man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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What does Psalm 137 symbolize in "By the Waters of Babylon"?

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Psalm 137 of the Bible pertains to the loss that conquered and exiled people feel for their former homeland. The quotation from this psalm is used as the title for this story to connect the plight of the modern Forest People to that of the ancient Israelites. Psalm 137 begins,

By the rivers of Babylon,

There we sat down, yea, we wept

When we remembered Zion.

These lines refer to the tears that the Israelites are shedding over Zion, their true homeland, as they remember it in their absence.

The psalm continues by saying that the captors asked to hear the captives sing a mirthful or happy song about Zion, or Jerusalem, but they could not comply by singing anything happy. They mourn their captivity and their exile.

The next lines declare and reinforce the devotion that the people feel both to Jerusalem and to their God. To forget Jerusalem would bring dire consequences, such as inability to work (by using one’s hand) or even to speak (as the tongue would be immobilized in the mouth).

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

Let my right hand forget its skill!

If I do not remember you,

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.

Rather than indicating their compliance with the captors’ requests, the songs to Zion are an affirmation of their faith and resistance. The psalm ends with the vow to cast out and wreak revenge on the Babylonians, including killing their children.

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