It’s one of the most troubling psalms in the Bible.
The setting is in Babylon, where Jewish families were experiencing life as a captive people. They weren’t exactly prisoners of war, but they couldn’t go home, either.
When their captors demanded that they sing, Psalm 137 came up from the belly of a heartbroken musician.
O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks! (Psalm 137:8-9)
Smash the babies against the rocks? This is your prayer?
There’s a reason we don’t sing that one in church. There’s a reason we don’t cherish images of infants being destroyed. This little phrase is so troubling, it’s easier to pretend it’s just not there.
It’s also easier to pretend that another terrorist attack was just a news story from the other side of the world.
It’s also easier to pretend that war is only interesting history, and not the kind of thing that still invades defenseless villages and leaves behind murdered children and a handful of survivors with missing limbs.
It’s also easier to pretend that homicide statistics only deal with inner-city gang members, and never with people who read their Bibles every day.
Whoever wrote Psalm 137 knew the reality of violence from an enemy who had inflicted incredible pain upon him. He had been charged with protecting his family, and yet he was as powerless to protect his children as any dad watching an out-of-control drunk driver hurling a half-ton vehicle at his own family car.
Whoever wrote these words was a man of faith. But life had taken a terrible turn and his faith in God’s protection had been shattered. Even so, there was still enough faith left to pray that those who had killed his children would one day know the same pain.
The Bible is a very honest book. God is a God of a very real people. And sometimes, life has grief so heavy, anger takes over and our prayers turn into screams of rage.
Psalm 137 is a reminder that God can hear that heart.
He can handle any pain.
Towering over the northern end of the Sea of Galilee is a cliff known as “Mt. Arbel.” It’s impossible to miss, once someone points it out.
Once you know the history of that place, it’s also impossible to forget. As it turns out, “terrorism” isn’t a new concept. It’s a concept as old as warfare. It’s certainly as old as Arbel.
Arbel was a quiet farming community. Even today the crops there show the benefit of a steady diet of water and sunshine.
Unfortunately, Arbel’s position as the highest point of the area means that every army in charge of the Galilee insisted on holding fort there.
Some of those armies were invading bands of ruthless soldiers. They murdered, raped, pillaged and burned.
The people of Arbel had learned to hide in the caves of their cliff. Secret paths led to secret caverns. There were even tunnels that led from one cave to another. When necessary, families could hide in the caves.
A few generations after the Babylonian invasion caused the piercing scream of Psalm 137 to find its place in the Bible, the invincible Roman army invaded the Galilee.
The people of Arbel fought back.
Families hid in the caves.
Roman commanders swore to leave no one living.
Soldiers couldn’t figure out how to reach those who were hiding. Eventually, they built baskets and lowered the killers by ropes along the edge of the cliff.
The soldiers built fires at the entrance of the caves. Smoke invaded the hiding places. Some of the men rushed out to fight. Mothers and children followed behind them, gasping for air.
The sword took many of them.
But some were simply hurled to their deaths. They were tossed off the steep cliffs, doomed to break and bounce and die on the rocks far below.
Once again, infants were dashed against the rocks.
Once again, parents screamed their angry prayers to the God who had allowed it to happen.
Not all that long after so much blood stained the rocks, Jesus came to Arbel.
The road below the cliff is the road Jesus would have taken from Nazareth to Capernaum. The peak of the cliff would have been a great place for one of those all-night prayer sessions so common to the popular rabbi. Below Arbel are all the communities so famous in the Christian scriptures.
Capernaum. Magdala. Chorazin. Bethsaida. Every village just a short walk away. Tiberias was just on the other side of the mountain.
No doubt, the people of Arbel heard what Jesus had to say. No doubt, some of them were healed by the amazing rabbi. Maybe he came to their synagogue.
The Romans were here, too. They were still overwhelming in their rule. Some of them were incredibly cruel. Many treated the good people of Arbel as if they were slaves. By law, if a Roman soldier didn’t want to carry his gear, he could command a local farmer to put down his plow and carry it for him. This could and would go on for a mile. One lousy mile of having to walk behind an arrogant member of the same force that had once thrown Arbel’s infants against the rocks.
Do you remember what Jesus preached?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. …
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:38-41, 43-44)
No wonder they wondered what to do with Jesus.
On the one hand, he healed their diseases. But on the other hand, he asked them to forgive the unforgivable.
On the one hand, his message was fresh and enlightening. On the other hand, he demanded that his followers give up the pain they’d harbored deep inside of them.
On the one hand, he offered to forgive our sins. But only if we would forgive the sins of those who’d hurt us.
If you’re living inside the pain of Psalm 137, know that God can handle any cry from your heart. But know also that if that broken heart of yours is ever going to be healed, the first painful step of recovery is to forgive the one who hurt you.
If vengeance is needed, let it come from God alone.
But if forgiveness is needed, let it come from you.