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.
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?
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”.
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