3 things you never knew about Psalm 137
By Jean E. Jones
Psalm 137: 9 shocks: “Blessed is he who takes your little ones and hurls them against the rock!” “
But before we skip this verse, let’s take a look at three things most people don’t know about it, things that help make sense of words and explain the psalmist’s motivations for writing them.
1. The psalmist writes from his exile in what is now southern Iraq.
The psalmist wrote this poem while in exile in Babylon (now southern Iraq). He tells us that he and the other captives wept when they remembered Zion.
Zion was the Temple Hill which included Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish nation, Judah. The ruthless Babylon had besieged Jerusalem long enough to cause widespread famine. Finally, Babylonian troops breached the city walls, looted treasures and burned buildings. They slaughtered the young, the old and the infirm. Most were killed by the sword and the lance and the arrow, but the little children – well, the little children that they threw to the ground. This is how the old armies waged war. It kept children from growing up for revenge and terrorized parents until they submitted.
The Babylonians then chained the survivors and drove them into exile. The nations of Israel and Judah were gone and the exiles wept bitterly. They mourned the destruction of their homeland, the death of so many loved ones and their captivity in a foreign land. Some cried in disbelief, wondering why God had forsaken them (Psalm 89:49), because many false prophets had assured them that God would only bring peace because he did not care how they lived. as long as they offered sacrifices in the temple. (Jeremiah 7: 9-10).
But the righteous knew that the proclaimers of peace were false prophets, and they wept in repentance. (Daniel 9: 4-15). They knew that God had proclaimed from the time of Moses that if his people forsook him they would drive them out of the country.
Judah’s fate was sealed when one of her kings filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, including that of his own sons, which he burned as a sacrifice to the god Molech (2 Kings 24: 3-4; 2 Chronicles 33: 6). However, the message of doom was accompanied by hope: exile was necessary to give them “A future and a hope” and he promised to restore them in 70 years (Jeremiah 29: 10-11).
As the exiles cried, their captors laughed at them, saying: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion! (Psalm 137: 3). Songs from Zion celebrated God’s past deliverances. But there was no victory to celebrate here, only defeat to mourn.
And that’s how the poet wrote this psalm instead. He gave the exiles a song to both express their grief and guide their hope.
2. Psalm 137: 9 is based on righteousness eye for eye.
The Lord through Moses instituted an eye for an eye system of justice where the punishment matched the crime (lex talionis). Their laws prohibited avengers from punishing a wrongdoer beyond what he had done: if he intentionally hurt someone, he would receive an equal injury in return. Ideally, such a system prevented bickering from escalating while still delivering justice.
Psalm 137: 8 speaks of Babylon being repaid by having her redo precisely what she did to the Jews. Verse 9 names the crime: killing babies. To the exiles, such justice would show that God stands up for the oppressed and cares about righting wrongs.
3. Psalm 137: 9 invokes an earlier prophecy.
Psalm 137: 8-9 does not ask God for the fate of Babylon, but rather assumes it. Why? Because the true prophets said Babylon would exile the Jews for 70 years, after which God would send the Persians (Medes) against Babylon and the Jews would return home. The prophet Isaiah said this would happen in Babylon: “Their children will be torn to pieces before their eyes” (Isaiah 13:16).
The psalmist does not invent a horrible punishment. It demonstrates faith that what Isaiah and the other prophets foretold would happen. Babylon would fall and the exiles would return to the land. Psalm 137: 9 turned the hopes of the exiles towards restoration.
Jean E. Jones is co-author of the next one, Discover hope in the Psalms, from Harvest House. She wrote for The Christian woman of today and HomeLife. She is the author of the free resource recommended by Zondervan for The story study programme : The Story: Personal Journal and Discussion Guide. She resides in Southern California, where she writes Bible studies for churches and is a research assistant to her husband, Clay Jones, an associate professor in the Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. She blogs at www.jeanejones.net.
Editor’s Note: This content has been adapted from the original article “5 Things You Never Knew About Psalm 137: 9” which can be read in full here.
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