The Ethics of Vengeful Prayer—Psalm 137

The Politics of Scripture

If we read carefully, we discover that no psalm is off limits for the early church. They needed them. And so do we.

1 By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows 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! 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 (NRSV)

Psalm 137 is one of the most avoided texts in Scripture. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment to Christianity. Since the lectionary gives you the option of reading either Lamentations 3 or Psalm 137 this week, chances are good that you avoided it, too. Among the bloodiest and most vindictive-sounding passages in the Bible is Psalm 137:8-9:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

The temptation is to say that the New Testament moves beyond such violent inclinations, that in Jesus we can leave all this behind and embrace a more compassionate ethic. But that approach is not very consistent. Have you read the book of Revelation? When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we are praying not only for our salvation but for judgement upon the wicked. According to the image in Revelation, when Jesus returns great destruction will accompany him (e.g., Rev 16). Violence is not just a thing of the past for the New Testament; it is embedded in our hope.

The Psalms are the most often quoted Old Testament book by New Testament authors. Jesus himself doesn’t shy away from the “ugly” bits. He quotes from two of the most intensely ugly psalms (Psalm 35:19 and 69:4) in John 15:25. He has the audacity to include fellow Jews who rejected him among the worldly “enemies” described in the psalms. If we read carefully, we discover that no psalm is off limits for the early church.

They needed them.

And so do we.

The faith of Israel is no pie-in-the-sky. Israel relates to YHWH in a contested world under intense pressure. Kingdoms and rulers vie for their allegiance. Foreign kings superimpose their authority on the people of God. They destroy Israelite cities, torture the residents, and drag them into exile. When Israel speaks to YHWH, their prayers are born of desperation for God to intervene. They need more than sweet dreams and safe travels. They need justice!

The beautiful thing is that their honest desperation is welcome at the throne of God. The Israelites are not “on their own” in the political sphere. They have a powerful advocate. It matters to God how things play out politically. It matters that wrongs are punished and that humans can flourish along with the rest of creation.

If we cut out the violent parts of the psalms, we deny part of God’s essential character. YHWH’s self-description in Exodus 34:6-7 highlights divine mercy, but it also says of God: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (NRSV). The God of the Old Testament is YHWH, the covenant-making and redeeming God who rescues and saves, who demonstrates love and who takes sin seriously.

Would we prefer it otherwise? Would we prefer a world where rampant evil goes unchecked? Where rapists go free and corrupt despots get rich by oppressing others? Would we prefer for people to be allowed to destroy each other’s lives and reputations by spreading false rumors about them with impunity? Or are we grateful that God wields his power in loving ways by putting a stop to injustice?

I like the way John Calvin talks about Psalm 137: “It may seem cruel, but [the psalmist] does not speak under the impulse of personal feeling, and only employs words which God had himself authorized, so that this is the declaration of a just judgment, as when our lord says, ‘the measure you give will be the measure you get’ (Matthew 7:2).”[1] In other words, Psalm 137 is not the psalmist coming unglued. Rather, it reflects his desire that wrongs be made right. It insists that those who terrorize and torture their neighbors should not be allowed to continue unchecked.

If we believe that God is just—that YHWH does not leave the guilty unpunished—then to pray the imprecatory psalms is to call upon God to act in accordance with God’s own character. It is to call upon God to put an end to violence. The Psalms offer language for occasions when evil has gone unchecked and we desire for God to step in and do something.

John Goldingay says of Psalm 35, another violent psalm, “Western Christians rarely need the deliverance and reversal the psalm pleads for . . . but we should not therefore refuse this form of prayer to the many people in the world who are in a less fortunate position, not least because of their treatment by Western Christian nations. . . . The psalm implies that if we are not incensed by persecution and oppression and do not want to urge God to put down the attackers, there is something wrong with us.” [2]

If you read Lamentations this week, then you know that the residents of Jerusalem had suffered immensely at the hands of the Babylonian army. Rather than helping to defend the vulnerable Judeans, nearby residents of Edom stood there cheering for the oppressors, rushing in to plunder whatever was left. The psalmist brings these human atrocities into the presence of God, calling for action:

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!”
(Ps 137:7 NRSV)

We observe atrocities in our world, too. Daily we hear of mass shootings, child soldiers, human trafficking, extortion, and abuse of power. God is not okay with this. We should not be either. In Psalm 137, the psalmist stops short of asking God to bash babies and he doesn’t take violent action himself. He simply unveils his angst in God’s presence, honestly acknowledging that on the day when Babylon falls, when the next generation of Babylonians are prevented from continuing this vicious cycle, it will be a day to celebrate.

We often talk about the Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12 NRSV). This is an important command from Jesus for us. But we tend to be less familiar with what I call the Golden Rule of God’s Judgment, pronounced through the prophet Obadiah over the nation of Edom: “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (Obadiah 1:15 NRSV). We should not personally take revenge, but God authorizes human governments to maintain order and to hold violence in check. This does not mean a government in power has free rein. Those governments are subject to the same limits as those they punish. If they become oppressive, they will be the recipients of divine judgement.

It is right, then, for us to pray with the psalmist, bringing to God’s attention the injustices of our world and calling upon God to take action. Doing so reminds us to release our own desire for vengeance to God so that it may be refined while refusing to overlook what must be stopped. Given God’s commitment to holding sin accountable intergenerationally, a psalm like Psalm 137 also stands as a sober warning not to perpetrate injustice ourselves. We would rather think of ourselves as those in need of God’s help. But if we participate in oppressing others, we stand on the wrong side of the line. If nothing else deters us, for the sake of our own children, let’s embrace peace.


[1] Adapted from John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, NPNF vol. 5 (Psalm 137) [ccel.org].

[2] John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 1: Psalm 1-41, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 504, emphasis mine.

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