An Appropriate Response to Psalm 137

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept,

When we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars we hung our harps,

For there our captors asked us for songs,

Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

They said, ‘sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

While in a foreign land?

If I forget you, Jerusalem,

May my right hand forget its skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

If I do not remember you,

If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did

On the day Jerusalem fell.

‘tear it down,’ they cried,

‘tear it down to its foundations!’

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,

Happy is the one who repays you

According to what you have done to us.

Happy is the one who seizes your infants

And dashes them against the rocks.”

Scholars have long debated this difficult psalm, and with many years under careful examination, little agreement has been found. For many, this is a difficult psalm to process and sometimes renders an interpretation that is rather unacceptable to some. We are going to take a careful look at this psalm and what some of the scholars have afore written and we will attempt to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

This psalm is an imprecatory psalm, but before we look at the nature of its imprecation, we must first establish its setting as is detailed in the first few verses. This psalm is not written by King David, rather a few hundred years later. The first few verses make it evident that the author is currently residing in Babylon. The best suggestion is that this psalm is written by a Hebrew temple musician who was taken into captivity following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. Therefore, this psalm would have been written sometime after 586 BC. We will clarify later how the latter verses of the psalm indicate that the psalm must have been written prior to the release of the Jews in 539 BC. The first few verses describe how some of the Babylonian captors were demanding that the Hebrew musicians play them a song of Zion on their harps. There are two possible reasons why they would not play: First, the time of captivity was not the right setting. They would have thought it difficult to play their joyous songs of Zion while captive in a pagan land. Secondly, their songs and their skill to play was a sacred practice designated for the temple. Playing their songs for the pagan captors—who merely would be taunting them—would be a mockery and a disgrace to their skill. I do not think this was something they were willing to do. They wanted to only play in the holy city of Jerusalem and none other.[1]

            There were two griefs to consider in these verses: First, the psalmist complains about the Edomites.[2] The Edomites were the descendants of Esau and it seems evident that the contention from the selling of the birth-rite was still very real. When Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem to take them captive and destroy the city, Edom rejoiced and desired the fall of their brother. Obadiah prophecies to the Edomites concerning their actions: “Because of violence against your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame, you will be destroyed forever. On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them” (Obad 10, 11). The Edomites would soon see this wrath of God for their actions. Secondly, the psalmist brings complaint against their captors, the Babylonians. It is not surprising to see a complaint against the evil empire that destroyed their home and took them captive, but it is what is said that has received limitless attention for many years—“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” What is to be understood by this? We are going to briefly look at some ideas and I will share my thoughts to consider. Many scholars are compelled to believe that this passage is to be understood metaphorically.[3] This phrase seems too aggressive to be taken literally. The best way they feel to reconcile this is to say these verses are an aggressive way of the psalmist saying he wishes the Babylonians will have no future descendants to continue to oppress the Jews.[4] However, I would like to take a few moments to consider another plausible interpretation.

Consider the horrific nature of the practice of brutally murdering babies in the Old Testament:[5] In 2 Kings 8:7-15, Elisha weeps because he foresees that the future Syrian King, Hazael, will “dash their little children to the ground, and rip open pregnant women.” Hosea speaks of the Assyrians doing the very same in Hosea 10:14; 13:16. Nahum’s prophecy states that the Babylonians dashed their captive’s infants to the ground at every corner (Nah 3:8–10). Finally, it was prophesied by Isaiah that a nation will dash to pieces the infants of the Babylonians, right before their eyes (Isa 13:15–16). It is evident that this brutality was common in the early cultures. However, that would not make it any easier to accept. With that being said, there are a few things to consider. It may be suggested that the author of Psalm 137 may have likely desired such harsh thoughts toward the Babylonians. If this psalmist was married with any infant children, his children would have likely been murdered by the ruthless Babylonians and his wife would have faced an undignified fate. I am not condoning such response, but I think it would have been quite natural for him to want the Babylonians to suffer by this common fate of the defeated in battle—eye for eye. Another would suggest that the author would have understood that personal vengeance was not permitted, therefore he turned to God as Israel’s lawyer and vindicator, who would deal accordingly with his enemies—lex talionis (like for like).[6] However, I think there is a more to consider that may also render this psalm more appropriate. The prophesy of Isaiah 13:15–16, as we looked at above, had not yet been fulfilled at the time of the writing of Psalm 137. In fact, the prophecy was likely written some 150 years before. It would be appropriate to assume that any faithful Jew would have known quite well the prophecies, especially, the prophesies of Isaiah. With that being said, this psalmist would have known that there was a pending prophecy speaking of the defeat of their captor, the Babylonians, and that their babies would be dashed to the ground. We now have to add one final thought. The psalmist is careful to use the word “happy” on two occasions. The use of this word is typical for one acting in accordance with the will of God.[7] When you consider all of these variables together, the psalmist may very likely be speaking of Isaiah’s prophecy, and since he knows the Lord has said that this should happen, the nation that brings it about will be acting in accordance to the will of God—happy.

            Were there some vengeful thoughts in the mind of the psalmist when he wrote this psalm, I think it would be quite natural if he did, but I think he was trying to say more than merely write a hateful and vengeful imprecation. Was the psalm written simply as a metaphor? It may be easy to quickly apply metaphor to make it appropriate, but I believe with a proper interpretation, metaphor is not needed, nor do I think it is the best interpretation. I believe this psalm was written to speak of God’s justice that would come on a very wicked nation. This psalm was written to show how God was going to reveal his wrath and justice on the Babylonians just as they have mercilessly done to many other nations, including Israel. This psalm is written to show that the nation that will distribute this punishment will be acting in accordance to the prophetic plan of God. Did the psalmist write this with pleasure? We are not sure. All we can fairly say is that he wrote the facts—the cold hard facts.

[1] Clyde M. Miller, Psalms, LW 10, ed. John T. Willis (Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing, 1980), 421.

[2] Cf. Isa. 34; Jer. 49:7-11; Amos 1:11-12; Obad.

[3] Edmée Kingsmill, “The Psalms: A Monastic Perspective,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, ed. William P. Brown (New York: Oxford, 2014), 602.

[4] Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., “Singing a Subversive Song: Psalm 137 and ‘Colored Pompey’,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, ed. William P. Brown (New York: Oxford, 2014), 455.

[5] Miller, Psalms, 422–3.

[6] Miller, Psalms, 423; Nancy L. Claisse-Walford, “The Theology of the Imprecatory Psalms,” in Soundings in the Theology of Psalms: Perspective and Methods in Contemporary Scholarship, ed. Rolf A. Jacobson (Minneapolis: fortress Press, 2011), 91 (edited).

[7] Sadler, Jr., “Singing a Subversive Song: Psalm 137 and ‘Colored Pompey’,” 454.