How to Redeem Psalm 137:9 (Smashing Children against Rocks) and Other Imprecatory Prayers

Rocks

It is, without a doubt, one of the most disturbing verses in the Bible.

How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock! (Psalm 137:9, NET)

It’s sickening! How could anyone even think of smashing innocent kids against a rock, let alone imagine being blessed for such an action?

How on earth could an inspired Bible include such a travesty? What’s going on here?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading recently about violence in the Bible and what we should make of it. Along with that, I’ve been questioning what it means for the Bible to be inspired, and how we’re supposed to interpret it. And you know what? I haven’t come to many firm conclusions yet. I’ll be sure to let you know if I do.

But for now, what I do know is that the Bible is somehow inspired by God. And I know that the Bible—all of it—is profitable for us as Christians. So even a verse as horrible as Psalm 137:9 must have something positive to teach us. That’s what I want to look at now.

* * *

Psalm 137 is an example of an “imprecatory” psalm. That’s a fancy way of saying that such psalms “invoke judgment, calamity, or curses, upon one’s enemies or those perceived as the enemies of God” (Wikipedia).

One of the most important things to remember with the Psalms is that they are expressions of human emotion. Regardless of how you might view inspiration, inerrancy, or infallibility, we can at least agree that the Psalms accurately express what the psalmists were feeling. Imprecatory psalms are directed to God, but they come from the perspective of men.

This shows that God wants us to be honest with him. Even though the desire for vengeance is wrong, God still wants us to honestly express what we’re feeling.

Furthermore, in most cases, such imprecatory prayers resolve with the psalmist entrusting his sinful desires to God. The psalmist chooses not to take vengeance into his own hands. Even though he wants to see his enemies destroyed, he trusts God to act justly on his behalf.

So, for example, when David prays, “Let death deceive them. May they descend to Sheol alive, because evil is in their home and heart” (Psalm 55:15, LEB), he immediately follows it up with, “As for me, I will call to God, and Yahweh will save me. Morning, noon and night I will lament and groan loudly, and he will hear my voice” (verses 16–17).

These psalms should not teach us to desire vengeance. Rather, they teach us to be honest with God about our struggles and to entrust those struggles to him.

* * *

With this in mind, let’s take another look at Psalm 137:9. In context, the psalmist is speaking as a captive during the Babylonian exile. The Babylonians had quite literally smashed Israel’s own children against the rocks. The psalmist responds honestly, saying that he wants revenge. “May the same fate befall the Babylonians’ children!”

Now let’s be clear that such vengeance is not God’s will. God absolutely does not consider a man “blessed” who takes vengeance on his enemies’ children! These are, however, the accurately recorded feelings of the psalmist. His wish for revenge is wrong—but it is at least honest. And ultimately, the psalmist asks Yahweh to punish the Babylonians (verse 7), rather than taking it into his own hands.

In summary, Psalm 137:9 records the words of a man, representing a brokenhearted people whose lands have been taken and whose children have been killed. He pours out his heart to God, honestly expressing his understandable anger, along with his sinful desire for vengeance. And he places his anger in God’s hands, allowing Yahweh to act on his behalf.

* * *

What are we to redeem from this?

First, we can never use such verses to excuse violence or to endorse our hatred of enemies. Jesus’ words on this matter are perfectly clear (Matthew 5:43–48), and his testimony must trump all others.

However, we do need to be honest with God. Even when our desires are wrong, we need to express them to God. He knows about them anyway, and he forgives us.

And finally, when we have such desires, we have to entrust them to God. Rather than acting out our sinful wishes, we place our anger in his hands, and we trust that he will make everything right in the end.