This post first appeared on Kineti and is authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.
Psalm 137 shocks Bible readers with its violent end:
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.
Dashing infants against the rocks. That sounds more like a lyric from a Death Metal song, or perhaps a brochure for Planned Parenthood, than it does the righteous moral ethics of the Bible.
So shocking is this violent end, the musical group Sons of Korah, usually known for their ultra-literal renditions on the psalms, softens this violent ending, replacing the dashing-the-infants part with the more palatable, “Blessed is he who destroys your progeny.”
A great deal of Bible readers, especially pro-life Christians and Jews, feel their faith threatened by this psalm. How could this passage make it into the Bible? Does God approve of the vengeful murder of infants?
I recently came across a view of this psalm that framed it in a way that I think many modern people can relate to. They framed it as a kind of middle finger to abusive slaveholders. In a nutshell:
Imagine white slaveholders demanding their slaves sing old negro spirituals. The slaves reply, ‘You destroyed our town, raped our wives and cheered when our kids burned to death. So, here’s your song: we hope the same happens to you.’
This view is both faithful to the text and understandable to modern sensibilities.
Psalm 137 is a lament about the state of the Jewish people 538 BC: the Temple destroyed, Jerusalem leveled, houses burned, women and girls raped, people carried off in chains into Babylon. The captives felt like it was the end of the world, the end of Israel, the end of their lives.
The wicked and murderous Babylonians demand their new captives sing those beautiful old songs of Zion:
Our captors asked us for songs,
Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion”
The psalmist responds not with a song, but a declaration of his unflinching loyalty: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its skill and my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.” He’s saying, “I will never strum this harp again if I forget Jerusalem! I will never sing another song if I do not place Zion as my chief joy! I’d rather be mute and have a withered hand than play for you one of our holy songs!”
The “song” he sings really begins at the end of the psalm — our violent verses! — where he creates a new song: Your wicked nation will be destroyed, all your crimes will fall on your own heads, and the avenger will bring on you what you did to us.”
There’s your song, Babylon. 🖕
It reminds me a great deal of this (slightly vulgar) scene from Blazing Saddles:
For Psalm 137, this raw anger and desire for justice comes out in the psalmist spitting angry fire: for the rapes, for the slavery, for the burnings, and for the destruction of God’s house, let the avenger destroy the Babylonian infants.
These verses can seem embarrassing or even shake one’s faith when viewed without context. But the psalms are beautiful and unique in this way: they show the reality of the human condition: our plights, our doubts, our anger, our suffering, our struggles with the injustice. They’re real and raw. And perhaps that is one reason God saw fit to preserve this psalm in our Scriptures.
And to answer the question, “Does God condone the vengeful murder of the infants of one’s enemies?”, that cannot be answered by this psalm’s existence. Rather, God approves of humans grieving at horrific injustice, even if expressed with anger and a desire for violent retribution.