Psalm 137: The Beautifully Dangerous Psalm

Psalm 137: The Beautifully Dangerous Psalm August 21, 2017

Psalm 137 is rarely ever used in worship. Why? Because it is a dangerous psalm.  But we need to read it, study it, and listen to the voice of anguished rage.  Because God is listening to those voices as well.

Psalm 137, part one

Have you ever listened to the song, “On the Willows”?

I remember the first time I heard this music from Godspell.  What a beautiful, mournful song, I thought to myself.  And I know I’ve heard those words before . . . “On the willows there we hung up our lyres.”  Such beautiful, haunting words.  Where have I heard them before?  And then it hit me – Psalm 137.  But I noticed that the song’s lyrics stopped short of the last verses of the Psalm:  “Happy will be the one who does to you what you did to us, O Babylon.  Blessed will be the one who dashes your little ones, your babies against the rock.”

What an awful image!

It’s hard to believe a Psalm like this is in the Bible.  It is so violent!  It speaks of killing babies, of all things.  This is a far cry from Jesus’ words of forgiving your enemies and those who persecute you.

This is raw, uncensored hatred and desire for revenge.  Most people don’t even realize this Psalm is in the Bible.  In fact, a previous version of the ELCA hymnal, The Lutheran Book of Worship, even censored out this psalm altogether from its collection.

Why?  Because it is a dangerous psalm – a beautifully dangerous psalm.

[Watch the video of this sermon:]

So why is Psalm 137 in the Bible?  What are we to do with a psalm like this?

The presence of this kind of violent and vengeful language is off-putting to many people.  Some may even claim that this kind of wording authorizes revenge and retaliation.  So we have to handle this psalm with care.  Used in the wrong way, it could serve as an excuse to continue the cycle of violence and result in further bloodshed.

But we must also be careful in our reading here.

Psalm 137, part two

The psalmist is not saying that we should go out and kill children and seek revenge.

Yes, it is expressing those thoughts and those wishes.  But it’s done as a prayer to God.  And that’s a very different thing than acting on those feelings and carrying them out.

Let’s be honest – “desire for retribution and violence are in fact part of the human condition.”  (Murphy, 43).  Think back to the vitriolic language that erupted after the attacks on our country on Sept. 11, over a 15 years ago.  I heard more than one person say, “We should just bomb the whole Middle East.  I don’t care if we kill their children – might as well get them before they grow up to be terrorists and attack us.  Let’s just bomb them back to the stone age!”

And . . . we have.  We may not be personally bashing babies’ heads in.  But our bombs and our guns have taken the lives of countless innocent children – so-called “collateral damage.”

Yes, these are difficult words to hear.

Here we are  worshiping in this beautiful church with our friends – we don’t like to talk about these things. We don’t like conflict, and we just want to get along and be good people.  So a psalm like this is embarrassing, even offensive to us.

Why? Because most of us have never “lost that much, been abused that much, or hoped that much,” (Brueggemann, p. 75).  It is so difficult for us to pray this psalm because we simply cannot identify with it.  So what are we to do with it?  Is there another approach to this beautifully dangerous psalm? Yes!

Here’s what we must do:  We must listen to the voices of Psalm 137.

We must hear the agony and even the expression of the desire for sinful violence.  And we must listen to Psalm 137 precisely because it is said in the context of prayer.  “These expressions of rage exemplify the demonic in every human heart. . . When they are heard in prayer, they serve to illuminate our own feelings and even to accuse us of our own acts of vengeance.”  (Murphy, 46).

We live in a world marked by violence and revenge – wouldn’t it be prudent to put those feelings into a context of prayer instead of acting on them?

Wouldn’t it be wise to invite God into these feelings?

That’s just what the psalmist does here.  You see, we have to understand the specific historical event that this psalm makes reference to.  This psalm reveals the sufferings and sentiments of people who experienced first-hand the terrible days of the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. This was their September 11.  Their temple was destroyed – the very center of their faith.

And, like the Africans who were brought to this country against their will, the Hebrews were forced into the Babylonian captivity. They were taken far from Jerusalem and subjugated as slaves of the Babylonians.  Even worse, they watched their conquerors kill their children.  “Adults might be spared to serve various purposes for the conquerors, but the infants were killed to end the community’s future.” (Eaton, 455).

Psalm 137 is a psalm for this moment.

Because these words from the Bible help us understand why African Americans are so upset to see monuments to their enslavers. It reinforces the humiliation they suffered and reminds them of their enslavement. And this resurgence of Nazis reminds Jews of the threats of annihilation they have faced throughout history. It’s why so many people are standing against the KKK and Nazi rallies around the country.  Because white nationalists want to repeat the horrors that led to the expression of these words in Psalm 137.

When the Israelites were captives in Babylon, they experienced profound homesickness, grief, depression, and despondency.  This scene from the psalm describes the Hebrew musicians sitting by one of the rivers in this hated land.  Their captors come along, taunting them, ordering them to sing happy songs about Zion.  What an ignorant, arrogant insult.  Of course they cannot sing happy songs about Zion in this foreign land.  The holy songs cannot be sung on ground not dedicated to the Lord. To do so would be sacrilegious and bitterly ironic.

So they hung up their instruments in protest.

psalm 137, we hung up our harps

This kind of thing actually happened in the Nazi death camps, where Jews were forced to sing and dance their music and songs while the soldiers mocked them and laughed at them.  “It was a part of the humiliation intending to rob Jews of their identity, their dignity, and their hope,” (Brueggemann, p. 75).

Never forget.

The psalmist then makes a personal vow not to forget Jerusalem.  To never forget the Temple that has been leveled, the city that has been burned, the king and leaders and musicians and teachers who have been led away to captivity in Babylon.  And then with a fury that nearly explodes from the page, he wishes for someone to exact revenge on the Edomites who plundered Jerusalem after the Israelites were gone, and upon the Babylonians who so mercilessly killed their children.

We can only look upon these feelings with either stunned horror or detached numbness.

Because unless you have lived through something similar, I don’t think any of us have ever experienced this kind of suffering. In fact, we want to keep that kind of suffering far away.  We don’t want to hear about the history of slavery and Jim Crow. We don’t want to hear about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. It’s so much easier to forget the ugly history of what Europeans did to the native peoples of North America. We don’t want to deal with the woman who has been brutally raped.

We cannot bear such suffering.

So we avert our eyes, shush their voices, blame them for what happened, or even deny that it ever happened in the first place.  And sometimes we express outrage that such intensity of pain and desire for revenge is even voiced, much less in the Bible.  Some people are probably upset that we are even talking about this in church.

I can tell you that there are pastors across the country who have been working diligently and faithfully to figure out how to preach during this difficult time.  And some of them will get negative push-back for talking about these realities. “Can’t we have just one hour in the week when we don’t have to think about these things?”

But Old Testament historian Walter Brueggemann suggests that it is absolutely necessary to listen to this Psalm.  Because it speaks with unfailing honesty about the abuse that was done, and is still done, to individuals and to whole groups of people.  And it is necessary for us to hear how it feels to suffer this kind of violence and humiliation.  We want to move so quickly from this Psalm to Jesus’ words telling us to forgive.  But, as Brueggemann asks, “Could it be that genuine forgiveness is possible only when there has been a genuine articulation of [anger] and hatred?” (Brueggemann, 77).

How to help them heal

We need to recognize that healing is not just something we long for in our own bodies and in our personal relationships. Healing is something that is needed by our brothers and sisters around the world who have experienced the most humiliating kind of brutality.  By listening to their words, hearing their stories, believing them, and holding those powerful, violent emotions as best we can, we are at least acknowledging that, yes, this has happened.  It’s not fair, it’s not right, and your pain is worthy of healing.

Psalm 137 gives permission, and actually authorizes the powerless who have been brutalized to vent their indignation and turn to God for justice.  “It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.” (Brueggemann, 77).  And that is, finally, where we must direct our prayers.

Emmanuel – God with us


I invite you to come forward to this table of candles as we sing the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Yes, this is an Advent hymn, but it is so appropriate for those who are mourning in lonely exile, as the Israelites did, as the slaves did, as the Native Americans did, as so many refugees do across this planet, and as so many suffer in our world today.  This hymn asks for God’s presence. That’s what Emmanuel means – “God with us.”  And we can certainly all agree that we need God’s presence with us in our nation, in our world.

Maybe you’ll light a candle as a symbol for your own need for healing.  Or maybe you will see the candles and remember that someone is burning with pain and rage which needs to be seen and heard and healed.  Maybe you are even feeling anger yourself right now. And that’s okay. Give that anger to God, and let God transform it.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – God is with us.  Amen.

Leah D. Schade

Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).

You can follow Leah on Twitter at @LeahSchade, and on Facebook at

For more on preaching about Charlottesville, racism, and white privilege:

9 Reasons You Need to Preach about Charlottesville

How to Preach When You are Afraid

8 Ways to Preach about Charlottesville, White Supremacy, and Racial Justice

The Harp Sermon: A Response to Charlottesville and Racial Hatred

* Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms:  A Theological Commentary, Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
* Eaton, John, The Psalms:  A Historical and Spiritual Commentary withe and Introduction and New Translation, Continuum, New York, 2005.
* Murphy, Roland E., The Psalms, Job, from Proclamation Commentaries, Foster McCurley, Editor; Fortress Press, Philadelphia,1977.

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  • Ps. 137, the vow to not forget Jerusalem and to not put it anove one’s joy, is one reason for the glass stomping ceremony at Jewish weddings.

    I saw the expression of what this psalm describes on Twitter a number of months back, when a Kurd I follow mentioned violent resistance to Turkey.

    • danbloom

      Kevin, I didn’t know this about the wedding custom’s origins. Wow. Amazing. Thanks for your comment here. I say this: we are one people, one race, the human race, many colored many hued many freckled many smiles, one Earth, one life to live, make it count.

    • This is one reason I appreciate the comments section on blogs. I learned something new today. Thank you for sharing that!

  • danbloom

    Brilliant sermon, brilliant words and wisdom. As a deeply, madly, lovingly Jewish gadfly …age 70…I salute you. We must all stand up to hatred. Hatred dehumanizes our humanity. We thought in our innocence that Hitler was dead. Hitler is not dead. The evil lives in the alt-right.

    • I am honored by your words. And, yes, we must realize that the forces that made Hitler possible are very much alive. It will take all good people of all skin colors, genders, ages, incomes, religions, cultures, etc., to stand in solidarity against this resurgence of evil. Thank you for your comment!

  • Katherine Harms

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a better explanation–the sovereignty of God. The Bible isn’t all about you and me. It is all about God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–who is sovereign. He has the right to dash babies against rocks, because He is God. We have no right to judge his perfect sovereignty. We pray the prayer as Jesus prayed it, the One who died fir all and the One who knows Evil intimately. Who knows it better? This psalm is His prayer, not mine.

    • John Purssey

      It is an expression of a distraught people to God. That is understandable.

      It is not God’s prayer. Nor is it like the “Our Father” prayer which says “Forgive our sins in just the same way as we forgive the sins of others.”

    • Ivlia Blackburn

      Ummmmm, I thought the psalms were songs or canticles. In fact one translation of the Bible I have refers to them as the songs of David. And certainly they are sung over the course of a week, each week, in my church.

    • Katherine – While I appreciate your engagement of this post, your response is troubling to me. It would be helpful if you could share what work of Bonhoeffer you are referring to in order to make your case. Because what I found from Bonhoeffer is this:

      “Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found. Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him. Thus the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all men in Jesus Christ…. I leave the vengeance to God and ask him to execute his righteousness to all his enemies, knowing that God has remained in his wrathful judgment on the cross, and that this wrath has become grace and joy for us. Jesus Christ himself requests the execution of the wrath of God on his body, and thus he leads me back daily to the gravity and the grace of his cross for me and all enemies of God. Even today I can believe the love of God and forgive my enemies only by going back to the cross of Christ, to the carrying out of the wrath of God. The cross of Jesus is valid for all men. Whoever opposes him, whoever corrupts the word of the cross of Jesus on which God’s wrath must be executed, must bear the curse of God some time or another. The New Testament speaks with great clarity concerning this and does not distinguish itself at all in this respect from the Old Testament, but it also speaks of the joy of the church in that day on which God will execute his final judgment (Galatians L8f; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 18; 19; 20:11). In this way the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1974, pp. 58 – 60).

      With that in mind, your statement is even more troubling. I cannot imagine Bonhoeffer, who did everything within his power to make sure babies heads weren’t dashed against rocks (when Nazi-influenced Christianity said such actions against Jews were authorized by God), would support what you are saying here.

      Also, to make the claim that the Bible is all about God, and that we are not to question God’s sovereignty seems to be influenced by a twisted version of Barthian theology. Karl Barth argued for the absolute sovereignty of God, but did so in the context of the Third Reich which claimed absolute sovereignty. The Confessing Church proclaims God’s sovereignty over, against and above the tyrannical, brutal sovereignty of human powers. We get into dangerous territory when we utter a theology that justifies babies heads being bashed because God supposedly wants it so.

      Thus I must repudiate your comment as antithetical to the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the sovereign God who desires mercy, and the Holy Spirit that seeks peace and healing, even in the midst of human sin and brokenness.

  • Dan Hunter

    You are taking the baby killing out of context. The full verse is talking about destroying the Edomites (tribe of Essau) who the tribe Judah wanted revenge on. The baby killing was not just empty words either. When the Jews were allowed to return the first thing they did was attack the Edomites, even killing the children. It was what we would call ethnic cleansing or racist genocide today.The Edomite Kingdom was on the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah. A more modern name for the people is Idumeans, which is what the Greeks and Romans called them.
    Yes Psalm 137 is a very dangerous Psalm
    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.

  • John Purssey

    Face it. Some things in the Bible are just not Christian.

    • Chari McCauley

      Nor were they meant to be. We must see the ugly that our Creators (Genesis 1:26) are trying to change, trying to save us from. The whole Family, including the Angels got involved to try to change us.

      • Chari McCauley

        I mean we were willing to abuse and kill Father’s Son.

        • Chari McCauley

          Sorry about however I ended up adding an upvote. Discus is like auto-correct on a phone. It doesn’t always do what you intended. Like, if you are going to correct your mistakes, do it within one or two edits. Check to see who responded, and you could end up pushing the wrong thing.

          My intention is always to get people to see people. We all have to figure this out, because “hocus-pocus” really does not exist.

      • John Purssey

        That is fair enough if you are bringing a different theology to interpret the Psalm. But it is not the theology of the Psalm. There is no indication in the Psalm that the emotions of vengeance are wrong, and there are many today who would use that to justify vengeance (ignoring that vengeance belongs to God because heck, like in Jonah, God might be merciful).

        It is fair enough to say that the Psalmist, or the editors who included the Psalm in the Jewish Writings, were proposing something that is at odds with much of the OT, and certainly with what Jesus’ message is according to the canonical gospels.

        • Chari McCauley

          Our form of vengence is often blind, and many innocent people get hurt, in our processes. We make a lot of decisions on our own, without Father’s counsel, but are quick to blame Him when “our” plans go wrong.

  • Ivlia Blackburn

    This psalm is sung every Wednesday at vespers in my church, just as it was nearly 2 centuries ago. Also, this psalm was popularised as a song, forget the name of the group off hand, By the Rivers of Babylon. One of very few pop songs that I enjoy. I know my husband still has it on a couple of top hits CDs so it can’t be that dangerous. More like it is a wish, a hope, a thought for vengeance rather than an actual desire, although I gather from these comments that the Jews did actually act on their thoughts. No comment on that, but the psalms in general and in their entirety are beautiful. I listen to (and sing) them all each week, every week, as we read and sing them all.

  • John Gills

    I recommend Stephen Benét’s short story “By the Waters of Babylon” which is particularly powerful since it was written in 1937.

    • Thanks for sharing that – I will look for that short story.