My husband and I spent the first 15 years of our life together with a church that sang the psalms in corporate worship. They were set to old hymns and anthems, with language similar to a sonnet and sung a cappella. Opening burgundy psalters, waiting for four notes blown on the pitch pipe, we would break into harmony and sing our hearts to God.
It was a beautiful experience, but every once in a while we would come to an imprecatory psalm, and I couldn’t choke out the words. Singing Psalm 137, for example, felt offensive and unnecessary; Jesus is not explicitly present, so why sing as though he has not come and saved us?
Why these imprecatory psalms? Why Psalm 137? What do these psalms tell us?
1. These psalms remind us we are desperate.
I admit avoiding these songs because they collide with how I'd like to think about God. But I also admit that I am enraged when poorly written novels romanticize grooming, sexual predation, and abuse and are then immortalized on the big screen for a tidy profit. When Canada's Supreme Court unanimously rules to uphold a patient's right to suicide, I cry for justice. When 21 people of the cross are butchered on the shores of Tripoli, I want someone to pay.
And while I’m not sure what kind of justice I want, I know I don’t want the justice spoken about in Psalm 137:9—“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.” To split the heads of our enemies' children on the foundations of a ruined city is unspeakable. I don’t like it, and I want to erase it from the book I love and rely on.
But what if that’s the point?
What if this psalm, and others like it, remind us we are in trouble? Could they help us move toward brokenness before God? Reading this psalm we enter a world quite different from our safe communities where we store up Bible knowledge and hoard the love and friendship of believers. Our anesthetized hearts are laid open so we might experience the desperate condition of the human race and this fallen world. What if singing these psalms could remind us ”what is good and what the Lord requires of us”? What if singing these songs could motivate us to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8) before a desperate, aching, watching world?
2. These psalms remind us who is holy and who is not.
When we sing these psalms of wrath and judgment, we are forced to ask questions we might otherwise hide from: How could you, God? How can you be so unmerciful? So hateful?
But here, in these questions, we are immediately confronted with an infinite, unpackaged, untamed God who does not answer to us. We are before and under the King of heaven and earth, the rock whose “work is perfect, for all his ways are justice, a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4).
It is an incredible work of faith, born through grace, that leads us to trust a God we cannot understand. We do not know his ways, and we wonder at them, but we remember he is holy and we are not; he is infinite and we are not; he is mercy itself and we are not.
3. These psalms remind us we can tell our ugly thoughts to God.
Psalm 137 was written, in a sense, by Judah, a people group that had seen and known war and Babylonian captivity for 70 years and was also plundered by the Assyrians years earlier. They had become angry and desperate, believing the only road to peace, the only way home, was by the categorical, physical destruction of all their enemies, present and future.
I don’t understand this perspective because I am Canadian, and I live in undeserved peace with no fear of national enemies. I have never seen war on home soil. I have never sent loved ones off to war. I have never been a spoil of war.
Psalm 137, however, is written by people who have known the horrors of war for generations. Weary and wondering if they will ever be happy again, if their song will always remain dried up and stuck in their throats, they dream of living within the safe borders of their homeland, celebrating shabbat around the table, farming their land, laughing with neighbors.
What if the psalmist is not reflecting the heart of God back to God, but rather communicating his own complicated feelings and desires to God?
This psalmist and his people know only in part and see only dimly; they believe hope is the vengeance of God poured down on earthly enemies. Their ideas of deliverance are bathed in blood, and in one sense they were close to the truth.
4. These psalms remind us Christ has come to rescue us.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is all over the Bible, the ancient parts and those written shortly after his death. In Luke 24:27 we find Christ himself, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreting to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” I want to read the Scriptures with a hermeneutic that understands this book is about the Father sending someone to rescue us. Jesus is here, I pray. Help me to see him.
We must look for him in unlikely and even terrifying places like Psalm 137.
We are weary of war, injustice, and anger that begets indifference and violence. But see how our life of peace was earned when the violence of the Father’s wrath was poured out upon his only Son, Jesus. He waged war, snuffing out the light of his progeny, so we can live in peace and advocate for it. Evil is ultimately defeated, destruction ultimately comes, and we are saved.
Deliverance is bathed in the blood of the Father's beloved son: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.”
The limitless God of heaven and earth takes on the broken mantle of human flesh in Jesus, that he might be dashed against the rocks of ruin so that his little ones never will be.