Most Bible readers and preachers would be quite content if Psalm 137 were simply removed from the Scriptures—or at least from the lectionary. Despite the poetic beauty and palpable ache of the opening verses, the concluding plea for divine judgment is for many an insuperable obstacle:

            [7] Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites

                        the day of Jerusalem,

            how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,

                        down to its foundations!”

            [8] O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,

                        blessed shall he be who repays you

                        with what you have done to us!

            [9] Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones

                        and dashes them against the rock![1]

But there the words are in the songbook of Israel, a songbook we confess to be the words of God to his people even as they are the words of people to their God. How can we proclaim this text—so seemingly antithetical to the ethics of Christ’s kingdom in its baby-directed brutality—without either reverting to casually antisemitic denigrations of Hebrew hymnody or papering over the real moral concerns such a psalm raises? No brief exploration of Psalm 137 will be able to address every question, but we may be helped by discerning how its prayer emerges from and connects to the broader sweep of scriptural expectation.

Psalm 137 prays for proportionate justice. The longing of v. 8 is explicitly framed as a specific application of the lex talionis (cf. Exod 21:23–25; Lev 24:17–22; Deut 19:21), yearning that Babylon receive a judgment that matches what the empire delivered to Israel. The principle of proportionate retribution in Israel’s law prohibited two possible abuses of justice: a penalty could not harshly exceed what was fitting, but neither could it grant a leniency that might minimize the seriousness of an offense or permit nepotistic treatment of powerful offenders at the expense of their victims. The lex talionis placed a limit on judgment while simultaneously mandating a public administration of justice that vindicated the innocent and validated their suffering. When Psalm 137 cries for Babylon to be repaid with what she has done, it joins a chorus of psalmic prayers (e.g., 28:4; 94:2; 109:1–20) that ask for proportionate recompense according to the standard of justice given by God.

Psalm 137 prays for the actualization of divine promises. Through several prophets, God had already declared in quite precise terms the judgment he would bring upon the nations who participated in desecrating his temple, slaughtering his people, and carrying them into exile. Obadiah indicted Edom for her violence during the Babylonian invasion (vv. 10–14) and prophesied talionic justice (v. 15) that would leave Edom without survivor (v. 18; cf. Ezek 25:12–13; Jer 49:12–13). The Lord promised by the mouth of Isaiah that Babylon’s infants would be dashed in pieces before their eyes (13:16) and that he would cut off Babylon’s name and descendants from the earth (14:22; cf. 47:1–15). And in Jeremiah 50–51, God announced that he would repay to Babylon as she had done (50:15; 51:56), that her little ones would be dragged away (50:45), that the great empire would be made desolate forever (51:62). Psalm 137’s requests are not the creatively barbarous whims of an especially imaginative sufferer. They are pleas for God to keep his promises, pleas that self-consciously employ the very language of God’s promises. They are prayers that ask nothing more than that God do the justice to which he has committed himself.

The mourning Jews in exile (Psalm 137) *oil on panel *1832
Eduard Bendemann (1811–1889), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Psalm 137 prays for the definitive end of the wicked. The presence and persistence of the wicked is a preoccupation of the Psalter. The psalmists look forward to a covenantally ensured future in which God inherits the nations (82:8), expels the wicked from his presence (1:4–5), and fills up the whole creation with his glory as a holy temple (72:19; cf. Num 14:21) even as they lament over a present in which the predation of the ungodly and violent threatens the life and peace of God’s people and wages war against God’s reign upon the earth. Accordingly, several psalms rehearse the divine guarantee that Yahweh will one day bring an end to the line of the wicked, stopping the seemingly perpetual generational cycle of violence that assaults his kingdom community and corrupts his world with idolatry and bloodshed:

            [8] Your hand will find out all your enemies;

                        your right hand will find out those who hate you.

            [9] You will make them as a blazing oven

                        when you appear.

            The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,

                        and fire will consume them.

            [10] You will destroy their descendants from the earth,

                        and their offspring from among the children of man. (Ps 21:8–10)

            [28] For the Lord loves justice;

                        he will not forsake his saints.

            They are preserved forever,

                        but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.

            [29] The righteous shall inherit the land

                        and dwell upon it forever. (Ps 37:28–29)

Insofar as the descendants of the wicked are conceived as offspring who are formed by and follow in the footsteps of their parents—which is, of course, the way that families and societies have generally operated throughout history—God’s assured interruption of the line of the wicked is an element of the decisive justice that will finally enable the godly to dwell upon the earth in his holy presence without threat or fear. In Psalm 137, the psalmist turns the promise into a prayer. Having experienced the horrors of invasion, the destruction of Yahweh’s house, and exile at the hands of Babylon, the psalmist reaches for the day when the line of the wicked will be cut off forever so that those who trust in the Lord might flourish before his face in unimpeded worship and joy.

Psalm 137 prays for the advent of the messianic king. Who is the “blessed” man of v. 9, expected to administer judgment against Babylon? Read within the structural movement of the Psalter, Psalm 137 offers several indications that the hoped-for individual is the royal heir from David’s line who will arise to restore Israel and reign over the nations in fulfillment of God’s covenant. At pivotal points in the Psalter, this royal figure is foregrounded as the locus of Israelite hope, the mediator of Yahweh’s purposes for his people and the world. The collection opens in Psalm 2 with the Lord’s decree to his anointed that this royal son will rule over the nations, possess the ends of the earth, and “dash” (v. 9) his enemies like a potter’s vessel. At the Psalter’s center, Psalm 72 begs for a Davidic king who will enact justice, crush oppressors, and have dominion “from the River [that is, from the Euphrates in Babylon] to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). By the time we arrive at Psalm 137, the Psalter has primed us to recognize that the blessed one who will “dash” the offspring of wicked Babylon in a consummate exercise of divine justice is the anticipated anointed of Psalms 2 and 72. That Ps 2:9 and Ps 137:9 are the only two uses of the Hebrew verb rendered “dash” (npṣ) in the entire Psalter only underscores this royal association. It is unsurprising, then, that the longing benediction of Ps 137:9 is immediately answered by the Psalter’s final collection of Davidic psalms (Pss 138–145), a group of prayers that culminates with a royal voice celebrating God’s victorious deliverance, the certain destruction of the wicked, and Yahweh’s everlasting kingdom. The Psalter as a whole is eschatologically oriented toward the advent of a messianic son of David, and the climactic plea of Psalm 137 falls firmly within that trajectory.

Arthur Hacker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
(c) Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Psalm 137 prays for the justice Jesus will accomplish. In line with the messianic and eschatological framing of Psalm 137 within the Psalter itself, the New Testament alludes to the judgment prayer of Ps 137:8 when narrating the eschatological judgment Jesus will exercise when the Davidic Son of God returns in glory to cleanse the world of wickedness, consummate his kingdom, and renew the cosmos as the temple of Yahweh. Paul declares in 2 Thess 1:6–7 that God “considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you . . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,” echoing the psalm’s expectation of one who repays Babylon with what she has done to Israel. Even more explicitly, Revelation 18 envisions the final fall of the Babylon-esque world system in language pulled from Psalm 137 and the related oracles of Jeremiah 50–51, depicting the definitive interruption of the line of the wicked at Christ’s return as God’s answer to his promises and the psalmist’s prayer. Jesus, the seed of David, will administer perfect justice and drive out all unrighteousness when he comes to renew the world as the holy—and wholly joyful—dwelling place of God with his people. Every prayer that whispers “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” pleads for the same basic reality for which Psalm 137 yearns.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, waiting for the actualization of God’s promises and the full restoration of his kingdom in the midst of suffering, oppression, and dehumanizing violence? Psalm 137, a song to the Lord, is the answer to its own question. We sing for justice. We sing for the advent of the promised king. In that hope of God’s perfect justice, as the book of Revelation so clearly communicates, is the power to persevere in faithful witness to the way of the Lamb even unto death (Rev 12:11). Maranatha.

[1] All translations are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

Trevor Laurence (PhD, University of Exeter) is Lecturer of Biblical Studies at The King’s College and Executive Director of the Cateclesia Institute. He serves as a Research Associate with the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence and is the author of Cursing with God: The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer.

Prayer in the Ruins: Psalm 137
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