[This is a repost of an old piece from my previous blog by Andy Schueler – I would love him to still be hanging around these parts! It includes reference to JohnM, a biblical literalist and creationist who has, on occasion, commented here, too.]
Psalm 137 is one of the most famous Psalms, it has been set to music by many composers (you have most likely heard the famous interpretation by Boney M), but virtually always, the last verse is omitted. Why is that? Well, let´s look at the Psalm:
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
Psalm 137:1-9 KJV
Yeah… verse 9 kind of kills the mood, doesn´t it? Is the Psalmist really talking about people murdering infants(!) and being happy because of this? It´s even worse than that actually – the word that has been translated to “happy” (H385 in Strong´s Hebrew dictionary) could also be translated to mean “blessed“!
No matter which Bible commentary you look at, they all understand this last verse to refer to the Psalmist, writing in Babylonian captivity, wishing for punishment to be exacted upon his captors (including their little children). Let´s see what Gill´s “Exposition on the entire Bible” has to say about this:
Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. That takes the infants from their mothers’ breasts, or out of their arms, and dashes out their brains against a “rock”, as the word (k) signifies; which, though it may seem a piece of cruelty, was but a just retaliation; the Babylonians having done the same to the Jewish children, and is foretold elsewhere should be done to theirs, Isaiah 13:16. Nor is this desired from a spirit of revenge, but for the glory of divine justice, and that such a generation of cruel creatures might be rooted out of the earth; see Revelation 2:2
I agree with John Gill´s (18th century English Baptist pastor) interpretation of what the Psalmist wished for, although I disagree that his wish corresponds to “just retaliation” or “divine justice” – murdering innocent infants for the crimes of their parents is not “justice”, it is the opposite of justice and I find it baffling that a sane person could disagree with that.
So, this seems like a clear case of the Bible providing its blessing to an act that any decent person could only condemn in the strongest possible terms. However, our local young-earth creationist JohnM disagrees. His interpretation is:
If you read the bible like that, then you’ll end up concluding, that Jesus was a Sheep, or a branch of wood, and not a human being.
Psalm 137 : 8-9
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.
The infants that are dashed agasint the rocks, are the infant, born of the daughter, of babylon. These are not babies as such. These are new converts of the babylon mystery religion. And it’s pretty standard biblical terminology. Just like all Christians, young or old, are referred to as “Children of God”.
Babylon the great. A She.
Who is she?
The daughter of Babylon, a pagan world-religion, in the end-times.
Does his interpretation make sense? He is obviously right that “children” could refer to adults, depending on context as in “Children of God”. However, the Psalm does not use the word children, all Bible translations translate the respective Hebrew word (H5768) to “infants” or “little ones” or “babies”. Strong´s Hebrew dictionary provides the definition “a suckling: – babe, (young) child, infant, little one.” – there is another Hebrew word which is usually translated to “children” (H1121) and which has the meaning that JohnM needs for his interpretation to make sense (this word is actually used just 2 verses before that in Psalm 137:7 – “children of Edom”).
The language used unambiguously tells us that the Psalmist is talking about infants, and the context only confirms this. The “little ones” are to be “taketh” (H270 – could also be translated as “seized”) and “dashed” (H5310) against the rocks. “Seizing” an adult human and “dashing” him / her against rocks would require superhuman strength. “Dash” could mean “break by striking violently” or “hurl” – in the context (“against rocks”) it obviously means the latter, try hurling(!) an adult human being…
So, what does “daughter of Babylon” mean? This one is difficult, the term is used only four times in the OT (besides Psalm 137, it is used in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zachariah). It seems to be similar to “daughter of Zion”, which is used much more frequently in the OT (28 times) and which seems to refer, depending on context, to either the Temple Mount, the city of Jerusalem, or the people / nation of Israel. In fact, “daughter” (H1323) can refer to a city / town according to Strong´s Hebrew dictionary.
JohnM suggested that it instead refers to a “pagan world-religion in the endtimes”. Can this be? Most certainly not for Psalm 137, because the Psalmist clearly refers to the Babylonians. The Psalmist wrote this text in Babylonian captivity (the Septuagint version contains the superscript “For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity.”). He also mentions the Edomites (children of Edom), who pillaged the city of Jerusalem together with the Babylonians during the Babylonian conquest of Judah, and he talks about revenge for something that had already been done to them (“… that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us”). The psalmist thus cannot possibly talk about an “endtime pagan world religion” – he talks about something that already happened and the evidence is overwhelming that the Babylonians are the target of his anger.
When we compare this to the references to the “daughter of Babylon” in Isaiah and Jeremiah, it becomes clear that the “daughter of Babylon” has indeed a similar meaning to the “daughter of Zion”. It refers to either a geographic location, the city of Babylon, or to the Babylonian people / nation.
Jeremiah has this to say about the “daughter of Babylon”:
33 For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; The daughter of Babylon is like a threshingfloor, it is time to thresh her: yet a little while, and the time of her harvest shall come.
34 Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon hath devoured me, he hath crushed me, he hath made me an empty vessel, he hath swallowed me up like a dragon, he hath filled his belly with my delicates, he hath cast me out.
— Jeremiah 51:33-34 KJV
1 Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate.
2 Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers.
3 Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen: I will take vengeance, and I will not meet thee as a man.
4 As for our redeemer, the LORD of hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel.
5 Sit thou silent, and get thee into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called, The lady of kingdoms
6 I was wroth with my people, I have polluted mine inheritance, and given them into thine hand: thou didst shew them no mercy; upon the ancient hast thou very heavily laid thy yoke.
— Isaiah 47:1-6 KJV
Both Jeremiah and Isaiah are clearly talking about the city of Babylon and the Babylonian Kingdom, note how Jeremiah specifically talks about the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and how Isaiah (who seems to use “daughter of Babylon” and “daughter of the Chaldeans” interchangeably, “Chaldea” refers to a region in southern Mesopotamia, the 11th dynasty of the Kings of Babylon, which includes Nebuchadnezzar, came from this region) refers to it as the “lady of Kingdoms”.
The reference to the “daughter Babylon” in Zechariah is not that straightforward:
6 Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north, saith the LORD: for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven, saith the LORD.
7 Deliver thyself, O Zion, that dwellest with the daughter of Babylon.
8 For thus saith the LORD of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye.
— Zechariah 2:7-8 KJV
JohnM thinks that this makes the interpretation of “daughter Babylon” to mean, depending on context, either the city of Babylon or the Babylonian people / nation / kingdom, impossible:
The Decree of Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem around 538 BC. Zechariah’s prophetical career began around BC 520, about sixteen years after the return from their last Babylonian exile.
He’s talking about a future event, as the last Babylonian exile thus far in history, had just ended.
Me: Zechariah, Isaiah and Jeremiah all mention the “Daughter of Babylon”.
JohnM:Indeed they do mention that title. Even Zechariah. Which is rather lethal to your claim.. As Babylon, had ceased to exist at that point.
The only rational thing for you to do at this point, is to realize, that the title doesn’t mean, what you think it does.
At this point, the discussion morphed into an example for the fact that for some believers, there is simply no limit to the mental gymnastics they are willing to go through to avoid admitting that the Bible contains unimaginably cruel and unjust verses.
JohnM was no longer willing to talk about Psalm 137 (the actual subject of discussion), he just kept repeating that the “daughter Babylon” must mean something other than the city of Babylon or the Babylonian people / nation, based on Zechariah 2, like a broken record. After it was pointed out to him that Psalm 137 is unambiguously talking about “infants”, not “children”, he completely ignored this fact and that independent of what “daughter Babylon” means, the Psalmist is talking about murdering infants as an act of revenge in any case!. He also completely ignored that his own interpretation of “daughter Babylon” (an “endtime pagan world-religion”) cannot possibly be the intended meaning in Psalm 137, Jeremiah or Isaiah (just read the respective verses assuming his interpretation is true). No matter how often this was pointed out to him, he completely ignored it – preferring to complain about my lack of “biblical and historical insight”.
And he is not even right about his interpretation of “daughter Babylon” in Zechariah 2 (and even if he were, it changes nothing about the obvious fact that Psalm 137 is talking about murdering infants as an act of revenge!). Zechariah was indeed writing 14-18 years after the decree of Cyrus, that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem (~538BCE). And it is also true that the Babylonian empire no longer existed at this point since Cyrus the great had conquered it. However, the city of Babylon still existed and it had a big Jewish community. Not all Jews left Babylon immediately after the decree of Cyrus, allowing them to return to Jerusalem. In fact, archaeological evidence indicates that the return was “a trickle, taking place over perhaps decades“. “Daughter Babylon” meaning the city of Babylon thus makes perfect sense of Zechariah 2, and fits the accepted understanding of the first six chapters of the book of Zechariah: “…a series of eight visions …intended to furnish consolation to the returned exiles and stir up hope in their minds “.
The conclusion is unambiguous, Psalm 137 gives it´s blessing to the brutal murder of infants(!) as an act of revenge. But it is also clear that a “true believer” will find ways to ignore that, if only by simply by making up ridiculous fantasies and ignoring all facts and all biblical and historical context.