Bible readers are familiar with the imprecatory psalms, in which the writers call for God’s judgement on his (and their) enemies. Christians have wrestled with these texts for centuries. But perhaps there is no more shocking psalm in the entire collection than Psalm 137, which famously concludes, “Blessed shall he be who takes our little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (v. 9).
German psychologist Franz Buggle once wrote that this psalm is “in large part, and to a degree seldom encountered otherwise, a text dominated by primitive and uncontrolled feelings of hatred, desire for vengeance and self-righteousness.” He added, “I must acknowledge that for a long time I have not read any text so marked by excessive and unbridled hatred and thirst for revenge.”
The psalmist writes of the profound sense of sorrow that gripped God’s people after the deportation to Babylon. He recalls the weeping that took place at Babylonian rivers (v. 1) and how the worship leaders hung up their instruments in despair (v. 2). While their captors tauntingly asked to hear the Jewish songs of worship, the people had no appetite for it (vv. 3–6). The psalmist longed to see God’s justice executed against his enemies and prayed for them to experience the horrors of what they had done to Jerusalem (vv. 7–9). Lamentations records the cruelty with which the Babylonians rushed upon Jerusalem and the prayer here is that they would be repaid in kind.
As always, these sentiments present us with a sobering challenge. Christians are people of forgiveness, are they not? How can we call for justice when God so clearly calls us to forgive? But perhaps one lesson we can take from this psalm is that we should be careful of sitting in condemnation on those who suffer when we ourselves live in protective bubbles.
Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion in evangelical circles about guilt, justice, and forgiveness. A high profile and well-respected evangelical apologist died last year amid accusations of gross sexual misconduct. An independent investigation has found these accusations to be credible. Sadly, as is so often the case, opposing sides have arisen within the broader evangelical church in response to the report.
While many Christians have called for him and the ministry that bears his name to be held accountable for the abuse, many others have called for forgiveness to be granted, reminding us that there, but for the grace of God, go we. Those calling for forgiveness have accused those calling for accountability of being vindictive and unforgiving. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” has been tweeted more than once. It seems painfully evident that, more often than not, such statements are expressed from protective bubbles that have never been touched by such sin.
One reason that so many of us find difficulty with psalms like Psalm 137 is because we have never lived through what the psalmist did. Zedekiah’s children were executed in front of him before his eyes were gouged out so that the last image seared into his brain was their death (Jeremiah 52). Lamentations poetically recalls the horrors of war, with children being put to death and becoming the only source of food for their starving parents (2:20; 4:10). The imprecation of Psalm 137 was spoken by a writer who keenly felt the wound of injustice. While it may offend our sanitised sensibilities, we do well to withhold our condemnation and to instead mourn with those who mourn.
As you read Psalm 137, put yourself in the shoes of the victim. Recite the imprecation of this psalm through the eyes of one deeply wounded by injustice. Then, rather than condemning such cries for justice, ask God to help you mourn with victims of injustice and long with them for the day when all wrongs will be made right.