Imprecatory Psalms – An Example of How to Understand them (Psalm 137)
Most honest readers of psalm 137 must admit that there are disturbingly graphic and frightening statements made. Most pointedly, there is a divinely inspired word regarding violent men, committing violent and lethal acts against little children, with an expectation that God will bless them anyway. Wow!
How are we to understand such things?
We studied psalm 137 together some months ago. It is called an imprecatory psalm because of the curse and judgment that is pronounced by the psalmist against others. Because there are many passages of Scripture that include such statements, I thought it might be helpful to review in summary fashion how we understood that psalm. This provides a pattern for understanding similar passages in Scripture.
This is a psalm that must have been written shortly after some of the Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity. The writer is lamenting his experience while in Babylon, and all that he says flows out of that sad experience. Despite many gracious warnings by God through the prophets, Israel persisted in their disobedience and rebellion, and brought the chastening and judgment of God upon themselves. God used the evil Babylonians as His instrument of chastening.
The Babylonians were violent and cruel. They spared no one as they took over the land. They killed the children, and raped the women, and carried the people away to live as slaves, oppressing them and treating them harshly. This psalm was written by someone who had experienced and witnessed all that violence, pain and tragedy.
It first expresses sadness over their condition, then a longing to be back in Jerusalem worshipping at the temple. At the end, he calls upon God to recompense the Babylonians for what they had done to the people of Israel.
The people of Israel constituted God’s kingdom on earth. The temple in Jerusalem was God’s dwelling place on earth. The throne of David was the throne of God’s coming Messiah. The people were waiting and expecting God to come and establish His kingdom on the earth forever, in keeping with His promises through the prophets.
While lamenting the past, this psalm also pleads with God to restore His people, and accomplish His kingdom purposes on the earth. And it does so with the understanding that every faithful Jew must make faithfulness and the worship of God His greatest joy, and his most diligent pursuit.
Because of these facts, the psalmist describes three divergent realities of a true kingdom seeker.
In the first four verses, the writer is describing the experience of Jewish captives in Babylon. They were sad days, but days that were brought on by the collective rebellion and unfaithfulness of the Israelites themselves.
And that leads us to the first reality in the heart of every true kingdom seeker.
Regretfully ACKNOWLEDGE the consequences of your SINFUL choices (v. 1-4)
By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the LORD’S song
In a foreign land?
Having been taken captive, a band of enslaved Israelites find themselves lamenting the loss of their great land, and the privilege of worshipping in Jerusalem. So they sit down by a river and simply start crying.
It was somewhat different for them. We now know the spiritual reality of having one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. But in their religious economy, they needed the temple, they needed the priest, and they needed to offer the sacrifices in order to have their sins covered, and to offer gifts of worship and thanks. As well, it was at the temple that there was also vibrant worship, songs were sung, prayers were offered, sacrifices made. There was dancing and feasting and worship.
But all of that was taken away from them in Babylon.
So, knowing they could not recreate the scene, or offer the sacrifices, or engage in acceptable worship, they simply took their harps and hung them up in the tree (see 137:2).
They did this in part as an expression of sadness over what they couldn’t experience for real. But it was also in protest to the taunting of the Babylonians themselves. Their “captors demanded” that they sing their Jewish songs of joy and mirth. They wanted to hear one of those songs celebrating the greatness of Zion, the majesty of Jerusalem, the splendor of the temple, and of the glory of the God of Israel.
But Zion wasn’t great, Jerusalem’s majesty and splendor (the temple) had been ransacked and torn to the ground, and the house of the Lord wasn’t filled with the glory of God any more. It was covered in the ashes of defeat and the dust of destruction.
For those Jewish captives, there was nothing to sing about.
They were in a foreign land, taken captive through the violence and brutality of a foreign people, knowing that their temple worship had been laid waste and torn to the ground. As far as they knew at that time, there was little to cause them hope of returning and restoring those glorious realities.
But joyously, according to the words of the prophets, there was great cause for hope.
- The prophet Jeremiah had predicted that this captivity would only be for 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11).
- The prophet Daniel had appealed to God’s prediction as promise, and pleaded with God to allow the captives to return (Daniel 9:2).
- The prophet Isaiah had predicted that a future king named Cyrus would order that Israelites return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Isaiah 44:28).
- In time this would all actually happen, and these future events are recorded in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai.
And now, as the psalmist writes the 137th psalm, the captives HAD returned.
Notice that in verses 1-3 the writer is speaking of those experiences as in the past. Now in verses 5 and 6, the writer is expressing an exhortation that this precious, temple worship must be his most supreme joy and pursuit. In other words, he wants himself and everyone who would ever sing his song (read his psalm), to learn from the experience of the Israelites.
When you are unfaithful, your privileges of worship will be overshadowed by your experience of God’s chastening. You will be weeping, you will be lamenting your unfaithfulness, and bearing up under the weight of God’s chastising hand–perhaps even with your oppressors mocking your claim to be God’s blessed and chosen people.
So instead of wallowing in that experience, the psalmist is encouraging all who would read this psalm with understanding to adopt the mindset that will forever guard you from wandering away from God.
And that is the second reality of every true kingdom seeker.
Passionately EMBRACE genuine WORSHIP as your SUPREME joy (v. 4-6)
The psalmist asks how his heart and mouth can be filled with songs of worship, while he is being chastised for his rebellion and unfaithfulness to God (see 137:4).
The answer is that ‘they can’t!’
Now, having been restored to the land, the writer is recording his experience, and putting these words to paper in order to remind us what MUST be MOST important.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.
When the writer says he must “exalt Jerusalem,” he is saying that he must always remember that it was in Jerusalem that God had chosen to establish His name, to appoint His king, and to build His temple so that He might be worshipped and served appropriately. The experience of worship, and the cause of God’s kingdom on earth was, and will be, centered in Jerusalem.
And so the psalmist says, “I want this pursuit of worship to be my passionate, and uninterrupted pursuit.” In fact, he says, “If I ever forget Jerusalem, if I don’t remember its importance and its glory, and if I don’t live in a way that will continue to ensure God’s blessing on His people, and on His holy city, then may my right hand shrivel up so I can never play my harp, and may my tongue be so lame that I can never sing again.”
He would rather be physically maimed and crippled than to ever be in a place again (like Babylon) where he cannot worship. Even more lamentable to his mind was the fear of ever being in a place spiritually where his own thoughts and actions invited the chastening of God as the thoughts and actions of God’s people had done in the past.
He wanted nothing to stand in the way of this passionate pursuit of true worship in the city of Zion, Jerusalem.
Whatever it was that he counted most precious, most enjoyable, most pleasurable and satisfying, he says now that his love and appreciation for genuine temple worship, in the presence of very God, must be high above even that.
Do you Passionately EMBRACE genuine WORSHIP as your SUPREME joy?
This is certainly a reminder that we must be ever mindful of what it is that competes with God, that competes in our hearts, for true worship of God. He had experienced the painful consequences and chastening of God for having set God aside as the chief joy in his heart (as did all the people collectively), and now he is wishing great pain and even personal injury if he does not avoid the same compromise in the future.
Now the psalm turns the last corner, and perhaps the most difficult one. We have heard his GRIEF over past chastening, and seen his expression of LONGING for uninterrupted and uncompromising worship. Now, there is the matter of wishing a curse upon others-or technically, wishing a blessing upon those who carry out atrocious acts upon his oppressors.
How are we to understand this?
First of all, we must acknowledge that these words are an inspired expression of worship in the Lord’s own songbook, and therefore it is right and holy (in some sense) to wish and express such things.
Therefore, we will phrase the third heart reality of every true kingdom seeker in this way.
Properly ANTICIPATE God’s JUSTICE upon the ENEMIES of God’s Kingdom (v. 7-9)
Let’s read it again to have it fresh in our minds as we try to grapple with the reality of it.
Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it
To its very foundation.”
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock.
Clearly the psalmist is anticipating that God WILL judge both the Edomites and the Babylonians. And his pronouncement of blessing upon whoever God chooses to be the instrument of that judgment implies that it will be deserved and just-even if it is horrible and violent in its particulars.
In order to help us understand both this particular psalm, and others like it, I want to give you four broad principles that ought to govern how to think through and interpret statements like these in Scripture.
(1) God judges the nations of the earth in righteousness, both in the final day, and often in history.
God has fixed a day in which He will judge the earth in righteousness.
Psalm 96:13b – …He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness.
Acts 17:31 – because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.
This speaks of a final judgment upon the earth, but we also have many, many examples in Scripture of God judging particular nations for their sins-like Sodom and Gomorrah, the Philistines, the Canaanites, and even the Babylonians. The psalmist is simply identifying with God’s own stated purpose, and one that is consistent with His character, His holiness, and His prophetic word.
But secondly, this is not purely a personal request for the psalmist.
(2) This is not a request for personal vengeance, but a concern for God’s kingdom purposes to be established.
This is not a personal issue for the psalmist, but one that reaches to the heart of what God had promised and was purposing to carry out. It is God’s purpose to establish His kingdom on the earth. Sadly, the disobedience and rebellion of the Israelites had diverted God’s intention, by His own sovereign and divine purposes, away from the immediate establishment of His earthly kingdom.
But the psalmist knew that it was promised, and he knew that at present both the Edomites and the Babylonians were opposed to God’s people, and opposed to God’s kingdom. Having been delivered out of Babylon, and back to the Promised Land, the psalmist now had a renewed hope that the promises of the kingdom would soon be established. And so he is simply praying that it would come about.
The Old Testament did not teach, nor does it justify, the seeking of personal vengeance. And that leads us to the third broad principle for understanding such passages.
(3) Despite different emphases, the Old and New Testaments are consistent in their expression of personal ethics and national justice.
God often carries out His purposes of judgment through the tragic events of war, using civil governments as His agents. But these are civil governments acting as agents of justice, not individuals carrying out personal vengeance.
We must not confuse the demand and practice of personal ethics of the Bible (love your enemies, bless those who persecute you) with the establishment and execution of the civil law of government agents (an eye for an eye, stoning murderers, etc.).
The personal ethics taught by Jesus were based on Old Testament principles outlined in God’s Law (Leviticus, Exodus and Deuteronomy). They do not contradict, or even alter, the Old Testament directives regarding civil law or God’s purposes to accomplish justice through the nations.
In fact, this principle is also taught in the New Testament.
Romans 13:1, 4 – Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God…4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
When the Old Testament speaks about personal ethics, it is completely consistent with the personal ethics of the New Testament. And, when the New Testament speaks of civil government, and God’s purposes for and through them, it is completely consistent with Old Testament teaching.
Despite different emphases, the Old and New Testaments are consistent in their expression of personal ethics and national justice.
There are different emphases, because the Old Testament was spoken and given in the context of God ruling an entire nation of people (Israel), through the laws of civil government (significant portions of the Mosaic Law). The New Testament is spoken in a context where there are true believers, but they are of every tribe and tongue and nation-and so the emphasis is on personal ethics, not civil law.
Now back to psalm 137.
Having established that God does and will judge the earth, and that the psalmist is not requesting personal vengeance, what is psalm 137 really saying should happen?
(4) These judgments will happen according to God’s word; the psalmist is really requesting that God would fulfill His own stated will and purpose.
God had already declared the just judgment and destiny of both Edom and Babylon. The sons of Edom were doomed, according to God’s own prophetic word (Obadiah).
Obadiah 1:9-11 – “Then your mighty men will be dismayed, O Teman, So that everyone may be cut off from the mountain of Esau by slaughter. 10 “Because of violence to your brother Jacob, You will be covered with shame, And you will be cut off forever. 11 “On the day that you stood aloof, On the day that strangers carried off his wealth, And foreigners entered his gate And cast lots for Jerusalem-You too were as one of them.
They rejoiced in the day of destruction in Jerusalem and Israel. As psalm 137 says…
Psalm 137:7 – Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, “Raze it, raze it To its very foundation.”
They were cheering for its total destruction, that it would be razed, or leveled to the ground. Because of this, God said they would be judged.
Obadiah 1:15 – For the day of the LORD draws near on all the nations. As you have done, it will be done to you. Your dealings will return on your own head.
The Babylonians, likewise, were destined for destruction and judgment, and to be repaid equally, in God’s justice and wrath, for the atrocities committed against His people. With the Babylonians, these judgments were actually very specific.
Isaiah 13:1 – The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.
After describing a lot of the details of this judgment, we see in Isaiah’s prophecy some strikingly similar and specific details of how it will come about.
Isaiah 13:16-18 – Their little ones also will be dashed to pieces Before their eyes; Their houses will be plundered And their wives ravished. 17 Behold, I am going to stir up the Medes against them, Who will not value silver or take pleasure in gold. 18 And their bows will mow down the young men, They will not even have compassion on the fruit of the womb, Nor will their eye pity children.
We also read this in Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 51:56 – For the destroyer is coming against her, against Babylon, And her mighty men will be captured, Their bows are shattered; For the LORD is a God of recompense, He will fully repay.
The very things that the evil Babylonians had done to the children of Israel, God was going to bring upon them through the hands of another wicked nation, the Medes. This actually happened later, as we know from the book of Daniel, and from secular historical accounts.
But for our purposes, what we are noting is that the psalmist was not requesting personal vengeance, or saying something out of character with God’s plan and purposes for judgment. He was actually requesting that God Himself would fulfill His own stated purpose and plan for those wicked Babylonians (and Edomites).
Now, how does this apply to us today? How are we to properly anticipate God’s justice upon the enemies of His kingdom?
As we read such a disturbing statement as we have at the end of psalm 137, I think it seems atrocious to our minds because we do not fully grasp, in a godly way, the heinousness of sin. We have people all over our nation, and in our world, doing things every day as horrible as what the psalmist describes.
We can’t imagine someone “dashing the head of an infant against a stone,” and yet there are people every day burning, and dismembering babies in their mother’s womb. It is only a mercy of God that He has not judged our nation more than He has, and this psalm is a reminder that one day He WILL. While we do not have a specific promise, as the psalmist did with Edom and Babylon, such a judgment would be completely consistent with His character.
We can offer the enemies of God’s kingdom a message of hope and forgiveness-the blood of Christ can cleanse us of all sin. All the wicked of our nation can repent and run to the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel for compassion, pardon and salvation.
Isaiah 55:5-7 – “Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, And a nation which knows you not will run to you, Because of the LORD your God, even the Holy One of Israel; For He has glorified you.” 6 Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.
But for those who do not repent, psalm 137, and passages like it, is a simple message of awful judgment. The words of psalm 137 remind us of the gruesome nature of sin, the hatred of God against it, and of the kind of awful judgment that is to come.
God recompenses mankind for their sin. God is not mocked. Man will reap what he sows. If our nation continues to legalize and encourage moral debauchery, and degrading lifestyles like those of the homosexual, and legalize the snuffing out of human life through abortion and certain forms of stem cell research, then we are on a dangerous path to destruction and judgment.
Nonetheless, we should not be the kind of people that express personal hatred or disdain for sinners. These matters are NEVER a cause for personal vengeance or vigilante justice. Rather, it should be a powerful motivation to bring the message of peace and reconciliation with God to the rebellious, dying and lost of our culture.
It is an awful judgment that they will one day face.
My hope is that the message of this psalm will motivate you to be faithful in the commission to rescue the perishing, and that this graphic reminder of the just judgment to come causes you to consider afresh the diligence with which you preach the gospel to all creation.
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