The psalms of lament are nothing if not intense. One of the most difficult passages in the Bible is Psalm 137:7–9, one that displays the white-hot anger of the psalmist over what had been done to God’s people:
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites said that day[a] at Jerusalem: “Destroy it! Destroy it down to its foundations!” Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who pays you back what you have done to us. Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.
It’s tempting to think this is saying that the Bible justifies horrific violence against children and against the enemies of God’s people. There are many—particularly non-Christians—who think that’s what this psalm tells us. But does it really?
Let me ask you this: would we be right to wish for the death of the children of every atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu or Bahai on the earth? Would we be justified in rejoicing in the death of the late abortionist Henry Morgentaler? Should we wish for the death of those who commit acts of terror around the world?
Of course not.
Simplistic biblicism and hard passages
Why not? Because the Scriptures command us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Because it is better for us to suffer for the sake of Christ than to seek vengeance. And yet so many believe this is what this passage tells us to do. That, friends, is what some scholars that I love dearly call a simplistic biblicism. I prefer to call it being obtuse. Because they pick up so strongly on the psalmist’s anger, they misinterpret what’s happening here.
That, I realize, is a rather lengthy preface, but I want you to understand something: these verses are here for our good. It is, like all Scripture, inspired by God and “profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
So God clearly wants us to know learn something from a passage like this. Here’s what I think it is (it’s going to take a bit so stay with me): Trust in God’s promise of deliverance.
The people of Israel had been devastated by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was burned to the ground. The Temple was ruined. The people were murdered and those who were kept alive were taken as slaves. And through it all, the Babylonians—who had been used as instruments of judgment against God’s wayward people—rejoiced. They delighted in the destruction they caused.
But God promised through Jeremiah that “for a destroyer is coming against her, against Babylon. Her warriors will be captured, their bows shattered, for the Lord is a God of retribution; he will certainly repay” (Jeremiah 51:56). And through Isaiah, he said the Babylonian’s “children will be dashed to pieces before their eyes” by the Medes (Isaiah 13:16). Just as the Babylonians had delighted in the destruction of Jerusalem, so too would the Medes delight in the slaughter of Babylon’s children.
So the psalmist here is wishing not for vengeance in human terms. He is praying for God’s justice. He is putting his trust in God’s promise to repay the Babylonians for what they had done. He is trusting that God will deliver his people, as God had promised. Throughout this psalm, he calls the people to remember. Remember Jerusalem in your grief—and remember the Lord’s promise of deliverance.
This is what he calls us to do as well.
Hoping in God
This is truly the blessed hope we have in the gospel—Christ died on the cross to deliver us from the most horrible suffering imaginable: An eternity in hell. And yet he took upon himself the wrath our sins deserved so we might be free. And even now, He sits in Heaven at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us, praying for us, preparing a place for us with Him.
What glorious hope that is!
That’s the hope that’s driven Christians from the beginning of the Church. It’s the truth that sustains us.
Brothers and sisters, we are clay jars and God has placed this treasure—this great hope—in us. That’s why we can say with the Apostle Paul:
We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh. So then, death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:8–12)
Death is at work in us daily. But Christ is being revealed. That’s what our trials do. They make us look more and more like Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, the one who suffered for us so we might be delivered from death.
Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
Christian, trials will come. Grieve them, but do not let your despair distort your thinking. Instead, put your hope in God’s deliverance.