Psalm 137 is a very troubling passage written by someone right after Babylon forcibly relocated the Jews to Babylonian exile. Why would God have wanted to include such a violently distressing passage in the Bible? What implications does this have for us today when we face great trials at the hands of other people?
How do we explain such troubling passages as Psalm 137 and other imprecatory Psalms? How can one believe that a God, who died and prayed for His enemies, inspired it? This is a big and difficult question – arguably one of the most challenging passages in Scripture. It could easily become a long essay or even a book, but here are some brief thoughts.
“The murder of innocent children, though customary in ancient warfare, was one of the cruelest and most abhorrent of all practices (2 Kings 8:12; Isa. 13:16; Hosea 10:14). In view of the fact that such stern treatment had been meted out by the Babylonians (see Jer. 51:24), the psalmist is simply enunciating a law of life – “as though hast done, it shall be done unto thee” (Obadiah 15; cf. Matt. 7:2).” (SDA Bible commentary)
In the introduction to the book of Psalms, Albert Barnes, in his renowned Bible commentary, eloquently elaborates on six alternative explanations to the Psalms of Cursing. Here are a few snippets:
“Part of the passages may undoubtedly be regarded as prophetic; expressing what would be, rather than indicating any wish on the part of the author.” (Barnes, Introduction to Psalms, Section 6).
“Some of the expressions referred to are a mere record of the feelings of others; the gratification which they would feel in seeing vengeance… In such a case all that the inspired writer… is responsible for… is that he has given an exact statement of the feelings.” (Barnes)
“Punishment is right. It is not wrong that a penalty should be affixed to law; it is not wrong that the penalty of a law should be inflicted; it is not wrong that pain, privation of office, imprisonment, and the loss of life itself, should follow the commission of crime. So all laws determine; so all nations have judged… it is laid in our very nature,” Barnes writes as he is arguing that prayers for justice have its place.
“There is still another solution of the difficulty which has been suggested. It is, substantially, that these expressions “are a mere record of what actually occurred in the mind of the psalmist,” and are preserved to us as an illustration of human nature when partially sanctified. According to this explanation we are not required by any just view of inspiration to vindicate those feelings, or to maintain that such feelings could not occur in the case of an inspired man… According to this view the Spirit of inspiration is no more responsible for these feelings on the part of the psalmist than it is for the acts of David, Abraham, Jacob, or Peter.” (Barnes)
Still, why did God want such strange passages in His Word? It might have been to make religion attainable, to encourage us sinners to pursue and persist in a life and walk with God – seeing that even inspired writers, that did just that, were imperfect and failing human beings. It might have been to inspire us to, like the authors of Psalms, put our trust in God’s promises and prophecies letting the vengeance be God’s (Deut. 32:35), even though we are full of sorrow and anger and everything looks miserably dark. Or perhaps it was because pouring is one part of healing prayer, as Dr. McAllister well argues in his class.
“Feel free to be honest and frank with God. He knows how you feel anyway. If you feel as though He’s forgotten you or been unfaithful, tell Him. He’ll help you through it…” (McAllister, class notes)
Finally I want a share a beautiful statement from my favorite author, Ellen White, that came to my mind:
“Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him. He who numbers the hairs of your head is not indifferent to the wants of His children. “The Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” James 5:11. His heart of love is touched by our sorrows and even by our utterances of them. Take to Him everything that perplexes the mind. Nothing is too great for Him to bear, for He holds up worlds, He rules over all the affairs of the universe. Nothing that in any way concerns our peace is too small for Him to notice. There is no chapter in our experience too dark for Him to read; there is no perplexity too difficult for Him to unravel. No calamity can befall the least of His children, no anxiety harass the soul, no joy cheer, no sincere prayer escape the lips, of which our heavenly Father is unobservant, or in which He takes no immediate interest. “He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3. The relations between God and each soul are as distinct and full as though there were not another soul upon the earth to share His watchcare, not another soul for whom He gave His beloved Son.” – (Steps to Christ p. 100)
Albert Barnes Commentary on the Entire Bible: http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb.html
”Genocide and a Loving God?” (article)
”Why did God command the stoning?” (article)