This article on Psalm 137:8-9, is about the imprecatory Psalms, the wrath of God and prayer.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1991. 3 pages.

Psalm 137:8-9 - The Strangest of all Beatitudes

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Psalm 137:8-9

I had always assumed that I would never be able to explain this strangest of all beatitudes. A little study at the behest of the editor has confirmed that suspicion.

There is also the little pro­blem of a temperament ill-suited to apologetics. I concentrate on the things which I understand, or which I may be able to understand, and I lose no sleep over the kinds of mys­teries which only divinity students will solve in this life.


In these verses, we are faced with an "im­precatory" passage. Walter Kaiser defines imprecation as "invoking judgement, calamity or curse in an appeal to God". The easy op­tion seems to be to read them as expressing a natural human reaction but one which we are not expected to condone. The Psalmist was expressing his own feelings, and these have been iner­rantly recorded for us, in the same way as the rash out­bursts of Job.

Now it is true that one of the glories of the Psalms is their honesty, their accurate reflection of the different moods of the believer. We should also remember that the Psalms are poetry, and so we may expect passionate and extravagant language. In that connection Derek Kidner helpfully suggests that one of their roles is that of touching and kindling rather than simply address­ing us, so that some difficult passages "have the shocking immediacy of a scream, to startle us into feeling some­thing of the desperation which produced them".

But the psalter was given as a manual of praise, divinely authorised for the worship of Jehovah in suc­ceeding generations. Were the people of God really to use songs which would rein­force unworthy attitudes, and which in some cases illu­strated morality which they should censure?


The earlier verses of the Psalm, and the particular historical experience re­flected in the later ones, offer us part of the back­ground for interpretation.

The Psalmist is thinking about the pain of exile in Babylon. We cannot be cer­tain about whether he is still exiled or has returned to his homeland. His captors mocked God's people by demanding they sing the songs of Zion. He refuses to sing for the entertainment of his tormentors, and gives ex­pression to his loyalty to Jerusalem in the self-imprecation of verses 5-6.

So the words spoken against the enemies of Jeru­salem in verses 7-9 follow eloquent testimony to the priority of Jerusalem in this man's affections. These final verses round on the Edo­mites, descendants of Esau, who had rejoiced over the ruination of Jerusalem (see what the Lord thinks of Edom in Obadiah 10-14). Then the Psalmist turns on Babylon, whose soldiers had indulged in the most cruel atrocities in the taking of the city.

This Psalm must also be placed against the back­ground provided by the im­precatory Psalms in general. There are only a few such Psalms, of which 55, 59, 69, 79, 109 and 137 are regarded as the most prominent, and even in these imprecation is a minor element.

But there are enough of them to provide a pattern which helps in interpreting individual problems. The curses of the imprecatory Psalms are not expressions of personal vindictiveness or vengeance. They are spoken against the enemies of Jehovah, those whose hatred of God's people is an ex­pression of their hatred of him. It is also important to note that they are not mere­ly predictive, but are prayers or are set in the context of prayer (so here, from verse 7). Matters are brought to God so that he might see that justice is done, and might vindicate his own name before a mocking world.


The Psalmist is pleading that God would act in appropriate judgement. In verse 7 we have the judicial language: "Remember ... against". The Judge is being asked to deal with Edom. Then in verses 8-9 the Psalmist appeals for the lex talionis (what we know as "eye for eye", Deuteronomy 19:21) to be the reward of Babylon. He wants them to be repaid for what they had done, no more and no less. They and their children will suffer exactly as God's people were made to suffer, and their violence will come back on them in exact retri­bution. As John Eaton com­ments: "The imprecation holds up a mirror to the Babylonian atrocities against Jerusalem and flashes the scene back onto the perpetrators as their coming recompense".

The language of judge­ment is also realistic. He is asking for an army to win a crushing victory over the Babylonians and that will inevitably mean desperate suffering. The details of verse 9 express how things really happened in the awful world of ancient Near East­ern warfare (2 Kings 8:12; Hosea 13:16; Nahum 3:10). Indeed it has been the terrible reality in conflict in the Middle East, and in other theatres, in our own century. As we reflect on realism, perhaps we should remem­ber that our prayers for the return of the Lord will be answered in a day of wrath and anguish for many.

The desire for judgement here is also expressed in line with prophetic Scripture. In Isaiah 14:16, in a prophecy against Babylon, we are told about their infants being dashed before their eyes. The Medes "will have no mercy on infants nor will they look with compassion on children" (v.18). And in Jeremiah 51:56 we read that Jehovah is a God of retribu­tion who will repay Babylon in full. In the light of con­siderations such as those above, the best construction which can be placed upon the beatitude is that those in­volved are regarded as "blessed" because they will be the instruments of the judgement of Jehovah.


What perspective does the New Testament offer us as we consider these and simi­lar words?

We must not divide the Scriptures naively between an Old Testament of wrath and a New Testament of love. The Old Testament re­veals a God of passionate love, and the New Testa­ment has its curses, notably the apostolic anathemas of 1 Corinthians 16:22 and Gala­tians 1:8-9. There is even an allusion to the problematic language of Psalm 137 as our Lord weeps over Jeru­salem and prophesies her fall: "they will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls" (Luke 19:44). Imprecatory Psalms are quoted (in particular Psalm 69), but we note that we are never counselled to use their imprecations.

There are three important New Testament perspectives relevant to the issue.

  • In the first place, we must reckon with the cross of Calvary. It is surely significant that there is no imprecatory prayer as Christ's enemies nail him to the tree. This is exactly the situation for which an apology is offered for imprecatory Psalms, when Jehovah is attacked, especially in his anointed representative. But at Cal­vary the King prays, "Fa­ther, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Fur­ther we see that there is actually a divine self-imprecation at Calvary, as the Lord substitutes him­self for those who deserve the curse. Jehovah is still the Judge, but he pours out his wrath against his Son and forsakes him to save us. We worship a God who spared not his own Babe.

  • Secondly, there is the new wealth of teaching on the day of judgement. The Old Testament does speak of climactic judgement, and the New Testament tells of God's wrath still revealed through history. But the Old Testament often, as here, has a more temporal focus on judgement, with Jehovah expected to display his just anger on particular enemies in this life. As Leslie Allen writes (on Psalm 109): "In his own way the Psalmist is leaving vengeance to the wrath of God, but he expect­ed this vengeance to be manifested in the here and now rather than in the here­after". The New Testament focus moves to the reckon­ing at the end of time. We are given no encouragement now to pray for particular judgements as this and other imprecatory Psalms do.

  • And thirdly, the New Tes­tament gives a new perspec­tive on the Church at War. The Old Testament was identified with a nation, and that nation was called to de­fend its territory and attack its enemies in literal, physic­al warfare. The New Testa­ment Church has no warrant to wage war in that sense, to wield the sword which be­longs to the State. But we are engaged in spiritual warfare, and as we invade hostile territory in evangelism our aim is to see people leave the thraldom of the enemy and bow to Christ. We are en­gaged in a holy war, and Zion is extended as Jehovah's enemies capitulate to him in faith and obedience.


Can we sing the concluding verses of Psalm 137 today? John Wenham for one believes "there is every reason why a congregation well taught in biblical doc­trine should use the whole Psalter". Others have their doubts, often expressed in terms of the imprecatory Psalms requiring a particu­lar level of spirituality. So John Stott says he would find it hard to echo their sentiments, not because they are beneath him, but because they are beyond him.

But was the Old Testa­ment believer so spiritual that imprecations could be sung without the danger of pride or vindictiveness? Of course not. And yet these formed an integral part of their songbook.

The crucial issue is their appropriateness at this stage in redemptive history, as we engage in loving outreach between cross and consummation. Verses such as these can be shown to have had a clear judicial relevance in an earlier epoch. A beati­tude on soldiers who kill Babylonian infants may still convey a general message about retributive judgement to those who know its back­ground and who have given it careful reflection. But it offers an example of that principle which is too bru­tally specific to be used in our public worship.

However, if you must sing it, then do so with tears. These will be appropriate for us even at the Judgement to come. In Revelation there is indeed celebration of judge­ment upon another Babylon (18:20; 19:1-6). But after the books are opened and sentence is passed in chapter 20, we learn in 21:4 that God will wipe every tear from the eyes of his people. What are the tears which the blessed will need wiped away? Surely the tears asso­ciated with the trauma of surprises and partings on that awesome day.

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