Psalm 137 opens with lament and closes with one of the most strident imprecations in the Psalter. Read against the backdrop of the Babylonian exile, the imprecation incorporates both Edom and Babylon, concluding with the words “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”
The closing verses have proven to be problematic for commentators. The tension is well expressed by R. Clifford, who states “Psalm 137 has the distinction of having one of the most beloved opening lines and the most horrifying closing line of any psalm. If the psalm ended at verse 6, it would be in the top ten.”
This psalm has been set to music on numerous occasions, both within the realms of liturgical music, and also within popular music. Boney M’s catchy ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ and the wistful round popularised on Don McLean’s American Pie album demonstrate well Clifford’s assertion about the top ten potential of Ps 137. In both versions the lyrics are drawn only from the first four verses of the psalm, and one wonders if they would have gained popularity had the full text been used.
The current paper explores two musical settings of Ps 137, taking into consideration the role of the composer as interpreter of the text, and the impact of the decisions made by the composer with regard to our own reading of the psalm. The central argument is that the inclusion of the closing imprecation, and the wording of that imprecation, has a significant impact on the musical aesthetics of the resultant composition, and on the subsequent reading of the psalm by its new readers/ hearers.
Conversations: An e-journal from the Uniting Church is published by the Centre for Theology and Ministry
This article originated as a paper presented at the Society of Biblical Literature Conference held in Auckland, July, 2008.
Boase, E. (2008). To imprecate or not: Psalm 137 and its appropriation in music. Conversations: An e-journal from the Uniting Church.