Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Skeptics will often ask how this can possibly be the word of any God. Christians seldom have a good answer, because they often claim that the Bible and everything therein, IS the Word of God. Both end up missing out on one of the most powerful and, to me, one of the most beautiful passages in the entire Bible.
How can that verse be beautiful? It is ugly, it is vile, and it is horrible to imagine what that verse describes.
Context is key.
That is not just a verse in the Bible. That is the last line of a poem, or song, a dirge, a lament. It is a very human writing that reveals the tortured emotions of a person, or a people, who a long, long time ago, traveled through this very same veil of tears. It may have been written by a woman who had experienced the horrors of wholesale slaughter. Perhaps she watched her neighbors, even her own family being butchered before her eyes. Perhaps we’ll never know. All we have are the words, perhaps her words.
In the 6th century BCE, Judah was a vassal kingdom to the Babylonian Empire. A vassal kingdom would often get to control its territory however it chose, providing that it met a few basic requirements of its overlord, such as; provide men for armies, cohabitate with surrounding vassal kingdoms and pay a regular tribute to the Empire. They had to pay their taxes, so to speak.
Zedekiah, the son of Josiah was the Davidic king of Judah. His decisions determined how his kingdom would be treated by the Empire. Peoples was just peoples, like peoples have always been. They did what they could to survive, they raised their children and they sought whatever enjoyment that they could find out of life.
Zedekiah, the leader of this tiny kingdom, decided to rebel against the Babylonian Empire. That would be like Providence, Rhode Island rebelling against the United States of America.
2 Kings 25 gives what could be a contemporary account of the events that followed. The Babylonian army, reinforced by soldiers from other vassal kingdoms, including Judah’s neighbor, Edom, laid siege to Jerusalem, broke down the city walls and King Zedekiah fled for his life. He was soon caught and forced to watch his sons, the lineage of his rule, slain before his eyes. Then those eyes were taken.
He and many other people of the community were then led off to Babylon as slaves. Part of the process would have been to break the spirits of the captives. Cruel methods have always been employed by humans to destroy another’s world. One would be to kill husbands in front of their wives or parents in front of their children, or to take a helpless infant from a nursing mother, hold him or her by their little feet and bash their heads against a rock. The inhumanity of humanity is shocking at times. The desire for vengeance is understandable.
Psalms 137 is a reflection of the experience of one of those captives. It relays the loss, the hopelessness, the pain and the betrayal at the hands of their own neighbors, the Edomites. Now try reading it, in context, through that lens. See if you see what I see.
Psalm 137 NRSV
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows —there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!