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International“On the rivers of Babylon”: a commentary on Psalm 136

“On the rivers of Babylon”: a commentary on Psalm 136

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February 15/28, 2021 – Week of the Prodigal Son, the second preparatory to Great Lent. On the eve of this day, at the all-night vigil, the 136th psalm “On the Rivers of Babylon” is sung. Pravoslavie.Ru offers a theological and philological commentary on this hymn from Orthodox perspective.

The Great Forty Day is preceded by four preparatory weeks. During this period, the Lenten Triod offers many liturgical texts that prepare us for Great Lent. So, at matins on the Week of the Prodigal Son and then on the Week of Meat and Cheesefare, after singing the polyeleos psalms (134 and 135) “Praise the name of the Lord” and “Confess to the Lord”, Psalm 136 “On the rivers of Babylon” is also sung.

The Typicon, giving liturgical instructions at Matins on the Week of the Prodigal Son, instructs us to sing the third psalm to two polyeleic psalms: “On the rivers of Babylon” with red alleluia[1]. The Church Slavonic phrase “red alleluia” literally translates as “beautiful alleluia”[2]. It can be seen that the Typicon, in ordering to sing this psalm in this way, distinguishes it from the background of the previous two psalms.

The 136th psalm consists of nine verses. In the Church Slavonic texts of the Bible, it is titled with the words: “To David Jeremiah”[3]. In the Hebrew Bible, the psalm is not inscribed with the name of the author; in the Latin and Greek Bibles, the name of David is given[4].

There are various opinions related to the authorship of the 136th psalm. Strong nostalgia for the homeland, clearly expressed in it (verses 5-6), prompts us to think that the author was among those captives who, after the decree of the Persian king Cyrus in 538 BC, returned to destroyed Jerusalem.

The Church Slavonic text of the 136th psalm is as follows:

“David Jeremiah.

On the rivers of Babylon, there with gray hair and plakakh, always remember Zion to us. In the midst of his willows, our organs are obesih. As if there were questions about the captivity of us about the words of the song and leading us about the singing: sing to us from the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Cling my tongue to my larynx, if I do not remember you, if I do not offer Jerusalem, as if at the beginning of my joy. Remember, O Lord, sons of Edom, on the day of Jerusalem, who say: exhaust, exhaust to its foundations. Cursed daughter of Babylon, blessed is he who will repay you your recompense, even if you repaid us. Blessed is he who has and smashes your babies on a stone”[5].

Babylonian captivity

“On the rivers of Babylon” – the use of the plural in the phrase “by the rivers” (synodal translation) indicates various areas along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with their tributaries and artificial canals, drawn by the Babylonians to irrigate their fields, where captive Jewish families were and lived[ 6].

The plural of the verbs “sedokhom and plakahom” refers to the communication of captives among themselves. Together they cry and empathize with each other, remembering Zion – in this case, the word is associated with Jerusalem or the Temple.

We are in captivity of sin – “on the rivers of Babylon”

“On verbiy… obesihom” – the Church Slavonic verb “obesity”, as well as the Greek “κρεμασθῆναι”, in the context of the 2nd verse is translated into Russian as “hung”.

“Our organs” – in the Greek text is the word ὄργανα. It was borrowed into the Church Slavonic text without translation. The word ὄργανα is translated into Russian as “instruments”, while reading the synodal translation, we can understand that we are talking about musical instruments: “we hung our harps”. Musical instruments hung from trees indicate that the Jews have put aside the fun.

The hymn “On the rivers of Babylon” from the first verses reveals the whole meaning of Great Lent. We are in the captivity of sin – “on the rivers of Babylon.” Like the Jews, we need to put aside the joy and think about our sins, remember Zion – the Kingdom of Heaven or Heavenly Jerusalem.

Zion songs

“As if there were questions about the captives of us about the words of the song and leading us about the song: sing to us from the songs of Zion”: if translated from Hebrew, this verse reads like this: “There those who captured us demanded from us the words of the song; and our oppressors are gladness: sing to us from the songs of Zion.”

“Questioner” – “ordered” or “demanded”. The captive Babylonians demanded that the Jews say to them a few words from the Divine songs and praises that they sang in Jerusalem[7].

“How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?” – so you can translate the fourth verse. “Why were they not allowed to sing in a foreign land? Because unclean ears should not have heard these mysterious hymns”[8] – St. John Chrysostom interprets this passage[9].

“Foreign land” is not just a country far from the holy city, it is an unclean pagan land (see: Ezek. 4: 13-14), which gave “unclean bread”.

St. John Chrysostom calls with special care to observe oneself and build a real life in such a way that one does not become captives, alien and excommunicated from the father’s city[10]. “We will all listen to this and learn from it. Just as when they were deprived of the city, then they began to look for it, so many of us will experience the same thing when on that day they will be deprived of the mountainous Jerusalem” [11], – this is how St. John comments on the 136th psalm.

Jerusalem – the beginning of joy

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Cling my tongue to my larynx, if I don’t remember you, if I don’t offer Jerusalem, as if at the beginning of my joy”: the fifth and sixth verses are built on the principle of an oath: “If I forget, let my right hand forget me; if I don’t remember, let my tongue stick to the palate.” The author of the psalm is ready to be punished for breaking his vows, that is, if he does not set Jerusalem as the beginning of his joy, may the Lord take away from him the opportunity to play the harp with his right hand, and forbid his tongue to sing the songs of Zion.

And the singing of this psalm in the preparatory period for Great Lent calls us to place Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven, as the beginning of our joy.

Sons of Edom

The psalmist, turning to God, prays to the Lord to remember the evil deeds of the Edomites that they committed during the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. (see: Obd. 1: 10–15): “Remember, Lord, sons of Edom, on the day of Jerusalem, saying: exhaust, exhaust to the foundations of it.”

The Idumeans, a kindred people to the Jews, have always been hostile to their brother and in all the sad events of his life they took an active and evil part (see: Am. 1: 11).

And the “day of Jerusalem” is the day when Jerusalem was completely destroyed, the city was deprived of defensive walls and towers, literally “undressed” (Is. 3: 17).

Daughter of Babylon

“Babylon’s accursed daughter, blessed is he who will reward you with your recompense, which you have rewarded us” – in the Russian translation of the psalm, the daughter of Babylon is called a devastator. The Greek text calls her “unfortunate” (ταλαίπωρος [12]), hence the word “cursed” – unhappy, miserable [13].

The unsightly expression “blessed is he who takes and breaks your babies against a stone,” according to some comments on the Psalter, points to the coarse and inhumane features of the Israeli religion. No matter how we treat the words of the psalm, the psalmist, apparently, does not wish death to all the innocent children of Babylon, but asks the Lord to remember quite specific destroyers what they did to Zion.

“Infants” – the image of the beginnings of petty allowances and annoyances that can grow to ineradicable passions

And in the spiritual life, many things can be compared with babies – this is an image of the beginnings of petty allowances and annoyances that can grow into deep, ineradicable passions and vices. Now they seem so small and defenseless that it is somehow even cruel to resist them [14]. But it is precisely at this initial stage that it is necessary to fight them – “blessed is he who breaks them against a stone.”

***

The 136th psalm, which is sung only three times a year during the all-night vigil during the preparatory weeks, shows us the great disappointment of the Jewish people, who lost their holy place – Jerusalem. The text also encourages us to think about the price of those great blessings that the Lord will give us.

Without any doubt, the sadness and tears of the Jewish captives should inspire us to cherish all the gifts sent from God.

Notes:

[1] Typicon, siest Ustav. M.: Publishing Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, 2002. S. 825.

 [2] Dictionary of the Russian language of the XI-XVII centuries. Issue. 8. M., 1981. S. 19–20.

 [3] Psalter. M., 2013. S. 367.

 [4] Explanatory Bible, or Commentaries on all the books of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, edited by A.P. Lopukhin. M., 2009. S. 512.

 [5] Psalter. S. 367.

[6] Explanatory Bible, or Commentaries on all the books of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, edited by A.P. Lopukhin. S. 513.

 [7] Razumovsky G., archpriest. Explanation of the Holy Book of Psalms. M., 2002. S. 822.

 [8] St. John Chrysostom. Conversations on the Psalms // St. John Chrysostom. Creations. T. 5. Book. 1. St. Petersburg, 1899, p. 451.

 [9] Ibid.

 [10] Razumovsky G., archpriest. Explanation of the Holy Book of Psalms. S. 822.

[11] St. John Chrysostom. Conversations on the Psalms // Creations. T. 5. Book. 1. S. 451.

 [12] Liddell H.G., Scott. R. Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford, 1996. P. 1753.

 [13] Dictionary of the Russian language of the XI-XVII centuries. Issue. 12. M., 1987. S. 320.

 [14] Lewis K. Reflection on the Psalms // Lewis K. Collected Works. T. 8. M., 2008. S. 334.

Authors: Professor Larisa Marsheva, Petr Gramatik, February 26, 2021, https://pravoslavie.ru/137624.html (in Russian).

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