Psalm 137

Psalm 137
by Pastor David Groendyk

Coming off the heels of the beloved and glorious Psalm 136, most Christians probably don’t know what to do with Psalm 137. This is not the kind of song we typically sing in our Sunday services. Some believers may even feel embarrassed by what verse 9 has to say about brutally destroying the enemy. Is this psalm out of place in the Bible? Should we shy away from texts like this? The definitive answer is ‘no’. Psalm 137 is inspired by God and profitable for us (see 2 Tim. 3:16–17).

As verse 1 indicates, the psalmist writes this psalm as he sits beside the waters in Babylon. Jerusalem is destroyed, Judah is exiled, and all of God’s people are living in a strange place hundreds of miles from home with no temple, no sacrifices, and no king. This psalm primary does three things for Christians. First, it gives voice to believers’ deep emotions when facing the hurtful taunts of God’s enemies (vv. 1–3). The context of the psalm is more than just that Judah is exiled and living in Babylon, but that they are currently being taunted by said Babylonians while also remembering the previous taunts of the Edomites from a few years earlier (v. 7). One of the great benefits of the psalms is that they don’t merely instruct us, but they show us how to feel deep emotion in a biblical way. Yes, even our emotions need to be felt and expressed in a biblical way!

Second, notice that the psalmist (and by extension, all of the exiled Israelites) respond to the taunts with a renewed loyalty to God (vv. 4–6). Verses 5–6 are tricky to understand, but basically he’s saying he would consider it the highest form of apostasy and treachery to simply give up on God now. Even in the midst of grieving the loss of his home and church, while wrestling with God’s goodness and providence at allowing something this awful to happen, and while under extreme pressure from the enemy, his highest joy is worshiping God. May we all exhibit that same fidelity and passion for the glory of God as this psalmist!

Third, the psalm is a plea for God to carry out justice and vindicate his people (vv. 7–9). Some people may wonder how it’s possible that Psalm 137:9 can peacefully coexist with a passage such as Matthew 5:44—“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” An entire book could be written about this subject, but let’s keep just a couple points in mind when coming across these imprecatory psalms that are filled with brutal curses. Jesus in Matthew 5 is talking about individual relationships and wrongdoings; Psalm 137 has in mind a larger, national context. Moreover, Jesus in Matthew 5 gives you an individual responsibility to carry out in loving your enemies, whereas (and this is so important) Psalm 137 leaves the justice completely in God’s hands. Personal, individual hatred and vengeance are never endorsed in Scripture. Instead, it’s always left up to God. It is right to plead to God to carry out justice on his and our behalf, but, if we’re honest, it’s easier said than done. It’s hard to leave it in God’s hands. We love to take matters into our own hands and make ourselves the instrument by which God doles out vengeance, but that is not the godly way. We must hold these two biblical truths together at the same time—we are commanded to genuinely and truly love our enemies, but we can take eternal comfort from the fact that God will vindicate us on that final day should our enemies never come to saving faith. Pray earnestly that God’s enemies would one day be reconciled to him, but never lose sight of the fact that he will hold them accountable.