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The standard version of the RMM Bible Reading Plan takes you through the whole Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice in a single year. That means that TWICE every year I find myself wrestling with Psalm 137:8-9:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! 9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Psalms 137:8–9 ESV)

Does that really belong in the Bible?

Am I actually supposed to read, sing or pray that?

They say that the Book of Psalms was the songbook of the early church – but how could anyone who knows and loves Jesus read or sing – let alone pray a sentence like that? We were told to love our enemies; we were told to turn the other cheek – how in the world does this go with that?

Sooner or later every honest Bible reader finds herself asking some version of that question. These verses are – beyond a shadow of a doubt – among the very hardest verses of the Bible to accept as Christian Scripture.

But should they be?

Historical Context

Perhaps a little bit of historical context would be helpful here.

This entire Psalm is placed in the mouths of Jewish captives, led naked and in chains towards Babylon after the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Siege warfare is brutal and it generally ends badly. The soldiers are angry and frustrated at the long delay away from their families. By the time they enter the city they have often had unpleasant things dumped on them multiple times as they attempted to batter down the gates or scale the walls. They are angry, they are lustful and they are looking for revenge. The inhabitants of the city are usually starved, exhausted and powerless to defend themselves. It isn’t hard to imagine what went on. Wives were raped, children were trampled, families were ruined and lives were torn apart.

It was hell on earth.

That’s what happened to these people and those are the events that lie behind the writing of this Psalm. We have to at least acknowledge that we have no frame of reference for the depth of emotion that lies behind Psalm 137.  We live in peaceful times. Our grandparents who fought in WW2 and who lived the reality of the Holocaust can likely relate to this verse much better than we can. They know what manner of brutality human beings are capable of but we, in our generation, try very hard to forget.

But this happened.

To real people.

And those real people lifted their hearts in prayer to God.

Psalm 137 is a prayer and it reflects the lowest notes on the human emotional scale. It is a real prayer flowing out of real experiences and for that reason alone it is worth wrestling with year by year.

But Is It Christian?

It’s one thing to empathize with the Psalmist, it is another thing to credit these verses as Christian Scripture. The Psalmist does sound blood thirsty and vengeful in a way that does not seem to align with Christian teaching. Jesus said: “. . . if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39 ESV) and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 ESV).

So how does Psalm 137:8-9 go with any of that?  It does not appear to, but we must be careful to react to the words that are there and not to the words that we imagine are there. Notice for example that the Psalmist doesn’t say: “How happy I will be when I smash some Babylonian babies against the wall!”

He doesn’t say that – he isn’t planning to personally avenge himself on the Babylonians.  Notice also that he doesn’t say: “What a wonderful thing it is to kill the babies of evil people!”  

He doesn’t say that either.  

He says: “Blessed is HE who repays you.  Who does to you what you did to us”.  

Scholars have understood that to mean one of two possible things. It could refer to the future king of the Persians who actually did destroy Babylon.  This could be a way of saying that the person who executes the Lord’s justice on Babylon will do so under the blessing of Almighty God.  

As it turns out, that did happen.  

In the 5th year of Darius the Babylonians revolted against the Medo-Persians and Darius laid siege to Babylon before destroying it.  He did to Babylon exactly what Babylon did to Jerusalem and it was brutal.  The historian Humphrey Prideaux describes it this way.  He says:

As soon as the Babylonians saw themselves begirt by such an army as they could not cope with in the field, they turned their thoughts wholly to the supporting of themselves in the siege; in order whereto they took a resolution, the most desperate and barbarous that ever any nation practised. For to make their provisions last the longer, they agreed to cut off all unnecessary mouths among them, and therefore drawing together all the women and children, they strangled them all, whether wives, sisters, daughters, or young children useless for the wars.

The Babylonians were forced by Darius to do to their own children what they had done to the children of Jerusalem.  So it could mean that Darius was helped by God to effect this act of justice.  He was acting “under the blessing of God.”

It could equally mean that this act of justice was “exactly proportionate”.  The word translated by the ESV as “blessed” can also be translated as “straight” or “right”.  Some scholars feel that would be the better translation of this verse.  J. Alec Motyer for example translates it: “How right he will be who seizes and shatters your children against a rock!”  

If that is the correct translation then the Psalmist is predicting that God will not let this act of barbarism pass unchallenged.  He will see it and he will address it with perfect equity.  This verse then expresses faith and hope in future judgment.

That is in no way inconsistent with what we read in the New Testament.

In Romans 12 Paul says: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19 NASB).

The New Testament forbids believers to take their own vengeance – it does not tell them to despair of future judgment. It tells them the opposite! It says that God sees. God cares. And God repays.

He is blessed – he is RIGHT – in paying back.

In the end, no one gets away with anything. All sins will be paid for in blood. Either the blood of Christ or the blood of sinners. It is not wrong to long for the justice of God.

In Revelation 6 the Apostle John is given a vision of the souls of the martyrs hovering around the throne of God. He says:

I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9–11 ESV)

Notice that the martyrs are not rebuked for praying to God and asking him to avenge their blood on those who dwell on the earth.

There is no discernible difference between the prayer of the Psalmist in Psalm 137 and the prayer of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11.

Both have been brutalized by the enemies of God’s people.

Both look to God for comfort and for justice.

Neither are rebuked for so doing.

At the end of the day, I believe that our difficulty with Psalm 137 is largely cultural and temporal. As a people we have largely been spared this quality of pain. Our emotional register does not go this low. Thanks be to God! Psalm 137 is below our effective range of hearing. But let’s be clear – it is not outside the boundary of God’s Word.

God’s Word includes the promise of Final Judgment.

God’s Word includes a prayer for victims of unspeakable suffering.

Using Psalm 137 Today

At the very least we may use this prayer to identify with Christian martyrs in North Korea, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Iraq. We may also use it as a reminder to give thanks for the unparalleled peace and prosperity we continue to enjoy in this land.

Even still, come Lord Jesus.

Amen.

SDG

Paul Carter


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Comments:


13 thoughts on “Dashing the Little Ones Against the Rock – Does This Verse Really Belong in Scripture?”

  1. Betty Carter says:

    I struggled with verses such as these when I was a new Christian. I am thankful for my Pastor who was so patient with me in my frustration. This explanation has been very helpful.

  2. Lynda says:

    I think this is a thoughtful and deeply sensitive response to this verse, and gently chides us to speak carefully, if at all, about matters of which we really know little. That seems hard to do in our information-sopped environment, when a few minutes with Google, Wikipedia and Facebook arm us and give us a “voice” to proclaim loudly what we have no idea we are talking about, much less have any experience. We have a fleeting opinion and are quick to proclaim it (or perhaps rather, our ignorance). I think it is also interesting to note that Christians on earth are commanded to love their enemies, and we see them die as Jesus did: asking forgiveness for those that kill them, entrusting their souls to their faithful Creator. It is only once they are in heaven and near the time of final judgement, when they see and understand with new faculties fit for eternity, far more the holiness of God and His justice and wisdom, that then they cry out for His righteous justice. It drives home the point of how little we really grasp of God and His holiness, and in the face of that, His mercy as well. I so appreciate that you do not skim over these kinds of verses, but instead plunge in that we might truly live Coram Deo.

    1. Lynda,
      This is the most eloquent response to a problem that I have and most of those I speak with. To “speak carefully, if at all, about things we know little” is wise advice. History is rarely considered when we make conclusions about the present, and God’s sovereign will cannot be presumed beyond his revelation.

  3. Kathleen McNeal says:

    I’ve read this article twice and it still makes no sense. The fact is, that verse praising the most reprehensible and brutal violence against children cannot be explained away. It is right there in all its horror. We would be monsters if we tried to excuse or justify such behaviour.

    1. Dave W says:

      Kathleen, I think we need to separate two issues here: First, revenge upon the Babylonians who killed Israeli babies, and Second, the evil of Babylonian babies being killed. I think the article does a good job of dealing with the first issue: Isn’t it true that equivalent justice upon the Babylonians entails them suffering the brutal loss of their own babies? The Second issue, which you raise, I suggest the article hardly touches; there we are forced back to the problem of evil more broadly, since it is obvious that babies cannot deserve such judgment. But please notice that you really only have two options here, however many variations might lie within these two options: Either there is Someone(s) out there with power to stop evil, or there is not. If not, your comment that “We would be monsters…” is meaningless, since it is a moral evaluation only possible if indeed Someone is out there acting as the transcendental standard for behavior. So, by your own language, I take it you believe Someone is out there who is the standard and who can stop evil. This means that whether you agreed with the article or not, you face the same problem as the article. Endless words have been written on this subject, but I recommend two points: First, God made a world with creatures who have a significant, if not absolute, freedom. This creaturely freedom entails the possibility of at least temporary evil. Second, Jesus promises to undo evil in the end, and he possesses the resurrection power to do so. The murder of a baby is unspeakably horrible; could God ever do anything to right the wrong and undo the evil? The Christian answer is Yes. God has promised to resurrect the whole universe, to undo the filth and horror our sins have produced. This is our only hope.

    2. Jeff C says:

      Indeed, we would be monsters if we tried to excuse or justify such behavior. But God—who eternally decreed, and not merely permitted all that comes to pass—inspired these words in their proper context, and does not need our justification.

  4. Marie roth says:

    Kathleen, consider hell. God punishes worse there (eternally). It is His prerogative.

  5. buddyglass says:

    You seem to focus on the equity of the punishment that was meted out against the Babylonians as a group. In that sense, yes, they corporately suffered the same thing they did to Israel. What bothers me is that the *actual babies* that were dashed against the rocks did none of these things.

    1. Dave W says:

      Buddy, that bothers me, too. I agree that the article seems to leave this issue untouched. I take it as one of the most painful facts about the world that the ruinous effects of sin are communal; my sin not only hurts me but others around me, who don’t deserve to hurt for my sin. If it is possible to find some good in this fact, it is that my experience of sinning and watching others hurt for it has made me hate evil more deeply than I would have without the experience. But this still says nothing to the evil of murdered babies. In response to that I have found it necessary to carefully affirm the principle of human responsibility, and creatures (not Creator) as the source of evil. Then I take comfort in considering that moral evil is a far blacker reality than natural evil; better to contract cancer than sin, better to lose earth than heaven. The babies suffered terrible harm, but that’s better than doing harm, which would have ruined their souls. While it does not lessen the horror of murdered babies, it does provide an important support to know they did not suffer the greatest possible evil as a result of being murdered. Lastly, God promises to resurrect the world, in fact he’s already begun to do so in Jesus. All the evil done to these babies can, and under God’s will, will be, undone. While it is sometimes hard to convince my emotions, I believe God’s cosmic resurrection will be more than enough to make up for the endless horrors of this life.

    2. denben says:

      Babies are born in sin. And they suffer the effects of being born in a sinful world.

  6. Dan Bartel says:

    buddyglass consider that divine judgement is expressed to the third and fourth generations of those who hate the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus, speaking to the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees of his generation reminded them, that they were liable for the blood of the prophets from Abel to Zechariah in Luke 11. “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and your fathers killed them.  In fact, you bear witness that you approve the deeds of your fathers; for they indeed killed them, and you build their tombs.  Therefore the wisdom of God also said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,’  that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation.”

    The church of Jesus Christ is filled with those who who renounced their allegiance to that generation and were incorporated into the new people of God both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14-17). “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near.  For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”

  7. Myron H says:

    I use a Daily Office schedule for Scripture readings that puts imprecatory sections of the Psalms in parentheses, as though they are not part of the inspired Word. Yet they are and they are a cry for justice. Is not perfect justice where the sentence perfectly matches the damage of the crime? I would add to this fine article the Gospel note -how we are condemned under perfect justice and yet God showed mercy and upheld His justice by Jesus taking our judgment on the cross. The imprecatory psalms serve to heighten our sense of the depth of God’s grace.

  8. R Holtslander says:

    I have been reading through the Psalms with my children (now 8 and 10) every month (reading 5 Psalms a night, we get through them in 30 days) for the past 5 years or so. Initially I expurgated the difficult bits because they were disturbing but then I decided that if this was scripture then I would read them uncensored. This brought up many conversations, of course. This particular Psalm has presented many opportunities for discussion.

    I feel that the Psalms are the outflow of human emotion in the face of real life difficulties, joys, sorrow and rage. I can relate to them and even this troublesome verse, which is a desire for revenge. It took me a while but I felt that this verse was a response to the treatment of the Israelites at the hands of their enemies where they possibly saw their own babies heads struck against stone. A request for revenge from God is so common throughout the Psalms. I, too, have felt this desire for revenge on those who have harmed me. The beauty of this is that there is, as you say, no recrimination for feeling emotion and even having “non-Christian” desires. I don’t see them as prescription for behaviour but openness to us being the humans that we are, warts and all. Indeed, the repeated description of people being like dust, wind, chaff, smoke is a reminder as well.

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Paul Carter


Paul Carter attended Moody Bible Institute and is a graduate of York University (B.A.) and McMaster Divinity College (MDiv). He has been in pastoral ministry since 1994, serving in both Fellowship and Canadian Baptist churches in Oakville, Mississauga and Orillia, Ontario Canada. He presently serves as the Lead Pastor of First Baptist Church, Orillia, a large multi-staff church with a passion for biblical preaching and local mission.

Along with his friend Marc Bertrand he is the co-founder of the Covenant Life Renewal Association (CLRA) seeking Biblical and Spiritual revival within Canadian Baptist Churches. He also serves on the TGC Canada board.

Paul has written two books and is a frequent blogger on issues of Christian faith and living. You can find his devotional podcast at www.intotheword.ca

Paul is the happy husband of Shauna Lee and the proud papa of 5 beautiful children, Madison, Max, Mikayla, Peyton and Noa.

You can find him at:

www.intotheword.ca
www.adfontes.ca
www.firstbaptistorillia.org

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