Why Does the Bible Condone Smashing Babies Against Rocks?

bible2I was asked this question recently and thought it might be a good one to write about. It focuses on the final verse of Psalm 137, and might well be one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to reconcile.  It’s a hard verse.  You won’t find it on a greeting card and grandma won’t be needlepointing it onto a placard.  Most would probably just like to avoid the passage altogether.

Here’s the verse in question:

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!

How could the God of love inspire someone to write poetry about children being dashed against the rocks?

First, a little background.  Psalm 137 belongs to a class of psalms that are known to scholars as Imprecatory Psalms.  The word “imprecatory” means to call for a curse or retaliation on an enemy.  Other Imprecatory Psalms are 18, 35, 58, 59, 69, 83, & 109.  Most of these imprecatory prayers contain rather mild language while a few can become harsh. Psalm 137 is probably the harshest.

Because Jesus has instructed us to love our enemies (Matt 5:44), it seems strange to many that God would inspire someone to write a verse like this!

I believe the key to understanding these difficult passages is recognizing that the writers are not calling for vindication on their own enemies.  Rather, they are asking God to avenge Himself.  In other words, the writer is concerned with those who have become enemies of God.

A good example of this is found in Psalm 18.  In the opening verses of that Psalm,  David calls for God to move against those whom David calls “your enemies” – not his (vs. 2).  In the final stanzas of this song, David reveals why he wants God to take action against His enemies, so, “they may know that You, whose name alone is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth.” David is concerned about God’s name and reputation. Therefore, he prays that God takes action against His own enemies.

A New Testament example of this same attitude is found in the writings of Paul. In 2 Tim 4:14, Paul had hoped for God’s intervention with “Alexander the coppersmith,” who apparently had troubled Paul by his blasphemy (compare 1 Tim 1:20).  Yet, just two verses later (vs. 16), Paul described how everyone had earlier abandoned him when he needed them.  Yet, he did not pray a curse over them. Rather, he expressed a desire for their forgiveness. The difference is clear.  To his own enemies, Paul prayed for forgiveness; to those who stood against the Gospel, he prayed that God would settle the score.

I believe this same attitude is found in Psalm 137. The psalmist was carried away to Babylon when they conquered Judah in 586 BC.  He first called for a curse upon himself (vs. 5-6) if he forgot God’s holy city, Zion.  He then turned to the conquerors, who had rejoiced over the destruction of God’s people, and reminded them that their day of judgement was coming.  They would be treated in the same way they had treated Judah.

I should also point out that the psalmist isn’t likely using literal language (as is the case in most poetry).  For instance, it is doubtful that he is literally praying for his own mouth to cleave shut or for his hand to become impotent if he neglects his duty to God.  Therefore, it is also likely that he is using non-literal language when he cries for the destruction of his enemy’s children. Instead, he is using the medium of poetry to impress his readers with the emotions that he himself is overwhelmed with.  He wants his readers to feel his grief, and the pain of knowing that God’s enemies have not been punished yet.

I do not believe that God is condoning, or even approving of dashing children against any rocks. I believe, however, that this Psalm reminds us that it is not wrong to pray that God vindicates Himself against those who have become His enemies.



Dane Cramer is a Christian blogger, backpacker, amateur filmmaker, volunteer jail chaplain and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.  



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