Psalm 137’s Haunting Violence

This post was originally given as a prayer at Westview Christian Fellowship

Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem

  • 1 By the rivers of Babylon—
  •    there we sat down and there we wept
  •    when we remembered Zion.
  • 2 On the willows[a] there
  •    we hung up our harps.
  • 3 For there our captors
  •    asked us for songs,
  • and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
  •    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
  • 4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
  •    in a foreign land?
  • 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
  •    let my right hand wither!
  • 6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
  •    if I do not remember you,
  • if I do not set Jerusalem
  •    above my highest joy.
  • 7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
  •    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
  • how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
  •    Down to its foundations!”
  • 8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator![b]
  •    Happy shall they be who pay you back
  •    what you have done to us!
  • 9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
  •    and dash them against the rock!

~Psalm 137

It’s difficult to accept the fact that the Bible describes revenge in such brutal detail as found in Psalm 137. There are other Psalms that ask us to direct our anger in ways that promote peace rather than perpetuate violence but not Psalms 137. Psalm 137 doesn’t temper an author’s fierce anger towards injustice and desire for revenge. It’s important to hear and remember the extent of the anger expressed here because it was apocalyptic verses like these that inspire Christ. He too is angry at the injustice he sees around him and condemns Israel in a similar way as Jeremiah (the prophet we think authored Psalm 137) condemns Babylon.

Psalm 137 is remembered for its violence but also because of the haunting tune set to its lyrics by Don McLean titled “Babylon” linked at the beginning of this post. If we let them, the song and its lyrics can haunt us in three healthy ways.

First, for those who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced extreme injustice — who, for example, often enjoy family meals — it reminds us to be thankful for the privilege we’ve received, “remember Jerusalem”. Psalm 137 implores us not to take things such as safety, love, and togetherness for granted.

Second, there is hope in this Psalm for those who are in the middle of unimaginable hardship, when, for example, a loved one has died, or a family has been torn apart by disaster. When we remember what’s gone: the home we had, the loved one who passed, or the meals we’ve enjoyed, these events are never completely lost. If remembered, it’s possible for these joyous times to be resurrected in new exciting ways.

Finally, there are those of us who have never experienced justice, who didn’t have loving parents or the opportunity to enjoy family meals, for example. What hope do you have, you who have little or nothing to remember? Responding to Thomas in front of all the disciples, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”.  In part, these words are meant for those in this final group. If you haven’t ever experienced love, justice, and peace in a meaningful way, how much more astonishing is it when you come to believe in these virtues as they are found in Christ? Blessed, therefore, are those who have not seen — who have never known a loving parent, who have never shared a family meal, and who have never experienced the safety of a home — and yet have come to believe in love and the possibility of a just world. Your testament is truly astounding.

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