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Many tenderhearted believers have read these words with shock and chagrin. They are frankly at a loss to explain how one could speak with what appears to be such malice, vindictiveness and delight of the sufferings of others, especially children. How can the gentleness of the opening verses of this psalm be harmonized with the call for such brutal revenge in the last verses?
In all, there are only eighteen psalms that have any element of imprecation or cursing about them. These eighteen psalms contain 368 verses, of which only 65 of those verses have an element of cursing. This psalm is just one of six psalms that are generally classified as imprecatory psalms. These are Psalms 55, 59, 69, 79, 109 and 137. There is no author or title to Psalm 137; however, the scene is pictured as taking place "by the rivers of Babylon." Psalm 79 is ascribed to Asaph; the remaining four are from David's pen, according to the ancient titles. The label imprecatory may be misleading if it is not understood as the invocation of judgment, calamity or curse in an appeal to God who alone is the just judge of all beings.
But how can it ever be right to wish or pray for the destruction or doom of others, as is done in at least portions of these psalms? Could a Christian ever indulge in such a prayer?
These invocations are not mere outbursts of a vengeful spirit; they are, instead, prayers addressed to God. These earnest pleadings to God ask that he step in and right some matters so grossly distorted that if his help does not come, all hope for justice is lost.
These hard sayings are legitimate expressions of the longings of Old Testament saints for the vindication that only God's righteousness can bring. They are not statements of personal vendetta, but utterances of zeal for the kingdom of God and his glory. The attacks that provoked these prayers were not just from personal enemies; rather, they were rightfully seen as attacks against God and especially his representatives in the promised line of the Messiah. Thus, David and his office bore the brunt of most of these attacks, and this was tantamount to an attack on God and his kingdom!
It is frightening to realize that a righteous person may, from time to time, be in the presence of evil and have little or no reaction to it. But in these psalms we have the reverse of that situation. These prayers express a fierce abhorrence of sin and a desire to see God's name and cause triumph. Therefore, those whom the saints opposed in these prayers were the fearful embodiments of wickedness.
Since David was the author of far more imprecatory psalms than anyone else, let it also be noted that David exhibited just the opposite of a vindictive or revengeful spirit in his own life. He was personally assaulted time and time again by people like Shimei, Doeg, Saul and his own son Absalom. Never once did he attempt to effect his own vindication or lift his hand to exercise what many may have regarded as his royal prerogative.
In fact, in some of these very psalms where he prays for God to vindicate his own honor and name, David protests that he has kind thoughts toward these same evildoers. Thus in Psalm 35:12-14 David mourns, "They repay me evil for good and leave my soul forlorn. Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother."
Finally, these imprecations only repeat in prayer what God had already stated elsewhere would be the fate of those who were impenitent and who were persistently opposing God and his kingdom. In almost every instance, each expression used in one of these prayers of malediction may be found in plain prose statements of what will happen to those sinners who persist in opposing God. Compare, for example, such expressions in Psalms 37:2, 9-10, 15, 35-36, 38; 55:23; 63:9-11; and 64:7-9.
But let us apply these principles to the special problems of Psalm 137:8-9, which many regard as the most difficult of all the imprecatory psalms. First, the word happy is used twenty-six times in the book of Psalms. It is used only of individuals who trust God. It is not an expression of a sadistic joy in the ruin or destruction of others.
The words "dashes [your infants] against the rocks" are usually regarded as being so contrary to the teachings of the New Testament that here is little need to discuss the matter any further. Curiously enough, these very same words are repeated in the New Testament by no one less than our Lord (Lk 19:44). In fact, the verb in its Greek form is found only in Psalm 137:9 (in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text) and in the lament of our Lord over Jerusalem in Luke 19:44. This is the clearest proof possible that our Lord was intentionally referring to this psalm. Moreover, our Lord found no more difficulty in quoting this psalm than he did in quoting the other two psalms most filled with prayers of imprecation, namely, Psalms 69 and 109.
God "shattered the enemy" at the Red Sea (Ex 15:6) and will continue to do so through the triumph of his Son as he "will rule them with an iron scepter" and "dash them to pieces like pottery" (Rev 2:26-27; 12:5; 19:15).
The word translated "infant" is somewhat misleading. The Hebrew word does not specify age, for it may mean a very young or a grown child. The word focuses on a relationship and not on age; as such, it points to the fact that the sins of the fathers were being repeated in the next generation.
That the psalmist has located the site of God's judgment in Babylon appears to denote this psalm as being composed while Judah was in exile in Babylon and also that there are figurative elements included in the psalm. One thing Babylon was devoid of was rocks or rocky cliffs against which anything could be dashed. In fact there were not any stones available for building, contrary to the rocky terrain of most of Palestine. All building had to depend on the production of sun-dried mud bricks and the use of bituminous pitch for mortar. Therefore when the psalmist speaks of "dashing [infants] against the rocks," he is speaking figuratively and metaphorically. Close to this metaphorical use of the same phrase is that of Psalm 141:6, "Their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs." But that same psalm adds, "And the wicked will learn that my words were well spoken [the literal rendering is "sweet" ]." If the rulers had literally been tossed over a cliff, they surely would have had a hard time hearing anything!
What, then, does "Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us--he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" mean? It means that God will destroy Babylon and her progeny for her proud assault against God and his kingdom. But those who trust in God will be blessed and happy. For those who groaned under the terrifying hand of their captors in Babylon there was the prospect of a sweet, divine victory that they would share in as sons and daughters of the living God. As such, this is a prayer Christians may also pray, so long as it is realized that what is at stake is not our own reputation or our personal enemies, but the cause of our Lord's great name and kingdom.
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