Does this Scripture Verse Trouble You?

Dr. Mark D. Roberts recently wrote about Psalm 137:9, a verse which he said makes us most uncomfortable:

The verse is “He shall seize and shall dash your children on the rock!” and of it, Robert’s writes:

How can any part of Scripture seem to celebrate the killing of babies? How in the world are we to make sense of this verse? How can we read it, not to mention pray it, as Christians? Didn’t Jesus call us to love our enemies and forgive them, not smash their babies against the rocks? How are we supposed to answer the opponent of Christianity who throws Psalm 137:9 in our faces?

In his devotional, Roberts lists five ways for the verse to be looked, covering the realities of the Babylonian exile and what may have been experienced at their hands, the human sense for revenge-as-justice and the applicable lessons of grace, and Christ working through us.

Maybe it’s because I am a Catholic with an abundance of rowdy ethnic residue, I have never once been made uncomfortable about that verse. Quite the opposite, the entire psalm brings me enormous consolation, each time I read it, because–as with the entire psalter–this psalm affirms both the brokenness of the human condition, and our commonality with our ancient kin, who reach out to us through centuries to communicate to us (and for us) the deepest longings and darkest instincts of the human heart. Our heads are practically snapped back with the slap of recognition they deliver, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know that they know who we are, that they knew us 4,000 years ago, because they were us; their promptings help us admit to God and to ourselves, “yes, I am that broken; I am capable of so fiery a rage as to think such thoughts, even for the merest millisecond; I can entertain brief moments where drawing blood or wrecking a vengeful havoc sounds perfectly fine, to me; I have borne poisonous hate that has only turned itself on me, in the end.”

The psalms give us wise instruction, but they also help us to understand our brokenness and our dependence upon the grace of God, the Lord of Ancient Days who loved us then as he loves us now, in confounding mystery and faithfulness; in our myriad sins and savageries, whether we wish to acknowledge them, or pretend to have evolved from them; in our inevitable challenges and our great joys, where–too often–we forget to acknowledge God’s gifts, or to feel the gratitude.

It is enormously consoling to read the vile, all-too-human sentiments of a put-down, put-upon poet who dared to write for posterity the gasp-inducing expression of rage processed through searing pain–perhaps felt for the briefest of instants, but too powerful to remain unexpressed–and to safely leave it in the bottomless, safe and tender Heart of God.

Wise, wise instruction from the psalms, our perfect partner-in-prayer.

Crossposted at Patheos.com

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate; she is a contributing writer to First Things, where she blogs as The Anchoress.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • newton

    This verse was “thrown out” to me during a Spanish Lit class in high school.

    When my teacher did so, she asked us, “Can you imagine seeing a verse like that in the Bible? Because it’s there. Can you see someone desiring that kind of revenge against another in the Psalms? Can you see beyond that figure of speech and take it so literally, to possess your very bones?”

    We were all silent: we didn’t know what to say. After all, we were all fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. And mind you, she wasn’t some hardened atheist: she was a hard-line Puerto Rican Pentecostal – her appearance and dress looked much older than her actual age. She looked older in her fifties than my then-seventy-five-year-old grandmother. Yet she brought that point to us. Could we see beyond the figure of speech? Many of us did not, or didn’t care.

    It was not until a few years later that I actually read that entire psalm, and then understood the attachment the Jewish people have for their land and Zion – and the inner desire for “Karma” to hit their enemies hard. I ended up reading it before an honors seminar in Global Affairs, for other students to understand why the Arab-Israeli conflict will never be solved by human means. It probably reached the deafest ears I’ve ever encountered, and just one who knew – and she cut me short of ending. Sadly, she was our Professor, an Ursuline nun with plenty of connections at the UN – one who should have known better, perhaps.

    My Pentecostal, rag-tag Spanish teacher was right.

  • tim maguire

    What are we to make of this passage?

    The nuns in school answered, “Jesus Christ.” Christ through his sacrifice and salvation changed the temper of God from “an eye for an eye” to “turn the other cheek.

  • shirley elizabeth

    The way I read the Old Testament (and Christ’s parables and etc.), I find the symbolism in it and relate it to me today (otherwise, there is no point in reading it). The children referred to in the verse are the children of the daughter of Babylon. Babylon is referred to throughout the scriptures as a representation of The World, or, those that follow the way of the world, the natural man, and not the ways of God. What that scripture says to me is that those that kill the children of Babylon (whether through changing themselves, through helping others find the gospel) will find happiness in it. One way I dash the children of Babylon on the rocks is by rejecting the ideas of the world. I am not allowing Babylon to enter my house or my life.

  • Mimsy

    So, is this what they mean by “getting one’s Irish up”? Then I suppose there is a bit o’ Irish/Israelite in all of us.

  • newguy40

    The historical context is critical as was noted.

    Also, we don’t know if God fulfilled the psalmists request for revenge. We only know that the request was made.

    I often get the “how could YOUR God condone XXXX if he is a loving God”?
    Do others know from the Psalm and Proverbs, “Fear of God is the begining of wisdom”? As is made very clear in the Old Testament, the Israelites often paid a heavy price for disobediance of God. However, what is equally important is that when they repented and made recompense for their sins, that God forgave them everytime. And, richly rewarded them. For me, this is worth remembering. “The ways of the Lord are righteous and true altogether.”

    What we are suffering from is relativism and subjectivism in our schools and lack of good catechesis.

  • Charles R. Williams

    God wants us to pray the psalms. The contents of the psalms do not necessarily correspond to our feelings as we pray them. The feelings expressed in the psalms are sometimes feelings that a Christian ought not to share. As Christians we know that the victory over evil is won, that mercy and justice are reconciled through the cross.

    As we read this psalm we empathize with the Jews exiled in Babylon and all that they suffered at the hands of their captors. They cry out for justice and release. They resolve never to abandon hope to recover what they have lost. We also know that God permitted this for reasons we partly understand.

    We too are in a Babylonian captivity to sin self-indulgence and long passionately for the release that we already have obtained from our Savior. We too resolve never to forget the heavenly Jerusalem which is our true home no matter how discouraged we become. We too lash out in bitterness against the demons who would enslave us.

  • Joe

    Let’s see. God killed the first borns of the Egyptians. He commanded the Israelites to wipe out people. He killed the entire earth at the Flood!… While the Psalms trouble me as well, I think the bigger problem is God troubles me. I love your writing, but this whitewash is hardly convincing. I’d love to know what commentators make of it. I think we are to determined to make God ‘nice’. If he were ‘nice,’ he’d eliminate suffering. But it just isn’t so.

  • kmk

    To eliminate suffering, He would have to make us robots! :)

    My 16 month old son was troubled by the doctors who performed a minor operation on him the other day–the anesthesia mask was the worst–he couldn’t possibly see it all in context. Those gentle doctors were very troubling to him! :)

    We are so small and weak with no possible way to completely understand, so Christ made himself so small and weak so we would not be afraid. That fact changes everything–he fled Herod killing the babies–children seized and dashed on the rocks, indeed. God lived a life of poverty and suffering, was mocked, trampled, spat upon, punched, beaten, scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed to a tree and raised up in the scorching heat to die naked in front of his Blessed Mother. The psalmist–how low was his face to the ground in prostration if he “saw” this happening from his probably purgatorial vantagepoint–the context of his verse turned completely on end?

    Those firstborns of Egypt, etc–I know that the greatest tragedy and sorrow is death, but didn’t Christ change all of that? Were all of those killed so terrifyingly in the Bible consigned to Hell, or did they meet our Savior during the days of his confinement to the tomb and have the opportunity to choose to love him in all eternity? The Church keeps a list of saints, not those consigned to Hell. That paradox: death is the worst thing, but is it? Does death and suffering sometimes save us from worse temptation? Is it worth it all to have been born in the first place?

  • Jeff

    wow this is depressing

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    The Verse in Scripture that Makes Us Most Uncomfortable

    Well, of course, we encounter here a fundamental and overwhelming error from the outset, that is, the idea that we should ever read any verse in isolation. To be sure, that is often the quickest way to misread, misinterpret, and misunderstand scripture, to take out one verse and read it undetached from the rest.

    Moreover, just as one cannot read a given passage in isolation, if one wishes to understand, one also cannot arbitrarily adopt the plain meaning of the text. Rather, one must read it:
    (a) in context, including in the context of the whole passage, the whole Bible, especially the New Testament, and that Divine Revelation handed down to us by Sacred Tradition, as well as the context of human history and literary and pedagogical methods, and
    (b) in a manner consistent with the truth of God, in the light of the fullness of Revelation, the Logos, Jesus Christ, who is Love and Truth Incarnate, and consistent with the purposes of revelation.

    Scripture is intended to lead us toward truth, but it can sometimes actually be an obstacle to understanding of truth and can mislead if an overly-literal and fundamentalist approach is taken. This is especially a concern with respect to reading certain portions of the Old Testament, where the text seems to be inconsistent with Love and Truth.

    So what of Psalm 137 and the verse at issue?

    (continued in part two)

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    Part two –

    So what of Psalm 137 and the verse at issue?

    Verse 9 itself is actually a continuation of Verse 8, “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us. Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” As has been pointed out, the speaker here is not God, but is supposed to be one of those being held during the Babylonian Captivity.

    What did the Psalmist, the human author, wish to convey here? And what does the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing, wish to reveal here? Is there only one meaning, or multiple meanings on multiple levels? Is it merely a historical report of a captive voicing his frustrations? Is that what the Holy Spirit wants us to take away from this, a mere historical curiosity? Or is there something more, something bigger, something that might apply to each of us, and not merely some guy crying on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers 2500 years ago?

    To get at the big and essential question of what was intended (which is the primary question, see Dei Verbum 12), we have to consider just exactly how literally we are supposed to take the passage. Did the writer intend for us to understand that the speaker actually wants to smash babies?

    Well, let’s consider what is said a few verses earlier — “5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! 6 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”

    Should we read that passage as the speaker desiring that his hand actually wither if he forgets his homeland? Or that his tongue be literally glued to the roof of his mouth?

    Maybe. But much more likely, the speaker is engaging in hyperbole and metaphor.

    And having used fairly obvious hyperbole and metaphor here, is it likely that the speaker suddenly switched to a totally literal meaning in the immediately following verses, or is it more likely that it is a continuation of the same literary devices of hyperbole and metaphor? If we consider that verses 8-9 are, on their face, harsh and violent and contrary to the Love and Truth of Jesus Christ, and remembering that we must read scripture in the light of Christ, the better interpretation and understanding of verses 8-9 is that the speaker is not speaking literally, but figuratively.

    This is especially true when we further remember that, although the Psalmist has put the words in the mouth of a Babylonian captive, being Revelation, it is actually God who is communicating to us here. That same God who, beyond Jesus Christ, repeatedly says in the Old Testament that He does not delight in death.

    OK, so if we seek to find a deeper meaning that the superficial plain text, what might we find? Is the speaker engaging in only hyperbole and metaphor with respect to his immediate situation, the Babylonian Captivity, or is there a broader meaning here, something that might be relevant for the entirety of Salvation History? Perhaps even something eschatological?

    One thing jumps out fairly quickly, and that is the word “rock.” In Christian understanding, what does “rock” mean? Well, it has a few meanings, but each related to the other. The “rock” is Christ, and it is the Church (represented by Peter, the Rock), and it is Truth (which is Christ again).

    So, what might we wish to see smashed against the Rock that is Christ/Truth/the Church?

    Evil. And it has long been understood that references to “Babylon” are references to the greatest enemy of man, i.e. evil, which has indeed done horrible things to us, in this our worldly exile. And the word “child” is often used to refer to the future. Thus, a child of Babylon might refer to future evil.

    Seen in this way, verses 8-9 show themselves to be about being happy at the ultimate destruction of evil by Christ and His Church. Thus, we see that Psalm 137 is more than a mere report of an expression of frustration and rage. Much more. Although veiled, Jesus Christ is revealed again and again in the Old Testament. Here too is a revelation of Christ. (In his sermon on Psalm 137, St. Augustine expands on this understanding.)

  • http://www.peadarban.wordpress.com Peter Gallaher

    I think CS Lewis put it very well…for those among us who have problems with God…that God is a lion. “He is not a tame one, but He is good.”

    The verse is neither depressing nor frightening. It is true; perhaps in a different and deeper way for us today than it may have been true for an Israelite asked to sing for his captors, but true nonetheless.

    How about a verse that talks about passing by the wicked man in the morning, seeing him prosper and coming by in the evening and seeing him gone..blown away like grass which springs up in the morning and by evening it is gone?

    Not as dramatic or violent, but something to ponder. God is, besides being a lion, a fierce and desiccating desert storm.

    But, only if you need to be dashed against a stone or blown away. Right?

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  • oblate annie

    In numerous places in the Catholic literature I have seen this verse parsed as meaning to dash things against The Rock, Christ. But then those versions don’t deal with the entire psalm as is, they are the Catholic version of proof-texting, which you see often, refer please to the footnotes in the Douay Bible which relate everything in the OT to Christ, whether we moderns would think it appropriate or not. There is an example in Imitation of Christ and another I believe in The Soul of the Apostolate. And I think there is a third in the writings of St. Francis de Sales.

  • mark of brighton

    Fair number of Psalms are psalms of lament, complaint. Many within the faith seem embarrassed by the tone of these Psalms, but I find them comforting.

    They are part of Scripture, 2 Timothy 13:16. God put them there for a reason. I think the reason is that life is hard, there are times we wonder about what is going on and I think they do give us a pattern to follow.

    The writer of the Psalm begins by calling on the Name of God. They then lay out a complaint. There is a frank recognition of the fact and they give a pattern to follow.

    The are calling God on the carpet. God has made promises. The believer wonders if God is living up to those promises. God is wise, loving and sovereign and yet the psalmist is confronted with enemies, sickness, and worries. God is in control of the world and yet the world is nuts and evil is rampant

    The psalmist accuses God of not doing His job. I think the psalmist is venting which is psychologically helpful. He is also dumping it in God’s Lap. While the call about the child is difficult I think he, as a believer, is consigning the matter to God. I think the believer finds a releases in this. Vengence is mine, says the Lord. The believer leaves it to God.

    I also think there is a reaffirmation of faith, the believer reaffirms their faith in God and His promises.

    Psalm ends with praise of God, a renewal of faith that God is in charge, is wise, loving and sovereign and is faithful.

    Why does God allow all of this? There is a difference between what we will know in heaven and what we know down here. Down here, we only know what Scripture says and the ultimate of what we know is the Cross. For myself, I wonder if some of what happens down here is to causes us to turn to God in faith. Jeremiah 31:18, “Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the LORD my God.” KJV This is the comfort, that God love us and is merciful. While God does allow evil, He has also born the ultimate penalty of our evil that He might extend us mercy in Christ.

  • Warren

    As it happens, this was the psalm read at my parents’ funeral, just over a year ago — the psalm was not chosen at random; my parents were murdered.

    While I’m not particularly into baby-dashing, I take the last verse in a couple of ways: that justice will be done, and that even things I can only see as horrible from where I am will be happy-making when, joined with God, we have His view and understanding of everything.

  • Mark the Zeolot

    The Orthodox Fathers interpreted this verse as a call to repentance. The “children” are our sins that proceed from us and that we are as attached to as our own babies. We must kill these sins, yes by even smashing them against rocks.

    Sometimes it’s helpful to look to Holy Tradition to help interpret these difficult passages!

    [This relates to St. Benedict instructing his monasteries to "dash their temptations" in just such a way -admin]

  • Mark the Zeolot

    Thanks for the helpful addendum to the comment.

    The Orthodox sing this Psalm at the start of Great Lent. It is a call to repent and return to our true home.

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    We must kill these sins, yes by even smashing them against rocks.

    Looks like many of us (here) are on the same page, or at least in the same neighborhood.

    Here is the link to St. Augustine’s Exposition on Psalm 137, which I referenced above.

    St. Ambrose wrote on it as well in On Repentence, Book II, Chap. XI, para. 101-06
    106. And David, pitying her, says: “O wretched daughter of Babylon.” Wretched indeed, as being the daughter of Babylon, when she ceased to be the daughter of Jerusalem. And yet he calls for a healer for her, and says: “Blessed is he who shall take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” That is to say, shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ, Who by His fear and His rebuke will break down all motions against reason, so as, if any one is seized by an adulterous love, to extinguish the fire, that he may by his zeal put away the love of a harlot, and deny himself that he may gain Christ.

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  • Peggy

    I was fortunate in that I didn’t struggle with this verse when I first came across it. But I will never forget the impact of the moment that I came to an understanding of it.

    It hit me like a ton of bricks. The person who wrote it had seen Jewish babies killed that way. Maybe their own.

    Then it became the most natural and honest thing in the world to cast that rage into a prayer, a no holds barred communication between that person and their God.

    This verse then becomes a testament of a relationship that can survive anything in which no expression of pain or any other negative emotion is off limits or improper. Its a testament to a God who can handle it.


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