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?