Likely one of the more challenging issues in the Psalms for modern Christians is the language of lament and even imprecation present throughout these God-inspired songs. Surely, this side of the cross, that kind of language has no place for Christians, right?
Consider Psalm 137, with its dark themes and horrid imprecation:
1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion. . . .
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
It is certainly true that this psalm is one of the most picturesque, carefully crafted poems in all of Scripture, but it is also true that it is one of the most disturbing psalms. Surely God does not want us to sing about dashing the children of our enemies against the rock, does he? It is interesting that Isaac Watts paraphrased almost every one of the 150 psalms and interpreted them in the light of the New Testament, applying them to the NT church, but he didn’t go anywhere near Psalm 137. How could this horribly depressing psalm be relevant for us today?
This is a perfect example of why understanding both (a) the psalm’s placement in the canonical flow and (b) the purpose of its poetry must lead us to a proper use of a psalm like this. Considering its placement in the five movements, Psalm 137’s focus on the Babylonian exile might seems strange. Movement III is the one focused primarily on the reality of Babylonian exile; why this late in the cantata did the editors include such a dark psalm with exile as its theme? Why would the Israelites sing about the horrors of the exile when they had already been “redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands” (Ps 107:2–3)? Shouldn’t they just be thankful and celebrate rather than lament?
Answering this question gives us the first clue as to why this psalm, and other psalms of lament like it, are indeed applicable for Christians today, just as they were for Israelites who had already returned from exile.
We must recognize the formative purpose of the Psalms. They are not merely meant to express what is in the heart of the worshiper; rather, they are given to Israel—and to us—to form something within. Psalm 137 is no rash explosion of rage; this is a complex poem that would have taken much effort to compose, further evidence that the poet wrote this with a formative purpose. What would a psalm like this be meant to form?
Well, notice the specific language used in Psalm 137, particularly in the imprecation. Twice the psalmist uses the key term “blessed” (vv 8, 9). This important term bookends Psalms 1 and 2 and appears throughout the Psalms, the idea of flourishing under God’s rule that the Psalms are meant to form within us. Notice also the term “dashes” in verse 9; that word appears only one other time in the Psalms:
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Who in Psalm 2 is the one promised to “dash” the wicked? Yahweh’s Anointed One, David’s greater Son, whom David calls “Lord” in Psalm 110. Psalm 2 prophesies that Jesus the Messiah will dash the wicked into pieces, and the poet of Psalm 137 deliberately uses the same term in his imprecatory prayer as an allusion to that promise. God specifically promised through the prophet Isaiah that he would destroy Babylon, even using this exact language the poet of Psalm 137 uses: “Their infants will dashed in pieces before their eyes” (Isa 13:16).
This demonstrates one of the key formative purposes of lament: lament that calls out to God and asks him specifically to do what he has promised actually forms trust within us. The imprecatory prayers in the Psalms are not expressions of unbridled rage and vengeance made in a moment of passion; they are carefully crafted expressions of trust in what God had already promised he would do, and by singing these expressions, they form hearts of trust even if (or perhaps better, especially if) the worshiper doesn’t exactly feel trust at that moment.
This is exactly how Psalms 135–137 function in the flow of Movement V. These psalms form a bridge between the Songs of Ascents (Pss 120–134) and the final Davidic psalms (Pss 138–145), which lead into the climactic expressions of praise. These psalms reaffirm the foundational principle introduced in Psalms 1 and 2 that is meant to form hearts of trust: The Lord determines the destiny of the wicked and the righteous. A psalm of lament like this is just another way of affirming “The Lord reigns.”
Furthermore, we must also remember the purpose of poetry. As we see over and over again in the Psalms, a psalm is not a dry statement of historical facts or even a carefully crafted narrative. A psalm is a work of art whose purpose is to artistically embody more than simply bare information. A song enables the author to express aspects of experience that are deeper than abstract words, allowing a singer to experience for himself the realities of the image the poet paints in a way that would not be possible if the poet had simply described an experience in a detached fashion. When we sing a poem, we enter the world that the poet created, we walk with him through the experience, and we are able to experience for ourselves what the poet intends for us to experience.
So in a psalm like Psalm 137, the poet recreates for us artistically the historical event such that we can experience it for ourselves.
So this leads us to the question everyone wants to ask: Should we pray imprecations like the one at the end of Psalm 137? Does God really want us to pray for the children of our enemies to be dashed upon the rocks? We read the final three verses of this psalm, and we are disgusted; we pull back in horror.
But this is exactly the point: that is exactly what God wants to feel. We should feel horror and disgust at the notion of rebellion against God, adulteration of his worship, and destruction of his people. The author uses this language to artistically capture the emotions of the experience of injustice, violence, and exile.
In other words, songs of lament and even imprecation remind us that all of Yahweh’s enemies have not yet been destroyed, and we must still battle sin even within us. As we see throughout the Psalms, this reminder is what prevents our trust from being baseless and our praise from been cheap and trivial.
Trust and praise formed through lament and confession are far more deep and profound.