Wrestling with an Imprecatory Psalm

“O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9)

Psalm 137 is an imprecatory psalm – which means a psalm of cursing – written by someone right after Babylon forcibly relocated the Jews to Babylonian exile. Verses 8 and 9 seems to be most difficult to understand. Why would God include such a troubling passage in the Bible? Is it because God enjoys seeing children dashed into pieces on the rocks? Obviously not. When Elisha announced to king Hazael that he would do such a horrific work, the prophet was weeping (2 Kings 8:11-12). Would a God of Love be less compassionate than his prophet? Does God bless people who kill children? No way! The Torah states that if someone killed a child in the womb of a woman, they would need to pay for it with their lives (Exodus 21:22-23). God condemned the Ammonites “because they ripped open the women with child in Gilead” (Amos 1:13).

We need to note that, while Psalm 137 is inspired, the words does not necessarily reflect God’s emotions (just like the words of Job’s friends did not reflect God’s view of Job’s situation – see Job 42:7). Perhaps God included the passage in order for us to understand the emotions of the captives after their relocation? The siege of Jerusalem was a terrible ordeal. Lamentations puts it this way: “Those slain by the sword are better off Than those who die of hunger; For these pine away, Stricken for lack of the fruits of the field. The hands of the compassionate women Have cooked their own children; They became food for them in the destruction of the daughter of my people.” (Lam 4:9-10). These were the curses that God had threatened Israel with in Deuteronomy if they abandoned him (Deut 28:53). But the Babylonians had been very cruel against their conquered enemies, including dashing their children against the rocks (Nah 3:10). Isaiah had warned Babylon many decades earlier that they would have to suffer the same treatment. In Isaiah 13 we find the “Burden of Babylon”. God would raise up an army from “a far country” that would destroy Babylon and punish them for their evil and iniquity (vs. 4-5, 11). Isaiah continues: “everyone who is captured will fall by the sword. Their children also will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; Their houses will be plundered And their wives ravished. “Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, Who will not regard silver; And as for gold, they will not delight in it. Also their bows will dash the young men to pieces, And they will have no pity on the fruit of the womb; Their eye will not spare children.” (vs. 16-18). In the agony of despair, perhaps when he had lost his own children to the same fate, the psalmist simply prays that God’s promised talionic judgments would fall on the Babylonians. The writer was not planning to do this himself, but blessed the Medes who would conquer Babylon. We too can pray just what is on our heart. We need not “tidy up” our emotions in prayer, but simply tell God how we feel. He knows it already. He can then help us to work through our emotions, so that we can leave room for the wrath of God to even the scores, and learn to pity and even love our enemies.

2 comments on “Wrestling with an Imprecatory Psalm

  1. Adrian on

    Good conclusion, I agree in essence that the psalms are Gods revelation of how genuinely open and honest we can be with Him in prayer, despite the vulgarity or crudeness of our own thoughts.

    I think Psalm 139 shows this beautifully, when David wishes for God to kill his enemies (v.19) or describes how much he hates them (v 21, 22) he still adds at the very end that such thoughts might not be ideal (v.23) and he asks God to show him if such is the case and to lead him to better ways of thinking (v.24).

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    • Jonathan Karlsson on

      The Psalms are not all the same. There are many prophecies in the Psalms, especially Messianic prophecies. I would not say that all of them are only God’s revelation of how genuinely open and honest we can be with Him in prayer, even though they can teach us that. We should be careful though to use our own feelings and standards to measure what is and what is not God’s emotions. We need to let the Bible explain it self. If there is clear evidence from other passages that God has a different feeling or view, then we need to interpret the passage in the light of the other passages. This is how we need to let the Bible be its own interpreter. Another observation of Psalm 137:8-9 is that the psalmist is not necessarily blessing the act of smashing children, but rather blessing the Medes, who would do this horrible act, similar to Elisha’s blessing and anointing Hazael to do the same thing centuries earlier.

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