A Troubling Verse: Psalm 137:9

It’s a verse a lot of critics bring up as an example of the cruel nature of the Christian doctrine. So is this moral? In a way, yes.

Psalm. 137:9 “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

Critics of Christianity often point to this verse and ponder how a loving God could allow such grotesque imagery in the Scriptures. Even worse, it appears to approve of the action described by its use of the adjective happy. So is this verse a moral command? Firstly, let’s look at the verse in its full context to gain a clearer picture:

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord‘s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

This is the entire Psalm. The obvious context reveals the verse of concern and the whole psalm to be a lament of anguish and anger against those who had done terrible wrongs to him and his own. How is this moral? In the context of the ancient social world, people were a lot more open and honest in their thoughts and writings. We often do the same thing today, if only for a fleeting moment. If someone wrongs us, we may think something along the lines of “I want to punch him.” We hate to admit it, but we’ve all done it at some point.

David in Psalm 137:9 is doing the same thing. The purpose of these fantasies was not to invoke and encourage violence, rather, they were intended to diminish it, or in modern terms, to “let it all out.” This does not mean David was a cruel person, in fact, it means just the opposite. Rather than vent his frustration with violence, he let it out in his writing. Is it moral for someone to quench their anger before it morphs into something more dangerous? I’m sure most would agree. But a question remains: why is this in the Bible at all?

Though I’ve never heard a critic say this, when complaining about verses like these, I often wonder if they’d prefer a Bible that’s only morally uplifting and inspirational, over one that’s real and relatable. Ironically, something like the Christian music they display so much hate for. Safe and encouraging. In reality, God allowed verses like these to give an unhindered look into the human psyche. Being a fan and writer of speculative Christian fiction, this is essential if we’re to accurately portray humanity and the goodness of God. God doesn’t endorse dashing infants on rocks just as much as a writer doesn’t endorse murder when they write a death scene. A book or story without relatable characters will not move anyone, so the critic needs to answer why the Bible should be different.

In the end, the barbarian the atheist criticises is all of us. David’s thoughts offer a reflection of our own.