On Babylon and Babies’ Heads: Psalm 136 and Preparing for Lent

When I was an Anglican, teaching at a Presbyterian College (where I still instruct!), I was frequently annoyed by the high-handed way in which the Revised Common Lectionary, used by both denominations, excised uncomfortable bits for its Sunday readings. Frequently, “positive” portions would be unnaturally detached from the more sober passages of judgment that were part of the prophet, or the apostle, or even the Lord’s rhetoric, and left to stand alone. This decision, no doubt, was pastoral, presuming that the homilist would have enough to deal with in a short sermon without having to troubleshoot verses that would be difficult for many, and even scandalous to some. It bothered me not only because it took the depth out of these passages, but also because it was following the direction set by the notorious Jesus Seminar, whose members “black-lettered” the “woes” which follow the “red-lettered” beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plane (Luke 6:24-26). Their logic? These sayings were obviously inauthentic, because they sounded like the words of John the Baptist, and other apocalyptic prophets, not of Jesus himself. Sigh! Recently I prepared a brief commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2, intended as a help for pastors, in which the lectionary reading took out verses 5 through 10, presumably because of the themes of judgment: in doing my work, I had to replace them, since the chapter is unintelligible without them.

Because of my strong feelings against the removal of the “uncomfortable verses,” I found it ironic, that during one of my first years as an Orthodox, I was startled by the complete robust chanting of Psalm 136/137, especially as we were receiving the Eucharist. I could stretch enough to accommodate a joyful sobriety—the sense of exile and lament—during a time of thanksgiving; but the bashing of babies heads as I actually approached the chalice was a mile too far. I asked about it afterwards with a cradle-Orthodox friend. I explained that I knew about the practice of reading such verses allegorically, but remarked that we had a number of visitors who would not be aware of this reading strategy, that the verse certainly had a historical context which expressed hatred of the enemy, and that it was jarring in the context of Holy Communion. This friend responded to me that no one listens carefully to the words during such times, and that the singing of the song during the three weeks before Great Lent was traditional. But, in fact, there are seekers who inspect everything minutely, and who do notice: I was one of these for thirteen years! What follows, then, is the kind of explanation that I think might be put (but in a far more brief form) in bulletins for the Sundays that this Psalm is chanted.

What do we make of “Blessed is he who dashes the heads of your little ones against the rock!”? This is not even a call for God’s judgment, but an explicit approval of vengeance, human judgment upon enemies. How is the Orthodox Christian to approach this verse?

First, it is helpful to notice that its traditional place is actually in matins, where it is carefully framed, between the polyleos, our song of joy that God is Lord over creation, and the prayer “Blessed art thou, O Lord.” By surrounding the hymn with this focus upon God’s glory and love, we are directed to read it in such a way that we think about God’s power to destroy all our spiritual enemies, and our participation in this divine action. However, as Nicholas Denysenko remarks, “Parish choirs tend to sing musical arrangements of Psalm 136 in addition to the Communion Song or at the end of Divine Liturgy.” http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2018/02/01/open-to-me-the-doors-of-repentance/ When the song is placed beside the communion song, it may not be so obvious how the Psalm should be read: some instruction of the faithful, then, may be in order.

First, as the Antiochian tradition of interpretation especially reminds us, when we approach the OT allegorically, we should not do so in order to obliterate its original natural meaning. The best of our Orthodox theological fathers used typology and also interpreted the OT on its various higher levels (“allegorical, moral and anagogical”) while also remembering the obvious grammatical and historical meaning. Evidence of this move is seen in the fact that the Epistle of Barnabas, very popular in the early Church, was not canonized—presumably because it read the OT in a wholly allegorical way, declaring that God never actually commanded the Jews to keep kosher laws, but that they were misinterpreting laws that were only meant to symbolize chastity, and so on. Such a reading was not consonant with the apostolic rule of faith, which kept continuity with the Old Testament, and recognized the historical details of salvation history, while also seeing the Old Testament as foreshadowing Christ. And so, when we read a giant like St. John Chrysostom, as he comments upon our dreaded verse, we see that he is well aware of the context of human wrath, warns us against taking the verse as a prescription for action or thought, and directs us to the NT ethic of love for the enemy:

Even if the words bespeak intense anger and heavy punishment and retribution, nevertheless these are the expression of the captives’ feelings in demanding heavy retribution and some strange and surprising punishment. The inspired authors, after all, say many things not on their own account but to describe the feelings of others and bring them to the fore. I mean, if you are looking for his [the Psalmist’s] attitude, listen to him saying, “If I have meted out evil for evil,” where he goes beyond the response [of retribution] allowed by the [L]aw. But when he tells of the sufferings of others, he depicts their anger, their pain, which is what he did in this case, bringing to the fore the desire of the Jews, who let their rage extend even to such a young age.

The teaching of the NT is not like that, however: we are bidden to give food and drink to our enemies, to pray for those who abuse us. Now we do this on account of the law that has been determined [by Christ]. What is that? “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Scripture says, remember, “you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Accordingly, let us give evidence of great zeal and generously observe the law in its entirety, in our position as dwellers on earth as if already in heaven and ranked with the angels.” St. John Commentary on the Psalms II (tr., R. C. Hill: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1999) 244-245.

The Golden-mouthed, then, suggests a distance between the Psalmist and the over-wrought Jewish captives, reminding us that in other Psalms personal vengeance is not approved, and calling upon his Christian congregation to fulfill the Torah as Jesus commanded, by attention to the “law” of sacrificial love. He even comments upon the extremity of the response contemplated, recoiling from a rage that could “extend” even to those “of a young age.” This brilliant Orthodox commentator reads the Psalm on its natural level, and uses it as a cautionary tale for Christians, whose response to God must be greater than the Torah-keepers, because we have seen the sacrificial love of the God-Man, and been instructed by Him.

Yet the Church has continued to read this Psalm liturgically, without taking the scissors to it. And we do not have the luxury, while hearing it read, of going through all the careful exegetical moves that St. John uses in distinguishing voice, and old and new covenant. There has to be a more immediate and less complex way of receiving the psalm in worship, without forgetting all that we have learned from St. John. And so we also have the wisdom of other theologians who have taught us a way of reading it devotionally, so as to impress on us the hard business of searching out our own sins and destroying them. The setting of the Psalm (a people in exile, a people in Babylon) the language of sorrow and longing, the climax of the “rock” at the end, all lend themselves to a symbolic interpretation: as Christians, we too are “in exile,” living by the waters of Babylon, threatened by a desert landscape, separated from God. We may think of the woman of Revelation 12, whose true home is in the heavens, but who for a time is pursued by the dragon, isolated in the desert, and longing for the deliverance of God. In the end, chastened by her experience, she emerges as the spotless city, the Bride prepared for Christ, and (at the same time) the Mother City who nurtures all her children in a place where there is no more curse. And then there is Babylon. The historical horrors of exilic Babylon become, in the New Testament, symbols of persecution and isolation—consider again the Apocalypse of the New Testament, where in chapter 17 and 18 Babylon is more than a single city, but stands for godless, murdering society that in its arrogance presumes not to need God, and wheels and deals with the Evil One. In Revelation 18, God pleads with his people to “come out of Babylon” in order to avoid the judgment. With this imagery in mind, we may think of Babylon not only as something surrounding us and oppressing us, but also as a mentality, a will, a possible course of action that may take root within us.

We are not in literal exile ourselves, although our place in post-Christian society is becoming less and less comfortable. Mostly, however, the enemies are within. And so we may pray this Psalm as we pray Psalm 100: 8, “I will early destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the LORD.” We are not in any position to destroy the wicked in the city of the Lord, for that physical city, Jerusalem, no longer has its Old Testament monarchial function, nor are we monarchs to engage in righteous judgment. But we have our own little “cities,” that over which we do have responsibility, and apply this psalm to our own sphere of influence, especially to the power that we have, with God’s help, over our own vices and weaknesses.

The strong language of this and other psalms of judgment is not something to shrink from. As C. S. Lewis reminds us, in consonance with the fathers, “[T]he ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that . . . is hateful to God” (Reflections on the Psalms 1958, 33). Similarly here with our personal application of the Babylon psalm. We may, out of “tenderness” towards ourselves, and a mistaken idea that little things can do no harm, look upon some of our sins as mere peccadillos, things that can have no real impact on our life. But experience proves otherwise. Wolf cubs, cuddly at first, grow into ravenous beasts. And so we must, to use the conceit of commentators like Cassiodorus (Explanation of the Psalms III, ACC) and the desert fathers, show no mercy, but root out these seemingly minor sins and lusts, as well. How are they to be destroyed? Against “the Rock.” The imagery for “rock” or “stone” is rich in the NT (even as it reads the Old Testament) and almost always refers to Christ—the rock that gushed for the Israelites in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4) and was a symbol of our baptism or “dying in Christ;” the rock with which Jesus ends his parable of the vineyard (Luke 20:18), explaining that he has come so as to cause judgment for those who will not respond to God. The decisiveness of this imagery makes it understandable why the Babylon Psalm is typically used in the tonsuring of monks, who are, in a dramatic way, dying to self, and beginning a new life!

To dash our “little ones” against the Rock, then, is to recognize that they are foreign, not a proper part of us. They are, however “minor,” in rebellion against God, and must be destroyed as part of our “dying to ourselves” so that we can rise with Christ. C. S. Lewis, again, puts into contemporary language the situation about which all the desert fathers remind us: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms…This process of surrender…is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all…It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death” (Mere Christianity, 2.4). And this is the business we go about in Great Lent, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the Theotokos, the saints, and the disciplines of the Church!

Let us sing this Psalm, then, in its entirety, whether in Matins or in the Divine Liturgy. (If we follow more recent practice, and sing it during the Liturgy so that more congregants can hear it, it is best, I think, to follow the rubrics and not allow this psalm to supplant or be partnered with the Communion Hymn, as we receive. After all, the traditional communion hymns are not arbitrarily chosen, but form part of the fabric of the liturgy. Perhaps, though, the Psalm might be sung as we prepare for the mysteries, supplementing the cry of the penitent thief, or even at the end of the service, as we go back out into a hostile world, in which we must also face our own weaknesses). As we sing or listen, we must not be naïve of its original sense, and must not to take what is a description of human anger as a prescription for our own hatred against those who would be our enemies. But besides taking the Psalm, with St. John Chrysostom, as a reminder of how Christ has led us beyond retribution to mercy, we may also read the Psalm as many have in the past, applying Babylon to our own strained position while we await our fuller redemption. The desert is around us, but also, alas, sometimes in us—and Babylon will encroach upon us too, if we allow her to seduce!

We do not need to stop short before the violence of the final verses, knowing that we are called to “put to death” the old Adam daily, including those things that we might consider not so very important. We must remember that though sins come easily, they are really foreign to how God first created humanity, and even more foreign to the Second Adam, Christ our Savior, who came not only to restore us but to bring us to glory. His plan is to prepare us so that we have “no spot or blemish” and can be, together, the Bride fit for His presence. The one-time “Deacon Matthew” (now Bishop Irenei of Sacramento), gives solid advice for his friends on an internet discussion forum: http://www.monachos.net/conversation/topic/3384-psalm-1368-9-on-dashing-infants-against-a-rock/ (Posted 22 February 2009 – 11:41 AM)

The psalm thus forms, on these pre-Lenten Sundays, an integral part of a larger motion at matins, and one that is critical to the ‘icon’ of the human condition…The final verse (‘Happy are they who take thy little ones and dash them against the rock’) cannot be removed from the psalm – it is an integral part of its message. It is a travesty of the divine scripture – and a great sin – to remove bits one doesn’t like. We must learn to see them with the vision of the Church.

Let us see with the vision of the Church, holding together the insights of St. John Chrysostom as well as those who bid us apply the passage symbolically! The Psalm can thus speak two messages—warning us against undue anger against others and driving us to the humility of Christ; encouraging us to have no “pity” when dealing with our own darkness, but to drive it out at the side of that Rock, who is Christ. “Once God has spoken, two things I have heard: that power belongs to God; and that to thee, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you reward each according to his work.” (Ps. 61/62:11-12a)


  1. If you are referring to Dn. Matthew whose username is MC Steenberg, then he would currently be Bp. Irinei of ROCOR, whose “Word from the Holy Fathers” podcast I very much appreciated (and still do, as I have not listened to every episode and I’ve found several worth revisiting).

    1. Thank you, very much, Fr. Peter. Someone else also alerted me to his identity, and I have changed the blog to reflect that information. I appreciate your encouragement!

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