Dr. Mark D. Roberts recently wrote about Psalm 137:9, a verse which he said makes us most uncomfortable:
The verse is “He shall seize and shall dash your children on the rock!” and of it, Robert’s writes:
"How can any part of Scripture seem to celebrate the killing of babies? How in the world are we to make sense of this verse? How can we read it, not to mention pray it, as Christians? Didn’t Jesus call us to love our enemies and forgive them, not smash their babies against the rocks? How are we supposed to answer the opponent of Christianity who throws Psalm 137:9 in our faces?"
In his devotional, Roberts lists five ways for the verse to be looked, covering the realities of the Babylonian exile and what may have been experienced at their hands, the human sense for revenge-as-justice and the applicable lessons of grace, and Christ working through us.
Maybe it’s because I am a Catholic with an abundance of rowdy ethnic residue, I have never once been made uncomfortable about that verse. Quite the opposite, the entire psalm brings me enormous consolation, each time I read it, because–as with the entire psalter–this psalm affirms both the brokenness of the human condition, and our commonality with our ancient kin, who reach out to us through centuries to communicate to us (and for us) the deepest longings and darkest instincts of the human heart. . . .
"The Verse in Scripture that Makes Us Most Uncomfortable"
And, of course, here in the title, we encounter a fundamental and overwhelming error from the outset, that is, the idea that we should ever read any verse in isolation. To be sure, that is often the quickest way to misread, misinterpret, and misunderstand scripture, to take out one verse and read it undetached from the rest.
Moreover, just as one cannot read a given passage in isolation if one wishes to understand, one also cannot arbitrarily adopt the plain meaning of the text. Rather, one must read it:
(a) in context, including in the context of the whole passage, the whole Bible, especially the New Testament, and that Divine Revelation handed down to us by Sacred Tradition, as well as the context of human history and literary and pedagogical methods, and
(b) in a manner consistent with the truth of God, in the light of the fullness of Revelation, the Logos, Jesus Christ, who is Love and Truth Incarnate, and consistent with the purposes of revelation.
So what of Psalm 137 and the verse at issue? Verse 9 itself is actually a continuation of Verse 8,
"O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us. Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"
What did the Psalmist, the human author, wish to convey here? And what does the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing, wish to reveal here? Is there only one meaning, or multiple meanings on multiple levels? Is it merely a historical report of a captive voicing his frustrations? Is that what the Holy Spirit wants us to take away from this, a mere historical curiosity? Or is there something more, something bigger, something that might apply to each of us, and not merely some guy crying on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers 2500 years ago?
To get at the big and essential question of what was intended (which is the primary question, see Dei Verbum 12), we have to consider just exactly how literally we are supposed to take the passage. Did the writer intend for us to understand that the speaker actually wants to smash babies?
Well, let's consider what is said a few verses earlier --
"5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! 6 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!"
Maybe. But much more likely, the speaker is engaging in hyperbole and metaphor.
And having used fairly obvious hyperbole and metaphor here, is it likely that the speaker suddenly switched to a totally literal meaning in the immediately following verses, or is it more likely that it is a continuation of the same literary devices of hyperbole and metaphor? If we consider that verses 8-9 are, on their face, harsh and violent and contrary to the Love and Truth of Jesus Christ, and remembering that we must read scripture in the light of Christ, the better interpretation and understanding of verses 8-9 is that the speaker is not speaking literally, but figuratively.
This is especially true when we further remember that, although the Psalmist has put the words in the mouth of a Babylonian captive, being Revelation, it is actually God who is communicating to us here. That same God who, beyond Jesus Christ, repeatedly says in the Old Testament that He does not delight in death.
OK, so if we seek to find a deeper meaning that the superficial plain text, what might we find? Is the speaker engaging in only hyperbole and metaphor with respect to his immediate situation, the Babylonian Captivity, or is there a broader meaning here, something that might be relevant for the entirety of Salvation History? Perhaps even something eschatological?
One thing jumps out fairly quickly, and that is the word "rock." In Christian understanding, what does "rock" mean? Well, it has a few meanings, but each related to the other. The "rock" is Christ, and it is the Church (represented by Peter, the Rock), and it is Truth (which is Christ again).
So, what might we wish to see smashed against the Rock that is Christ/Truth/the Church?
Evil and sin. And it has long been understood that references to "Babylon" are references to the greatest enemy of man, i.e. evil and sin, which have indeed done horrible things to us, in this our worldly exile. And the word "child" is often used to refer to the future. Thus, smashing a child of Babylon might refer to the eschatological smashing of evil and sin.
Seen in this way, verses 8-9 show themselves to be about being happy at the ultimate destruction of evil by Christ and His Church. Thus, we see that Psalm 137 is more than a mere report of an expression of frustration and rage. Much more. Although veiled, Jesus Christ is revealed again and again in the Old Testament. Here too is a revelation of Christ, and His victory over sin and evil and death.
(In his Exposition on Psalm 137, St. Augustine expands on this understanding. See also St. Ambrose, On Repentence, Book II, Chap. XI.)