Bible Question:

What does Psalm 137:9 mean? — Blessed shall he be who dashes them against the rock!

Bible Answer:

Psalm 137 is an imprecatory psalm. An imprecatory psalm is one that seeks God’s judgment and, consequently, pain and destruction on others, such as an enemy. The psalm begins with an expression of sorrow over Zion. Then in verses 3-6, the abuse of the nation of Israel suffered under the Babylonian Empire is remembered. In verse 7, the chorus recites Edom’s chant which urged the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and raze it to the ground. Verse 9 is the passage that some people find offensive. This has occurred due to a wrong translation of the Hebrew text among other reasons. Therefore, what follows is an explanation of the meaning of Psalm 137:9.

What Does Psalm 137:9 Mean?

What does Psalm 137:9 mean?

The opening two verses of Psalm 137 reveal that this song is sung by Jewish captives in the city of Babylon.

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
Psalm 137:1-2 (NASB)

They are remembering Zion or Jerusalem. The rest of the psalm is a reminder of the horrors that happened to to them and to the city.

The conclusion of the psalm is verses 7-9, which says,

Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it
To its very foundation.”

O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.

How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock.
Psalm 137:7-9 (NASB)

It is clear from verse 7 that the Israelites had asked God to remember the Edomites who were allied with the Babylonian Empire against Jerusalem. They had urged the Babylonians to raze the city to its foundation (Isaiah 21:11-12; Jeremiah 49:7-12; Ezekiel 25:12-14; 35:1-15; Obadiah 11-14).

In verse 8, the Israelites wanted God to remember the Babylonians because they did raze Jerusalem. Then in verse 9 the Israelites expressed their desire that the children of these nations would be killed, that is, justice would occur.

In order to more completely understand verse 9, we must ask what is the meaning of the Hebrew word for “How blessed,” is ‘asre. According to “The Book of Psalms” published by The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, the Hebrew word ‘asre is better translated as “a sense of peace” and a settled feeling.

Verses 8b and 9 are the culmination of the imprecatory words of the psalm. Two phrases are introduced by the word ‘asre (content), rendered in most English translations as “happy” or “blessed.” The verbal root, which most likely is ‘asar, means “to go straight, to advance, to follow the track.” The translation “blessed” brings to mind the Hebrew word baruk which carries cultic/ sacred connotations. “Happy” does not convey the full depth of the root asar. Content connotes a sense of peace and feeling settled that seems to come closest to the root meaning of ‘asre.[1]

That is, ‘asre is better understood as “a sense of peace.” Most likely “a sense of peace” due to the evil nations of Babylon and Edom. “Happy” is not the best translation since it leaves the idea the people would be celebrating the death of the children. But the root translation is more accurately that of a settled peace because justice has finally occurred. In some passages, it can have the sense of happiness.

Understanding Psalm 137:9

It was common practice in ancient times for invading armies to kill the women and children of a nation with the purpose of eliminating the nation (2 Kings 8:12; Isaiah 13:16, 18; Hosea 10:14; 13:16; Amos 1:13; Nahum 3:10). Without children and women, a nation will cease to exist. Zechariah 14:2 states that during the battle of Armageddon, the nations of the world will plunder the Jewish homes in Jerusalem and rape the women. Such brutal warfare is a common practice of invading armies. War is horrible. We can be confident the Babylonians and Edomites did the same thing that invading armies have done in past history.

Ezekiel 35:1-15 is an important passage. The passage reveals that God had promised to destroy the Babylonian nation because it had tried to annihilate the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. In verses 14-15, God promised that He would do to them what they had planned to do to Israel. This is consistent with God’s statement in Romans 12:18-21 where He reminds us that we are not to take revenge on our enemies. We are to leave vengeance to our God. Only our all-wise God can be just in punishing our enemies for the evil that they inflict.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “ VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:18-21 (NASB)

Therefore, when God promised that He would punish the Babylonians for their destruction of the Jewish men, women and children and of Jerusalem, He would punish them justly. Our just God would justly judge the Babylonians for their evil atrocities.

This helps us understand the pleading of the Israelites against the evil Babylonians. The Israelites wanted the Babylonians to be judged and punished justly.  They wanted God to do what He had promised. They were seeking justice for what had occurred to their women and children.

To kill someone who has intentionally killed another person is just for God had told Noah in Genesis 9:5-6 that anyone who killed another man, had to die.

Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man.
Genesis 9:5-6 (NASB)

Then in the Mosaic Law God repeated this command (Exodus 21:13, 28, 29; Numbers 35:31-33; Deuteronomy 21:1-9). That is, God demands justice when someone is murdered. It is important to know that God uses one nation to punish an evil nation. The article “Why did God command the Israelites to destroy entire nations?” reveals that God will use a less evil nation to destroy a more evil nation. In addition, Zechariah 1:15 is an important passage that reveals God will punish the less evil nation if it engages in excessive violence. Romans 13:3-4 teaches that God uses nations to suppress evil.

Therefore, how should we understand verses 7-9? John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) writes this helpful explanation,

Blessed is the person who will take and dash your infants against the rock (vv.8-9). Even if these words bespeak intense anger and heavy punish­ment and retribution, nevertheless they are the expression of the captives’ feelings in demanding heavy retribution and some strange and surprising punishment. The inspired authors, after all, say many things not on their own account but to describe the feelings of others and bring them to the fore. I mean, if you are looking for his attitude, listen to him saying, “If I have meted out evil for evil,” where he goes beyond the due response allowed him by the Law. But when he tells of the sufferings of others, he depicts their anger, their pain, which is what he did in this case, bringing to the fore the desire of the Jews, who let their rage extend even to such a young age.[2]

Conclusion:

What does Psalm 137:9 mean? The Jews desired justice. It is important to realize that the wording of the psalm is from the mouths of the Jews who had suffered the loss of family and children. There are many things stated in Scripture that are evil. It is wrong to conclude that everything that it is recorded in Scripture is approved by God. This psalm records the heart attitude of the suffering Jews. They called for justice by asking that the babies of the Babylonians and Edmoites be seized and dashed against the rocks is incredibly strong.  They wanted God to act justly and punish the nations that had murdered their adults and children. The verse is a call for justice. Justice would bring them “happiness” or peace.

 

Reference:

1. Nancy deClaisse-Walford, et al. The Book of Psalms. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Eerdmans Publishing. 2014. p. 956.
2. John Chrysostom. Psalms 137.

Suggested Links:

Where is God’s justice today? – Does He care about all the nations?
Why did God command the Israelites to destroy entire nations?
Why Is God So Violent?
Why is the God of the Old Testament so violent?
Does God punish people?
Does God appoint evil leaders to lead nations?