4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
In the third edition of Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt’s Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, Catherine McDowell has a section under “Something You Should Know” titled A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures. In it she writes about word studies and gives two examples with what it means to “forget.” She writes, “What does it mean to ‘forget’ Jerusalem? Why do many English translations render verse 5b as ‘may my right hand forget its skill’ and why does the author refer to malfunctioning body parts in verses 5–6?” (190).
Doing a word study on שָׁכַח (to forget) reveals that, yes, this term can mean simply “forgetting” something like where you put your car keys. However, there are other meanings to this word. McDowell adds, “Biblically, to forget God is to abandon him (Isa 49:14)*, to pervert one’s ways (Jer 3:21), and to commit idolatry (Deut 4:23; Judg 3:7; Ps 44:17). In essence, to forget God is to break the covenant (for example, see Deut 8:2)” (190).
To be abandoned by God
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;
my Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.”
To pervert one’s ways
A voice on the bare heights is heard,
the weeping and pleading of Israel’s sons
because they have perverted their way;
they have forgotten the Lord their God.
To commit idolatry
Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you.
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth.
All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.
And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.
In Psalm 137:5, to “forget Jerusalem” would be “to assimilate into Babylonian culture into which Judah had been exiled and to adopt her pagan religion” (190). It would mean adopting Babylon’s idols as Israels gods.
Forgetful Right Hands (Ps 137:5b)
But what does “may my right hand forget its skill” mean in verse 5b? Most English translations have this verse rendered as the right hand forgetting its skill (ESV, CSB, NASB, NIV). The NLT renders the “skill” as forgetting to play the harp. The LEB translates verse 5 more literally and has, “let my right hand forget,” which is all that the Hebrew says as well. The NET Bible gives the connotation of being crippled: “may my right hand be crippled!” In reading the hand as forgetting its skill, the hand is unable to do a function it should be able to do (like being crippled).
Some exegetes opt for the Hebrew word behind forgetting to actually mean to grow lean, wither, suggesting that it is a wordplay. McDowell believes what happened was something called “graphic confusion.” Basically, the word שָׁכַח (to forget) appears first in verse 5, and the word כָּחַשׁ (to grow lean, wither) was the next verb in verse 5. However, since כָּחַשׁ (to wither) has the same consonants as שָׁכַח (to forget) only in a different order, the thought goes that the scribes made a mistake and wrote שָׁכַח (to forget) in both parts of verse 5.
In this line of thinking, the text should read:
“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.”
Instead it reads, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget.”
While it’s difficult (for me, at least) to know if a scribe just got confused, McDowell notes that in Psalm 137:6, the tongue malfunctions as a result of “forgetting” Jerusalem. She writes that “a brief word study on terms in the Old Testament, not only for ‘tongue’ but also for body parts generally (eye, ear, tongue, hand, nose, etc.), demonstrates that mute tongues, dim eyes, deaf ears, and withering hands are often linked to idol worship! This is the message of Ps 115:4–8” (191).
Psalm 115:4–8 reads,
4 Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
8 Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
Those who make and trust in dumb and mute idols become like them. As McDowell notes, “The operative principle here is that you are what you worship!” The translation, “may my right hand wither” in Psalm 137:5 makes a lot of sense with the the context of idolatry in Psalm 137, and it parallels verse 6, “may my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.” The psalmist means that if he forgets Jerusalem and God’s temple, God’s chosen place of worship, and replaces them with idols, “may I become like an immobile and mute idol if I worship one ever again!” (191).
Jeroboam’s Withered Hand
If this idea is correct, there may be a correlation in 1 Kings 13. In 1 Kings 12:28–32, King Jeroboam made two calves of gold and set one in Bethel and the other in Dan. He made temples on high places and appointed non-levitical priests to serve in those temples. In 1 Kings 13, a man of God comes up and prophesies against Jeroboam. In verse 4 we read, “And his hand, which he stretched out against him, dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself.”** The Hebrew word here is different than in Psalm 137, but it has the same idea: a an idolatrous hand is drying up.
We see another withered hand in Mark 3:1, “Again he [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand.” I don’t think this must insinuate that the man was an idolator and his hand physically withered up. Instead, Jesus, the One who we should worship and who transforms us into his image, heals us from our idolatries. Jesus, the Lord of the sabbath, healed this man on the Sabbath, doing good to him instead of evil. Saving a life instead of killing. And the religious leaders wanted none of it. The one who cleanses us of our idolatry was killed in Jerusalem by its leaders whose hearts were as hard as that of an idol’s. Maybe they should have prayed Psalm 137.
(Read my review of Basics of Biblical Hebrew, 3rd ed.)
*McDowell wrote that “to forget God is to abandon him” and then has a reference to Isaiah 49:14. That reference is actually one of Jerusalem asking if God has forgotten/abandoned her, and in verse 15 God stating that he has not forgotten/abandoned her.
**In the LXX, the Greek word behind Jeroboam’s hand that “withered” is ἐξηράνθη. In Mark the man has an “ἐξηραμμένην” hand. There is at least a linguistic connection between these two texts. Whether it connects with Psalm 137 should be looked at more in depth (in the future!).