A Reflection on Psalm 137
This is easily one of the hardest Psalms to read and say, “this is the word of the Lord.” When reading psalms it's important to understand the sub-genre that they represent. This psalm is called an imprecatory psalm. Or as the Lexham Glossary of Theology says, imprecatory means, “relating to the language of curses or the act of uttering curses on enemies.”
These psalms seem to fly in the face of what the New Testament commands us. To be honest there is a yucky feeling you get from reading this. What can that mean? That this wasn’t God's word? That the Bible is contradictory, and can’t be trusted? Should we just put our blinders on and pretend it's not there?
I’m of the opinion that all of God’s word is good for us, even the hard bits.
There is a lot that goes into this psalm. To take this psalm out of the context of the rest of the psalter — and even more the Bible — would do damage to our agency to appreciate the rich blessing this psalm can be to our spiritual lives. We must remember that this psalm was written in response to the Babylonian captivity of Israel. During this captivity, Israel couldn’t worship in the temple. During the conquest to capture Israel, Babylon brutally murdered innocent men, women, and children.
We should understand this psalm to mean the psalmist wants God to enact proportional justice towards those who do evil, towards God’s enemies.
How should we understand this psalm today? There may be two ways for us to apply this.
First, the psalmist never declares that he wants to be the one to enact judgment depicted in verse 9. He only wishes that this savagery be paid back. This is something we can wish upon those who do evil. One of the worst phrases that have been included in popular Christian culture is, “that God hates the sin, not the sinner.” This not only isn’t biblically true (Exod. 23:4–5; Lev. 19:18; Job 31:29; Prov. 24:17–18, 29; 25:21–22), it's actually from Buddhism. We can root for God’s justice to play out. In fact, you do this every time you pray “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” For Jesus to come back is to have him come and judge all evil, and wickedness on earth. This psalm helps us to put words and restrictions on our anger when it comes. Righteous anger can become unrighteous very quickly. We also need to understand that, as Augustus Strong says, “God’s righteous sovereignty affords the key to other events. He has the right to do what he will with his own, and to punish the transgressor when and where he will; and he may justly make men the foretellers or executors of his purposes.”
We have a limited perspective on justice. Our notions of it are imperfect and so is our culture’s view.
It is helpful to question ourselves when we come to passages like this to ask — first — if our hearts may be misplaced, rather than assuming God’s heart, or the author’s heart is.
It is easy to believe in our western culture that this goes too far, yet the acts of injustice we see pale in comparison to the rest of the world, and the rest of world history. Atrocious acts of evil happen every day against people without the hope of justice coming in their lifetime. It is in these places where the church needs psalms like these. It is for the young woman who has been forced into sex slavery. For the boy whose parents were brutally murdered by the drug lord in the area. For the parents whose children are pried from their fingers by governments.
It is in these times that the body of Christ can pray, come quickly, and bring down your wrath against evil.
Second, I love what Augustine has to say about this verse. While this interpretation is a bit allegorical, it is still helpful.
“What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth. For there are, who have to fight with inveterate lusts. When lust is born, before evil habit giveth it strength against thee, when lust is little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit; when it is little, dash it. But thou fearest, lest though dashed it die not; ‘Dash it against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ.’”
As Christians, we can turn this psalm towards us, and pray that God would violently kill our sin.
The good news of this psalm is that God experienced this kind of anger. Jesus himself was the recipient of the most egregious form of injustice the world has ever known. Jesus will one day — as Tim Keller says — make all the sad things come untrue. The beauty of this is that we were people who deserved exactly what this psalm lays out. We should be dashed, we should have God’s wrath poured out on us, yet instead, he sent his Son to be dashed for us. On the cross the wrath of the Father poured out on the Son, so we could become children of God.