Psalm 137 is considered by many commentators to be the single, most difficult example of hate in the Bible. The idea of bashing a baby against a rock is rightfully repulsive to those who read the Scriptures. And while the verses specified might pose a horrific image, it is by no means the only verse in Scripture which ought to make us uncomfortable. The question, of course, is what to make of such passages. Are they simply cathartic, meaning that the psalmist is blowing off steam and does not really want the events to occur? Are they simply beneath Christian understanding and ought to be ignored or skipped?
Simply put, Psalm 137 is a psalm of imprecation. That is a way of saying that the psalmist wants to see punishment meted out upon those who have worked evil on Israel. In this case, the psalmist is speaking of the period around the Exile, when Babylon carried Israel off into slavery. Presumably, Israel experienced the very evil being described upon its tormentors. One can certainly how the atrocities of war stick in the cultural mind of those conquered. In Israel’s case, the defeat was even more bitter. Israel knew they had been chosen by God. All that was required was they they love the Lord and do as He instructed. Their turning away from Him and His ways had led to the unimaginable, the conquering of His chosen people. The psalm recounts the mockery that Israel faced at the hands of their conquerers as well as what you and I would call war crimes. Part of what makes this psalm terrible to read and, yet, disgusts us at the same time, is the struggle we have between loving our enemies and hating sin.
If mothers had been forced to experience the act describe by the psalmist, one can well imagine their visceral need to see the act returned on the mothers of Babylon. I suffered this, so must you! Of course, such a need can lead to a spiral in which each side is always committing atrocities on the other, all in the name of justice. What can be done? And how should we understand the psalm?
First, the psalm ought to comfort us in the sense that we can approach the throne of God with raw emotions. If we suffer evil, it is acceptable to God that we approach His throne full of a desire for vengeance. How do we know? He gave us the psalm. If Scripture is God-breathed, as the Church maintains, and if all Scripture is useful for us, it seems a small leap to conclude that God wanted us to understand that He understands our emotional responses. In fact, He understands our emotional responses far better than we. As human beings, we might be tempted to hide such thoughts. We might be able to hide them from our fellow human beings; we cannot, however, hide the thoughts of our hearts from God, who sees and knows all things. It should be an amazing comfort to us to know that we can approach God with the emotional rawness of a tragedy in our lives and not be rejected for expressing that rawness. Whether we are dealing with a national tragedy such as 9-11 or the personal tragedies of disease or failed relationship or job loss, we can approach God confidently in our anger and our hurt.
Of course, the psalm also needs to be read in the context of the whole psalter and the rest of Scripture. God accepts that we are viscerally wounded by tragedies and does not condemn us for our emotional outbursts; yet He also reminds us throughout the entirety of Scripture that vengeance is His. As much as you and I might like to think we understand justice, we are woefully ill equipped to enforce it. We lack understanding and we lack power. God, of course, lacks neither. Israel’s Exile was a just act. God has offered them a reward if they kept His commandments and a punishment if they deserted Him. He would not be much of a God were He to fail to keep His promises. As much as the psalmist is angry at Babylon for mocking Israel in her defeat, he should be mad at his or her countrymen for bringing this experience upon them. Put differently, Babylon was simply an instrument of God’s justice, and it fulfilled His prophesy.
In the same vein, how do we serve justice in the names of those killed in 9-11? Invade a country? Nuke it? What of the recent use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria. What action will serve justice and deter other leaders from using such horrible weapons? Was our job loss due to economic forces? Corporate greed? A dying industry? How do we know? That is why, for the psalmist and the Christian alike, we must trust that God will, one day, judge. Otherwise, we are left with the likelihood that someone who deserves justice will fail to see it realized.
Did God want babies killed? Of course not! In the execution of His judgment, some in the Babylonian army committed horrible injustices against His people. And this is, naturally, where Christ stands athwart the seeming unbridgeable chasm that exists between injustice and loving our enemies. Ultimately, Christ stands as the hope for justice (He who knew no sin became sin) and the inspiration for loving our enemies (forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do). Just as Abraham’s descendants were called to be a blessing to the Gentiles, you and I are called to be a blessing to our enemies. Part of the way that we do that is by trusting that God will repay evil for evil (and good for good). In the meantime, it is our job to try and love even our enemies into the Kingdom. if our enemies accept Christ as Lord, then He bore the punishment for their evils on the Cross, just as He bore our punishments for us. Our sense of justice must then be satisfied, as much as we might not want it to be.
What, if in the end, they reject our efforts? What if, in the end, those who commit evil seem to go unpunished? If an enemy ultimate rejects God, then the threat of punishment still looms for them. As we well understand, death is no barrier to God. Vengeance is His, and He will repay evil for evil. At some point, those who reject God will face the consequence of their decision. Our job, our callings, is to remind as many as possible of His love for them and of the life which was poured out for them, and to trust that He will, yet once again, keep His promise. And, who knows, maybe in serving our enemies we will get to know and understand them, and their motivations, hurts, and fears better, making us even more effective heralds of His grace in their lives!