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Imprecatory Prayer 2
© 07.19.21 By David Eric Williams

This article appeared in the July 22 edition of the Cottonwood Chronicle

O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock! (Psalms 137:8-9).

Psalm 137 is partly a lament and partly an invocation of judgement upon Judah's enemies. Some commentators suggest it was written after the return from captivity but it is more likely the Psalm was composed during the Babylonian exile. In any case, the first portion of the Psalm is not imprecatory but a dirge recalling the sorrow of separation from one's homeland and place of worship. Moreover, it calls to mind the scoffing of the Babylonian captors as they taunted the Judeans to prove their musical skill. However, the minstrels of Jerusalem would not - could not - sing the songs of Yahweh in a foreign land.

In verse seven, the character of the Psalm changes. Suddenly the Psalmist turns to prayer, calling upon God for action. At this point, we see the three characteristics of the imprecatory prayer: Recognition of the covenant God, a specific focus and a request appropriate to the circumstance.

The Bible often portrays the followers of God asking him to recall past events. Here, the Psalmist urges God to remember the treachery of Edom. Rather than help their brothers, the Edomites gloated over the capture and destruction of Jerusalem. The prayer does not detail a desired action but leaves the specifics of vengeance in the Yahweh's hands (cf. Deuteronomy 32:35-43). This is because the real focus of the imprecatory prayer is not Edom but Babylon.

Thus, when the supplicant turns his attention to Babylon the prayer becomes unambiguous. Depending on how the passage is translated, the writer is saying Babylon is a destroyer and the one who destroys her is blessed or that Babylon will be destroyed and blessings will be upon those who carry it out. In either case, the Psalmist does not mince words: he calls upon Yahweh to ruin Babylon.

Finally, the petitioner makes a request appropriate to the circumstance: he asks Yahweh to bless those who dash Babylon's littles ones against the rocks. In other words, the Psalmist envisions blessings upon those who bring gruesome judgement upon Babylon for the brutality they showed in the overthrow of Jerusalem. This very action was foretold generations before (Isaiah 13:16). Moreover, it mirrored the practices of war in the ancient world and the treatment endured by the Israelites at the hands of domestic and foreign adversaries (2 Kings 8:12, 15:16, Hosea 10:14, 13:16, Amos, 1:13).

We naturally recoil at such brutality. Moreover, followers of Jesus Christ cannot bring themselves to think an appeal for viciousness of this sort has any place in the new covenant age. Yet in the letter to the Church in Galatia, we find Paul twice calling for those who "preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you" to be irrevocably dammed to destruction (Galatians 3:8-9). Paul does not provide details, but he clearly invokes irredeemable destruction upon the enemies of Christ and his kingdom. The truth is the petition of the Psalmist is mild in comparison to the anathema declared by Paul. Even the worst Old Testament curse falls short of final damnation. Consider Yahweh's command to destroy every man, woman and child in Canaan. Though it was foundational to God's promise to the children of Israel, there was always room for mercy as the outcome for the Gibeonites attests.

We have not yet arrived at the point in this series where we discuss the use or disuse of the imprecatory Psalms in the new covenant age. Therefore, we will return to this subject in a couple weeks.

Go here for the third article in this series.

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