This psalm begins with a heartfelt lament, and concludes with a savage benediction. This apparent incongruity has been a trouble to many Christians, and so we need to take care as we meditate on, and worship by means of, a psalm like this one.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; Who said, rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (Ps. 137).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Babylon was situated on a plain, and was criss-crossed by both rivers and canals. Rivers provide one of the most natural metaphors for sorrow and weeping (Lam. 2:18; 3:38), and it was next to the rivers of Babylon that the Israelite exiles sat and wept, remembering Zion (v. 1). Instead of singing, they placed their harps on the willows there (v. 2), those willows being another natural metaphor for weeping. The Israelites had come there to lament, but the Babylonian onlookers demanded a happy song, a song of Zion (v. 3), which the captives refused to do (v. 4). To do something like that would be to forget Jerusalem, and rather than do such a thing, the psalmist would prefer that his right hand forget how to play (v. 5). If he were to do that, forgetting Jerusalem as his chief joy, he would prefer that his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth (v. 6). The psalm then turns to the question of the Lord’s vengeance. Edom was related to Israel, as neighbors and kinsmen, and yet in their hatred, they egged the Babylonians on (v. 7). The next verse comes as a prophecy (“who art to be destroyed”), and it is stated as a strict form of the lex talionis—happy the one who does to Babylon what Babylon did to Judah (v. 8). Happy the one who dashes the infants of Babylon against the rocks (v. 9).
A STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
Many Christians assume that the self-maledictory prayer in vv. 5-6 came true in v. 9—his right hand did forget its cunning, and his mouth did form a grotesque blessing. They believe that the discordant and jarring conclusion of the psalm, after such a beautiful beginning, is truly unfortunate. But this is simply too facile.
The psalmist knew what was entailed in the fall of a city, and he knew that to pray for that fall would bring all that it entailed along with it. You cannot pray for the airliner to crash, and then be surprised at the fact that passengers died. This is no less true in modern warfare than in ancient warfare. When Babylon fell, enemy warriors dashed their children to death. But American drone strikes have killed children just as dead.
FIRST, AN ACTUAL PROPHECY
In the fifth year of Darius, the Babylonians revolted against him. When he surrounded the city with his massive army, the Babylonians decided that their only hope was to try to hold out through the siege as long as possible. And so they rounded up their own wives, sisters, and children, anyone useless in the war effort, and strangled them. The men were allowed to keep one wife, along with one maid-servant to do the housework. That is what the Babylonians were actually like.
NOT AN OLD COVENANT THING
We sometimes seek a cheap way out when it comes to questions like this. When we can say something like, “Well, that’s in the Old Testament . . .” and then everyone leaves us alone, there is a temptation to do just that. But it will not suffice.
The destruction of Babylon was a type of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Herod the Great was an Idumean (an Edomite, see v. 7), and he was the one who had the boys around Bethlehem slaughtered. Judah had become a new Egypt (Ex. 1:22), Judah had become a new Babylon.
And so it is that the only place in the New Testament where the word Hallelujah is used is when the saints of God in heaven behold the demolition of Babylon (Jerusalem). “And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:3).
NOT A BAD EXAMPLE
This psalm, and other psalms like it, are not included in Scripture so that we would see the sin involved in them, and shy away from the “bad example.” This is a place where even the great C.S. Lewis swings and misses. He grants the “uncharity of the poets,” and says that they “are indeed devilish.”
The problem with this is that Christians are commanded to sing these psalms, all of them (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). We are instructed to sing these psalms when we are “merry” (Jas. 5:13). The psalms are quoted in the New Testament very frequently, and the imprecatory psalms are not excluded from these quotations (Acts 1:20; Ps. 109:8ff). And all of this is urged upon us with no warning label whatever.
Neither can we pretend that the ethic of love for your enemy was a New Testament innovation (Ex. 23:4,5; Prov. 24:17; Prov. 25:21). But at the same time, we are told that we can have a Bible passage in mind, and be able to refer to it when asked, and yet still not know “what spirit we are of” (Luke 9:55). So take as your example the way David spoke of the enemies of God (Ps. 139:21), and also the way that he spoke of and behaved toward his own personal enemies (2 Sam. 1:19; 1 Sam. 24:5).
NOT FIXED BY DISTANCE
Sometimes we try to address things like this by creating an artificial distance, doing this with years, with jokes, or with context. An old Scots psalter rendered the psalm this way:
Blessed shall the trooper be
Comes riding on his naggie,
Who takes his wee bairns by the taes,
And dings them on the craigie.
For an example of context, some of you have seen video footage from the war in Ukraine, where a column of Russian tanks is being taken out by Javelin missiles—and it looks to you like a video game. But what you are seeing is husbands, sons, and brothers dying.
THE BRATS OF BABYLON
We really do want God to rise up and scatter His enemies (Ps. 68:1). But God has two ways of doing this. He can destroy His enemies with old school means, in which they are simply annihilated. He can also destroy His enemies by transforming them into friends. That is how he destroyed His one-time enemy, the man called Saul of Tarsus.
“And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:44).
I saw a meme online that illustrated this quite pointedly. It said that when the apostle Paul entered into Heaven, he was greeted with the applause of those he had martyred. So Christ is the stone, and if we fall on Him in repentance, we will be gloriously broken. But if He falls on us, then we will be crushed. So as Christians, our prayers of imprecation should be Christocentric. And you can test the condition of your spirit in this way.
If you are praying for your enemy to be destroyed, and God gloriously converts him, and your initial response is “no, not that way,” then that should be cause for self-examination. But Christ is the Rock either way.