By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1).
How is Psalm 137 the word of the Lord? After all, the psalm ends with a “blessing” that is odd, at the very least: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (137:9). How can a Christian, who likewise hears Jesus’ words to turn the other check and to love his enemies, see Psalm 137 as God’s word for him?
Let’s begin with a little context. Psalm 137 is a psalm of the exile, the people of God having been taken away to Babylon, having been torn from home, Jerusalem now having been destroyed, including the temple which served as the place where they met with God. Now in Babylon, they find themselves subjected to the mocking of those who uprooted their lives. “Sing us one of the songs from the old country!” their tormentors scoff.
Psalm 137 is not a charge to kill the infants of one’s enemies. I don’t even believe that is it a charge to hate or wish ill upon one’s enemies. Yes, the Lord will deal with Babylon. He does not turn a blind eye to the persecution of His people. In what may well have been the basis for the psalmist’ words, Isaiah prophesies concerning Babylon that “their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes” (Isa 13:18). But again, Jesus said to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. So how then do we understand the psalmist’s hard words?
First, we can appreciate that raw and unvarnished pain is laid bare in the psalms. The psalms reflect life, and even our life with God: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1), “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol” (88:3), “But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed” (89:38). Have you ever taken such words upon your lips? The Bible is not simply good principles for living, nor does it assume that life in God is free from deep struggle and pain. Yes, the Scriptures call us to rejoice in the Lord (Phil 4:4), but that joy is a joy that must be fought for, and cannot be fought for if we deny the real pain that permeates this sinful and shattered world. In other words, real joy is never superficial. The psalms give us the freedom to come to God as we are. For in the end, there is no other way to come. There is a reason that the psalms provide great help to those who struggle mightily with doubt and despair.
Secondly, I wonder if Psalm 137 somehow lays bare our own apathy. For we too are exiles. Created to walk with God and one another in unbroken fellowship in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8), having everything provided that we could need or desire (Gen 2), we believed the word of the serpent and decided that God really wasn’t good, and therefore fellowship with Him wasn’t worth it. And so we were driven from the garden and exiled from God, now to live in a world where people mock and destroy and really do dash infants against rocks. Yet, I wonder if one of the reasons we find this psalm confusing is that we aren’t overly bothered by the world in which we live. Rather, we have become too friendly with the world, and don’t long for God, and the Home for which we were created. If we never feel the kind of loss (and accompanying anger) felt by the writer of Psalm 137, perhaps it is because we are far too content in exile.
The LORD God said to the serpent… I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Gen 3:15).