What About Psalm 137 And The Other Imprecatory Psalms?

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It is written:

Psalm 137:9-Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!

The imprecatory Psalms are Psalms which call upon God to curse the enemies of His people. Often, Christians “shy away” from these Psalms due to their overtly hostile language. Psalm 137 is a good example of this. Here, the Psalmist is praying against the Babylonians (who have attacked Israel and committed unimaginable atrocities against the Hebrews). The psalmist says that the person who takes the “little ones” from the Babylonians will be happy when he dashes them against the rocks.

What shall we make of this (and other imprecatory Psalms)?

First, we need to remember that the Psalms-like every other text of Scripture-need to be interpreted in both their context and their content. When we examine the content of this passage in context, for example, we see that likely the “little ones” being referenced are not babies of the Babylonians-but the wicked soldiers of that empire who were guilty of horrible crimes of war!

“As part of this extravagance, we should notice the use of florid, sometimes graphic, imagery and take care to avoid reading too literally. There is an interesting example of this in Psalm 137, which we have already considered. Biblical scholar Knut Heim urges us to read these difficult imprecations with skill, imagination and responsibility: The entire psalm is constructed on a specific kind of metaphor, called personification. Jerusalem and Babylon are treated as if they are female human beings with emotions and other human characteristics. Arising from this… ‘daughter Babylon’ is not a young, vulnerable female with small children, but the symbol of a destructive and brutal army. Consequently, the ‘little ones’ to be killed are not innocent infants; rather, the ‘children’ of the personified army represent adult soldiers, the very people who taunt, threaten, and humiliate the poet and his or her compatriots in the earlier verses of the psalm. 58 Perhaps the violence of Psalm 137 is not as abhorrent as we might immediately think.” (Helen Paynter, God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today?: Wrestling honestly with the Old Testament, 79 (Kindle Edition): Abington, OX; The Bible Reading Fellowship)

It is easy to misuse a passage of Scripture by ignoring the context and the context of such, by simply skimming the surface and not going any deeper. We need to remember to study the Scriptures thoroughly!

Second, it is also likely that this passage in Psalm 139 is simply a prophecy of what the Babylonians would experience when they would face future attacks from the Medes and the Persians. Certainly, this was the view of several respected Bible commentators (such as Albert Barnes and Adam Clarke to name a few).

Butt has noted:

“We could go through several of those and show one after another. Let me give you one more example of that. In Psalm 137: 9, I believe it was there. If you wanted to, you could turn over there. I think I have this one marked. Psalm 137: 9, “Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little ones against the stone.” Whoa! That sounds bad, doesn’t it? That sounds like God is saying you need to go out and take the babies of these people and dash them against the stone. That is not what it is saying. In fact, this is a predictive statement. He is talking about Babylon. And He says that the Persians are going to come in and take your children and dash them against the stone. The way He uses that word happy is the same way that Jeremiah uses it in Jeremiah chapter 12 verse one. Jeremiah says: “Lord, why does the way of the wicked prosper and why is he happy who deals treacherously?” Is he really happy who deals treacherously? No. Is God condoning a person who deals treacherously? No. He is using the word “happy” for a transient, fleeting happiness that eventually will end in that person’s destruction if he or she does not repent and turn to God.”  (Kyle Butt, A Christians Guide to Modern Atheism, 593-602 (Kindle Edition); Montgomery, Alabama; Apologetics Press)

God is not saying that the person who does this will be blessed by Him. Instead, the soldiers who commit these acts against the Babylonians will take pleasure in their barbarisms, just as the Babylonians did when they committed similar (and worse) actions against the Hebrews.

Third, it will help us to remember that the imprecatory Psalms were often also seen to demonstrate the need for the Israelites to pray for the salvation of the very enemies that they were praying against!

For example:

Psalm 83:16-Fill their faces with shame, That they may seek Your name, O LORD.

Look at how that is rendered in some other Bible translations:

Psalm 83:16 (CEV)-Make them blush with shame, until they turn and worship you, our LORD.

Psalm 83:16 (ERV)-LORD, cover them with shame until they come to you for help.

In this imprecatory Psalm, God is not only called upon to bring judgment upon the wicked….but He is also beseeched to save the wicked! The Psalm includes prayer and request for Divine mercy for the enemies of God’s people to have time and opportunity to repent.

“These appeals for God’s terrible sword, however, are tempered in almost oxymoronic fashion by the psalmist’s prayer “that [these enemies] will seek your name, Lord” (v. 16). In the same breath in which he asks for their destruction, he asks for their salvation! Although he wants these enemies defeated, he compassionately appeals that—once they see the demonstration of God’s power—they will realize the foolishness of their ways and cry out to God for his mercy. Somehow the psalmist acknowledges a place for the richness of God’s salvation in the midst of his awful judgment. The psalmist’s ultimate desire is that even God’s enemies would know that he is the one true God who is sovereign over the whole planet (v. 18). God doesn’t just reign over Israel—or America for that matter. He controls the destiny of the entire universe. So he’s not interested in merely defending his name as the God over one nation. In the Old Testament God’s “name” is always a reflection of his nature. He wants his name—who he is and what he does—to be acclaimed by all nations. Such is part of the mystery that characterizes the imprecatory psalms. At times—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—the psalmist appears to be calling fire down from heaven out of one side of his mouth while pleading for God’s mercy out of the other. That must be our posture as we read these psalms and learn to pray from them. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we pray in this tension. Out of one side of our mouths we pray that Jesus Christ might reign in righteousness and condemn those who oppose the gospel. Out of the other side of our mouths we pray that those same opponents of the gospel will repent of their sin and place their faith in Christ.” (David Platt, Jim Shaddix, Matt Mason, Exalting Jesus in Psalms 51-100 (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary), 316 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group)

God told the Jewish people when they were in exile in Babylon to pray for the good of the Babylonians.

Jeremiah 29:7-And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.

Fourth, we see also that there is a place for Christians to pray imprecatory Psalms in the Christian Age. Jesus did this, as did the Apostles!

“As we’ll now see, several New Testament authorities quote various imprecatory psalms. Indeed, the apostle Paul cites this allegedly mean-spirited Psalm 69 passage in Romans 11: 8–10, applying it to hard-hearted Israelites: “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever” (ESV)….In addition to Paul, Jesus himself twice quoted imprecatory psalms. He cited Psalms 25 and 69, respectively: Zeal for Your house will consume Me. (John 2: 17) They hated Me without a cause. (John 15: 25) Then, just after Jesus’s ascension, the apostle Peter himself quoted two imprecatory psalms, directed at Judas the traitor (Acts 1: 20). As another apostle would need to fill Judas’s place, Peter drew from Psalm 69: 25: “Let his homestead be made desolate.” He then quoted from Psalm 109—“ Let another man take his office” (v. 8)—the “worst” of the psalms, according to C. S. Lewis!…The Old Testament encourages loving one’s personal enemies and praying for persecutors. Jesus does so too, but he approves of believers’ prayers “day and night” for God to “bring about justice” (Luke 18: 7–8; cf. Rev. 6: 9–11). Revelation 18: 4–6 calls for this same justice: “Pay her back even as she has paid, and give back to her double according to her deeds; in the cup which she has mixed, mix twice as much for her.” Some of our critics from within might say that this cry sounds like a voice from hell. But John tells us that this is a voice from heaven denouncing the wicked city of BabylonYes, we desire the salvation of terrorists and kidnappers and murderers in hopes that they, like the former persecutor Saul, might be converted. But if they persist in their ways, we pray for divine justice to be done: “Pay them back” (cf. Rev. 18: 6).” (Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully?: Reconciling Portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments, 134-136 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)

Finally, there is another blessing about praying the imprecatory Psalms: we are humbly inviting and beseeching God to work in the world of man rather than resorting to personal vengeance. Many in our world are so quick to turn to vigilante action in our day and age, perhaps having forgotten (or having never been taught) that vengeance belongs to God.

Romans 12:18-21-If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19  Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. 20  Therefore “IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM; IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP COALS OF FIRE ON HIS HEAD.” 21  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Sometimes God works His justice in the world through avenues such as civil government (Romans 13:1-7). Sometimes He works through the forces of nature and sometimes through supernatural forces as His people pray (Revelation 8:1-6). Sometimes, God’;s justice will be seen on the Day of Judgment (Acts 17:30-31). Regardless of when God chooses to act, it is not the right of His people to inflict personal vengeance. Instead, we commit ourselves to God and bring our petitions to Him.

Is this not what Jesus calls His people to?

1 Peter 2:21-25-For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 22  “WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH”; 23  who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24  who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. 25  For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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