“O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Blessed shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Blessed shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9)
Psalm 137 has caused many uneasy feelings among believers and non-believers alike because in this song the psalmist reflects on his bitter experience in being taken into exile. The psalm also expresses the pain and suffering the deported people suffered as a result of being taken from their land. Because of the memories of that humiliating experience, the psalmist vents his anger on the people of Babylon.
But, as one reads the words of this psalm, especially verses 8 and 9, one must ask: “What kind of people pray a prayer like this?” Before a satisfactory explanation can be given to this prayer for retribution, one must look at the message the Old Testament seeks to present to a world that has no real knowledge of the God of the Bible.
Contrary to popular perception people have about the Old Testament, the whole Old Testament, from Genesis to Malachi, is a book of good news. We think that only the New Testament is good news, but there is good news everywhere in the Bible.
Take for instance, the words of the prophet Nahum, probably one of the most difficult books of the Bible from which to teach and preach. In the midst of a book that pronounces a message of judgment against the brutalities of Assyria, we find these words: “Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace” (Nahum 1:15).
In the book of Proverbs, that wisdom book compiled to teach everyone how to live a godly life, the words of the wise man emphasize good news: “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Proverbs 25:25). And again: “The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the bones” (Proverbs 15:30).
The message of the prophet who preached in Babylon is also a message of good news: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).
The Servant of the Lord was called and sent by Yahweh to proclaim a message of good news: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).
When the Lord delivered Israel from the hands of their enemies, two men who despoiled the camp of the Arameans said: “This day is a day of good news” (2 Kings 7:9).
The whole Old Testament is a book of good news. Israel was called to become a blessing to the nations and proclaim the good news of God’s love to the whole world. When God called Abraham, God told him that through him all the nations on earth would be blessed. And when Abraham showed his obedience to God, God told him: “And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18).
It was to help those who were living in the valley of deep darkness that God called Israel. God made them a holy nation and a kingdom of priests to proclaim the good news to those who lived in darkness.
Israel was brought out of Egypt to establish an alternative community, to be a nation which would set an example to all the other nations of what it means to be a nation under God. In order for Israel to fulfill its mission in the world, God gave them a good covenant and good laws.
Through the covenant given at Sinai, God established a special relationship with Israel. God said: “I will be your God and you will be my special people.” At Sinai, Israel agreed to be God’s people: “The people all answered as one: Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).
Once Israel agreed to become God’s special people in the world, God commanded Israel: “Now go, tell the world what kind of God I am.” This is what Moses told Israel: “All the nations of the world will see that you are a people claimed by the LORD, and they will stand in awe of you” (Deuteronomy 28:10).
But Israel refused to do what they were called to do. They rejected their mission. They rebelled against God and they forgot what the Lord had done for them. And this happened early in Israel’s history. After the death of Joshua, there arose a new generation of Israelites who did not know the LORD. They did not know the mighty things the LORD had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forsook the LORD, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt (Judges 2:10-12).
Israel forgot their mission in the world. Instead of establishing the kingdom of God in the world, they established the kingdom of Solomon in Jerusalem. The kingdom of God had become the kingdom of men.
Because of Israel’s refusal to be the people of God among the nations, God evoked the curse of the covenant and dispersed Israel among the nations. By this action, God was telling the people: “If you don’t want to go to the nations, I will send you to the nations.”
Moses told the children of Israel that because of their disobedience they would be scattered among the nations. In Deuteronomy 28:64-25 Moses said to Israel: “And the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. . . . There among those nations you will find no peace or place to rest. And the LORD will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair.”
The refusal of Israel to proclaim the good news is clearly expressed in the story of Jonah. Israel is Jonah, a nation in revolt. When God called Jonah, God told Jonah: “Go to Nineveh.” Jonah went to Tarshish, fleeing “from the LORD’s service” (Jonah 1:3 TNK). God called Jonah a second time and sent him to Nineveh. When Jonah arrived in Nineveh, he preached the word of God to the Ninevites, and behold, the people repented.
However, instead of rejoicing with the conversion of the Ninevites, Jonah complained to the LORD: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2).
The lesson one learns from the book of Jonah is simple: If God was willing to forgive the people of Nineveh, a city that was the archetype of pagan wickedness, God could forgive and save any nation that called upon his name.
Jonah’s torment over Nineveh’s repentance mirrors Israel’s reluctance to fulfill its mission in the world. As Hans Walter Wolff wrote:
“For God’s compassion came as no surprise to [Jonah]: the theology of the confession of faith quoted in [4:2b] showed him that nothing else was expected. The way in which Jonah deals with Israel’s experience of Yahweh’s mercy is frightening and chilling. For him this confession of faith, with its consequences for the hostile Gentile world, completely calls in question Israel’s beliefs and her ministry in the world” (p. 176).
In Psalm 137, the psalmist reminds his readers, that when he wrote his song, Israel was by the rivers of Babylon. Israel was in exile in Babylon, scattered among the nations.
But God had a purpose for sending Israel to Babylon. In exile, God raised a prophet, whom we call Deutero-Isaiah. Through this prophet God sends a message, a message to Israel and the nations.
Through Deutero-Isaiah, God spoke to Israel and to the nations:
“Behold my Servant, Israel: He is my chosen one, who pleases me. I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).
“My servant will be a light to guide the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
“Listen to me, my people. Hear me, Israel, for my law will be proclaimed, and my justice will become a light to the nation” (Isaiah 51:4).
“My mercy and justice are coming soon. My salvation is on the way. My strong arm will bring justice to the nations. All distant lands will look to me and wait in hope for my powerful arm” (Isaiah 51:5).
What a great opportunity for Israel to share God’s love with the Gentiles. The nations were waiting for Israel to proclaim the glories of this amazing God. But Israel was restless: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps” (Psalm 137:1-2).
The Babylonians came and begged Israel to tell them about their God: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion” (Psalm 137:3).
But Israel’s response was only despair: “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).
What a missed opportunity! The people of Israel who were in exile in Babylon missed an opportunity to talk about the God who lived in Jerusalem; they missed an opportunity to sing one of those beautiful songs of Zion.
So, they hung up their harps on the willows. The reason for Israel’s despair was because they could only sing songs of Zion in Jerusalem. Then, instead of blessing the Babylonians, they cursed them:
“O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Blessed shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Blessed shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock” (Psalm 137:8-9).
Why is this sad prayer in the Bible? This prayer is in the Bible as a witness against Israel that they never carried out their mission in the world. John Bright, in his book The Kingdom of God said that Israel never became a missionary religion (p. 161). He wrote: “No more ringing challenge to Israel to take up her world mission, could be imagined than the little book of Jonah. Let Israel cease trying to run away from her destiny; let her take up her task of proclaiming the true God to the nations, however distasteful that may be, for God cares for foreigners also” (p. 161).
The curse the psalmist placed upon Babylon is a reversal of Israel’s mission in the world. Israel was called to be a blessing to the nations.
It is sad when people of faith deny their mission in the world. Israel did and so do many Christians. Many Christians today are just like Israel: they can only tell the good news of God’s love to one another; they can only sing the songs of Zion in church. They can only sing the songs of Zion to people who already know the songs of Zion.
But this is not the destiny of Christians as the people of God. This is not our mission as Christians. Our mission is not to save the saved. Christians are called to proclaim the good news of God’s love and God’s grace to lost people. God told the people of Israel: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
Writing to the early church, the Apostle Peter said:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9 ). Christians are called to proclaim. Like Israel, Christians are to be God’s people with a mission to the nations. They are called so that they may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Like Israel, Christians must learn how to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land. We must share the good news because people need the Lord.
NOTE: For other studies on the Book of Psalms, read my post Studies on the Book of Psalms
John Bright, The Kingdom of God. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953.
Hans Walter Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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