Where were you on May 2, 2011? I was at an Usher concert with a few friends. It was a great concert, and I enjoyed hearing Usher perform several hits from his newest album, Raymond v. Raymond. The concert, though, is not the reason I remember that day. I remember May 2, 2011 because of what happened after the concert. As my friends and I left the venue, we noticed a lot of people excitedly looking at their phones. We assumed they were just reliving the concert we all just experienced. Until, that is, a pick-up truck with a huge American flag in the back drove by and a man shouted from the window, “Osama’s dead! We got him!” On May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces, and people halfway around the world broke out in jubilant shouts.

What was behind that? How did the killing of a stranger thousands of miles away provoke joy and excitement in the parking lot of an Usher concert? To state it succinctly, celebration broke out in that parking lot because the death of bin Laden represented the satisfaction of a communal grief and rage that was occasioned by an act of true evil.

What about Psalm 137? How could a group of people unflinchingly state, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock” and then have the audacity to write such a statement down? More to the point, how does a psalm that celebrates little ones dashed against rocks (Ps. 137:9) belong in the same Bible where Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14)? In Psalm 137, the Bible confronts our modern sensibilities and gives us significant pause. The goal of this article is not to sanitize the passage by reading it allegorically, nor is the goal to assert that this passage is an aberration from the biblical witness. Instead, a careful and faithful reading of Psalm 137 leads us to Christ and, in so doing, provides us with the means by which we can engage with evil and suffering in our world today.

The Bible is a strange book. It’s okay to admit that. Psalm 137 was likely written in the 6th century BC in ancient Hebrew. The cultural and historical setting in which Psalm 137 was expressed is far removed from the United States in 2021. And yet, Christians recognize that presiding over the cultural and personal diversity that led to the Bible is a sovereign, powerful, and single Author. When we encounter passages that highlight cultural distance, our first reaction ought to be a humble curiosity.

Where does Psalm 137 fit in the story of history?  The first question a humble curiosity asks is one of context. Indeed, context will provide the key to understanding Psalm 137. Where does Psalm 137 sit in history, in the literary story, and in the redemptive story of Scripture? The historical setting of the psalm is apparent in the very first verse:

“By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.”

Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, writes of Psalm 137 that, “This psalm was almost certainly composed shortly after the deportation of the Judahites by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.”[1] Psalm 137 is one of the few psalms which makes clear its own historical context. The psalmist writes of the community of exiles sitting down by the waters of Babylon to weep. The city of Babylon and the surrounding country was known at that time for its extensive system of canals. The Jewish exiles likely retreated to different places of this system in order to gather as a community and, as this psalm makes clear, give voice to their grief.

But why grief? These original Jewish singers of this psalm lived through the capture of Jerusalem, the looting and destruction of the Temple, and their forced exile to Babylon. 2 Kings 25 describes the siege of Jerusalem lasting for two years. The siege resulted in a famine so severe that it led to mothers boiling their children for food (Lam. 4:9-10). The king at that time, Zedekiah, was captured. The Babylonians killed his sons in front of him and then put his eyes out so that the last thing he ever saw was the murder of his sons. The Temple was looted and burned down, along with the palace and all the houses of Jerusalem.

Psalm 137, then, is a song of lament. It is a communal expression of grief, an opportunity for the Jewish people to gather and tell the truth of their oppression. Their lament is further occasioned, however, by a more immediate context. In the midst of their weeping, their Babylonian captors goad them on, “Sing us one of your Zion songs.” These Zion songs are scattered throughout the Psalter and scholars have identified several of them. One of them is Psalm 48, which opens with, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King. Within her citadels God has made himself known as a fortress.”

Can you imagine the scene Psalm 137 depicts? The people of Judah are gathered along the canals of Babylon, lamenting the death and destruction visited upon them. And then, like taunting schoolboys, their captors jeer at them: “Sing us one of your songs! How about that one that says Zion is the city of the great king? The one that says God has made himself known as a fortress?” A hermeneutic of humble curiosity necessarily entails empathy, particularly since Christians are grafted into the story of Israel. The story of these Jewish exiles in the 6th century BC is our story. We weep with them.

Where does Psalm 137 fit in the literary story of Scripture?  History is not the only important context we must examine. The Bible is a book written by one Author through many individual authors. Where does Psalm 137 fit within that picture? Here it is helpful to introduce the idea of a canonical reading of Scripture. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it became popular among scholars to attempt to trace the various sources of the Bible to disparate authors. Instead of recognizing the unity of Scripture, scholars sought to dissect Scripture, particularly the Old Testament. A professor of Old Testament at Yale University changed this with the introduction of the “canonical reading” of the Bible. Brevard Childs asserted that it was most helpful to approach the Bible as it is received by faith communities. In other words, rather than dissecting Scripture into many individual parts, Childs recognized the Bible as a united literary document which deserved study as such. A canonical reading of the Psalms, then, considers questions such as the arrangement of the psalms and how the book functions as a literary whole.

Scholars have generally identified five ‘books’ within the Psalms. Psalm 137 is located in Book V of the Psalter. This final section of the Psalter consists of Psalms 107-150. O. Palmer Robertson describes Book V as “the climactic praises of the consummation of the kingdom” (emphasis in original).[2] Interestingly, the Psalm itself sits within a trio of Psalms that serve as a hinge between two larger collections within the book. Psalms 120-134 are known collectively as the Songs of Ascent. Psalms 138-145 are the fourth and final collection of Psalms attributed to David.[3] Psalms 135-137, then, are a “hinge collection” focused on historical recollection. Within this trio, however, Psalm 137 is unique in its recollection of devastation and grief, rather than redemption and thanksgiving. The uniqueness of Psalm 137 should not be understood as a misplacement. Instead, in the canonical reading of the Psalter, one is prepared for the grief encountered in Psalm 137 by the history of God’s faithfulness in Pss. 135 and 136.

Further, the placement of Psalm 137 before the final collections of Davidic psalms is an intentional editorial decision in which grief and uncertainty does not have the final word. Psalm 138 records the prophetic words of David:

“Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.
The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.”

Could it be that the compiler of the Psalter intentionally placed Psalm 137 as a reminder of the suffering of Israel, but with a look toward the future fulfillment of God’s good purposes?

Where does Psalm 137 fit in the redemptive story of Scripture?  In Luke 24, Jesus declares that everything written about him in the “Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). From the Scriptures, he shows his disciples that it was necessary and foreknown that “the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Within this schema, Scripture is intentional revelation by God that points to Christ. Thus, it is possible to understand the parts of Scripture within the larger story that it tells which finds its fulfillment in Christ. Having placed Psalm 137 within its immediate literary and historical context, it is necessary to situate the psalm within the larger biblical story, with special attention to Jesus. With this in view, it will become clear that Psalm 137 not only belongs within the Christian Bible, but Psalm 137 itself proclaims the truth of Christ.

The psalm ends with a clear emotional turn. The psalmist turns from focusing primarily on grief to focusing explicitly on rage. The rage is expressed with a certain offensive particularity: “Blessed is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”  This turn in emotion, however, is not alone. More important than the turn in emotion in verse seven, is the turn in audience. The passage turns from addressing one another to addressing God himself. “Remember, O LORD…” The turn in emotion is matched by the turn in audience. We can’t miss this or else we will misread the whole psalm. As the psalm concludes with an expression of rage, it is the first time the psalm explicitly addresses God. And it addresses God in a way that hurts our ears.

Psalm 137 is not an accidental piece of the Old Testament. It is tied to the historical reality of Jewish captivity in Babylon and woven into the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. It is this second aspect we turn to now. Psalm 137, specifically vv. 7-9, only makes sense in a covenantal context. We noted above the significance of the community call for the LORD to remember the day of Jerusalem. Specifically, the call to remember is a key covenant word. Exodus 2:24 describes previously God remembering his covenant that he made with his people. Leviticus 26:40-45 provides a stirring foundation for Israel to call upon God to remember. The promise of God is to remember his covenant and rescue his people from the land of their enemies (to which he brought them!).

Specifically in Psalm 137:7, however, the LORD is to remember not the Israelites and his covenant, but the transgressions of the Edomites. Prophets such as Obadiah and Ezekiel record the transgressions of the Edomites as well as the promises of God to punish them. More than punishing Edom, however, God has promised to utterly destroy Babylon. It is in this context that vv. 8-9 begin to make sense within the Jewish Scriptures and then the Christian Bible.

Before the exile occurred, God granted a vision to Isaiah son of Amoz regarding the fate of Babylon. It is recorded in Isaiah 13 and has identified the day of the fall of Babylon as the day of the LORD, יֹום יְהוָה. This day of the LORD is no ordinary day. The prophets repeatedly reference this day as the day when all wrongs will be made right, the wicked will be slain, and the righteous will live forever. Isaiah references that day as the day when “the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth” (Isaiah 10:20). He further describes that day as the day that “the LORD will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people” from all across the world (Isaiah 11:11). In that day, the people will once again sing songs of the LORD declaring that he is their strength and their salvation (Isaiah 12).

The day of the LORD brings with it not only restoration, but destruction as well. In Isaiah 13, for instance, God declares, “I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity” (Isaiah 13:11). This is not only the world, but Babylon specifically. Isaiah records God’s promise that, “Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes.” On the day of the LORD, God will dash the infants of Babylon in pieces, something that would inevitably happen if an ancient army were to conquer Babylon (or any other city).

Now Psalm 137 begins to become clearer. The community of exiles weeping by the waters of Babylon are calling for the day of the LORD. God has promised his covenant people that he will return them from exile and visit a just reward upon their captors. He promised this before he even sent them to exile. Psalm 137 contrasts the “day of Jerusalem” with the day of the LORD promised in Isaiah 13 and alluded to in Psalm 137:9. The astonishing and overwhelming image of dashing infants on the rocks is not the product of some twisted or vengeful human imagination. It is a call for God to be faithful to his covenant promises.

It cannot be avoided that the words of verse 9 offend the reader. Placed within the wider biblical context, however, the reader realizes that these offensive words are ultimately just. Brueggemann is helpful here:

[Psalm 137:7-9] reminds us that the stark claims of the holy God override all our conventional humaneness. Of course, we are called to humaneness, but we must not be so reductionist as to imagine that commitment to the holy center can be translated into human kindness. Theological centering, faith in God, has its own say, and in times of stress it must needs be an affront.[4]

This admirable and relentless focus on (and plea for) God’s promises is not unique even with the Psalter to Psalm 137. The entire book begins with the blessings bestowed to the righteous man and the curses pronounced on the wicked. The righteous will prosper and will be like a tree planted by streams of water, but not the wicked. “The wicked will not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:5-6).

Further, God has appointed the one who is to execute his judgment on the nations. Isaiah 11 speaks of the shoot that will come forth from the stump of Jesse. This man will “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Is. 11:4b). Christians know this shoot of Jesse as the God-man, Jesus Christ.

The person of Jesus himself is the key. In Jesus, one finds the Lion and the Lamb. Revelation 5 describes a vision by the Apostle John. Upon finding the scroll that no one can open, John weeps in despair. An elder in heaven, however, says to him, “‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered…” (Rev. 5:5). When John looks, however, he sees not a lion, but a Lamb, “standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6). Which was it? The Lion that the elder saw or the Lamb that John saw? They both saw Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb. Christ is the fulfillment of Psalm 137 and the unifying structure of the entire Christian Bible. Psalm 137 belongs in the Christian Bible because Psalm 137 contains Christ.

Where does Psalm 137 fit in our story today?  A professor at Columbia University, Andrew Delbanco, wrote, “A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it.” In other words, our culture is one in which we see evil clearly and often; yet we possess few true resources to cope with such evil. This is not difficult to see. Consider the news cycle or your Twitter timeline. Whether it is the evil of sexual assault, or the evil of war and oppression, evil is in front of us.

We also don’t have to look far to realize that our culture does not fully know how to respond to evil. We are keen on revenge, but dispute what true justice looks like. Psalm 137 is the ancient Jewish reaction to a high visibility of evil and those ancient Jews turn to the only resources available to them: Scripture. Psalm 137, then, is not some twisted, creative imagination. Instead, this psalm is a direct appeal to God’s Word revealed in Scripture.

Here’s where we come in. We can follow the example of those who have gone before us. This is how we can pray Psalm 137 today. We call on and plead with God to be faithful to his promises. And we know that all of God’s promises find their Yes and Amen in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). The exiles by the waters of Babylon appealed to God’s Word revealed in Scripture and we do the same today. And we have so much more – we have the Word himself who has revealed the glory of the Father (John 1).

It is all too easy as Christians in the United States in the 21st century to imagine ourselves as standing alone, unique in our relationship to God and to the world. But to isolate ourselves in this way is a tragic mistake. Our entire faith is reliant on continuity with a story that began before the foundation of the world. God, in his wisdom and mercy, has not left us alone. It is true that our cultural moment is one that brings a uniquely high visibility of evil. We feel as though we have no resources to cope. As Christians, though, we stand in a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). Psalm 137 points us back to help us look forward to Christ.

[1] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol 3: The Writings (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 312-313.

[2] O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering their Structure and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 184.

[3] Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms, 218.

[4] Brueggemann, The Message of The Psalms, 76.

Joe holds a Masters of Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary, and currently serves on the pastoral staff of McLean Presbyterian Church. He graduated from American University, where he majored in International Studies with a focus on identity, race, gender, and culture. Joe believes the gospel is big enough to capture all of life and hopes to be a part of bringing that to reality in people’s lives.

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