The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 137 (136, Vulgate)

Posted by Dim Bulb on September 25, 2011

Text in red are my additions.


THE author of this poem, speaking as one of those who have returned from the Babylonian Exile, depicts for us with great poetic skill and power a typical scene of the Captivity.

Suggesting with the subtle brevity of the true poet the setting of his tale, he puts before us the land of Exile with its network of poplar-bordered streams and channels, and tells us of a day when he and his comrades, gathered together according to their wont (cf. Acts 16:13) by one of the Babylonian streams for prayer, sat weeping as they thought of the glories of Sion’s worship in which they had at one time shared. Their prayer-gathering by the streamside was brightened by no song or burst of sacred music, for in Babylon, amid strangers and outside Yahweh’s land, the music of the Temple-songs could not be heard, and the harps that in Jerusalem might have swelled the volume of the Temple-orchestra, hung sadly silent on the poplars that lined the stream. As the Exiles prayed and wept, people of Babylon passed that way, and seeing the weeping worshippers and the silent harps, asked mockingly for one of the old glad “songs of Sion.”  “But how,” said the Exiles, “can we sing the songs of Yahweh on a soil that is not His?”

The strangers pass on, but the sting of their insolence rouses the psalmist and his comrades to anger. How could a true Israelite ever be disloyal to the Temple and to Yahweh ? “If ever I forget thee, Jerusalem,” the psalmist cries, “or make thee not the crown of my joy, may my right hand wither, and my tongue cleave to my palate!”

Then the note of passion deepens, and the psalmist cries out for vengeance against the Edomites who had joined in the work of destruction on “Jerusalem’s Day”—the day of her fall. But more bitter than against Edom is the anger of the Exiles against Babylon, the chief agent of Jerusalem’s disaster and their own jailor. Taking up the burden of ancient prophecies against Babel, the Exiles forecast the doom that awaits the Destroyer of Sion: “Blessed is he who repayeth thee thy deeds against us. Blessed is he who shall seize and shall dash against the rock thy little ones!” This statement reflects lex talion, the law of retaliation: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-35)This law, common throughout the ancient world, was necessitated by the absence of a developed judicial system, criminal investigation techniques, etc.  Much like today’s death penalty it was an attempt to mitigate violence at its outset through giving a fear of consequence: if you do it to others then expect it do be done to you.  In context the verse should be taken as a reference to Cyrus the Persian who overthrew Babylon in fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah chapters 13 and 14; Isaiah 44:24-47:15). It should be remembered that the history of the Bible is in part a history of man’s moral development (see Jonah, chapter 4; Matthew 5:38-42; Matthew 19:1-9).

The Vulgate superscription of the psalm, Psalmus David, Hieremiae, must be regarded as meaning either, “A psalm of Jeremias after the manner of a Davidic Psalm,” or, “A Psalm after the manner of David and of Jeremias.” The Hebrew text contains no ascription to an author.

One Response to “Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 137 (136, Vulgate)”

  1. […] Father Boylan’s Introduction to Today’s Psalm (137). […]

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