The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The case for de-canonizing Ps. 137

Psalms 137 needs to be banished from the bible. It has become a disgrace because it appears to advocate not merely the death of ones enemy, but the delightful murder of the babies of ones enemy in the most violent way: dashing them against rocks. It is the favorite passage used by atheists to discredit and malign the loving nature of God and the inspiration of the scriptures. How can those who hold to the pro-life position as well as Christs teaching on turning the other cheek accept this as being in harmony with the rest of scripture?

The only reason it has remained in the scriptures is because the Jewish tradition handed it down as a part of their book of Psalms.

The Psalms are not a book at all. The Psalms are a compilation of song lyrics written over the course of centuries. It is treated as a book because the Jews treated it that way. But the Jews have a late history of missing God and manipulating His Word. If that seems implausible, consider that even the prophet Jeremiah spoke of the “lying pen of the scribes”. Jesus confessed there were many Jewish “commandments taught by men.”

This particular Psalm has no author attribution and is quoted no where else in the bible. Just because a lyric is written by an ancient Jew does not make it worthy to be in the bible. Of all the Psalms this one seems the least worthy. It sullies the prophetic and poetic beauty of an otherwise excellent collection.

One might say Psalm 137 could have made the cut well enough without the last two verses which are about as lovely as street graffiti painted in blood. That aside, the very fact that it was written about the experience of Babylonian captivity puts its authorship 380+ years after the death of psalmists David, Asaph and the Sons of Korah. There are other Jewish writings from this late exile period which are not accepted into the biblical canon. Among them are Susanna as well as Bel and the Dragon. These were actually extended chapters to the Book of Daniel, but were extracted because they were discovered to be late additions not part of the original Daniel in Hebrew.

Yet the self identifying timeframe tells us that Psalms 137 was added to Psalms much later than the Davidic reign. David never laid eyes on this song. One wonders after having suffered the loss of children and at that even an infant, would David have approved such a song to be sung in the temple worship?

“happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us, he who dashes your infants against the rocks.”

This song belongs in the greatest hits of the United Kingdom of Israel no more than a song by Slayer belongs in a Gaither collection. Why don’t we fix this and simply admit it is an uninspired error that should not have made the cut in Jewish or Christian canon?

The recent publications of bibles seem to have no problem casting footnoted textual shade on John 8 and Mark 16 and neither does any harm to the narrative or nature of God. Yet the passages that seem to do the most violence to the narrative of the grace and goodness of God are guarded like Solomons vaults. How has textual criticism robbed us of the forgiveness and divine empowerment of Christ as they are found in John 8 and Mark 16, and yet they allow passages that impose ugly and oppressive human tendencies to go unquestioned?

This article is a great example of how Psalms 137 is defended and glossed. []
After trainloads of sentimental antecdotes, it finally asserts that we are being taught by Psalms 137 that all of us are potentially a victim and potentially a perpetrator. Really? And I suppose a German could assert that Mein Kamph has valuable lessons on how to be a humanitarian, if you just read it in the right perspective. All we have to do to excuse atrocity laden scripture is simple say, “Thats Gods way of telling us what He doesn’t want us to do.” Well if that’s the case with Psalms 137, God seems to have gone way over many peoples heads. Because it looks on its face like nothing more than singing out bitterness and hate for the people who God sent to judge them. How’s that for a second layer of irony? Babylon was ordained by God according to the prophets. Furthermore the people were commanded to pray for the peace and prosperity of their captors for the 70 years they were there because they were there by Gods command.

“And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” Jer. 29:7

Yet we have Psalm 137 doing the very opposite. Rather than confessing they were getting what they deserved and praying for the land where they lived, the author wallows in self pity and victimhood while wishing the worst kind of pain on their captors new born babies. The disagreement between Jeremiah 29:7 and Psalms 137 amounts to confusion. Both cannot be inspired scripture or else God becomes the author of confusion.

Psalms 137 stands disqualified in my estimation, but I hope that others with actual qualifications will someday take up these reasons and dash this lyric against the rocks for the good of us all.


I do not have actual qualifications! But we did have a thread on that Psalm a while back that had a little different take.

A while back indeed. I think many, many words are always required to beat that sword into a plowshare. I prefer to throw the sword in the lake and accept that Gods Word is in the Bible, but not everything in the Bible is Gods Word. Until the book falls straight from the sky theres always room to question the people who who edited the final version.

My point as well. I started that thread because of the concerns you raised- and to show that though the last verses are IN the bible, and could be understood in the context of the rest of the Psalm, does not mean the sentiments expressed at the end were God’s sentiments. The ‘kick’ at the end is what got my attention.
The tendency of some, to say ‘it’s in the bible and the bible is inspired so those words must also be inspired, which means they are direct from God and represent His will’ is of course simplistic since ‘inspired’ is ambiguous, and even if true, must extend to redactors.

I now think the Psalm is just fine, a poignant expression of what some exiled Jews were feeling ’ by the rivers of Babylon’, and expressing at the end the curse that God would visit the Babylonian atrocities with the same things the Babylonians had visited upon the Jews. Not a worthy emotion perhaps, but understandable. It does provide grist for the mill of atheists etc, but the fault is maybe not the Psalm but in the intentionally shallow heremeneutic of the AIQ (atheist in question).

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Like muslims do?

Im sure that makes complete sense to you, but I’ll need a bit more to go on.

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Muslims accept that God’s Word is in the Bible, but not everything in the Bible is God’s Word. The difference is in scope, but not in essence.

I would propose that God’s Word is hard to understand and that we are appointed by God to sweat in order to understand it (Genesis 3:19, as I see it, doesn’t talk only about physical food).

There are many layers to everything in God’s Word and here is an excerpt of interpretation that I think is great example of what one layer, probably among more important ones, says in Psalm 137:

In the spiritual interpretation of Psalm 137, the city of Babylon is a symbol of confusion, Jerusalem is a symbol of righteousness, and the psalmist (the Israelites) is a symbol of the soul. The overriding theme of the psalm, then, is that confusion carries the soul away from righteousness; confusion that mocks the soul by asking the believer bewildered by confusion to sing a song of the Lord while having been pulled away from righteousness. Yet even amidst confusion, the soul of the believers knows that it cannot sing a song of the Lord not dwelling in righteousness. Therefore, the believer will hang up his or her instruments on trees without roots and be silent. The tree without roots is meant to point out that confusion has no foundation. The musical instruments are the prayers that are silent while the believer is trapped in a state of confusion.

The daughter of Babylon (confusion) is sin and the children of sin are evil thoughts.The result of dwelling in confusion, even for the righteous, is sin. But blessed be the one who destroys the daughter of Babylon! Blessed is the one that cuts off every evil thought by dashing it against the rocks! The righteous person who destroys sin in the same fashion that confusion once destroyed the righteous is exceedingly happy. The righteous one who cuts off every evil thought while still newborn is glad. The destruction of all evil thoughts and of sin is the path back to righteousness. The path of repentance only comes as sin and evil thoughts are put to death. It is Christ’s death on the cross that sin to death once and for all and only through his power can we put to death the evil thoughts that are the offspring of sin. In eradicating all evil thoughts, we return to Jerusalem, the place of the righteous.

And all of this is necessary because we live on this razor edge called bible infallibility. We have to find a way to make everything justified no matter how hard we strain because the alternative is to slip and cut ourselves in half.
I think that Jesus gave us a standard thats pretty good. If you can build a house on it, its a rock. If it keeps needing to get propped up and rebuilt, its sand. The Word of God is supposed to be a foundation, not just an expression. Everything thats good bears good fruit. If it does not bear good fruit its supposed to be uprooted. All Jesus by the way. I used to be scared to death of the slippery slope of questioning anything in the bible. But the more I learn about how it was compiled and how Jesus challenged tradition, I feel like we can still maintain Gods favor and wisdom without bowing down to a bunch of medieval mens dictate on what is the Word of God. Enoch was in the 1611 KJV. Not anymore. Somebody decided that and didn’t get their head cut off.
Now all that said, I think the only good reason to question anything at this point is its harmony with who God revealed himself to be. Erasing passages to accommodate sin and selfishness is no good. But if anyone were to suggest Im editing Gods Word, I would tel them they are reading a highly edited version already.

Alleghorizing what is meant to be taken literally is not much different than questioning its canonicity.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matt 11:28-30

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. Deut. 30:11-14

Do you deny God’s Word is hard to understand? Not much to be said then, since you read it all with ease. And you also have a “great” solution when you stumble upon a rock: the one that’s not easy to get, toss out. You really have it easy.

P.S. Understanding multiple layers of message is not questioning the canon. And Psalm, by definition a song, is first a symbol, then a literal expression.

“Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; or their true import is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference. Human language, you well know, admits various interpretations; and every word and every sentence must be modified and explained according to the subject which is discussed, according to the purposes, feelings, circumstances, and principles of the writer, and according to the genius and idioms of the language which he uses. These are acknowledged principles in the interpretation of human writings; and a man, whose words we should explain without reference to these principles, would reproach us justly with a criminal want of candor, and an intention of obscuring or distorting his meaning.” - Channing

Im showing you Gods Word relating to that assertion. God seems to say in these passages He doesn’t want it to be hard. Perhaps you have a scripture where He says He does?

Thats a fair rebuttal. However I think 99.99% of the bible Is Gods Word. Psalm 137 is not. If its going to stay it needs a major delineation alerting every reader both wise and simple: “ALERT- this is not God saying this! These are the words of a human being frustrated and humiliated by Gods judgement. See Jer. 29:7 for Gods message on this moment in Israels history.”

No, you are not. You have shown couple of verses which you interpret a certain way. Again, I am not going to argue with a professed pastor who seems to claim he has it easy with God’s Word. I am just asking you a simple Yes or No question. Do you deny that God’s Word is hard for you to understand?

The only problem is that men have used the violent and hell passages to commit actual atrocities in Christian history.
They interpreted the nuances for themselves and found them quite useful. So it seems we are willing to say that God irresponsibly left sharp objects laying around to sculpt sophisticated masterpieces in clay, unfortunately His children just used them on each other.

Thank you. I will read that

I would need a specific passage. Theres so much that appears to make sense…I just don’t like accusing God of being opaque. But there again Paul did say we see through a glass darkly. But I get exactly what he means so…I think many of the hard to understand things are not due to God as much as language and culture. Many things are easy to understand once a person with knowledge of the times explains certain things. But sitting there and thinking about it until a half way cohesive theory comes to mind based on super intellectual or literary analysis seems way outside of Gods goal to be sought and understood plainly.

Ezekiels wheel within a wheel is hard to understand.

Dashing children against rocks is pretty self illustrating.

So what I see you doing is taking the obvious and declaring it a sublime mystery so that the atrocity of it can be ignored and declared divine.

I understand, I’m with you on that.
Is the bible at ‘fault’, or is our shallow anti-intellectualism which is ready to gobble up anything that takes no effort, such as pop psychology, or Joel Osteen, or new-agey occultism? Because the bible demands study, focus, actual time spent with commentaries etc. - it is all too easy to chuck it out. To spend effort to understand those people, their times, their concerns, instead of reading them as if they were aware of modern day medications, communications, pain relievers, anxiety reducers, takes some doing. So I have little sympathy for the atheist who does NOT take the time to understand.
“We find, too, that some of these books are strongly marked by the genius and character of their respective writers, that the Holy Spirit did not so guide the Apostles as to suspend the peculiarities of their minds, and that a knowledge of their feelings, and of the influences under which they were placed, is one of the preparations for understanding their writings. With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths.” - Channing

I share the perception that the Psalm shows that one Jew truly felt that it was blessed to kill babies. But once we define inerrancy as insuring Scripture accurately reflect the writer’s view, rather than expresses God’s true sentiments, it would seem to become subjective as to when a text is accurately just expressing the writer’s fallacious view, and when it transmits God’s own reliable view.


And after 30+ years of studying and scouring for the purpose of teaching others I have learned to recognize when there are no really good answers being offered on some things. That doesn’t stop a lot of gobbly goo from filling pages in desperate attempts. Just watch the Calvinists make pretzels sometime. Its astonishing.
But understand. We are talking about an inexcusable, unprecedented assertion in one Psalm. Kill babies! So when the teenager sees that in his bible and asks his pastor why God would want that in his Word, what does the Pastor say? We dont question the bible son. Its infallible. Then the teenager goes to college and learns in Seminary how many times this infallible document has been modified by translators he becomes another Bart Ehrman.
So the question is which slippery slope do we want to live with? The one where people slide towards disillusionment or the one where they slide toward Gods absolute goodness?