Cassiodorus on the Violence in Psalm 137

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!
– Psalm 137:7-9

Psalm 137 is one of the most violent Psalms in the famous Judeo-Christian prayer book. It’s a classic “problem text” for many Christians, as the prayer that the children of one’s enemy may have their head smashed upon rocks seems completely at odds with Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies.

How should Christians read this text?
Can a Christian legitimately pray this prayer about one’s own enemies?
How can we reconcile this text with Jesus’ teachings?

As explained in detail in Mark Sheridan’s Language For God in the Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphisms (full review coming soon), the church fathers almost unanimously considered this text to be irreconcilable (on a literal sense) with the teachings of the New Testament. This led them to various interpretive strategies such as the use of allegorical interpretations.

Cassiodorus, in his commentary on this Psalm, quotes 1 Corinthians 10:11 and says that “we must interpret these events spiritually.” He goes on to say:

“They are still addressing the flesh, stating that the person who takes hold of his little ones, meaning his harmful vices, is blessed, because he has already made progress towards controlling them; for when we hold something we take it in our power, and it ceases to be free since it has begun to be enslaved by us…. We do will to analyze their phrase: Thy little ones, meaning sins of the flesh born of a wretched mother. While small they are easily grasped and effectively dashed against the heavenly Rock; but once they begin to mature and reach a most vigorous manhood, sterner struggle is commenced with them, and they are not easily overcome by our weakness.” (Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms; ACW 53:364.)

Notice two things here:
– Cassiodorus agrees with the majority of early Christian interpreters (from both the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools) that a literal sense of the text (the wishing of children’s skulls to be crushed on rocks) is unfitting (“not worthy of” … a common interpretive move by the Church Fathers when encountering anthropomorphisms or violent/angry language) of God and Christians.
– Cassiodorus also agrees with many of the other church Fathers in his interpretation that the “small children” represent the beginning stages of growth of vices which must be put to death in the Christian life, including, ironically, the desire to see enemies punished and killed. (Other Church Fathers who have a similar interpretation: Origen, Eusebius, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, and John Cassian.)

What do you think about Cassiodorus’ interpretation?
How would you suggest Christians read Psalm 137’s violent prayer?

3 thoughts on “Cassiodorus on the Violence in Psalm 137

  1. I remember back in college my bible professor explaining to me that psalms like this were known as “imprecatory” and that there were several possible interpretations:
    1. the literal interpretation that God would act with judgment to destroy the enemy/oppressor and that select humans may play a role (“blessed shall be he”)
    2. an interpretation similar to the Church fathers that the language is largely allegorical
    3. that the purpose of imprecations was to serve as catharsis for the hearers of the psalm who had been under the yoke of an oppressor and were not intended to be literally carried out.

    Growing up as I did in an Calvinistic evangelical tradition, Psalms like this, as well as other passages depicting a violent God were generally along the lines of God’s judgment (interpretation #1 above). That is, we humans don’t have the right to extract revenge or pay retribution in this manner, but God does. So coming from that tradition, one might see the “blessed ones” as being God’s chosen instruments to carry out this divine revenge.

    However, I have always been uncomfortable with this interpretation, primarily because it does seem to fly in the face of the example of both the words and deeds of Jesus. And if Jesus is God in flesh, than he seems to be a better model and example of God’s true character. It is interesting that the Church fathers took a more symbolic interpretation of “little ones”, and it would seem to help reconcile the imagery, but is there a solid foundation for this interpretation? If so, that would be encouraging and might help to explain other violent imagery found in the Old Testament.

    For now, my approach to passages like this is that 1) they are included in the Scriptures, so they are important to discuss, but 2) Not all Scripture is weighted equally, and I think all of Scripture needs to be interpreted through the lens of Jesus. So I always give greater weight to the words and deeds of Jesus whenever there is a question like this. Maybe that’s a cop-out, but I think sometimes this is the best approach, otherwise you’ll end up spinning your wheels.

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