As Eugene Peterson put it, Psalm 137 is the scandal of the Psalter. At the same time, the raw hate of the psalm’s conclusion takes us to that subterranean location where the foundations of justice are exposed.
In life, in the psalms, hate, retribution, and justice are inextricably woven together. It’s not just 137 that is “spoiled” by its conclusion. So is 139. Or perhaps we are the spoiled ones, not the psalms. What does it mean to offer up hate and hope for retribution in prayer?
Here is a first introduction to Psalm 137:
A journey to the center of the universe represented by Psalm 137 is possible from a number of approaches. Nachman Bialik’s “On the Slaughter,” is a terrifying gateway to the kind of experience 137 reflects and the response it engenders. Here is an introduction, text, translation, and commentary, in connection with Psalm 137:
Another gateway, no less sobering and no less terrifying, is the prediction of Jesus amid tears, that those who fail to recognize the things that make for peace will experience the fate reserved for Babylon according to the psalm’s conclusion:
As he drew near and came in sight of the city he wept over it and said, “If this day you only knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. The days are coming upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade around you, encircle you, and hem you in on every side; they will smash you and your children within you; they will leave not one stone on another within you. For you knew not the time of your visitation. (Luke 19:41-44)
LXX Psalm 136:9 = MT 137:8:
μακάριος ὃς κρατήσει καὶ ἐδαφιεῖ τὰ
νήπιά σου πρὸς τὴν πέτραν.
Blessed the one who will seize and smash your infants against the rock!
The metaleptic phrase in Luke 19:44:
καὶ ἐδαφιοῦσίν σε καὶ τὰ τέκνα σου ἐν σοί
and they will smash you and your children in you
The operative verb, in Hebrew and Greek, is more vivid than ‘smash’ suggests. ‘Reduce to a pulp’ might be a more adequate translation of the imagery and violence it communicates. As Peterson points out, the verb edaphidzo is used exactly once in the NT.
There are two ways to read a passage like Luke 19:41-44. (1) As a means to accuse an opponent. (2) In line with the dynamic principle of biblical prophecy, according to which the objects of God’s ferocious criticism and the heirs of his promises are one and the same. If you are unwilling to absorb the first, you have no claim on the second (more on that here - with comments by Bob MacDonald, Doug Chaplin, and Kevin Edgecomb - and here).
It is possible to come to terms with Psalm 137. Angela Erisman:
One of the things I really appreciate about texts like Ps 137 is that they confront us with the tensions that humans feel between things like morality, compassion, and vengeance. When I read that Psalm I feel both sympathy and outrage. Likewise, when I hear of a life wasted on death row, I feel both sympathy and outrage. . . . Being human and being human with God, when it's "real," is often not pretty, and we learn a lot about ourselves from such texts if we pay attention.
I make it a point to spend a day with this Psalm when I teach "Survey of the OT" to freshmen. I try to get them to see the beauty of the Psalm, it's disturbing rage resulting from trauma, and its honesty as a prayer.
A day in college with Psalm 137, Nachman Bialik, and Johnny Cash: an excellent idea.
Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989) 96, 98, 101, 102; Meir Y. Soloveichik, “The Virtue of Hate,” First Things (February 2003) here; Haskel Lookstein, “Is It Permissible to Hate?” (March 2003) here
HT: Michael Pitkowsky (for Soloveichik and Lookstein) and Marilyn Johnson (for Peterson)