Many years ago, I met someone who, when they found out I was a Christian, brought up a verse in the Bible that explained why they had a “problem” with God. The verse is this one from Psalm 137:9. What was interesting about this person and the verse they brought up was that someone else had pointed it out to them as an explanation of why they didn’t follow the Lord. Thus, one person passed on their misunderstanding to another.

Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:9 (NIV)

Like all Scripture, this verse must be read in context. Otherwise, we cannot understand its meaning.

In this verse, we not only have the textual context but there’s historical and genre context. While the textual context gives us some indication of how to interpret this verse, understanding the historical context gives us a better understanding. The genre context is also helpful.

The textual context provides us with a good view of the historical context; if we already know the historical context. Otherwise, the meaning can get lost. Verse 1 provides us with the setting.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

Psalm 137:1 (NIV)

The “we’ in this sentence are the Jewish exiles residing in Babylon. Zion is their home in Israel, Jerusalem. These Jewish exiles saw their homes destroyed and their families and friends raped and murdered. Then, they were taken away to live in the same land of those who committed such horrendous acts against them.

For there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

Psalm 137:3 (NIV)

Instead of commiserating with the Jews in exile, the Babylonians near them wanted them to behave as if nothing had happened. Their Babylonian captors didn’t just ask for them to sing joyful songs, but they demanded it of the Jews.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

Psalm 137:4 (NIV)

Although conflict has already been introduced into this Psalm through the historical and textual context, this verse gives us insight into the core problem of the Psalmist.

The following two verses reinforce the Psalmist’s love for the Lord and for his lost home of Jerusalem.

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Psalm 137:5-6 (NIV)

This next verse recalls how the Edomites responded when Jerusalem fell and is a call to the Lord for action.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”

Psalm 137:7 (NIV)

When Jerusalem was conquered, the enemies of the Jews rejoiced. This means they celebrated every atrocity that occurred.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.

Psalm 137:8 (NIV)

This verse recounts the prophecies against Babylon. Particularly the one in Isaiah 13. “Happy is the one” will be the entity that fulfills the Lord’s prophecy against Babylon. It’s also a reflection of the joy expressed by Israel’s enemies when Jerusalem fell, as described in the previous verse.

Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:9 (NIV)

Continuing from the previous verse is the notion that the one who exacts the Lord’s vengeance on his enemies will be happy in what they do. This verse also reflects what the Babylonians did to the Jews (and probably all of their enemies). The Babylonians dashed Jewish infants against rocks. This verse also echoes Isaiah 13:16, indicating that the Psalmist refers to this prophecy against Babylon.

Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives violated.

Isaiah 13:16 (NIV)

Thus, the historical and textual context reveals to us the intention and meaning behind Psalm 137:9. The final context is that of genre.

This Psalm is an Imprecatory Psalm. “Imprecate” means to “pray against evil.” The Psalms were songs and, like lots of music, expressed strong emotions, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see language like this.

After all this, how can we determine that it’s not God’s heart we see in Psalm 137 but the aching heart of a tortured people?

God had much to say through the prophets about how the people sent to exact justice acted. One place we see this is in Ezekiel.

Because you rejoiced when the inheritance of Israel became desolate, that is how I will treat you. You will be desolate, Mount Seir, you and all of Edom. Then they will know that I am the Lord.’ ”

Ezekiel 35:15 (NIV)

God doesn’t like it if we rejoice when our enemies fall. In fact, we get a clear picture of how we are to treat our enemies from Scripture.

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

1 Peter 3:9 (NIV)

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Matthew 5:44 (NIV)

Scripture also gives us this intelligence about revenge.

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Romans 12:19 (NIV

Through this post, I hope you have a better understanding of God and Psalm 137:9 than I did so many years ago. Thank you for stopping by.