4 Feb 2016

Psalm 137: Rivers of Babylon, Smashing Babies & Cultural Distance: History and Understanding the Bible

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Books, Faith, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Prayer, Psalms, Spiritual Disciplines, Suffering

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” ” O daughter of Babylon … Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock”

Psalm 137

Psalm 137

Beloved Psalm of Reproach

Psalm 137. A lovely, famous, psalm to many but an infamous psalm to others. It contains some of the most hauntingly beautiful language in the Bible.  It also contains some of the most shocking language in the Bible to moderns.

From ancient times Psalm 137 has been an integral part of Jewish and Christian liturgy and prayer. The Rule of St. Benedict, from the 6th century AD, requires this psalm daily at Vespers. In the Orthodox rite it is chanted at Matins on Friday mornings. The text was neither controversial for Israelites, Jews, nor Christians.

In the modern era, however, the last verse of the psalm (v.9) has become not only an embarrassment but a scandal.  It has been excised from congregational readings in the lectionary and restorationists and Evangelicals by the legion have cited it as proof of the inferiority or sub par nature of the Hebrew Bible.

There is no question the psalm’s ending is startling for people who flourish thousands of years after it was written, separated by multiple cultures.  But doesn’t it warrant doing a little extra leg work to try to properly understand what a text means before we toss it aside.

A Psalm from Another World

God’s word is incarnational in nature. That is it expresses the divine in very concrete humanly historical ways. This is what keeps God’s word from becoming a mere myth. Further, I mean God did not hand down abstract propositions.  Rather God’s word was addressed to and for specific people living at a specific time. Just as Jesus was not a blue eyed, lilly white, English speaking Anglo-Saxon, because he was a Jew constrained by time and space.  So this Psalm originates in a very specific situation two thousand five hundred years ago in a time that is utterly alien to north American believers.  So it is no surprise that Psalm 137 both appeals and shocks at the same time.  It does so precisely because we do not understand the language nor its referent.

So we want to come within “understanding distance,” to use the phrase of Alexander Campbell, of Psalm 137.  But the psalm is literally from another world so we will need to do some cross-cultural immersion to see and hear it. Historical context matters.

Required reading for serious contextual study of the Psalms

Required reading for serious contextual study of the Psalms

Fire up the Flux Capacitor … A Trip to Another Time

As mentioned above, Psalm 137.9 has been used to show the supposed chasm between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” religion by both uninformed believers and anti-Semitic scholars. The Israelites/Jews were just shallow on the love/mercy/grace/forgiveness thing and full of the hate thing. The Laments, as a whole disturb modern, western, pietiestic Evangelicalism/Restorationism sensibilities, but Ps 137.9 takes the cake as they say.

But do we really understand what we claim to not like in Psalm 137? Just what does it mean to desire for “your babies” to be “dashed on the rocks”?

First, the suffering of literal little ones is a recurring motif in the Hebrew Bible for the savage, and degraded nature, of war. A careful reading of Hosea 10.13-15 and 13.16 are in order.  “You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, … when mothers were dashed in pieces with their children.” War is hell.  There are actual victims in war. Scripture is brutally honest about war, much more than moderns who try to sanitize it. But we may need to ask what the meaning of “little ones” actually is in political contexts.

Second, conquering empires literally slaughtered the children, especially sons, of the vanquished enemies royal family. The Babylonians did this to Zedekiah for example: “They [Babylonians] slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25.7). This is the ruling dynasty being eliminated by Babylon and will shed light on our text.

Third, the fate of Zedekiah’s sons, and ancient near eastern iconography, alert us to the near certainty that the “babies” in Psalm 137.9 are probably not literal infants at all. War was hell but it seems probable that Psalm 137.9 is not actually talking about literal infants.

Enter Iconography of the Ancient Near Eastern World

The world of the Ancient Near East (ANE) was filled with images much like our world today.  The images come in all forms, sculptures,

Wall of the famous Temple of Karnak. Note the story told in images.temples. Columns, walls, monuments were all covered with the ancient form of advertising. This advertising centered on the state (which centered on the monarchy). This is true even of religion as in most ancient cultures the king is also a priest of some sort or related to the gods. These images inform our reading of the texts. In fact they often shed incredible light on the text because they provide a way of entering the world the ancients lived in. Just like advertising in most magazines tell us a great deal about our own culture. This kind of study is called iconography.

Wall of the famous Temple of Karnak. Note the story told in images.

palatial, and temples. Columns, walls, monuments were all covered with the ancient form of advertising or propaganda. This advertising centered on the state (which focused on the monarchy). This includes religion  as in most ancient cultures the king was some sort of priest or related to the gods. These images have symbols called ideograms( powerful symbols). These ancient pieces of propaganda shed great light on the reading of texts. In fact they often open a window onto opaque texts that we simply do not understand because they provide a way of entering the world of the ancients.  Just like advertising in most magazines tell us a great deal about our own culture.  This kind of study is called iconography.

In Ancient Near Eastern iconography adult royal sons are depicted as children typically sitting on the lap of a goddess, the personification of the city. Under this “child’s” feet are the defeated foes who groan under his domination. The “children” are not infants but members of the royal household in positions of power exercising the dominion of Empire over the conquered.

Othmar Keel in his great work, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms, comments on the imagery of Psalm 137 twice.

“… Babylon is here personified as a queen. As shown in Figs. 341 and 342, neighboring peoples were subject to princes who were mere babes in the laps of their wet nurses. These infants manifested the endless continuance of the power of the dynasty. Their death meant the end of despotism” (p.230).

The images referenced are on pages 254 and 255.

Note the "child" on the lap of the goddess. Note the feet on the crushed enemies under the throne of the goddess.

Note the “child” on the lap of the goddess. Note the feet on the crushed enemies under the throne of the goddess.

In the Introduction, Keel also comments on the importance of iconography in helping “hear” Psalm 137. “An instance is the horror usually aroused by the imprecation over Babylon: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’ (Ps 137:9). We need to consider, however, whether these ‘little ones’ ought not to be understood just as symbolically as ‘Mother Babylon’ {in v.8}. The inhabitants of the ruling dynasty concertize the continuation of the unrighteous empire (cf. 341-342). In this vein, one might translate: ‘Happy is he who puts an end to your self-renewing domination!'” (p. 9).

The Psalm is not calling for general infanticide in Babylon. Rather it is talking about the ruling dynasty. The image most likely means the destruction of the dynasty that is guilty of tyranny. Sadly most commentators are so brief, they do not even mention the possibility of this historically contextual meaning of Ps 137.9. It is astonishing how few commentators interact with Keel at all actually. I first learned of Keel, many years ago, in a footnote in a Patrick Miller (an Old Testament scholar) essay btw … sadly Miller has not done a full commentary on the Psalter.

The most satisfying exposition of Psalm 137 is that of John Goldingay in his three volume work (vol 3,

Again note the "child" on the lap of the goddess/city. See the crushed enemies. the "child" is the controlling dynasty.

Again note the “child” on the lap of the goddess/city. See the crushed enemies. the “child” is the controlling dynasty.

pp. 599-614 (specific comments on v.9 are 609-610) and Eric Zenger, an outstanding German scholar, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath (best book on the planet for the imprecatory psalms).

Not Infants but Royal Dynasty

Context matters. Sometimes context can literally turn what we simply assume to be a common sense reading literally on its head. Psalm 137.9 is one of those places.

Psalm 137 is the communal lament. It is not the some individualistic thirst for revenge. In fact there is no revenge in the Psalm at all. It gives voice to an entire people existing in profound humiliation and helplessness. It is a community that is being crushed under the feet of a dynasty drunk with delusions of its own divine nature.  The psalm is radically theocentric in all of this. There is nothing, literally, they can do.  So they give it to God.

Both Othmar Keel and Eric Zenger point to the political nature of the psalm. It is political because it is directed toward the very symbol of empire: Babylon (a goddess!) and those drunk on her power! The cry is thus not hate but for justice.  The cry for justice is directed against those who are doing the oppressing. It is a call for the end of the Babylonian dynasty and its power.  A suffering nation calls out within that suffering for the end of the power that is causing the suffering. The end of the those sitting zengeron the lap of that goddess will mean the end of Babylon itself.

Reading from the Position of the Oppressed rather than Empire

Often, the problem for modern North American disciples is that we come texts like Psalm 137 from the position of the Babylonians rather than the exiled and oppressed slaves of Israel. We, North American disciples, live in an Empire far greater, richer, more powerful than Babylon ever dreamed or imagined. We are the powerful and thus such texts “offend us.” But Jewish and Christian believers have read these texts for thousands of years as victims of unbelievable violence from the hands of those princes and they called upon GOD to deal with oppression just as he did Pharaoh’s. Neither Jesus nor the early church were offended by Psalm 137. They read it as it should be read.

Final Words

There is plenty of raw emotion in this text still. It cannot be tamed. I do not feel the need to tame it either.  We do not need to neuter the text.  But we do not need to falsely charge the text. We need to hear the Psalm’s protest for what it is rather than drumming up some made up stuff and imposing it upon the text. Those who are committed to the inspiration of the text cannot side step this exegetical move. To do so undermines our rhetoric that we do want to hear what the Spirit actually said.

Those suffering in Auschwitz understood this communal imprecation and said it against the Third Reich. Suddenly it was not offensive but good news.  God will destroy Evil!

Read the Psalms.  Pray the Psalms. Recognize that there is often a very large historical and cultural gap between the giving of God’s word and our reading it our own time and culture.  God will bless you.

“‘Happy is he who puts an end to your self-renewing domination!

3 Responses to “Psalm 137: Rivers of Babylon, Smashing Babies & Cultural Distance: History and Understanding the Bible”

  1. Les Ferguson Jr Says:

    Great stuff. I am preaching the psalms this year. I will use this!

  2. Dwight Says:

    Text and context…two that are grossly underused together in both the OT and the NT. Preachers and teachers have a tendency to pull text to form a position, but the scripture forms the position and all we are really doing is re-enforcing it and sometimes they are related and sometimes not, except by similar words.
    This is why it is so important to read like a Jew when reading the OT and NT, because there is usually a deeper, richer context that we just don’t see otherwise.

  3. Dwight Says:

    Also this places all of the scriptures that say, “For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.” and there are many, primarily Satan and death in the lives of the people.

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