When we read Psalms, there are times sections when we struggle with the content. Imprecatory Psalms are those that invoke judgment, desire calamity or pronounce a curse on someone. They are often vengeful and appear void of grace and mercy. One example of these challenging sections is Psalm 137:8-9:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
How do we understand these passages, and what do we learn from them?
Psalms as Prayers
We must first understand the nature of the Psalms. Each one is a response to God. As the psalmist experiences things in life, he responds to God in different ways. There are psalms of lament, psalms of praise, and psalms that cover a wide range of experiences and emotions.
Consider the first part of Psalm 137. The people of Judah are in captivity after the Babylonian invasion. Zion is Jerusalem – their capital – a place where the glory of God was displayed among God’s people as a testimony to the nations around. Falling into the hands of the Babylonians was more than just a military failure, their identity and hope were lost. This event was God’s judgment on his people.
For the Babylonians, the mighty God of Israel had fallen to their gods. They boast in verse 3 as they request songs from their captives about the glory of Zion. They are asking for praise songs of God – they are taunting their prisoners – “Where are your songs of how great Zion is now? You were deceived! Where is your God?” That is why the people of Israel have hung their harps on the trees. Do they have reason to sing?
The psalmist turns to God amid these circumstances. The prayer is honest and pours forth from the anger, hurt, and disappointment that weave in, around, and through the heart. There is a desire for the enemy to pay for what has happened to the people of Israel. Psalm 137 is a raw and honest prayer.
We often forget that God knows what is in our hearts. He knows the desired vengeance, the anger, or any other festering emotion. When we come to the throne of God, we can be sincere, because of God’s knowledge of our heart, mind, and soul. He is the one we turn toward and before whom we lay all of our vileness – God is the only one that can handle it. He is the only one who brings the remedy for such heinous thoughts through the atonement of Christ.
Prayer becomes an Encounter
The act of praying, even such a vile thought, is an act of faith because we seek God during the prayer. We desire to comprehend life’s circumstances, and through prayer, the psalmist acknowledges that God is the only genuine source of understanding.
As we read Psalm 137, we do not see God’s response to this prayer. We are left with only one side of a conversation. Therefore, we judge the final verses as inhumane and evil, never getting to see the encounter the psalmist sought. Perhaps the one-sided conversation does not bother us, because we consider prayer to be a one-voice conversation?
When we approach the throne of God, we should not desire him to do anything other than change our hearts. We cannot trust the wants that we lay before his throne, but we can trust the one who sits on the throne. It is for this reason we come – wanting more of him. We want to see things the way he sees them and walk faithfully through every experience. This aspect of the prayer found in Psalm 137 is absent. However, if we turn to Psalm 37, we see a clearer picture.
“Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!” Psalm 37:1 reads as though it is a response to Psalm 137. In our raw and honest prayers, we know that we have encountered God when we arise from our knees with five changes of the heart seen in Psalm 37:3-8.
- Trust (v 3) – We trust that God has us where we are for a specific reason and His glory. In our act of trust, we continue to walk faithfully through the desire of our heart may try to lead us astray.
- Delight (v 4) – As we delight in the Lord, he becomes our desire. As we gaze into his grace and mercy, the things of this world grow pale and dim. The circumstances that surround us lose their gravity in the light of God’s glory.
- Commit (v 5) – Our profession of trust must have action. If we truly trust God in our current circumstances, we will commit to his ways and desire to walk in them.
- Be Still (v 7) – We stand in awe of the overwhelming majesty of God the Father. Though we might enter prayer overwhelmed by our circumstances, we leave our time of prayer shaken but strengthened by the holy and just God that provided salvation in Jesus Christ.
- Refrain (v 8) – We stop. The anger and envy that controlled our heart as we knelt to pray are conquered by our desire to trust in, delight in, commit to, and be still before God. We put to death the sinful desires of our heart through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
I pray that as you approach the throne of God, you will not only seek to speak, but you will desire to hear. Be honest before him. As you pour out your heart to God, I pray you will find that he changes your heart in accord to who he is. May your prayers not only be one-sided conversations but encounters with the Creator.