O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock! Psalm 137:8-9, NKJV
These shocking words are more likely to be quoted by atheists than Christians. Most with even a cursory knowledge of the faith knows this flies in the face of our teachings on revenge.
If you’re reading it in a version that renders “Happy” as “Blessed,” understand why the NKJV turned “Blessed” into “Happy.” Too many verses–many of them right in the Psalms–describe God as gracious, loving, and full of compassion for us to accept the idea of God blessing someone for such cruelty. It can be hard enough for some of us to accept that, over the course of many centuries, entire cultures can become corrupt, unjust, and plain wicked enough for it to become in keeping with a merciful, compassionate God’s character to either order or carryout genocides, before or after the cross.
We hope the cross has changed that by taking all the wrath of God. We know it is Satan’s character to try to find ways to put God in situations that make God look bad to humans from our finite perspective if God refuses to bend the rules God plays by, which are all rooted in the character of an infinite being.
That’s not what this post is about, though. What I want us to focus on is why is Psalm 137 in the Bible? What is it’s real point?
If we read the whole Psalm, we will see, like many Psalms, it is a prayer, God’s people talking to God. This one in particular is a lament. What it’s saying authoritatively is that God’s people said this to him. Psalms isn’t primarily a prayer book, though. It’s ancient Israel’s hymnal. One thing a hymnal does is give God’s people examples of how to worship God in ways acceptable to God.
Psalm 137 is the prayer of a broken heart during the Babylonian captivity. It expresses the grief of a people who’d seen Jerusalem/Zion burned, plundered, and razed to the ground. It expresses the rage of a people who have been carried away as slaves into a foreign land. Their captors love to torment and mock them by asking them to sing the Psalms about Zion/Jerusalem. A very frustrated Psalmist responded to those taunts with Psalm 137.
I say this based on the whole text of Psalm 137. Likely, the Psalmist has also seen the women raped and loved ones murdered. If we read the whole thing, most of us can probably think of a situation that has provoked the kind of emotions the author of Psalm 137 is expressing.
The “formula” for a lament Psalm includes a “but” where after the Psalmist vents his doubts, fears, anger, and grief to God, the Psalmist praises God and starts singing the uplifting verses we love to quote. That is absent from this Psalm. Why? The author wasn’t ready for it, most likely. Don’t force yourself to return to “normal” worship because a formula or cultural script says it’s time to, if your heart’s not ready for that. Pour out grief to God is worship, too. It shows a trust and faith in God that are pleasing to God, if we’re doing it to fork over our toxic waste and are willing to let God fill us with the “good stuff” when God says it’s time.
Christ forbid cursing our enemies as Psalm 137 does, but it remains an invitation to pour out our honest emotions to God in prayer. His grace can handle such confessions and trade us the power to do right.