Psalm 137:9—Dashing Babies’ Heads Against a Stone
In my debate with atheist Dan Barker in 2009, Barker accused the God of the Bible of numerous egregious immoralities. One of these accusations centered on Psalm 137:9. Barker stated:
In Psalm 137:9, he [God] told us that we should be happy to take the innocent babies and dash them against the stones. That’s—even if that God did exist, I might not necessarily want to worship such a monster. I might ask him to confess his sins to me. What a guy—what if I were to treat my kids like this?1
The accusation is that Psalm 137:9 is a prescriptive verse that says that whoever dashes the heads of the babies against a stone will be “happy.” According to the skeptical interpretation of this verse, it is to be understood in the same way as the Beatitudes are understood—as a blessing that will be the result of some stated actions. Allegedly, just as Jesus said “Blessed [or “happy” as some translations say] are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), so Psalm 137:9 is saying that anyone who kills these babies will be blessed with such happiness. There are several problems with the skeptic’s charge against God in this Psalm.
First, we need to look at the context of the verse. By ripping a verse out of its context, a person could force the Bible to say practically anything he wanted to make it say. Instead of misinterpreting passages out of context, it is the job of every honest person to attempt to understand all texts, including and especially those in the Bible, in the context of how the author intended them to be understood. Here is the Psalm in its entirety.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. 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, who are to be destroyed, happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!
The author of this Psalm is a captive in Babylon. The Babylonians (who caused so much destruction in Israel, killed so many of the Israelites, and held the author and other survivors captive) were demanding that the Israelites perform for them and sing songs about the beauty of Zion. The author was indignant that his captors would make such a demand in light of the horrible things that the Babylonians had done to the Israelites, and the fact that the Babylonians still held them captive. The author then proceeds to explain that the Babylonians were not going to be in their elevated position as victors for long. Instead, these captors who were demanding mirth and songs from the Israelite captives were going to suffer a similar fate to the one that they dealt out. According to the author, there would be those coming who would, in essence, do to the Babylonians what the Babylonians did to Israel, except the Babylonian punishment would be on an even greater scale. The nation that would destroy the Babylonians would repay the Babylonians for the evil they had done and would go so far as to dash the heads of the Babylonian babies against the stones.
We get a glimpse of how this process works in Isaiah 10. Isaiah explains that God would use the nation of Assyria to punish the Israelites. He says, “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger and the staff in whose hand is My indignation. I will send him against an ungodly nation, and against the people of My wrath…. Yet he does not mean so, nor does his heart think so, but it is in his heart to destroy, and cut off not a few nations” (10:5-7). Even though God used Assyria as a tool to punish Israel, Assyria did not view its mission in light of God’s justice, and Assyria cruelly and arrogantly abused its power. What, then, did God promise to do to wicked Assyria? The text explains: “Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Lord has performed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, that He will say, ‘I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his haughty looks’” (10:12). Assyria’s wickedness would also be punished.
This same scenario is seen in the Babylonian victory over Israel. In Jeremiah 12, the prophet asked God, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (12:1). Jeremiah is perplexed about how God can use a wicked nation such as Babylon to punish the Israelites for wickedness, when it seems that the Babylonians are just as wicked or more sinful than the Israelites. God then explains: “Many rulers have destroyed My vineyard [the nation of Judah—KB]…they have made it desolate…. The plunderers have come on all the desolate heights in the wilderness” (12:10-13). What does the Lord say would happen to those “plunderers” who destroyed Judah? “Thus says the Lord: ‘Against all My evil neighbors who touch the inheritance which I have caused My people Israel to inherit—behold, I will pluck them out of their land and pluck out the house of Judah” (12:14). Thus, God would take vengeance on the nations such as Babylon and Assyria because of their sinful arrogance and cruelty against Israel.
In Jeremiah chapters 50-51 we see a detailed description of what would happen to wicked Babylon. The prophecy begins by stating: “The word that the Lord spoke against Babylon and against the land of the Chaldeans” (50:1). The Israelites would repent of their sins (50:4-5) and beg the Lord to return them to Israel in a renewed covenant with God. God would then punish Babylon, as the prophet stated, “‘For behold, I will raise and cause to come up against Babylon an assembly of great nations from the north country, and they shall array themselves against her; from there she shall be captured. Their arrows shall be like those of an expert warrior; none shall return in vain. And Chaldea shall become plunder; all who plunder her shall be satisfied,’ says the Lord” (50:8-10). Jeremiah 51 continues to describe the destruction of Babylon at the hands of the Medes and Persians. The prophet explains, “The sound of a cry comes from Babylon, and great destruction from the land of the Chaldeans, because the Lord is plundering Babylon and silencing her loud voice…. For the Lord is the God of recompense, He will surely repay” (51:56). And again, “Repay her according to her work; according to all she has done, do to her; for she has been proud against the Lord, against the Holy One of Israel” (50:29).
Looking at Psalm 137 in context, then, we see the psalmist foreshadowing the destruction of Babylon by the Medes and Persians. Since that is the case, we can now understand some things about the statement made in 137:9. The first thing we can see is that it is not a command given by God for anyone today to dash babies’ heads against stones. It certainly is not saying that Christians should dash babies heads against stones to be happy. It can be interpreted as a descriptive statement made about the army that would destroy Babylon and cannot be assumed to be a prescriptive statement that gives a command from God.
Let us consider the difference, then, between a prescriptive statement and a descriptive one. A prescriptive statement prescribes what God says should be done in order to obtain a certain result. For instance, Ephesians 6:2 says, “‘Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with promise: ‘that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’” Notice that “honor your father and mother” is a commandment from God of what should be done, and the result would be “that it may be well with you.” A descriptive verse or idea, however, is one that describes a situation—not that God has commanded or ordained—but one that simply relates what is the case if something happens. For instance, in 1 Kings 21, we read about King Ahab attempting to buy a vineyard from Naboth. Naboth refused to sell the king the vineyard, and 1 Kings 21:4 says, “So Ahab went into his house sullen and displeased.” This text is describing what Ahab felt, not what he should have felt or what was the necessary result of the situation. In truth, if he were doing what God wanted, he should have commended Naboth for not selling his family land, and he should have been pleased with Naboth’s obedience to God. Instead, the Bible describes his sullenness, but does not condone it in any way.
When we apply this idea of descriptive talk to Psalm 137:9, we can understand that there is no way the skeptic can prove that dashing babies’ heads against a stone was a commandment that God gave anyone, not even the Medes and Persians. The text is easily understood as one that simply describes what was going to take place. Furthermore, the text cannot be shown to be stating that those who do such things “should” be happy because of these actions. As further evidence of this distinction between descriptive and prescriptive writing, consider the fact that, even though God allowed the Babylonians to destroy Judah (and the Assyrians to destroy northern Israel), those two wicked nations had performed their deeds in a cruel, arrogant way that God did not approve or condone. Their wicked treatment of Israel brought about punishment from God. We can see that God allowed Babylon to destroy Judah, but then punished the nation for the evil way the Babylonians went about it. In the same way, it would be wrong to assume that the Lord condoned the future actions of the Medes and Persians when they would dash the heads of the Babylonian babies against the stones.
Second, if it would be wrong to assume that God condoned the actions of the Medes and Persians, why does the text state, “Happy shall he be who repays you as you have served us! Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (Psalm 137:9)? Another primary reason this text is often misused is due to a misunderstanding of the way the word “happy” is used. It is assumed that happiness is an ultimate good that all people are trying to attain. In this context, however, that is not how the word is used. Instead, it is used in a way that describes a fleeting feeling that has no lasting effects and is of no ultimate spiritual value. A parallel passage that sheds light on this word is found in Jeremiah 12:1, which we noticed earlier. Notice how Jeremiah used the word “happy.” He asked God “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” Jeremiah recognizes that the “happy” people in this passage are wicked, treacherous, and unrighteous. He is wondering how such wicked people can be “happy.” God then explains to the prophet that what he views as happiness is not ultimately a spiritual good, but only a temporary situation. In fact, God explains to Jeremiah that He will punish all those wicked treacherous people, but offer them a chance to repent. If they repent, “then they shall be established in the midst of my people” (12:16), thus offering them an opportunity at legitimate spiritual well-being. If they refused to repent, however, God declared, “I will utterly pluck up and destroy the nation” (12:17).
When we look at the way the Babylonian destruction of Israel is described, we see similar statements to Psalm 137:9. In Jeremiah 50, the prophet tells the Babylonians they would be destroyed, “Because you were glad, because you rejoiced, you destroyers of My heritage” (50:11). They were not glad in a righteous sense, or one that had to do with any ultimate spiritual good, but in a sinful, fleeting sense. Again, their “rejoicing” was not brought about because they followed a commandment from God, but the very opposite. They cruelly and arrogantly destroyed God’s people. This made them “glad” and they “rejoiced” in a way that had nothing to do with commendation from God, or with doing what God has said do in the way He said do it. In such a context, the Bible is not saying that wickedness leads to any type of ultimate good. On the contrary, such statements describe a fleeting feeling of emotional pleasure that can be felt by any person, whether righteous or wicked, but which is not based on the rightness or wrongness of an action.
To illustrate, consider the bank robber who is “happy” that he was able to get away from the policeman without getting caught. Or think of the murderer who was “happy” he successfully buried his victim’s body without being discovered. Or think of the college student who was “happy” it was Friday so he could get drunk with his friends. These scenarios show us that, even today, we often use the word “happy” in the same way that the Bible writers did. The New Testament gives us another clear use of such language in James 4:9. There the writer tells the sinful rich people to “Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to sorrow and your joy to gloom.” The word “joy” is used in other places to describe real, spiritual contentment and happiness (James 1:2). It is used in James 4:9, however, to describe a fleeting feeling that the sinful rich experienced as a result of the misuse of their money. James demanded that they reverse their wrong emotional state to a more accurate one of sorrow and gloom due to their sinful condition.
In Psalm 137:9, it cannot be assumed that the inspired writer was saying that God commanded anyone to dash the heads of children against a stone. The idea that the text merely describes what the Medes and the Persians would do in the future fits the context perfectly. The way the word “happy” is used throughout the Bible allows for the author to be using it in Psalm 137:9 in a way that can describe a fleeting feeling that can be the result of evil actions. This feeling has nothing to do with a blessing or commendation from God. The way the skeptic pulls this passage from its context and misinterprets it says much about the skeptic’s dishonesty when dealing with the biblical text than it does about God’s morality.2