05 December 2013

Smashing little ones against stones: Putting Psalm 137:9 in context

I'm often accused of taking things out of context. And sometimes, I suppose, I'm guilty of that. But generally if I fail to adequately consider the context of a biblical text, the context makes a seemingly bad passage even worse. Psalm 137:9 is a good example.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. Psalm 137:9
Now, at first sight this verse seems bad enough. How could parents be happy while smashing their children against stones? 

But that's not what this verse is about. It's about other "happy" people who will smash Babylonian children. The happy children smashers will be sent by God to "reward" the Babylonians for "serving" (enslaving) the Israelites during the Babylonian captivity, as is made clear by the preceding verse.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Psalm 137:8
This is more easily seen in other translations. Here, for example, is this passage in the English Standard Version:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! Psalm 137:8-9 (ESV)
The baby smashers are not only "happy" they are "blessed" -- blessed by God for doing his dirty work for him.

Here is how Matthew Henry explains it in his "Pulpit Commentary" on Psalm 137:9:
Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us; i.e. happy shall he be that completes thy destruction, and the destruction of thy people. He will be the instrument for carrying out God's vengeance.
The happy and blessed children smashers are God's instruments for carrying out his vengeance.

Context almost always makes the Bible worse.

6 comments:

NewAtheistNation said...

Thanks for the excellent commentary, Steve. When I need a passage that couldn't possibly have been written by an almighty, all-forgiving god, this is the ghastly passage I use.

Yark Hutprancer said...

The bible was written by people who hated others and themselves. Respecting it is respecting a product of mental illness.

Laura Osborne said...

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killer3596 said...

One of Albert Fish's favorite verses. He once eluded to it as a justification for his crimes.
Source - "Deranged" by Harold Schechter

Philip said...

Psalm 137 is interesting because if you consider it apart from any divine inspiration or such, it's a very moving poem. It probably captures genuine feelings of captives led away from their home after a siege and sack of a city, where babies dashed against stones is something that might actually happen. In that sense verse 9 is just an expression of the sorrow and anger the exiles feel as they're led away from their home.

(This has little to do with the religious use of the psalm, but some parts of the Bible are quite good as literature.)

Ralph Westfall said...

Psalm 137 is in the context of the preceding history of imperial conquests. Assyria captured the northern kingdom of Israel. Then Babylon took over Assyria and Judea, with the aid of the Medes and Persians. The latter subsequently took over Babylon. The Jews in Babylon were probably able to see that coming, so it might be a stretch to view what they said in this psalm as a great prophecy.

Note that in Psalm 137 through verse 6, the subjective pronouns are all in the first person, singular or plural except in the line quoting the Babylonians. After the 6th verse there is a very clear transition, with the subjective pronouns all in the third person as marked below. And note how verse 7 initiates the transition by mentioning the Edomites cheering the Babylonians on as they captured Judea, with the brutal savagery of military conquests in that age implicitly in the background.

1 By the rivers of Babylon *we* sat and wept
when *we* remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
*we* hung *our* harps,
3 for there *our* captors asked *us* for songs,
*our* tormentors demanded songs of joy;
**they** said, “Sing **us** one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can *we* sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If *I* forget *you*, Jerusalem,
may *my* right hand forget its skill.
6 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.

7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear **it** down,” **they** cried,
“tear **it** down to **its** foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is **the one** who repays **you**
according to what **you** have done to *us*.
9 Happy is **the one** who seizes **your** infants
and dashes **them** against the rocks.

There is absolutely no indication in the passage that the author thought the exiles would be dashing infants, or was encouraging any of them to do so. He was just saying, "What goes around, comes around." Others have interpreted this passage that way also:

"God is not commanding such barbaric behavior but stating what the future will be for Babylon."
Let Us Reason Ministries

"These prophetic declarations contain no excitement to any person or persons to commit acts of cruelty and barbarity; but are simply declarative of what would take place"
"These excesses were common in all barbarous nations, and are only prophetically declared here."
Adam Clarke Commentary

"This seems to be a horrible example of the truth that what we sow, we reap. The historian, Prideaux, tells us that when Babylon came under siege that the women and children were killed in order that more food would be preserved for the military defenders of the city."
Free Bible Commentary