Dashing Children Against The Rocks: How To Pray The Most Violent Psalm
The psalms are full of inspiration. They offer rich praise and adoration to God, and take the reader through a range of human emotions and experiences. They've provided much material for contemporary Christian worship music, but when was the last time you sang in church: "Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks!" (Psalm 137:9)
They are hard words to hear, let alone sing or pray to. Some would consider the sentiment behind them to be un-Christian. So what are we to make of it?
In Wrestling with the Word: Preaching tricky texts (SPCK, £12.99), writer John Bell asks that very question. Bell suggests that we need to not only understand the original context of the passage, but must "surrender our naive presumption that reading or praying the psalms should be a subjective, pleasurable endeavour".
The first point to note is the intense environment and circumstances that formed this psalm. In 587 BC the city of Jerusalem was destroyed, bringing catastrophe to the Jewish people and forcing them into Babylonian captivity. The Jewish people were "forcibly expatriated and demeaned." Their home, their way of life, and many of their loved ones would have been lost. We catch this deep sense of mourning in the famous verses that come earlier in this psalm:
"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
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." (Psalm 137:1-6)
It is then, after the lament for what has been lost, that the anger and desire for vengeance come:
"Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks." (Psalm 137:8-9)
The cry of this psalm is not one of casual contentment, with an assured sense that God is good and all shall be well. Those who first cried this psalm have experience true horror and loss, and likely wondered if God had indeed abandoned them.
As Bell writes: "The psalms record where people have been who have suffered from severe depression, from slander, from the predatory desires of powerful tyrants, from illness and from fear of death. They are windows through which we are given a glimpse of experiences that, pray God, we may never have to endure."
We may want comforting, feel-good praise, and of course the Bible is full of profound comfort and consolation, but sometimes it gives us raw pain too, and anger directed at the kind of loss that privileged westerners likely never have to face. Intense persecution and cruelty against innocents is still commonplace across the world, and this psalm helps us identify with the pain that they experience.
Bell writes: "When we read or pray these words – "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them agaisnt the rock! – we are given an insight into what those people feel like in Iraq, Syria, northern Nigeria and other places where women have seen their husbands and sons shot and their daughters brutalized."
It is also important to note that the terrible violence incited by this psalm is not endorsed by God, and the psalmist does not seek God's permission to carry it out. Vengeance and justice belong ultimately to God, to say nothing of Jesus' radical teaching about forgiveness and self-sacrifice. This verse is not the Bible's last word on violence, and in Jesus we see God's answer to sin, pain, and injustice – he takes it on himself rather than seeking simple revenge, and calls us to do the same. Nonetheless, at the heart of this psalm, though violently expressed, is a longing for injustice to be dealt with, and for peace to reign. Such a sentiment is surely one that we can all identify with.
Bell writes: "This psalm questions our prayer life; it invites us to be totally honest with God. It invites us to say what we want to happen if iniquity is to be redeemed through justice." It isn't a nice or easy psalm, but it is an honest one, one that wrestles with the reality of pain in a broken world, and longs for the justice of God.