The Moral Problem in Psalm 137:9

Posted by on May 27, 2017

In this article we will study the highly controversial and difficult to understand verse 9 in Psalm 137 that has emotionally aroused critiques on. We read,

Happy is he who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock. (Psa 137:9)

The common perception is that verse 9 was the desire of the exiles in Babylon to avenge what was done to them by the Babylonians.

First of all, we should know that Psalm 137 was written as a response to the terrible pain suffered by the Jews at the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple: parents seeing their children tortured and killed, wives and daughters raped and murdered, pregnant women ripped open off. The Babylonian exiles saw their lives brutalized in ways inexpressively horrible. Who would not want to curse those who speared their children? Who would not want to see the perpetrators repaid in vengeance? What would be more natural for the Jews to desire than seeing retribution for the atrocities done to them?

And yet, to say Happy is he who takes and dashes your little ones is way off a retribution. Why the children of your enemies? What guilt would the little ones have done to deserve such “happiness?”

In order to truthfully understand the psalm, let us first read it in its entirety:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept as we remembered Tsiyon. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there our captors asked us for the words of a song, and our plunderers for rejoicing, “Sing to us a song of Tsiyon!”

How could we sing the song of Yehovah on foreign soil? If I forget you, O Yerushalayim, let my right hand forget. Let my tongue cleave to my palate, if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Yerushalayim above my chief joy.

Remember, O Yehovah, against the sons of Edom the day of Yerushalayim, who said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, to its foundation!” O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy is he who repays you your deed, what you did to us! Happy is he who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock. (Psa 137:1-9)

From the very beginning, Psalm 137 is telling us that this is a psalm belonging to the Jewish exile in Babylon. At the bank of the rivers, the exiles wept with a deep grief as they remembered Zion. The rivers of Babylon, where they wept, are to be understood here as those of the entire Babylonian empire, not merely the Euphrates and the Tigris, or Kevar and Ulai, on whose banks Ezekiel (Eze 1:3) and Daniel (Dan 8:2) saw visions from heaven. This comes to tell us that all of the Jewish exile wept for the native land from where they were driven.

The second part of the psalm is in a striking contrast between the present and the former times the Jews had in order to come to the knowledge of their sins before YHVH. This part is also the curse of Psalm 137 for those who would forget the city of their hearts, for all those in whom the remembrance of Jerusalem was lost; consequently, as the history would prove it right, those who were the object of the curse gave themselves over to paganism or just simply became assimilated in the Babylonian culture and lost from the redemption at the end of the exile.

For more insight on the lost exile in Babylon, the reader may want to refer to the related article The True Purim and the Untold Truth.

The third part of the psalm begs vengeance on Edom and Babylon. The exiles bitterly remembered that the Edomites, their brothers by descent to Israel, were hostile to the Jews and how they behaved at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans as their cheerful helpers. And the psalm ends in the verse in question.

The Biblical commentators have done a great deal to try to explain verse 9. Some of them comment that the psalmist expressed his feelings as a response to the tragedy the Jews suffered at the destruction of Jerusalem

Others view the psalm as a poetry and as such it is enough to say such a curse upon the enemies but not to act on it, as the concept of justice prohibit us from turning the thoughts into the deed, because the vengeance is of God, and we do not express joy against our enemies.

We should notice that the psalm states ambiguously “happy is he who dashes” without identifying the subject of the sentence. It does not say, “happy is the man” thus clearly identifying the subject as being a man, but it plainly says, “happy is he.” Although the psalmist expresses a desire for vengeance, it may not be he who will take the vengeance. The subjectless verb in Psa 137:9 may, in fact, be of someone else.

In Isa 47:6 we read that which was then desired for Babylon was the retribution of what Babylon had done to Israel on the darkest day of her history: the destruction of Jerusalem and the first Temple.

I was wroth with My people; I have profaned My inheritance and I gave them into your hand. You showed them no compassion, you made your yoke very heavy on the elderly. (Isa 47:6)

Although Babylon was an instrument in the hand of Elohim to punish His people for the wickedness done in the land, Babylon went too far in the punishment and showed no mercy even to the little ones. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, and the people taken in exile in Babylon for seventy years.

And when the end of the exile came to be, what was done to the children of Israel was done to the Babylonians in the same measure. It was the same destiny even on the children, which was predicted in Isa_13:16-18, and which was to be executed by the Medes and Persians.

And their children are dashed to pieces before their eyes, their houses plundered, and their wives ravished. See, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who do not regard silver, and as for gold, they do not delight in it. And bows dash the young to pieces, and they have no compassion on the fruit of the womb, their eye spares no children. (Isa 13:16-18)

It is zeal for justice that put such harsh words into the writing of the prophet.

Prepare his children for slaughter, because of the crookedness of their fathers, lest they rise up and possess the land, and fill the face of the world with cities. And I shall rise up against them, declares Yehovah of hosts, and shall cut off from Babylon the name and remnant, and offspring and descendant, declares Yehovah. (Isa 14:21-22)

In conclusion, we see that Psa 137:9 was not the desire of the people for revenge, but prophecy waiting to be fulfilled when the proper time would come.

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