Volume 21, Number 4
Some will likely find the title of this WITNESS article to be a bit shocking. At first glance, it sort of shocks me too! I have never used Psalm 137:9 as a text for a sermon and probably never will. There are many easier texts for me to work on first. Today, with the frequency of terrorist acts in our world, and with many reports of child abuse — and with many people trying to evaluate such conduct — this title is not quite as alarming as it otherwise at first glance might seem to be.
The primary issue here is, “What does one do with the statements in the Bible that seem to be out of character with the overall message of Scripture!” Some would rush to the conclusion that statements about “dashing children against rocks” are adequate proof that not all of the Bible is reliable. It usually is not wise to rush too fast to any conclusion, and especially if that conclusion would cast a shadow of doubt on the infallibility of God’s Word. Here is where listening to a careful Bible interpreter, can be of help to give a proper understanding of some of the difficult passages. That is the intent of the article in the current issue of the WITNESS.
While David did not write the 137th Psalm must be remembered that David (writer of many of the Psalms) was known as a “man of war.” A common expression in Israel while David was advancing to the throne, was, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands.” Quite a few of his expressions reflect the thinking and experiences and images of a war effort. There is practically no limit to the barbaric and bloody actions that take place in the heat of battle and many of these events are described in vivid detail in the Old Testament. We are not always sure what the intended lessons are. There are some puzzles in the Bible which we have not put together completely.
What is crystal clear, however, is that New Testament Christians are called to a higher ethic. This passage in Psalms (Psalm 137:9) belongs to the period that Jesus referred to as, “it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But Jesus went beyond that kind of action in His New Testament revelation. He declared, “But say unto you, love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.” We recognize that the Old Testament does contain a lot of violence and warmaking, and the description of it is an accurate part of God’s written Word. What is crucial however is that we do not bypass what Jesus taught in the fuller and more complete revelation of the New Testament. We are Sermon-on-the-Mount” Christians.
Bro. Harold Martin is one expositor who isn’t scared of the tough passages, and his thoughtful approach is well-balanced and helpful. We still approach the Bible with the understanding, “Every word of God is pure” (Proverbs 30:5).
Dashing Infants Against Rocks
By Harold S. Martin
Psalm 137 is a deeply moving Psalm expressing love for Jerusalem and hate for her enemies. It was written either during the Babylonian Exile or immediately thereafter by one who knew the Exile from personal experience. The Psalmist expresses grief at the lonely and desolate condition of :he exiles in Babylon, indignation that they should be taunted and derided by their captors; and an earnest invocation to God that He would remember those wrongs alike in relation to Edom and Babylon, and treat those wrongdoers as they deserved.
Psalm 137:1 “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps. 3. For there our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” 4. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land! 5. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. 6. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. 7. Remember, O Lord. against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, “Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation.” 8. O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, how blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. 9. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.
What Christian has not felt a twinge of embarrassment over the savage sentiments expressed in some of these psalms! How can such antics be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus! How could anyone call a person “blessed” — who takes small children and dashes them against the rocks! How can all this be reconciled with belief in a God who loves and cares for the human family!
Psalm 137 is on the one hand a psalm filled with deep sorrow, and on the other hand, a psalm that seems to display an evil kind of revenge. It is almost surprising that the gentle sentiments of verses 1 and 2 are in the same psalm that contains the curses spelled out in verses 8 and 9. The purpose of this study is to give a balanced exposition of the Psalm.
Psalm 137 indicates an exilic or postexilic setting. That is, it was written sometime during or just after the inhabitants of Judah were carried into Babylon by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. A captive from Jerusalem is lamenting his own misfortune, and the desolation of his holy city, Jerusalem.
The first four verses bemoan the cruel taunts which the captured Israelites suffered from the heartless Babylonians. Verses 5 and 6 are a kind of vow to honor and pray for Jerusalem. The enemy Edom is the focal point of verse 7, and the vicious Babylonians are the object of verses 8 and 9. The “rivers of Babylon” are the Tigris and the Euphrates and the many irrigation canals which interlace the southern Mesopotamian plain.
Grief prompted the exiles to abandon their songs and harps (verse 2), but the unsympathetic captors demanded in a mocking way that the Jews entertain them with the songs of Zion (verse 3). At the center of the psalm are two verses of calling down evil upon the psalmist himself. The writer vows never to forget Jerusalem, nor to ever prefer any other city over it. The penalty he wishes on himself for such failure, is the loss of his right hand and the loss of the use of his tongue.
The last three verses of the Psalm are a curse on Edom and Babylon for the roles they played in the destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile for the Jewish people. The Edomites stood aloof on the day of Judah’s defeat (Obadiah 11). The divine wrath toward Babylon is frequently mentioned by the prophets (Isaiah 13:1,16; Jeremiah 51:37).
Many persons are bothered by the vengeful attitude displayed in the words of verse 9. They ask, “How can any man of God make such a wish on his enemies!”
Various psalms contain appeals to God to pour out His wrath upon enemies. This group of Psalms (for example, Psalm 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137) has been called “imprecatory,” meaning that they contain prayers for the destruction of the wicked. The writer desires the sudden destruction of enemies (Psalm 35:8), the breaking of their teeth (Psalm 58:6), and the massacre of their children (Psalm 137:8-9). The imprecatory psalms have presented difficulties in that it is hard to see how these psalms can be reconciled to New Testament teachings. There is seen in them spirit of revenge, a desire to see one’s enemy crushed in a way that contradicts the teachings of Jesus (for example, Matthew 5:43-48).
Some explain the seeming contradiction as expounded in an editorial in THE HERALD, the Northern Ohio Church of the Brethren District newsletter. The editorial says, “The Hebrews felt that God called them to kill everybody … but Jesus said, ‘You have heard of old an eye for an eye, but I say unto you.’ If we wish to know the real desires of God, we look to Christ. Either God has changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament, or else man’s concept of what God is trying to say has changed.” The editor (September, 1977) then goes on to say that he believes that man’s concept of what God is trying to say has changed, because God himself is changeless.
Many persons hold that the Bible is merely man’s concept of what God is trying to say — and in the New Testament, that concept is more near to the truth than were the erroneous concepts held by the Jews in Old Testament times. Thus not all parts of the Bible, for them, are equally true and inspired. But let us consider some factors that should help us better understand the kinds of statements found in Psalm 137:8-9.
(1) The curses are not upon those whom the psalmist personally dislikes.
We must remember David’s kindnesses to Saul (1 Samuel 26:5-9), and to his offspring, Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9:1,2,11). Also, David exercised great forbearance against his personal enemy (Shimei) who cursed and threw stones at him (2 Samuel 16:5,6,13 and 2 Samuel 19:18-23). And thus the psalms of David which have imprecatory statements (such as Psalm 58:6) do not necessarily express a curse upon those David personally dislikes. Just so, the psalmist in Psalm 137, is incensed against those who hate the Lord, he is not speaking sharply merely because there are those who hate him. Note how this explained clearly in Psalm 139:21-22.
(2) Some curses referred to what would be, not to what the writer wished would be.
The destruction of Babylon, for example, had been clearly foretold by Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isaiah 13:1,9,16 and Jeremiah 51:37-44). Eventually God must set things right , and this will involve judgment upon those who spurn His grace (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19). The victory of God will involve the crushing of evil (Revelation 19:11-21). The Psalmist did not utter this prayer (about dashing infants against the rocks) on every occasion, nor did he utter it about everybody. This is simply what would happen.
3) The curses mentioned in the psalms are in harmony with the New Testament teachings.
There are a number of New Testament statements that seem amazingly similar to the imprecatory psalms. In Matthew 18:6 we are told about offending little ones. It would be better, Jesus said, to have a millstone cast around one’s neck and be drowned in the sea, than to offend a little one. In Galatians 1:8-9 we are told that if one preaches any other gospel, let him be accursed. The Apostle James says, “Your gold and silver shall eat your flesh like fire” (James 5:3). And in 2 Peter 2:12 we read that false teachers, like brute animals, shall utterly perish in their own corruption.
Jesus himself made imprecatory statements (Matthew 23:32-36). The saints in heaven utter imprecatory prayers (Revelation 6:10). Both the Old Testament and the New Testament teach the duty to love:
Leviticus 19:17-18 — “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart . . . nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
1 John 4:7 — “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.”
Likewise, both the Old Testament and the New Testament tell about God’s hatred for violence:
Psalm 5:6 — “The Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man.”
Matthew 5:39 “But I say unto you that resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The central thrust of the Old Testament imprecatory Psalms is that God will take vengeance on the unbelieving. This is confirmed in the New Testament in places like 2 Thessalonians 1:6 and Mark 16:16.
It is a mistake to explain the imprecatory expressions in the Old Testament as degenerate and sub-Christian sentiments which have been permitted in the sacred canon because of “progressive revelation.” Progressive revelation is not to be thought of as a progress from error to truth, but rather as a progress from the partial and obscure to the complete and clear. It may be well to remember that we often happily pray for the second coming of Christ (“even so come quickly, Lord Jesus”), without stopping to think that we are actually praying for the events of 2 Thessalonians 1:8 to occur.
We believe that the message of the Bible is indeed the Word of God and not the product of the minds of mere human beings. Even difficult passages, such as the imprecatory Psalms, when understood in light of context and proper laws of Biblical interpretation, do not detract from the absolute trustworthiness of the Scriptures.