Psalm 137:9 is found in one of the Imprecatory Psalms (or Precatory Psalms) that speak of violence against the enemies of God. That verse reads, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants / and dashes them against the rocks.” To “imprecate” means to “pray evil against,” and the imprecatory prayers in the Bible strike people today as strange or wrong. It is important to understand the context of this verse and others like it. The background is the Jewish people calling upon God to exact revenge upon their military enemies.
Psalm 137 is in the context of the Jewish exile in Babylon (Psalm 137:1) where they had been taken as slaves after the Babylonians burned down the city of Jerusalem. The Jews in exile were then told to “sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137:1), adding further humiliation and frustration to a defeated people.
The psalmist recalls both the disgraces of the Edomites (who looted Jerusalem) and the Babylonians who destroyed their capital city. He comes to two conclusions to end the psalm. First, he says, “Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us” (Psalm 137:8). This cry for revenge desired the destruction of their enemies.
Then in verse 9, the psalmist adds further detail to this cry for revenge, claiming, “Happy is the one” who kills the infants of their enemy. The desire is graphically stated, but it is simply a call for the destruction of the entire nation—the nation that had enslaved the Jews, killed their babies, and destroyed their city. The destruction of Babylon was expressly foretold in Isaiah 13:16, and by referencing that prediction, the psalmist may mean to say that the men who were God’s instruments in carrying out that prophecy would be happy in doing His will.
If we keep in mind that the psalms are songs that express intense emotions, a statement such as “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” should not shock us. The writer did not intend to go out and kill babies; rather, he desired justice, which required the death of his enemies. Even today, those who have lost loved ones at the hands of others understandably desire the death of those who committed the crime.
We must be careful to interpret Psalm 137 in its historical context and apply it appropriately in connection with the full counsel of Scripture. It is a normal human desire to see justice done and for enemies to be defeated. However, Romans 12:17–19 commands, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Psalm 137 is not a selfish prayer for personal revenge. It is a plea for God to intervene in the affairs of men to keep His covenant and right all wrongs.