The standard version of the RMM Bible Reading Plan takes you through the whole Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice in a single year. That means that TWICE every year I find myself wrestling with Psalm 137:8-9:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! 9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Psalms 137:8–9 ESV)
Does that really belong in the Bible?
Am I actually supposed to read, sing or pray that?
They say that the Book of Psalms was the songbook of the early church – but how could anyone who knows and loves Jesus read or sing – let alone pray a sentence like that? We were told to love our enemies; we were told to turn the other cheek – how in the world does this go with that?
Sooner or later every honest Bible reader finds herself asking some version of that question. These verses are – beyond a shadow of a doubt – among the very hardest verses of the Bible to accept as Christian Scripture.
But should they be?
Perhaps a little bit of historical context would be helpful here.
This entire Psalm is placed in the mouths of Jewish captives, led naked and in chains towards Babylon after the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Siege warfare is brutal and it generally ends badly. The soldiers are angry and frustrated at the long delay away from their families. By the time they enter the city they have often had unpleasant things dumped on them multiple times as they attempted to batter down the gates or scale the walls. They are angry, they are lustful and they are looking for revenge. The inhabitants of the city are usually starved, exhausted and powerless to defend themselves. It isn’t hard to imagine what went on. Wives were raped, children were trampled, families were ruined and lives were torn apart.
It was hell on earth.
That’s what happened to these people and those are the events that lie behind the writing of this Psalm. We have to at least acknowledge that we have no frame of reference for the depth of emotion that lies behind Psalm 137. We live in peaceful times. Our grandparents who fought in WW2 and who lived the reality of the Holocaust can likely relate to this verse much better than we can. They know what manner of brutality human beings are capable of but we, in our generation, try very hard to forget.
But this happened.
To real people.
And those real people lifted their hearts in prayer to God.
Psalm 137 is a prayer and it reflects the lowest notes on the human emotional scale. It is a real prayer flowing out of real experiences and for that reason alone it is worth wrestling with year by year.
But Is It Christian?
It’s one thing to empathize with the Psalmist, it is another thing to credit these verses as Christian Scripture. The Psalmist does sound blood thirsty and vengeful in a way that does not seem to align with Christian teaching. Jesus said: “. . . if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39 ESV) and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 ESV).
So how does Psalm 137:8-9 go with any of that? It does not appear to, but we must be careful to react to the words that are there and not to the words that we imagine are there. Notice for example that the Psalmist doesn’t say: “How happy I will be when I smash some Babylonian babies against the wall!”
He doesn’t say that – he isn’t planning to personally avenge himself on the Babylonians. Notice also that he doesn’t say: “What a wonderful thing it is to kill the babies of evil people!”
He doesn’t say that either.
He says: “Blessed is HE who repays you. Who does to you what you did to us”.
Scholars have understood that to mean one of two possible things. It could refer to the future king of the Persians who actually did destroy Babylon. This could be a way of saying that the person who executes the Lord’s justice on Babylon will do so under the blessing of Almighty God.
As it turns out, that did happen.
In the 5th year of Darius the Babylonians revolted against the Medo-Persians and Darius laid siege to Babylon before destroying it. He did to Babylon exactly what Babylon did to Jerusalem and it was brutal. The historian Humphrey Prideaux describes it this way. He says:
As soon as the Babylonians saw themselves begirt by such an army as they could not cope with in the field, they turned their thoughts wholly to the supporting of themselves in the siege; in order whereto they took a resolution, the most desperate and barbarous that ever any nation practised. For to make their provisions last the longer, they agreed to cut off all unnecessary mouths among them, and therefore drawing together all the women and children, they strangled them all, whether wives, sisters, daughters, or young children useless for the wars.
The Babylonians were forced by Darius to do to their own children what they had done to the children of Jerusalem. So it could mean that Darius was helped by God to effect this act of justice. He was acting “under the blessing of God.”
It could equally mean that this act of justice was “exactly proportionate”. The word translated by the ESV as “blessed” can also be translated as “straight” or “right”. Some scholars feel that would be the better translation of this verse. J. Alec Motyer for example translates it: “How right he will be who seizes and shatters your children against a rock!”
If that is the correct translation then the Psalmist is predicting that God will not let this act of barbarism pass unchallenged. He will see it and he will address it with perfect equity. This verse then expresses faith and hope in future judgment.
That is in no way inconsistent with what we read in the New Testament.
In Romans 12 Paul says: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19 NASB).
The New Testament forbids believers to take their own vengeance – it does not tell them to despair of future judgment. It tells them the opposite! It says that God sees. God cares. And God repays.
He is blessed – he is RIGHT – in paying back.
In the end, no one gets away with anything. All sins will be paid for in blood. Either the blood of Christ or the blood of sinners. It is not wrong to long for the justice of God.
In Revelation 6 the Apostle John is given a vision of the souls of the martyrs hovering around the throne of God. He says:
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9–11 ESV)
Notice that the martyrs are not rebuked for praying to God and asking him to avenge their blood on those who dwell on the earth.
There is no discernible difference between the prayer of the Psalmist in Psalm 137 and the prayer of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11.
Both have been brutalized by the enemies of God’s people.
Both look to God for comfort and for justice.
Neither are rebuked for so doing.
At the end of the day, I believe that our difficulty with Psalm 137 is largely cultural and temporal. As a people we have largely been spared this quality of pain. Our emotional register does not go this low. Thanks be to God! Psalm 137 is below our effective range of hearing. But let’s be clear – it is not outside the boundary of God’s Word.
God’s Word includes the promise of Final Judgment.
God’s Word includes a prayer for victims of unspeakable suffering.
Using Psalm 137 Today
At the very least we may use this prayer to identify with Christian martyrs in North Korea, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Iraq. We may also use it as a reminder to give thanks for the unparalleled peace and prosperity we continue to enjoy in this land.
Even still, come Lord Jesus.