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.