Does the Bible encourage murder? - Psalm 137:9

Question
It seems as if Psalm 137:9 is encouraging God's people to murder children. Is this true?
Answer

Psalm 137:9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

Psalm 137:9 is part of what we call the Imprecatory Psalms (Psalm 5; 10; 17; 35; 58; 59; 69; 70; 79; 83; 109; 129; 137; 140). Such texts are also in the New Testament (cf. Matt 23:13; 26:23-24; John 2:17; 15:25; 1 Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8-9; 5:12; 2 Tim 4:14; Rev 6:10; 18:20). The Imprecatory Psalms are passages that speak of the just violence against the enemies of God. In context, Psalm 137:9 is calling for God to exact just judgment against his enemies.

The enemies of God's people are God's enemies too (Gen 12:3; Num 10:35; cf. Psa 69:27-28; 139:19-22; Jer 18:19-23, etc.). This Psalm was written when Israel was in exile in Babylon (Psa 137:1; 2 Chron 36:20-21), which was prophesied many years prior (Lev 26:24-39, 43; Deut 28:64-69; Jer 25:8-12; 29:10-14, etc.). Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Israelites were enslaved. The Babylonians (Psa 137:1), as the Edomites (Psa 137:7), were a cruel heartless enemy.

Just prior to Psalm 137:9 the text states, "O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!" (Psa 137:8). This is a request for God to justly judge Babylon. The intentional destruction of children was part of ancient warfare; God himself commanded Israel to adopt this practice when conquering the land of Canaan (Deut 20:16-18). This was no religious war, but part of God's righteous command to wipe out the wickedness in his land (Deut 9:4-6; cf. Gen 6:5-8). In Psalm 137:9, because heathen children could later grow up and destroy God's chosen people (Deut 7:1-16), divine retribution is not only requested, but also warranted. The non-elect are "vessels of wrath fitted to destruction" (Rom 9:22). See Isaiah 13:16; Hosea 13:16; Nahum 3:10.

The author is not instructing Israelites (or Christians) to exact personal vengeance and just to go out and kill babies (Rom 12:17-19); but rather is requesting divine justice upon God's enemies. So, Psalm 137 is a plea for God to intervene in the affairs of men and keep his covenant. In the consummation of God's kingdom (Matt 6:10), final divine judgment (Hell) awaits all God's enemies (Rev 20:7-10). This will be the final imprecation in its everlasting completion.

God does not encourage his people to commit murder (cf. Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17). However, he justly judges all - each and every one - of his enemies (Psa 68:1-2, et. al.). Also, God does appoint the length of every person's life (Heb 9:27). See James 4:13-15.

Related Topics:

Imprecatory Psalms
What is Reprobation?
Is Assassination Ethical?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).