Verses With Curses
17 Jul 2017
“By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down. Where we wept and we remembered Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
These well-loved words – popularised in the classic song by Boney M. in the 1970s – actually begin Psalm 137. One of my South Sudanese students told me they sang these very words when they returned to their homeland in 2005.
They had spent years living as exiles in Islamic Khartoum. They sang songs of the Lord in a strange land. They wept as they remembered their villages in the south; displaced due to the long civil war.
Similarly, these words served as a lament for Jewish exiles held captive in Babylon.
Less well-loved are the closing words of the psalm: “Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, blessed is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Blessed is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Are we really supposed to read, sing or even pray these words? Not surprisingly they were left out of the Boney M. song. Some would prefer they were left out of our Bibles as well.
Psalm 137 is an imprecatory psalm. Think lament psalms on steroids. Rather than simply crying out to God for deliverance from the wicked, imprecatory psalms call down curses upon one’s enemies and appeal for divine retribution. They strike us as vindictive. How do we reconcile them with Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?
Context is helpful. These words were penned by prisoners of war. Sung by a community who had been led in chains to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem. Some young men (like Daniel) were educated in the wisdom of the empire; fit to serve their new king. Others were fit only to serve as slave labour in imperial building projects. Young women were sold as household slaves or served as concubines.
But if you were an infant … well it’s a long crawl to Babylon! And the soldiers who ransacked Jerusalem had neither the time nor patience to deal with screaming babies. Best we kill them. And don’t bother drawing your swords. Simply grab them by the feet, swing them through the air, and smash their heads against the rocks.
This was the practice in the ancient world. This is what happened to the infants of Judah. Can you feel their pain? I don’t know what I would feel if I saw my child killed in this way.
And on this extremely sharp note the psalm abruptly stops. The pain is unbearable. It hurts too much to say another word.
So how do we deal with this? What value can we place on this extreme expression of pain?
Another helpful point is this: before the psalms are God’s word to us, they are first our words to God. Sometimes words of raw human emotion. And as harsh as they sound, ultimately they reflect a cry that God will not let this act of barbarism pass unchallenged.
The cry of the Jewish exiles is not too dissimilar to the cries of the martyrs in John’s Apocalypse. Those who hover around the throne of God cry out: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). Both have been brutalised by the enemies of God’s people. Both look to God for comfort and for justice.
Many of my South Sudanese theology students here in Uganda have suffered terribly from the new war that began in 2014. They are powerless to respond in kind to those who have brutalised them. Imprecatory psalms teach them to harness their anger and give voice to their feelings. And who better to bear the brunt of their pain than the one who truly understands it.
Jamie is one of our Pioneers of Australia missionaries, and lectures in Theology at the African Renewal University in Uganda. He has previously served as a lecturer at bible colleges in Perth Australia and in South Sudan.