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.


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.)