Psalm 137: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks”
There is perhaps no greater empathy aroused in times of war and strife than when we see the intolerable suffering of children; the desperate eyes of the innocent; the tears of orphaned babies, frightened, hungry, sapped of all hope and devoid of love. Their little mangled bodies lie on crimson sheets, spliced by shrapnel, traumatised by nightmares, soaked in the stench of their own urine. These images leave a wound far deeper than any weapon of mass destruction.
The newly-installed Bishop of Leeds the Rt Rev'd Nick Bains delivered yesterday's 'Thought For The Day' on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. He tells us on his blog - Musings of a Restless Bishop - that it was "written in the face of the horrors of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and all the other bloody conflicts filling the news screens, and with a strict word limit". His subject was Psalm 137 - the well-known lament which begins "By the Rivers of Babylon". He takes us from Boney M's jaunty disco dance hit to the psalm's final line, which is a disturbing imprecation. He writes:
Now, Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).Christians tend to focus on the messianic blessings and sing about the glories of Zion: we love the psalms of thanksgiving, kingship and confidence, and meditate on those of remembrance and wisdom. About a third of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are drawn from the Psalms, which highlights their theological significance and liturgical importance to the Early Church.
But the Psalter is also full of bitter imprecations which offend modern sensibilities. Curses against enemies abound, often in otherwise sublime settings of supreme sacrifice, humility and brokenness. The Christian will naturally feel that that the spirit of anger and hatred reflected in these sections falls well below Jesus' teaching and moral standards: it's hardly an expression of love for one's enemies to pray that God would take their children and smash their heads against the rocks.
But the intense suffering of the Jews in exile naturally aroused the desire for such horror: we want to hate our enemies, and rather enjoy wishing upon them all manner of suffering and strife. The parents of Gaza are teaching their children that Jews are lower than pigs; the Jews of Israel are teaching their children that Palestinians are all terrorists; the Sunni 'Islamic State' in Iraq are beheading the cultic Shia and slaughtering infidel Christians; the Shia are fighting back where they can. The dismembered Christians might be forgiven as they pray in their bombed-out churches for their enemies to die and rot in hell.
But we must bear in mind the fact that for most of the psalmists there was no meaningful afterlife, and so no vindication of the righteous or judgment of the wicked. Rather like today, when notions of heaven and hell are routinely dismissed with the goblins and fairies of Neverland, we prefer judgment to be seen to be done in this world. The final lines of Psalm 137 cannot really be understood without considering that the psalmist was passionate about and impatient for justice:
Remember, O LORD, the children of EdomSuch laments take us to the depths of helplessness and forsakenness. They are cries of distress when there is nowhere to turn: God has abandoned us and our enemies mock and scorn - or terrorise, persecute and murder. Impulsively but genuinely we want their children to be fatherless and their wives to become widows (Psalm 109:8f). And we hope to God that their bastard offspring don't grow up to be another generation of murderous devils.
in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Rase it, rase it,
even to the foundation thereof.
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.
But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:14).Those who are taught resentment and loathing will not easily find Jesus or enter the kingdom. Violence breeds violence and hate engenders hate. The way of Christ is peace. In our secular polis this may seem like sheer folly. But it is a choice we make in the hope and anticipation that God's love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this may be possible when warring hearts are filled with grievances and pain.
There is nothing at all to be gained from smashing the heads of babies against the rocks. No, that way lies a world wracked by revenge and ever more violence.