to the Babylonian Exile – the period between 587-586 B.C. in Israel’s history, when Jews were taken captive in Babylon and the Jerusalem temple was destroyed.

Psalm 137 in 12th-century Eadwine Psalter.
By Anonymous (Fitzmuseum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Its nine verses paint a scene of captives mourning “by the rivers of Babylon,” mocked by their captors. It expresses a vow to remember Jerusalem even in exile, and closes with fantasies of vengeance against the oppressors. The Babylonian exile served as a crucible, forcing the Israelites to rethink their relationship to Yahweh, reassess their standing as a chosen people and rewrite their history.

The exile story, which echoes through the Bible, is central to the major prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Lamentations and Isaiah. And the aftermath of exile, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return to Israel, is narrated in books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Bible scholar Rainer Albertz estimates that “about 70 percent of the Hebrew Bible tackles the questions of how the catastrophe of exile was possible and what Israel can learn from it.”

Inspiring music

Because the psalm deals with music – a famous verse asks, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” – it has been like “poetic catnip” – intriguing to musicians and composers. Bach, Dvorak and Verdi all wrote musical settings for it. Verdi’s first popular opera, “Nabucco,” retells the story of the captivity.

Popular music versions have been recorded by American singer and songwriter Don McLean (and used in a memorable scene in “Mad Men”). It has been used by the musical “Godspell.” Dozens of artists have recorded their own version of “Rivers of Babylon.” This includes a Rastafarian-tinged version by the Jamaican group the Melodians and a version by Boney M that became a blockbuster disco hit in 1978.

Message for social justice

The psalm has also inspired numerous political leaders and social movements, and immigrants as varied as Irish and Korean have identified with the story.

America’s first homegrown composer, William Billings, who lived during the War of Independence, created an anthem that puts Bostonians in the role of oppressed Judeans and the British oppressors in the role of Babylonians. “By the Rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept when we remember’d thee O Boston….”

Statue of Frederick Douglass.
West Chester University, CC BY-NC-ND

Frederick Douglass, of course, claimed the message of the psalm for enslaved African-Americans.

In the wake of World War II, the dissident actor and singer Paul Robeson saw deep parallels between the plight of Jews and African-Americans and loved to perform Dvorak’s setting of the psalm.

Some of the most celebrated African-American preachers, including C. L. Franklin of Detroit (Aretha Franklin’s father), also preached on the psalm. C.L. Franklin answered the psalm’s central question of whether to sing with a resounding yes. So did Jeremiah Wright, who was Barack Obama’s pastor when he lived in Chicago.

Valuing the act of remembrance

So, what is the central message of the psalm for today’s world?

The problem of what to remember, what to forgive and how to achieve justice has never been more vexing. By the original rivers of Babylon, now war-torn regions of Iraq and Syria devastated by the Islamic State, stories emerge of captives taking refuge in the river. The forced migration of millions of people from the region, mainly from Syria, is having worldwide consequences. These include helping the rise of anti-immigration populism across Europe and in the United States.

Meanwhile, Bible scholars are working to interpret a trove of recently discovered cuneiform tablets that give a more nuanced picture of what life was really like in Babylon for the Judean exiles. And rightly so. For in the midst of all the injustices that confront us every time we check news headlines, remembering is as crucial as forgiving.

That was Frederick Douglass’ point as well. He said of his enslaved compatriots,

“If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, ‘may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’”

Remembering their history is what many Jews worldwide will do when at sundown on July 31, they observe Tisha B’av, the most somber of Jewish holidays. It commemorates the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians and centuries later by the Romans. Jews will reflect on these two historic calamities along with many others.

The ConversationAnd that is the message of Psalm 137 as well. It captures succinctly the ways people come to grips with trauma: disbelief, turning inward and venting their rage. There is a reason it continues to resonate with people.

(David W. Stowe is professor of English and religious studies at Michigan State University.)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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David W. Stowe


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  • Social justice? Really? Let’s have a look at how Psalm 137 ends: 

    “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock.” 

    Maybe it’s just me … insolent, cynical, godless agnostic heathen that I am … but I can’t see where the “social justice” is, in murdering infants. 

  • This from the same god who commanded the Israelites on many occasions to slaughter man, woman, child and beast when conquering what would become Israel. Violent vengeance is a key theme in the Hebrew scriptures. It is repeated in the Christian scriptures with a major difference: Christ’s followers are to be meek, peaceful cheek-turners as Jesus and his angels will wreak havoc on the billions of men, women, children and animals doomed at Armageddon. How’s that for social justice?

  • Christian Privilege = being able to say that scripture that includes bashing in the heads of infants of other faiths is good for society. Can you imagine if there were a section of Qu’ran which praised to Allah those terrorists who smashed in the heads of non-Muslim infants with rocks, and that this section was written about by a Muslim today as being good for society? Everyone would lose their minds! Yet, a Christian does the exact same thing, and everything is just fine. Because Christian Privilege.

  • The answer to this is that the Hebrews in Canaan faced a culture infected by the Nephilim and Rephaim These were creatures like Goliath and others who were taller then normal men and some of these seems to have six fingers and toes. In Genesis chapter VI they are called “sons of God”, which is a typical designation of angels, since all angels were individually created by God and not through a process of procreation. As you perhaps know, the Bible teaches that some of the angels turned against God. Of this group of fallen angels some seemed to have sought sexual intercourse with mankind, either to corrupt the entire human race or at least the chosen line of promise (Seth).

    Gen. 6:1-4:
    And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

    The Israelites faced similar creatures later in Canaan, and probably this demonic corruption was part of the reasons why they had to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan. Additional reasons were their complete moral perversion and the sexual rites of their idolatry, sins which were consequences of this corruption and which could affect Israel.

    Although it may be difficult for modern man to understand, the reason why Israel was designed to be the chosen nation in the Bible was that mankind had fallen into irredeemable idolatry and moral corruption. The first universal divine judgment on this was the Flood, later more limited judgments were those on the cities of Sodom and Gomorra, in the time of Abraham.

    In order not to be “forced” to destroy the entire human race again for their sins, God elected the nation of Israel. In Israel He would have a kingdom of his own, and be able to spare mankind, so that, until the time of endtime judgment, man would have the opportunity to repent and return to God.

    And this provides the reason as to how it can be that while Christ’s followers are to be meek and peaceful, it is also clear that at the end Christ with his angels will return to destroy the ungodly. The answer is that the present time is still the time of divine grace, still the time of giving mankind the opportunity to repent. But this time is limited. Ultimately justice must be done because a holy God cannot tolerate sin indefinitely. Christ’s followers at this time don’t have the task to exercise judgment, except by internal sacramental discipline in the Messianic Assembly (i.e. the Church). But the true saints will indeed exercise judgment when they receive the immortality of resurrection life, at Christ’s return.

    To be meek and non-violent, and to be prepared to suffer persecution and death for the sake of following Christ are never ends in themselves. To make these things ends in themselves would be nihilistic, for why give injustice and sin the opportunity to prevail? These virtues are only for a time, i.e. until the Day of Judgment. At that time God’s order will be restored in the complete and final renewal of creation. The reason why the unrepentent cannot be part of this renewal is that God cannot immortalize sin. For this would be a contradiction, since sin is rebellion against God. God can tolerate sin and injustice only for a time. This is the time of this temporal world. The existence of the nation of Israel (and later additionally the Assembly of Messiah), are the reason why God can tolerate sin for a time. Israel (and the faithful of Messiah) represent mankind before God as a sanctified pars pro toto. In Israel God has a nation which lives according to his Law, in the Assembly of Messiah he has the instrument which proclaims his grace.

  • Are you sure they weren’t demonic space aliens from the planet Kolob? Or, perhaps more likely, agents made by the genetic experiments of Xenu, who were in a bad state because they had not been rendered mentally clear? All of this has so much evidence, it helps show how reasonable and reliable Christianity is.

  • That gods came to Earth and mated with women is similar to the mythology of the Greeks. It didn’t happen.

  • You know, it’s interesting how so many aspects of pagan religions managed to wedge themselves into Abrahamic monotheism. Isn’t it? 

  • Re: “To be meek and non-violent, and to be prepared to suffer persecution and death for the sake of following Christ are never ends in themselves.” 

    Actually, they absolutely do need to “suffer persecution and death”! Jesus himself reportedly said: 

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” (Mt 5:38-40, NASB) 

    “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.” (Lk 6:27-30, NASB) 

    Yes, as insane as it sounds … and as much as Christians would like for it not to be so … their Jesus actually ordered them never to attack anyone — not even in self-defense! It’s true that Christian theologians (e.g. St Augustine, originator of the “just war” concept) have managed to swerve out of the way of this injunction, and have made it appear “Christian” to do so — but when they do, they lie. Because Jesus himself left behind clear, unambiguous instructions that say the opposite. 

  • Your argument is most interesting but you missed a couple of minor points. For example, Jesus never condemned the office of the soldier, while He did condemn the Jewish Religious officials of His day. Additionally, Luke, in the Book of Acts, records the piety of the Roman soldier Cornelius, and commends him for it.
    St. Paul declared that officers of government may properly bear the sword on behalf of societal justice. There is no scripture barring Christians from either law enforcement or the military.

  • Re: “Your argument is most interesting but you missed a couple of minor points.” 

    No, actually, I didn’t miss anything. At all. 

    Re: “For example, Jesus never condemned the office of the soldier, while He did condemn the Jewish Religious officials of His day.” 

    It doesn’t matter what Jesus didn’t say. And while he did condemn the priesthood of his time, he did say something else: “Do not resist an evil person,” etc. as I quoted earlier … and as you ignored. 

    Re: “Additionally, Luke, in the Book of Acts, records the piety of the Roman soldier Cornelius …” 

    None of which contradicts Jesus’ clear instruction to “not resist an evil person,” etc. 

    Re: “St. Paul declared that officers of government may properly bear the sword on behalf of societal justice.” 

    Actually, Paul doesn’t say that. Not in those words, anyway. But even if he did — why are you putting his words ahead of Jesus’ own clear order to you: “Do not resist an evil person,” etc.? Are you a Paulian, or a Christian? 

    Re: “There is no scripture barring Christians from either law enforcement or the military.” 

    Again, I will repeat: Jesus himself said, very clearly, “Do not resist an evil person,” etc. Why do you deny he said it? Why are you rationalizing disobeying an unambiguous instruction he left behind for you? What kind of Christian are you? A false one? It’s clear to me that’s precisely what you are. 

    Look, I get that you don’t like what your own Jesus told you to do. But really, I don’t care that you don’t like it. And honestly, neither does he. He anticipated there would be people like you … pretenders claiming to be his followers, who do whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like, merely because they feel like it. And he had a dire warning for them: 

    “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Mt 7:21-23; cf also Mt 25:12 & Lk 13:25-27, as well as your idol Paul in 1 Cor 13:1-2) 

  • The fact is, your own hostility to Christianity does not allow you to appreciate the scripture in its complete context. I have no disfavor with anything that Jesus taught, what is clear is that you are unable to take Jesus’ teaching as a seamless package. Nothing that Paul taught contradicts what Jesus taught, and if I frame the words in the modern idiom it is to make it more clear to people who are turned off by people who merely quote chapter and verse selectively to serve their own ends. No Christian of my experience favors war or death or injustice, but as we live in a fallen world, the world requires some restraints that require high consequences. Your attitude suggests that Christians should meekly submit to slaughter when they are threatened, and you arrive there by taking a few verses and applying them without regard to other amplifying verses. The bible also warns of those who twist the scripture to their own destruction. For those who in their own good conscience can submit to the threat of evil without recourse to defense, I applaud their courage. But the bible also teaches us to fight evil where and when it occurs. People argue that this is a contradiction, “not resisting evil,” vs. “resisting evil.” It is not a contradiction, each admonition has to be taken in its broadest context as it applies to the circumstance in which it is given, this is a very basic rule of all literary interpretation, it requires nuance and common sense.

  • Re: “The fact is, your own hostility to Christianity does not allow you to appreciate the scripture in its complete context.” 

    I am not “hostile” to Christianity. That’s just what you say about me in order to dismiss my critiques. 

    Re: “I have no disfavor with anything that Jesus taught …” 

    Do you deny he said, “Do not resist an evil person,” etc.? If you think he said it, then why would you think Christians are allowed to defend themselves? If you don’t think he said that, why is that quotation included in your religion’s scripture? You want to have it both ways … but you can’t. Not with me, anyway. 

    Re: “Nothing that Paul taught contradicts what Jesus taught …” 

    You say Paul claims it’s acceptable for Christians to fight — but if so, then he absolutely did contradict Jesus, who very clearly said, “Do not resist an evil person,” etc. Once again, you’re trying to have it both ways; you want to do what Paul tells you, which happens to be the opposite of what Jesus said, but then you insist Paul and Jesus were in total agreement … when clearly, they were not. Your desire to have your cake and eat it too is an annoying tendency; you really need to stop doing it. 

    Re: “No Christian of my experience favors war or death or injustice …” 

    That might be so, but Jesus himself told his followers, “Do not resist an evil person,” etc. It’s not my fault he reportedly said it. 

    Re: “Your attitude suggests that Christians should meekly submit to slaughter when they are threatened …” 

    Yes, because in Christians’ own scripture, it clearly says the founder of their religion said, “Do not resist an evil person,” etc. I never said it was a good idea. I never said that I, personally, approved of such catastrophic pacifism. All I’m doing is reminding you that’s what Christians themselves report the founder of their own religion told them. 

    Re: “But the bible also teaches us to fight evil where and when it occurs.” 

    No, it doesn’t. What it tells us is that your own Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person,” etc.

    Re: “People argue that this is a contradiction, ‘not resisting evil,’ vs. ‘resisting evil.'” 

    The statements “do not resist evil” and “resist evil” absolutely do contradict one another. They do so on their face, with no need even for any “argument” to make that clear. 

    Re: “It is not a contradiction …” 

    Of course it is! 

    Re: “… each admonition has to be taken in its broadest context …” 

    That’s a lie. There is no context in which the statements “do not resist evil” and “resist evil” do not contradict one another. 

    Re: “… this is a very basic rule of all literary interpretation …” 

    That’s a lie. There is no literary interpretation in which the statements “do not resist evil” and “resist evil” do not contradict one another. 

  • You clearly are applying isolated statements without proper context. Your default position is declare someone a liar when they refute your arguments. I will assert again: Context…Context…Context. There is no further point to this exchange.

  • Re: “You clearly are applying isolated statements without proper context.” 

    Your “context” whine is exactly that … a childish whine. As I explained, there is no “context” in which the statements “do not resist evil” and “resist evil” are not contradictory. Yet you keep insisting it’s so. Clearly you think I’m stupid or something, if you think you can say something like that and have me accept it. 

    Re: “There is no further point to this exchange.” 

    Good. You just go take your insulting, illogical drivel and spew it on someone who’s dumb enough to swallow it. I’m not the ignoramus you clearly think I am. 

  • It has come to me upon reflection that in this exchange that while I do not retreat from my arguments or the logic behind them, my attitude as the dialogue advanced did not reflect the spirit of Grace that I am commanded by my God to extend to those with whom I differ. Therefore, owning the acrimonious sin and error I exhibited, I hereby apologize and request your forgiveness for my failure to meet the standards of civil exchange that are my obligation as a Christian.

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