Remember, o Lord,
against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem
how they said, ‘Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator,
happy the one who pays you back what you have done to us!
happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!
The following are the first and final sections of my essay: “‘Your Little Ones against the Rock!’: Modern and Ancient Interpretations of Psalm 137:9.” In Christian Faith and Violence 2, edited by Dirk van Keulen and Martien E. Brinkman, Studies in Reformed Theology 11, 296–307. Zoetermeer: Meinema, 2005. The full text of the essay can be downloaded here.
Psalm 137:9 is a call for brute murder of little children. When I was preparing this essay, I quoted this verse in a talk with a non-Christian person. She reacted: ‘We always hear about the call for Jihad in the Koran. But now I understand that such things are in the Bible as well!’ This reaction illustrates two points: on the one hand, a call for vengeance such as Psalm 137:9 is easily associated with a concept like Jihad, here obviously understood as ‘holy war against the unbelievers’. On the other hand, the popular view of Christianity (unlike that of Islam) is that it is a peaceful religion and that it does not offer a legitimization for the use of violence. Thus, there seems to be a major inconsistency between the essence of Christianity and particular Bible verses such as Psalm 137:9.
This inconsistency is not only sensed by secularized Western Europeans like the person I talked with, but also and especially by Christians themselves. This even goes so far that, in 1970, the pope excluded Psalm 137:7-9, together with some other psalms and psalm verses, from the four-weekly recital of the Psalter in the Liturgy of Hours. The relevant Apostolic Constitution explains: ‘In this new arrangement of the psalms some few of the psalms and verses which are somewhat harsh in tone have been omitted, especially because of the difficulties that were foreseen from their use in vernacular celebration.’
Before one agrees with such a drastic step, it is worth considering whether it is possible to interpret Psalm 137:9 in such a way that it makes sense to keep it in a Psalter for liturgical usage. In this essay, I offer an anthology of interpretations that have been proposed through the ages. The overview starts with modern commentaries, but then turns to rabbinic and early Church interpretations and gradually comes back to our age. As a conclusion, I offer my own interpretation.
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. . . Having seen all these interpretations of Psalm 137:9, the question arises: how can or should we understand this verse? Let us consider the following:
1. If we never experienced brute violence ourselves, we still live ‘before’ the psalmist and should not too easily say that he should not have spoken this way. (Imagine the parents that loose a child in a road accident caused by a drunkard – should we forbid them that they utter the wish that the drunkard may himself experience what it means to loose a child?)
2. If we experience brute violence and tragedy, the psalm verse can be an articulation of our deepest feelings. Being a canonical text at the same time, it can be a bridge between experienced reality and the reality of God. For this reason, the verse should not be removed from Psalters or be explained allegorically beforehand.
3. The external, physical enemy has its counterpart in the internal, psychical enemy. When physical enemies are not in view for us, we can be right in understanding the enemies in the psalms as depressive or sinful thoughts.
4. We should not ignore that we live AD. A Christian actualizing interpretation of the psalm verse will always have a Christological element. The Christian amen to the psalm cannot be the same as the Jewish amen.
5. A Christian interpretation of the psalm does not imply that we give up the idea of the punishment of evil. Eschatological punishment is a common notion in the dominical tradition. Joy over the fall of Babylon is a New Testament given (Revelation 18). If so, Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies should not be abused to get rid of Psalm 137.
6. Christ can be brought in (or should we rather say: can be found?) in Psalm 137:9 in four ways. (a) He is the one who can pray the verse uprightly without sinful ulterior motives – we can only pray it uprightly if it is Christ in us who is praying. (b) He is the blessed one by excellence – we should leave the dashing of little ones against the rock to him. (c) He is the one who has been smashed against the rock himself. (d) He is the rock against which the children of the enemy are to be dashed. However, the identification of the rock with Christ can only be done through 1 Corinthians 10, in which passage the rock is a fountain of life. Ultimately, ‘Your Little Ones against the Rock!’ does not mean: let them be smashed to death, but to Life.
7. Thus, there is no compelling reason to exclude Psalm 137:9 from liturgy. On the contrary, it is to be prayed:
Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end.