Written by David Lamb
Friday, 24 May 2013 00:00
“Are you excited about Psalm 137?”
I was asked this question during a job interview in England in the spring of 2005. (I didn’t start teaching at Biblical until 2006.)
People generally aren’t excited about Psalm 137 since it ends with a blessing being pronounced upon people who bash babies against rocks.
“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9).
Shocking, I know. Why is this in the Bible? We’ll come back to this question.
Psalms 137 is called an imprecatory psalm because it includes a curse or imprecation against evil doers or enemies of the psalmist. Previous blogs in this series have looked at Psalm 1, Psalm 23 (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), Psalm 13 (a lament) and Psalm 51 (a repentance psalm). There is only one psalm that generally characterized by imprecation (Psalm 109), but many psalms have imprecatory sections in them (e.g., Psa. 35:4-8; 55:15; 58:6-10; 69:22-28; 109; 139:19; 143:12).
Perhaps the most shocking example comes from a familiar psalm. Psalm 139 begins with “you have searched and known me” (139:1), moves into the pro-life section in the middle, “you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:13) but then ends with, “Oh, that you would kill the wicked…I hate them with perfect hatred” (139:19, 22). Apparently they weren’t fearfully and wonderfully made.
Why is this type of language in the Scripture? I didn’t have a good answer about Psalm 137 during my interview that day (and it may have cost me the job).
If someone were to ask me today, “Why is baby-bashing blessed in the Bible?” I’d say, “I don’t know.” But here are three things to think about.
First, just because someone does or says something in Scripture doesn’t mean that God authorizes that act or speech. Abraham deceives Pharaoh about his wife and sleeps with his wife’s servant Hagar but neither of those deeds is endorsed by God. Job’s friends say a lot of unhelpful things to their friend, some which sound good, yet their speech is condemned by God at the end of the book (Job 42:7). Before we decide to model our behavior on Psalm 137:9, we need to ask, “How does this message fit in to the rest of Scripture?” Scripture does not endorse baby bashing. The psalmist, not God, is speaking in Psalm 137:9.
Second, even though Jesus reminds us that evil thoughts matter (Matt. 5:28), it is better to speak about doing something violent, than actually performing a violent deed. Yes, focusing on violence by speaking about it can lead to violent behavior, but speech can also be a way to vent and express violent thoughts, which can reduce the likelihood of violent outcomes. Also, the psalmist is expressing this infanticidal idea in the midst of a psalm of lament to God (“Remember, O LORD…” Psa. 137:7). God isn’t turned off or shocked by this type of language. God welcomes our deepest, darkest and most intense thoughts and emotions.
Third, we need to be cautious about condemning the speech of people who recently witnessed the violent deaths of their own children. The previous verse makes it clear that the Israelites were just asking for an eye-for-an-eye type justice, “Blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!” (Psa. 137:8). I can’t imagine how these parents would have felt about the people who committed atrocities against their beloved sons and daughters. By praying about their thoughts of retribution, giving them up to the righteous judge of the earth,these people are taking a first step which willhopefully lead them to a place called forgiveness.
We may feel uncomfortable with this type of cursing language, but it’s in the Bible, so we need to figure out what to do with it. In the May 2013 edition of Christianity Today, Russell Moore compared hip-hop music (some Christians also feel uncomfortable with hip-hop) to imprecatory psalms (check out the link here): “If country and gospel music are in the company of psalms of lament, hip-hop is in the territory of psalms of imprecation.”
Jesus teaches that we should bless those who curse us (Luke 5:28), but he also curses, and not only fig trees (Mark 11:12-24), but also people who are religious hypocrites (Matt. 23). Jesus seemed to save his most extreme language toward people who would have been considered religious.
What are some worthy targets of a prayer of imprecation? If you were to pray a prayer of cursing like the psalmist during your next church prayer meeting, might that wake up a few of your fellow prayers?
David Lamb is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biblical. He’s the husband of Shannon, father of Nathan and Noah, and the author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?He blogs regularly at http://davidtlamb.com/. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/david-lamb.