By the Waters of Babylon

On the last three Sundays before the start of the Great Fast, selected verses from Psalm 136 are sung at Matins after the Polyeleos (Psalms 134-135). The psalms that make up the Polyeleos are hymns of joy; but Psalm 136 ("By the waters of Babylon") is a song of Israelite exile during the Babylonian captivity (587-516 BC) . From the Sunday of the Prodigal Son to the Sunday of Cheesefare, the Church puts these verses before us to remind us that we are in self-chosen exile from God, due to our sins - and to prompt us to "come to ourselves" and begin the journey home.

The English text below is taken from the MCI Sunday Matins book, where "By the Waters of Babylon" is provided in an appendix, on pages 314-316. The Slavonic text is taken from the Velikij Sbornik (Užhorod, 1937), transliterated into Latin characters.

By the waters of Babylon, alleluia,
there we sat down and we wept
when we remembered you, O Zion.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Na rikách Vavilónskich, Allilúja,
támo sidóchom i plákachom,
pomjanúvše Sióna.
Allilúja. Allilúja. Allilúja.
For it was there that they asked us, alleluia,
our captors, for songs, our oppressors, for joy.
Sing to us, they said, one of Zion's songs.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Vospójte nam ot pisnej Siónskich.
Allilúja. Allilúja. Allilúja.
How could we sing, alleluia,
the song of the Lord on alien soil?
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Káko vospojém pisň Hospódňu
na zemlí čuždéj?
Allilúja. Allilúja. Allilúja.
O Babylon, destroyer, alleluia,
one is happy who repays you
all the ills you have brought on us.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Dšči Vavilóna okajánnaja:
blažén íže ímet,
i razbijét mladéncy tvojá o kámeň.
Allilúja. Allilúja. Allilúja.

The hymn is normally concluded with Glory, Now and ever, and the triple "Alleluia" ending.


Some translations of Psalm 136 begin with the words "By the rivers of Babylon", leading to an alternate title for this hymn.

As with the second part of the Polyeleos, there is some variation in the liturgical books over exactly which verses of Psalm 136 are to be sung. (This hymn was not included in the Ruthenian Chasoslov, and no Triodion was published as part of the series of Ruthenian Recension volumes. Some liturgical books provide the entire text of Psalm 136.)

Various editions of the Velikij Sbornik from Užhorod and Prešov give verses 1, 3, 4, 8a, and 9 (the Slavonic text above). Prostopinije chant books such as the Bokshai Prostopinije (1906) usually give verses 1, 5, and 7. The English setting above uses verses 1, 3, 4, and 8 - omitting verse 9, whose spiritual interpretation is usually overshadowed by its violent imagery.

Singing "By the waters of Babylon"

The prostopinije tradition provides this melody for singing this hymn.