Psalm 137 is widely regarded as one of the meanest of the imprecatory psalms. Certainly as we read it it is seems to be a song of pure vengeance. The exiles in Babylon, in grief over the judgment that Babylon has brought upon them, pray for the destruction of that great city.
There is a real problem with this psalm, however. It lies in the fact that God had instructed these exiles to pray for and seek the peace of Babylon. Jeremiah had written to them: “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” (Jer. 29:7).
It appears that the author of Psalm 137 has rejected Jeremiah’s message. He is not praying for the peace of Babylon but for her destruction. Certainly it is clear from Psalms 58 and 109 and others that it is entirely proper to pray for the destruction of God’s enemies, but in this case God had expressly told the exiles not to pray this way. Is this a “carnal” psalm, authored by a rebel who has rejected God’s command?
I think not. Rather, I believe that the contradiction between the apparent sentiments of Psalm 137 and the letter of Jeremiah should force us to take another look at the psalm, and see if perhaps another interpretation can be found.
Let us assume that the author of this psalm has fully absorbed the perspective of Jeremiah. He knows that the destruction of Jerusalem was not ultimately caused by the Babylonian army, but by the sins of God’s people. He knows that the “Enemy” who destroyed the city was God, the Jealous Divine Husband. He knows that Jerusalem deserved everything she got. He agrees with Jeremiah’s Lamentations. Further, he knows that God wants him to pray for the peace of Babylon, and that means he is to pray for her conversion. Is it possible that, despite appearance, this is the theme of Psalm 137? I believe that it is.
First of all, the psalmist recalls how depressed and sad he and the other exiles felt when they arrived in Babylon. They found that they could not sing any longer, and they hung up their harps. Then, however, the Babylonians asked them to sing; yea, the Babylonians demanded that they sing.
What does this mean? It means that instead of forcing the exiles to sing heathen songs, the Babylonians wanted to hear God’s songs. It meant that the exiles were being given a wonderful opportunity to do evangelism.
How shall we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land? How shall we do this evangelism? Well, first of all we point the Babylonians to God’s true Jerusalem. We tell them that the skills of our right hands and of our tongues come from God’s city. We tell them that God’s city must be exalted above every city of man. When God’s city of Jerusalem played the harlot and made herself the city of man, God destroyed her. We tell the Babylonians about this.
Second, we tell the Babylonians that God is a God of judgment. Since we may not curse Babylon, we curse Esau. Every time God brought a Gentile army against Jerusalem, the Edomite vultures gathered to delight in her destruction and to worsen the disaster. This is the theme of the prophecy of Obadiah. In terms of the Biblical pattern, the primary party responsible for the sacking of Jerusalem is always God’s own wayward people. In each case, an army of Gentiles with Edomite fellow-travellers is used by God to bring judgment upon Jerusalem. Then God turns around and brings judgment upon the Gentiles and the Edomites, because they sacked Jerusalem with ill-will, rather than with righteous zeal for the true God.
God’s judgment comes in two forms. One form is judgment unto utter destruction, but the other form is judgment unto resurrection. In the case of Edom, the prophecy is always of judgment unto utter destruction. In the case of the Gentiles, the prophecy of usually of judgment unto repentance and resurrection. That is the case here as well.
The key to understanding the prophecy “against” Babylon in Psalm 137:8-9 is to remember who the Rock is in the psalter. The Rock is God. Dashing the children’s heads against the Rock is an image not of utter destruction but of salvation. (This is a great verse to preach on when doing an infant baptism.) Either a man falls upon the Rock and is saved, or the Rock falls upon him and crushes him (Luke 20:18). (In Psalm 137:9 “rock” is singular, not plural, contrary to the old King James and the NIV.)
The psalmist prophecies that Babylon is to be destroyed, just as Jerusalem was. This is inevitable. But what kind of destruction will it be? Utter destruction or destruction unto resurrection?
“Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!” Who is the one who will repay Babylon? It is God Himself. The psalmist wishes for Babylon the same thing that happened to Jerusalem. Yes, the city was destroyed, but the people were saved. The people repented. Eye for eye, the destruction of Babylon will have to be one that issues in tears of repentance and salvation.
The Godly man realized that in spite of the horrors of her destruction, it was indeed a happy day when Jerusalem was destroyed, because it was that event that provoked repentance. Just so, it will be a happy day when the children of Babylon are “dashed” into union with the Rock of Salvation.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared on Biblical Horizons.