One of the songs of Zion

Reducing the 137th Psalm to a stroke diagnosis rather misses the point.

Psalm 137 is one of the world’s highest-impact poems, and not less beautiful for the horror of its final verse.

Here’s the text as I recall it, which doesn’t seem to match precisely any of the translations I can find on line. It partly reflects the Melodians’ astounding reggae version (featured in The Harder They Come) which translates the sorrow of the Hebrew exile into the suffering of the rural Rasta displaced to Kingston.


By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.

Upon the branches of the trees
in the midst thereof
we hung up our harps.

For those who carried us
into captivity
required of us a song,
and our tormentors
asked of us
the sounds of mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How shall we sing
the Lord’s song
in a strange land?

If I forget thee,
O Jerusalem,
let my right hand
forget her cunning.

Let my tongue cleave
to the roof of my mouth
if I remember thee not;
if I set not Jerusalem
above my greatest joy.

Remember, O Lord,
against the children of Edom,
the day of Jerusalem,
Who said: “Raze it, raze it,
even to the very foundation.”

O daughter of Babylon,
that art to be destroyed;
happy shall he be,
that repayeth thee
as thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be,
that taketh thy little ones
and dasheth them
against the rock.


Andrew Sullivan points to what seems to me an astoundingly tone-deaf and reductionist account in which the details of the self-curse – paralysis of the right hand and the vocal mechanism – are interpreted as the symptoms of a stroke of the left middle cerebral artery, with the origin of the term “stroke” – being “struck down” by divine displeasure – offered in support of the thesis.

What a remarkable exercise in missing the point! The poem isn’t about paralysis; it’s about revenge. As Jeremiah Wright said, religious zeal has morphed “from thoughts of paying tithes to thoughts of paying back.”

When Nebuchadnezzer, having conquered Judah, exiled “the people,” he didn’t bother with the peasantry, who were needed to cultivate the soil. He took the ruling class, the wealthy, and the intellectuals. The psalm reflects the rage of a bard in exile, eking out a living by performing his quaint native compositions for the sophisticates of the big city and hating his audience for asking him to “Sing us one of the songs of Zion”: hating them so much that he fantasizes about killing their very infants, with as much brutality as his ineffectual vengefulness can imagine.

“Jerusalem” in the poem does not name a city, cherished in memory or dreamed of in the future; it is not the Jerusalem of “Next Year in Jerusalem!” Nothing is said of its beauty or sanctity, past or to come. Only its destruction is remembered, and those who ordered it razed to its foundations. “Jerusalem” names a crime, like “Glencoe” or “Nanking” or “Dresden.”

The curse this Israelite singer-songwriter calls down on himself, should he forget his desire for revenge on the destroyers of Jerusalem, is simply the loss of his ability to perform: his right hand for the harp and his tongue for the song.

A diagnosis of cerebral accident? I don’t think so.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “One of the songs of Zion”

  1. Billings, America’s first published composer did a beautiful variation about the British siege of Boston. The climax in the final verses is breathtaking.
    By the Rivers of Watertown we sat down & wept, we wept, we wept, we wept
    When we remember’d thee, O Boston, When we remember’d thee O Boston.

    As for our friends, Lord God of Heaven Preserve them, defend them, deliver and restore them
    Unto us, preserve them, defend them, deliver them unto us again.

    For they that held them in Bondage Requir’d of them to take up Arms against their Brethren,
    Forbid it Lord God, forbid it Lord God, Forbid that those who have sucked Bostonian Breasts should thirst for American Blood.

    A voice was heard in Roxbury which echo’d thro’ the Continent
    Weeping, weeping, weeping for Boston.

    Weeping & weeping for Boston because of their danger,
    Weeping for Boston because of their danger.

    Is Boston my dear town, is it my native place, For since their Calamity I do earnestly remember it
    Still I do earnestly, I do earnestly, I do earnestly remember it still.

    If I forget thee, if I forget thee, yea if I do not remember thee, Then let my numbers cease to flow,
    Then be my Muse unkind, Then let my tongue forget to move & ever be confined.

    Let horrid jargon split the air & rise my nerves assunder,
    Let hateful discord greet my ear as terrible as Thunder.

    Let harmony be banish’d and Consonance depart,
    Let dissonance erect her throne and reign within my heart.

  2. And how does the Mad Men version fit with this reading?

    (The tune, and radical but moving oversimplification of the words, were originally from Don McLean, I’m told).

    Marty Peretz in the 80s used to say that his parents told him his right arm would forget its cunning, and his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth, if he ever voted for a Republican. That provokes a bit of alternate history: if they hadn’t said that: would he have spent the decade (and another couple, I guess) trying to sell New Deal economics to the Republicans instead of the Reagan Doctrine and radical pro-Israelism to the Democrats?

    1. Yes, the earliest recorded version of this that I know is Don McLean’s, recorded on American Pie (along with Vincent and American Pie). McLean used it as an audience sing-along round in his concerts, a la Pete Seeger. I recall singing it in church when I was young, well before McLean recorded it.

      The tune is not original with McLean. McLean’s version is a simplification (or possibly an alternative version) of a round published in the late 18th Century by Philip Hayes in a collection called The Muses’ Delight. It is more likely that Hayes is the compiler than the composer. The album credits McLean and Lee Hays with the arrangement of a traditional tune. With Lee Hays involved, it’s highly possible that The Weavers or The Almanac Singers could have sung it earlier, but the Google machine doesn’t show any recordings.

  3. I think both of you are missing the point. For a bard, losing the ability to perform (substitute for a professor, the ability to work through ideas and communicate them to others) is the worst thing that could happen. A torture from which death would be a longed-for release. Also, what’s operating here is not just the desire for revenge but survivor’s guilt, hence the calling down of a curse on the speaker.

  4. “Jerusalem” names a crime, like “Glencoe” or “Nanking” or “Dresden.”

    I disagree. No one would say, “let me lose the power of speech if I fail to set Nanking above my greatest joy.”

    I tend to think that the psalm might be a mash-up of pieces of two or even three poems: verses 1-4 make a coherent whole, as do verses 5-6 and verses 7-9.

    1. Empathy fail? If you were a survivor of Nanking (or Hiroshima or the Nakba or the Μικρασιατική Καταστροφή), the sentiment seems entirely plausible.

  5. Minor nit: the band is the Melodians, not the Melondians — and their song is as good as you say.

Comments are closed.