Psalms 137: Dash the Babies?

Psalm 137 is gorgeous and some would say “almost perfect”. Lots of Psalms fall into that category in people’s minds: that Almost Perfect slot. You usually know where people feel any Psalm falls short during the Lord’s Supper when one of the brothers is sharing a Psalm and stops just short of the end. Surely the rest of the Psalm was right and nice…but that last bit really threw the whole thing off. Psalm 137 is, once again, a perfect example.

The scene opens at the very pictorial retelling of Jewish captives (some Rabbinical sources think Jeremiah is the recounter) by the tree-lined rivers of Babylon. The captives, surrounded by a group of taunting Babylonians, are told to sing one of their happy Zion songs: the kind where Zion is always victorious because God is on her side. The kind that has a hint of Psalms 135 and 136 but closer to Psalm 48 with its jubilant praise of the faithful God and the holy city and how all the ends of the earth praise God’s name because what goodness He has poured out on Zion.

The kind of music that was played on the Jewish lyre which was not the high lyre that was played with a pick by a mad Nero but more that type of stringed instrument that was hand-plucked by the common man: more like a banjo than anything. An instrument for jubilant singing and God-praising placed into the hands of the captives by their tormentors during a time of loss and crumbling promises and tears.

The captives don’t play: they weep. The captives don’t dance with their instruments, they rather hang them up and sit.

They don’t see it possible to sing one of the Lord’s song in a land that isn’t the Lord’s because acquiescing to their tormentors demand is moving away from the place where God has laid his promises and in their actions, forgetting Jerusalem.

The Psalmist lays a curse on himself yet (obviously) praying corporately as he does so. If I (any of us) forget you, O Jerusalem where God has laid his promises, may my playing hand become crippled so that I can never play any joyful instrument again. If I don’t remember you and exalt you as one of my chief joys, O Jerusalem , may I become mute so that I can’t sing any joyful songs.

And since I (we) remember Jerusalem, remember (in judgment) those to whom judgment is due.

For remembrance is a forensic term where a King would look into the books and check which judgments need completion, which accounts need balancing. For example when King Ahazuearus looked at the books and noted that Mordecai had not received a due reward for his duty to the state, he remembered him (although he personally didn’t remember anything: he was reading the book to put himself to sleep). Therefore the Psalmist is asking God to bring into balance the account.

The next group of curses (note he already laid a curse on himself if he forgets), is focused at the Edomites who stood around Jerusalem and rejoiced in her destruction. This is an unbalanced account, the Psalmist pleads to God: note how they kept cheering “Tear it down, right to its foundations!” Now, the Psalmist doesn’t offer up what exactly the curse is to be here for the Edomites were guilty of rejoicing in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Lastly the Psalmist turns his eyes toward the taunting oppressors, the perpetrators of the destruction of Jerusalem. These who came in and in their savagery, took infants and dashed them to the floor, raped women, and tore out the infants from women’s womb. These, the Psalmist says will get the same and he lays a blessing on the executor of that judgment. The one who repays your actions for how you treated us (Jews) is blessed. The one who takes your infants, like how you took ours, and dashes them to pieces against the rocks, is blessed.

I get to this last bit and gasp: how can the Psalmist pray such a thing. Maybe I try to skirt around it by saying my Christian ethics are higher than the Psalmist (although Jesus would argue that our ethics are not higher in the least. For when He was asked which was the greatest of the commandments He replied “Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself” was actually a summary of the entire law: Godward and Manward) I find myself not wanting to find an easy solution since even in the very Christian book of Revelation we see those who have been slain saints crying out “How long, O’ Lord until your judgment” (Rev 6:10)

But this bringing into balance is something that can only be fully understood by a person who has been in this sort of situation. This isn’t the cursings and railings of a merely upset person but it is the begging for judgment for the wrong done. The Jews in Auschwitz, peering out at falling ash demanding that there is an equivocation: that the same is done to their captors. The Russians starving behind a siege: demanding that the same occurs to those holding the siege.

This is the petition of a human being, the image of God, who has suffered the very worst at the hands of another Imago Dei bearer: there must be a balance or else the very fabric of God’s order becomes unhinged.

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  1. We read a psalm every week, in order, during our public worship on Sundays. People usually begin with the weekly psalm for their communion meditations, and one week I was assigned Psalm 137. The easy thing would be the break the usual tendency to begin with the psalm, but I didn’t want to do that. I had to think hard about the connection between the desire for justice in the psalm and justice being served on the cross against our sin in Jesus, who was in a sense bashed against the rocks for us. It was an unusual communion meditation, but it was anything but artificial. Once I started thinking about the connections, it flowed pretty naturally.

  2. I can just about see how that would go since the entire Psalm builds up on that desire for justice.

    Lewis nice point in his book on the Psalms: “I suppose most of us make our own moral allegories…We know the proper object of utter hostility–wickedness, especially our own. Thus in 36, ‘My heart sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly,’ each can reflect that his own heart is the specimen of that wickedness best known to him. After that, the upward plunge at verse 5 into mercy high as heaven and the righteousness solid as the mountain takes even more force and beauty.” does take on a, I think, deeper level when its not merely allegorical but looking at it all from the redemptive historical point of view culminating in Christ.

  3. Did God give the balance requested? If not, I agree, God’s order is unhinged – prayer is pointless because God ignores it even when your bloodlust vengeance is ‘justified’. If he did allow the children of their oppressors to be murdered it shows that God’s balance is wicked, petty and simple-minded tit-for-tat.

  4. We are to forgive others as Christ forgave us. Jesus is the stone. This is a spiritual scripture with hidden wisdom. Babes are those who are on the milk, not understanding the word. If the babes come in contact with the stone (Jesus) they will be saved. Wasn’t the psalmist praying good on his enemies?

  5. When was the psalm written? Was your interpretation commonly held by the bronze-age worshippers for whom it was originally written? I guess God was happy for generations to live misinterpreting the psalm until He invented Jesus to make its meaning more positive.

  6. I would say there were some who interpreted the old testament as I do. Those who had God’s holy spirit. There is one mind that has lived through all generations as well as those to come.

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