The Return of the King? A Canonical Reading of Psalm 137

In my last couple of posts, I’ve discussed the imprecatory psalms. First, we considered how C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller, great minds though they are, make some big mistakes with these psalms. Second, we considered how we mustn’t let the fact that these psalms are spoken by the messianic king mean that we keep them at arm’s length. If you’ve not read those pieces, they might provide some helpful background.

Any discussion of the imprecatory psalms, sooner or later, gets to Psalm 137. Usually, it’s sooner. When I spoke on the Psalms on a church student weekend recently, one of the first questions in the Q&A was “should we pray Psalm 137?” A very good question.

By way of reminder, here’s the psalm:

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick 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,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

The opening verses are well known, and have been put to many beautiful musical settings over the centuries (my favourite is by Mountain Man). Such is their beauty, in fact, that they are often wilfully divorced from the shocking violence of the final verse.

There have been many attempts to, in one way or another, get around the surface meaning of these verses: that the psalmist (an Israelite victim of Babylon’s sack of Jerusalem) regards as blessed the person who dashes the children of Babylon against the rock. Suffice to say, as understandable and well-intentioned as such attempts are, I just don’t think any do justice to the text (you can listen to an excellent episode of the Theopolis Podcast on this psalm, which weighs the various options and finds them wanting). Isaiah 13:16 prophesies the same thing in judgement of Babylon: “Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.”

What are we to make of such vile words? Reading Psalm 137, we can see why C.S. Lewis said the things he did about the imprecatory psalms.

I don’t want to be glib about the difficulty of this passage. With space constraints, though, I’ll limit myself here to saying that I think the ultimate answer, theologically, lies in understanding how, throughout Scripture, God is rightly blessed for bringing judgement on man (e.g. Rev. 19:1-3), and yet he never delights in the death of the wicked (Ex. 33:11). If you’ve agreed with my previous posts on the imprecatory psalms, then my guess is you’ll have a similar feeling about where our “answer” to this psalm lies. There’s so much more to say on that, but that’s not our focus here.

Rather, in this post I want to suggest (tentatively) a reading of Psalm 137 which, I think, bolsters that broad theological answer.

Toward A Canonical Reading

Greater sense may perhaps be made of Psalm 137 by subjecting it to a “canonical reading”; that is, reading it in the context of, and in relation to, the rest of Scripture.

Due to their form, we tend to treat the Psalms in isolation, as self-contained spiritual cereal bars. But the Psalms are a collection of poetry, not an anthology. Anthologies (probably the way most of us receive poetry, if at all) put otherwise unconnected poems together in one volume (100 Best Beloved Children’s Poems, that sort of thing). Collections, however, are how poets tend to write and present their own works; and, in a collection, the poems have an organic relationship to one another, being very carefully arranged so that the meditative reader will find links between them.

The rise of canonical reading is probably one of the few examples of a genuinely positive development in twentieth century biblical studies. Gordon Wenham gives a great outline of its rise in a chapter of The Psalter Reclaimed.[1] Wenham says three contexts are imperative for canonical readings: that of the whole Psalter; that of the Jewish canon; that of the Christian canon in the Old and New Testaments.[2]

I want to suggest that focussing on the first context (the whole Psalter) may help to illuminate Psalm 137 some more. The below is an attempt at a constructive reading, but is, as I’ve said, somewhat tentative.

Let’s start with this observation: Psalm 137 comes at an odd point in the Psalter.

We are in Book V of the Psalms. Book IV ends with Psalm 106, recounting Israel’s descent into wickedness and eventual exile. Before the book’s closing blessing in 106:48, the psalm-proper ends with the exilic plea “Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name” (106:47). Book IV closes with the lingering question of whether or not God will deliver Israel from exile.

Book V opens with Psalm 107–a psalm all about God, in steadfast covenant love, restoring his exiled people “from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (107:3).

Next, Psalm 108-110 are a cluster of Davidic psalms. These were few and far between in Book IV–of its 17 psalms, only 2 are “Of David”. This seems to be partly because Book IV focuses on the kingship of the LORD himself in Psalms 93-100, responding to Book III’s concluding psalm, Psalm 89. Like Book IV, Book III also ends in exile, but with its focus on the fallen state of the monarchy itself rather than Israel as a whole: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (89:49).

So, if Psalm 107 restores Israel from the exile, Psalms 108-110 restore the king from exile with triumph over his enemies, chastened and reassured by God’s ultimate, heavenly kingship in Psalm 93-100. Psalm 110 is a messianic “climax” to this trio, with its vision of the king’s enemies under his feet, as he refreshes himself at the brook (a la Psalm 1) and has his read raised (cf. Ps. 3:3).

We then hit a run of largely exuberant praise, kicked off by Psalms 111 and 112, and the Davidic king disappears somewhat (though not entirely e.g. Psalm 118:22,26 are key messianic verses). 113-118 are the “Hallels”, which became associated with Passover (itself a foreshadowing of the return from exile). Psalm 119 is the great poem of meditation upon the law, and Psalms 120-134 give us the Songs of Ascent, completing the journey home from exile by arriving in Jerusalem.

The king is a presence in the Songs of Ascent, but possibly (I’m perhaps most tentative here) in a different mode to normal. Four of these psalms are “Of David” (122, 124, 131, and 133); one is of Solomon (127); and one is highly focussed on God’s oath to David (132). Given that these psalms are related to the journey to worship in Jerusalem, the focus seems to be on the cultic, worship-related function of the king, rather than his role as a warrior and ruler. The king here is dancing (2 Sam. 6) and sitting (2 Sam. 7) before the ark, rather than fighting his enemies. We have moved from a king who is a man of war shedding blood (1 Chr. 28:3) to one whose hands are clean enough to worship. There is a curious lack of enemies in the Songs of Ascent.

The Songs of Ascent give way to the joyful praise of Psalm 135 and 136. Although the Psalms crescendo in “Hallelujahs!” in 146-150, 136 feels like something of a peak. The repeated refrain of “for his steadfast love endures forever!” sums up the return from exile we’ve seen so far in Book V.

And then comes Psalm 137.

The Return of the King?

Psalm 137 is an immense comedown. One moment, in 136:26, we are rejoicing in the steadfast love of the LORD. The next, in 137:1, we are “By the waters of Babylon.” Psalms 107-136 have traced Israel’s return from exile, and the restoration of the king, leading us all the way back to Jerusalem, to the temple itself. And then Babylon–or perhaps the memory of it–crashes the party, and we are whisked away from the promised land again. You can imagine it as a scene from a film or TV show: our lead character is at peace, lost in the moment, and then a dark flashback tears things asunder.

Psalm 137’s placing, perhaps, shows the lingering spectre of Babylon and exile. Israel lost the land once, after all. Could it happen again? Psalm 137, perhaps, answers a firm “no” to these questions, because in this psalm we see the return of the king who has been gone in 111-136.

Close attention to Psalm 137 will reveal that the one who dashes the little ones of Babylon on the rocks is not just anyone, but is the king and the king alone. The word for “dashes” in 137:9 is a rarely used Hebrew verb–נָפַץ (naphats), elsewhere translated “to shatter” or “to break into pieces”. This word is only used one other time in the Psalms: Psalm 2:9. There, God says to his anointed king: “You shall break [the nations] with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Such a choice word is, I think, very intentional. “To dash”, in the Psalms, is the exclusive action of the Messiah. And so the one Psalm 137 refers to is not just anybody taking judgement into their hands, but rather God’s chosen king. It is worth noting too that, although we would class this as an imprecatory psalm, the psalmist here is not directly imprecating against the little ones of Babylon; that is he, he is not calling on God to perform this dashing. The psalmists have no hesitation in calling on God to bring judgement usually, and so it is worth noting that here, at the extremity of the Psalter’s judgement, wrath is not actually called down. Rather, to an even greater degree than normal, it is left in the hands of another. The psalmist merely acknowledges that the one who performs it will be “blessed”; and, as we have noted, God is “blessed” in performing judgement, and yet the tragedy of such judgement remains.

As we’ve suggested, Psalms 108-110 “restore” the Davidic king from exile, culminating in the mighty, victorious images of the latter psalm. Then, the king recedes from the picture–and why not? All is well in the land, and he can enjoy the rest and worship of the temple. Then, in Psalm 137, the old enemy looms once more–like the dragon in Beowulf, calling our hero into battle again, years after we thought peace had been achieved with the slaying of Grendel and his mother.

The time comes, then, for the king to return. Perhaps for the final time, he must gird his sword on his side and deal with Babylon once and for all. This, surely, is why the “little ones” of Babylon are in view. As with the death of any human being, the LORD’s heart breaks with the death of a child, and so there is no vindictive, vengeful pleasure here. Rather, with the death of its young, the psalmist knows that Babylon’s influence in the world will finally be snuffed out.

After Psalm 137, Psalms 138-145 are a solid run of David psalms, before the concluding praises of 146-150. Perhaps, after returning to the fight in Psalm 137, 138-145 give us a final presentation of the victorious Messiah ensconced in Jerusalem.

The above reading is, as I said, constructive and tentative. I don’t expect it to have resolved all of the problems many of us may have with Psalm 137. But I hope that, at the very least, it shows that the psalm is not a venomous bolt from the blue. If we treat it that way, we’ll never understand why it’s in the Scriptures. Rather, we must seek to understand it within the canon of the Psalms as a whole.

  1. Gordon Wenham, “Reading the Psalms Canonically” in The Psalter Reclaimed (Wheaton, 2013: Crossway), 57-79.

  2. Wenham, “Reading the Psalms Canonically”, 77.


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