One of the most uncomfortable verses in the entire Bible is the end of Psalm 137. It’s often omitted from public reading or recitation in prayer:
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock! (Book of Common Prayer 1979 USA)
The Psalm is a lament by God’s Chosen People. After years of neglecting their covenant with God and ignoring the warnings of His Prophets – in particular Jeremiah – they were left without God’s protection and conquered by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BC.
The Babylonians marched the leaders and the most skilled people of the city off to serve in Babylon. Psalm 137, in less than ten verses, evokes the bitterness of that experience; the longing for home, the captors’ mockery of the exiles, the passion to preserve identity, and, in that horrific final verse, desire for justice veering off into revenge.
We all feel it at some point – probably more than one point – in our lives. We are hurt and our perception, right or wrong, is that what was done to us was so bad that the only satisfaction we can imagine is equal or greater suffering falling on the one(s) who afflicted us.
Psalm 137 puts us in touch with the whole reality of “exile.” We are living in the fallen world, separated from our heavenly home, and our emotions and even our prayers suffer that separation. In the Kingdom of Heaven Christ intercedes for sinners; on earth we wish them agony.
The verse’s honesty is so raw that we recoil from it. As I said above, it’s often edited out of the readings for church services. There are attempts to spiritualize it, as the great Saint Benedict did in the Prologue of his Rule, where “little ones” symbolize nascent evil thoughts and “dashing them against the rock” is to refute them with the teaching of Christ.
We deny it with secular platitudes like living well is the best revenge. We won’t hurt anybody and we’re certainly above any ugly thoughts. We’ll just get on with our lives. But this ignores the power of our Babylonian captors – the forces of the exilic realm in which we live – to define living well. We start to sing their tunes and forget the music of our true homeland. We intone denial of our bitterness while playing out our hurt over and over in discordant emotions and behaviors we cease to control.
Tonight I read A romance on the Psalm By the Waters of Babylon (137) by St. John of the Cross. I wondered what this mystical poet, who suffered kidnapping and nine months of squalid imprisonment by his rivals, might do with the last verse of the Psalm.
He offers the Psalm in first person, and ends it
O Daughter of Babylon,
miserable and wretched!
Blessed is he in whom I have trusted,
for he will punish you as you have me;
and he will gather his little ones
and me, who wept because of you,
at the rock who is Christ,
for whom I abandoned you.
The “revenge” is that Babylon – any realm or situation run by the world, the flesh and the devil – doesn’t get to keep us. As “Babylon’s” lifetime of distractions and deceptions separated us from the perfect peace that Christ gives us, so Christ will separate us from Babylon’s outwardly gloating yet inwardly miserable “power.”
As Babylon sought to enmesh us in a wretched “life” that is simply prolonged dying, we are dashed on the rock that is Christ, our old life put to death so that we can rise up and walk with Christ into life eternal.
We, the little ones that Babylon delighted to abuse, need not imagine – let alone inflict – any disaster on that sad, decaying realm. It is its own catastrophe.
Living well – whatever that means – is not the best revenge. Living is.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)