Theology Themes of Isaiah

Isaiah’s ministry spanned fifty years as he prophesied and addressed the sins of the people during the reign of four different kings. As a messenger of God’s covenant, one of Isaiah’s primary roles was to remind the people what God expected of them. The book has a coherent structure, which can be divided into two parts, but written by one author. The first half, chapters 1-39, focuses on God’s judgment of His people, while the second half, chapters 40-66, focuses on the salvation of God’s people. Another key difference is the first half deals more with the Assyrian crisis while the second half deals with the Babylonian crisis and resulting exile. Despite these calamities, an overarching theme throughout the book of Isaiah is God’s special relationship with the nation of Israel and the unfortunate need of judgment and exile to bring about the future restoration of God’s people.

GOD’S JUDGMENT AND SALVATION OF HIS PEOPLE

Michael Wilkins explains, “The people of Israel understood that God was using them as a people to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah; however, the problem was Israel, as a nation, had failed in its mission and as a result had become a blind and deaf servant”[1] (Isaiah 42:18-25). God can use anyone and anything to accomplish His plan and during the first part of Isaiah, He uses the Assyrian army to confront the people’s sinfulness and bring about judgment and salvation. “Assyria was the rod of Yahweh’s anger and the staff in their hands was His fury” (Isaiah 10:5). In the second half of Isaiah, it would be the Babylon Empire that the Lord would use to pronounce judgment on Israel, but even before the exile took place in 586 B.C., the Lord planned to use Cyrus, the Persian king to allow the people to return home. As J. J. M. Roberts asserts, “Israel’s current predicament was due to the sins of her people (Isaiah 42:24-25). Their plight was well deserved, their coming salvation was due simply to Yahweh’s graciousness, and the appropriate response was to return to Yahweh in trust and confidence”[2] (Isaiah 43:22-44:2). Ultimately, the hope and salvation of Israel would only come through their suffering, judgment, and exile.

RESTORATION AND TRANSFORMATION OF THE CITY OF JERUSALEM

Barry Webb explains, “The transformation of Zion is both the literary link and formal key that helps us understand the message of Isaiah.”[3] In chapter one, Zion, the unfaithful prostitute is reduced, but in chapter two, Zion, Yahweh’s bride is exalted and taken back, following the divorce/exile. This dichotomy is a powerful reminder of God’s grace and the comparison being made is how old Jerusalem was equated with God’s judgment while the New Jerusalem was going to be a place of God’s blessing and a place where God establishes His kingdom forever. Roberts explains, “Isaiah’s transformation of the royal ideology and the Zion tradition became the wellspring from which the later messianic expectations and the hopes for a New Jerusalem [and] the conception of a heavenly Jerusalem and a transhistorical view of salvation that includes even the ultimate victory over death [arose].”[4]

After the purge, John Watts shows, “The important thing about Zion is her reputation as Yahweh’s dwelling. It is Yahweh’s house, the temple, which stands out, because He is present and active there.”[5] This is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision again, as the glory of the Lord filled the temple. His holiness is overwhelming, as the seraphim are depicted covering their face and feet, calling out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Watts adds, “Yahweh’s presence in the temple lifts its importance to supremacy and this has nothing to do with Israel or Judah, their kings or leaders. Purely because Yahweh is there, Zion attracts the other nations.”[6] Then the imagery of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is profound. Here, Geoffrey Grogan explains, “The issues that set nations against one another do not disappear automatically but are settled by the supreme Judge, whose decisions are accepted. Thus there is no uneasy calm but peace based on righteousness.”[7]

The coming kingdom of God and the future restoration of Israel are dominant themes. Gary Yates states, “God is going to bring the people back to their homeland; there is going to be the restoration of the Davidic Dynasty, through the Messiah; the temple will be rebuilt; and as the nations see how God blesses Israel, they will come to the Promise Land to worship God.”[8] Sin still had consequences, so as the children of Israel return home from the Babylonian exile, they find themselves impoverished and living under foreign oppression. It is here, Yates asserts, “If the return from exile is all there is, then Isaiah’s prophecies and promises are a disappointment at best and they are an outright failure at worst.”[9] Ultimately, the full restoration will not occur until they have fully returned to the Lord (Isaiah 56:1-7). The new heavens and new earth referenced in Isaiah 65 and the New Testament, (Hebrews 12:22-24) says the blessings and presence of God are being enjoyed now, but in the future there will come a time where God completely reverses the effects of the fall. This means death, violence, and wickedness will be replaced with life, love, and harmony and Isaiah recognized, as he looked to the future kingdom, some of these promises and blessings are being enjoyed now, but some are still yet to come.

LORD AS KING AND HOLY ONE OF ISRAEL

Roberts states, “If there is any one concept central to the whole book of Isaiah, it is the vision of Yahweh as the Holy One of Israel [and] Isaiah’s vision… left a lasting impression on the prophet’s ministry.”[10] Isaiah’s vision in chapter six is profound as the glory of the Lord filled the temple and this encounter would shape his entire ministry and message. Isaiah desperately wanted the nation of Israel to have a similar experience and encounter, so that they too would find themselves undone by their sinful lives.

Unfortunately, Israel had to learn the hard way, despite God’s sincere desire to enter into a relationship with His people. Instead of pouring out blessings, as a result of righteous behavior, the Lord would use the exile to purge all the unholy traits from the people. God is the one the people should have put their trust in exclusively, but the people, instead, chose to rely on political and military alliances for protection. The main issue throughout Isaiah was Israel’s failure to deal with its own spiritual apostasy and no alliance made with any other nation could protect them from the Lord’s wrath. The holiness of the Lord demanded a proper response from His children, but as Roberts explains, “If Israel refused to look to Yahweh, to trust in the quiet waters of Shiloah, God would send the raging waters of Assyria against them to reveal the vanity of their trust in human power”[11] (Isaiah 8:5-8).

LORD OVER ALL NATIONS

Roberts further illustrates how, “Before Yahweh would fight for Zion; He would fight against her (Isaiah 31:4-5). Jerusalem would be humbled and humiliated, but in the hour of her desperation, when Yahweh had cleansed her in the fiery judgment, God would intervene to save her from her arrogant enemies (Isaiah 31:4-5). Then Jerusalem would be exalted and glorified.”[12] While God used Assyria and Babylon as tools to purge Judah and Israel of sin, the very nations used by God would face judgment themselves because they failed to recognize Yahweh as Lord over all. When reading Isaiah 45, part of which focused on the fact that God is the one who “Forms light and creates darkness, the one who makes peace and creates calamity. I am the One who does these things.” This portion of Scripture is amazing, especially considering most people do not normally think that God has anything to do with the darkness. In fact, most people define darkness as the absence of light, so Isaiah is making a profound assertion here that God declares that He is even in the dark chaos of the world, and for this reason, followers can have peace, even in the darkness, because He is Lord over all. John Oswalt explains, “What Isaiah asserts is that God, as creator, is ultimately responsible for everything in nature, from light to dark, and for everything in history, from good fortune to misfortune. No other beings or forces are responsible for anything.”[13] Even in darkness and chaos, God is with every true follower, and the darkness will eventually give way to the light of day. “For the light has shone already into the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

FUTURE MESSIAH AND SUFFERING SERVANT

Instead of leading the people of other nations to Yahweh, the people of Israel often did the exact opposite by worshipping the false gods of other nations. In the midst of this apostasy, Isaiah promises that God would provide a solution to the problem, which was the raising up of an individual Servant who would restore the national servant, the nation of Israel. Richard Averbeck explains, “The Lord’s concern for the nations, not just Israel, is declared in the larger context in Isaiah 49:6-7; 56:6-7 and now the same sacrificial redemption and restoration applies to them as well.”[14] This means the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 brought redemption and restoration, as Averbeck says, “To the Jew first, but also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Roberts further explains, “The plan of salvation, centered in the vicarious death of Jesus Christ is dependent on [Second] Isaiah’s portrayal of the Suffering Servant, and the NT emphasis on the receptions of that salvation through faith picks up and continues the Isaianic demand for faith.”[15]

In light of the entire canon of Scripture, God still has a plan for the nation of Israel and while they were spiritually blind to the Suffering Servant’s arrival, Isaiah 61:1-3 indicates the first coming of Jesus began the restoration of Israel and the second coming will finish it. Jesus quoted these words in Luke 4:18-19 and as He read to the people in the synagogue, He stopped in the middle of 61:2 after the words, “The time of the Lord’s favor has come.” Rolling up the scroll, He said, “The Scripture you have just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21). While the world is now under God’s favor; His wrath is yet to come.[16] Robert Hughes and J. Carl Laney explain how Isaiah 61:1, “Revealed that the Messiah, who ministered salvation at His first coming, will also minister comfort for redeemed Israel at His second coming.”[17] By His death and resurrection, Jesus instituted and inaugurated a new phase of God’s kingdom, some of which is now, and some of which is still to come, when Christ returns.

CONCLUSION

While this student does not agree with Roger’s conclusion on the matter of multiple authors of Isaiah, nonetheless, Rogers does offer considerable insight on the overarching themes in the book that bears his name. Upon reading Isaiah, there is no denying the special relationship God had and still has with His children, but while they were supposed to be a light and witness for God, they fell victim to greed and apostasy. God wanted the best for them, yet the nations of Judah and Israel chose to find their own versions of “God’s best” outside of God’s will. As a parent punishes a child, Yahweh too is forced to pronounce judgment before He is able to provide salvation. This salvation ultimately finds its initial fulfillment in the arrival of the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, but even then, as Isaiah prophesied, “He would be despised and rejected by man” (Isaiah 53:3). The words written by the eighth century prophet are just as relevant today and much can be applied to nations, like America, by heeding what was revealed in the woe oracles against foreign nations. These declarations can directly be traced back to the Abrahamic Covenant, which God made with man and are unconditional promises by God. Christ is coming back, a future kingdom will be established forever, and the Lord will rule over all, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Isaiah 45:23; Philippians 2:10). In addition to Isaiah having multiple dominant themes, it also is the only Old Testament book to predict the virgin birth of Christ (7:14), the ministry of John the Baptist (40:3-5), and contains one the Old Testament’s clearest statements on the Trinity (48:16). Next to Deuteronomy, Isaiah presents the most detailed information on the person and work of God and also the Messiah’s role as both sacrificial lamb and ruling lion. Christ was obedient and empowered by the Father and He will return one day as the anointed one of the Lord and victorious warrior (63:1-6). 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bock, Darrell L. and Mitch Glaser, eds. The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012.

Grogan, Geoffrey W. Isaiah, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Hughes, Robert B. and J. Carl Laney. Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.

LaSor, William S., David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush. Old Testament Survey. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Life Application Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

________. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Roberts, J. J. M. “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology.” Interpretation 36, no. 2 (April 1982): 130-143. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 18, 2017).

Watts, John D. W. Isaiah 1-33. Word Biblical Commentary, Old Testament. Volume 24 “Act I: Like a Booth in the Vineyard, Chapters 1-6, Scene 1: In the Hall of the King of Heaven and Earth (Isaiah 1:2-2:4), Episode C: The Mountain of Yahweh’s House,” Edited by David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.

Webb, Barry G. The Message of Isaiah. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Yates, Gary. “Isaiah and the Future Kingdom.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 12:49, (accessed August 22, 2017).

[1] Michael J. Wilkins, “Isaiah 53 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 109-110.

[2] J. J. M. Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” Interpretation 36, no. 2 (April 1982): 135-136. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 18, 2017).

[3] Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 42-46.

[4] Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” 143.

[5] John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, Word Biblical Commentary, Old Testament, Volume 24 “Act I: Like a Booth in the Vineyard, Chapters 1-6, Scene 1: In the Hall of the King of Heaven and Earth (Isaiah 1:2-2:4), Episode C: The Mountain of Yahweh’s House,” eds. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), 27.

[6] Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 27.

[7] Geoffrey W. Grogan, Isaiah, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 35.

[8] Gary Yates, “Isaiah and the Future Kingdom,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 12:49, (accessed August 22, 2017).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” 131.

[11] Ibid., 133.

[12] Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” 137.

[13] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 203.

[14] Richard E. Averbeck, “Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 60.

[15] Roberts, “Isaiah in Old Testament Theology,” 143.

[16] Life Application Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), 1187.

[17] Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990), 268.

 

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An Exegesis on Psalm 137:1-9

psalm-137

            Calling for God to bash the heads of young children against the rocks makes Psalm 137 one of the most troubling chapters in the Psalter. However, the bloodthirsty hatred found within this petition, invoking the wrath of God, and hurling curses towards one’s enemies is what imprecatory psalms are commonly known for. As a result, many interpreters either discount their use and/or reject any modern-day relevance or application because, on the surface, imprecatory psalms seem to contradict the loving nature of God found within the New Testament. However, God, through the Holy Spirit inspired all Scripture,[1] so only by understanding Psalm 137 in its original historical-cultural and literary context can the interpreter fully appreciate a passage that seemingly contradicts the love and forgiveness taught by Jesus.[2] The chief aim of this exegesis is to show why Psalm137 is just as relevant to the church today as it was for its original recipients and how it is possible to harmonize imprecatory psalms with the teachings of Jesus by viewing them in light of God’s purpose, in light of the psalmist’s attitude, and in light of New Testament revelation. Sin and lack of repentance separated the Israelites from God’s presence, leading to captivity in Babylon. As a result, the exiles questioned whether the Davidic covenant was still in place. This led to weeping and a loss of desire to sing, but the psalmist shows God is faithful and that the Israelites must not forget God’s blessing and His covenant. From the assurance found in the Abrahamic Covenant,[3] “to bless those who blessed God’s people and to curse those who cursed God’s people,” the psalmist calls upon the righteous God to execute swift justice on the oppressors of God’s people: the Edomites who taunted the Jews when Jerusalem fell and the Babylonians, who while used by God used to bring judgment on Israel, now enslaved them.

HISTORICAL-CULTURAL CONTEXT

            Why the psalmist wrote this psalm is the most important aspect to understanding the historical-cultural context. Richard Belcher Jr. illustrates, “Psalm 137 arises out of the experience of the community in exile in Babylon following the destruction of the temple and [completely] commits their situation into the hand of God, [based upon His covenant promise.]”[4] The fall of Jerusalem had deep ramifications, since it was much more than the capital city; it was the dwelling place of God. Philip Stern highlights the importance of this psalm, because “Psalm 137 is one of the few songs that deals with an event that we can be certain occurred in history.”[5] Karl Keil and Franz Delitzsch believe this psalm has the appearance of being a psalm, not so much belonging to the exile, but written in memory of the exile. Keil and Delitzsch seek to illustrate how the vivid imagery and picturesque scenery in the opening verses portrays how; “The bank of a river is a favorite place of sojourn of those whom deep grief drives forth from the bustle of men into solitude. The boundary line of the river gives to solitude a safe back; the monotonous splashing of the waves keeps up the dull, melancholy alternation of thoughts and feelings and cool water exercises a soothing influence on the consuming fever within the heart.”[6] Most scholars agree the psalmist was most likely a Levite, and that he wrote this communal psalm in response to the captors constant taunting of the Israelites while in captivity, essentially provoking the enslaved Israelites to answer in song, “Where is your God now?”

            The psalms were heartfelt emotions offered to God that reflected everything from laments with mourning to praise with thanksgiving, but in exile, Keil and Delitzsch illustrate when the people, “[Were] in the solitude of the river’s banks, weeping came on, and the natural scenery around contrasted so strongly with that of their native land, the remembrance of Zion only forced itself upon them all the more powerfully, and the pain at the isolation from their home would have all the freer course where no hostilely observant eyes were present to suppress it.”[7] Psalm 137 overwhelmingly displays the torment brought on by the Babylonian Captivity and while an exact date of its writing is not known, a large number of scholars believe it was composed near the end of the exile, before any of the Israelites were allowed to return to Jerusalem, following the edict of Cyrus. However, some scholars believe it was written shortly after the first wave of Jews returned to Jerusalem but before Babylon was destroyed. Alexander Kirkpatrick shows, “The past tenses of vv. 1-3 seem to imply that the writer and his companions are no longer in exile, while from vv. 7-9 it appears that the wrongs of Israel have not yet been fully avenged on Babylon. [While,] on the other hand, verses 5-6 appear to express the devotion of someone still away from Jerusalem.” It would appear safe to say this communal lament and imprecatory psalm points to a time somewhere between the return of the exiles from Babylon, but before the rebuilding of the second temple. The exile lasted seventy years, so the circumstances of those enslaved varied greatly. The prophet Jeremiah encouraged the exiles to make a living, to multiply and not decrease in number, and to seek peace, welfare, and prosperity from the land God had deported the Israelites to.[8] Religions during this time were very polytheistic and syncretism seemed to be the most popular way for rulers to maintain order. This meant the Israelites were allowed to continue worshipping God, but they would also be required to worship the god(s) of their captors.

LITERARY CONTEXT

            Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart explain, “The most important thing to remember in reading or interpreting psalms is that they are poems – musical poems, [so] by their very nature, they addressed the mind through the heart.”[9] Stern also demonstrates, “Psalm 137 is filled with literary devices such as alliteration and wordplay. For instance, in English we are forced to translate two succeeding verbs as ‘forget’ and ‘wither,’ whereas in Hebrew the two verbs appear to be the same,[10] although they derive from different roots.”[11] Psalms is actually a book made up of five books,[12] each of which concludes with a doxology and the Torah or books of the Law, authored by Moses, parallel them. Psalm’s final form came into existence post-exile and when interacting with this specific genre, the reader must recognize: (1) These were prayers of protection; (2) The Israelites were people of the covenant; (3) These were prayers for justice, not vengeance; (4) They model the necessity to pour one’s heart out to the Lord; and (5) They emphasized God’s holiness.[13] John Day explains, “The imprecatory psalms have been explained as expressing evil emotions, either to be avoided altogether or to be expressed and relinquished, as a morality consonant with the Old Covenant but inconsistent with the New Testament, or words appropriately uttered solely from the lips of Christ, and consequently only by His followers through Him.”[14] Still, other scholars have totally written imprecatory psalms off as not being divinely inspired. C. Hassel Bullock explains, “They insist that the psalmists are literally expressing their own vindictiveness toward their enemies, and God had nothing to do with inspiring their word, [so] while it is correct the Bible contains hateful words that do not directly convey divine truth, it is the context of those words that gives them the perspective that makes them the Word of God.”[15] Ultimately, while some of the words may not be appropriate to be spoken out of context, Bullock is correct is asserting, “The message of divine justice, which is an expression of his character, is nevertheless clear and quite in order [and] God spoke through the psalmist, providing a perspective that highlighted the human need for justice and divine commitment to it.”[16]

            Psalms was composed over a one thousand year time span and is the most quoted book in the New Testament. Psalm 137 is found in Book V and vv. 1-3 provide the setting of the lament; v.4 illustrates the central words of lament; vv. 5-6 declares an oath in answer to the lament; and vv. 7-9 issue imprecatory words in answer to the lament. Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al. illustrate, “Psalm 137 has the distinction of having one of the most beloved opening lines and the most horrifying closing line of any psalm. There is no way to soften the words or alter the sentiment nor should we try to.”[17] This earnest lament sung to God, sought His supreme justice, even in spite of complete despair and hopelessness. DeClaissé-Walford et al. further explain, “It is a song of revenge sung on behalf of the victims of Babylon’s destruction.”[18] In form, Psalm 137 takes on characteristics of both a lament and an imprecatory psalm and it reveals the painful consequences of sin. Despite the covenant God made with David, because of ongoing sin and the lack of repentance, the Israelites were allowed by God to be taken away from Jerusalem, the very place where God’s presence dwelt. This particular psalm demonstrates when believers continue to sin, fellowship with God is cut off and the joy of God’s presence departs. Additionally, when believers are cut off from God, the painful wounds of sin also drown the joy of salvation out.[19]

            As Frank E. Gaebelein explains, “the psalmist is praying for God’s vengeance on those who are responsible for his misery”[20] and DeClaissé-Walford et al. agree, “Psalm 137 is a community lament in form, placing it in a group of psalms called “imprecatory,” [in which] the psalm-singers invoke the wrath of God upon a foe. In the case of Psalm 137, the foe is clearly Babylon, indicating a setting for the psalm during or just after the Babylonian exile.”[21] With over thirty psalms containing some form of imprecation, it is important to understand how these psalms express deep and raw emotions and how they are often the response to extreme violence and the absence of divine justice. Another critical factor to understanding these psalms is realizing the psalmist is not acting upon his petitions; instead, he is calling upon God to fight his battles for him. The psalmist is also looking to Mosaic Law and the principle of lex talionis, which means, “eye for eye and tooth for tooth.”[22] Fee and Stuart illustrate, “What the psalmist has done in Psalm 137 is to tell God about the feelings of the suffering Israelites, using hyperbolic language of the same extreme sort found in the covenant curses themselves [and] it is God who is the actual hearer of these angry words.”[23]

            The placement of Psalm 137 is interesting, especially considering Psalm 135 and 136 are community hymns and partners in praise, which celebrate the steadfast and unchanging love of the Lord enduring forever.[24] Then, Psalm 138 is the first of a collection of eight psalms classified as individual hymns of thanksgiving. DeClaissé-Walford et al. then illustrate how in Psalm 138:

The psalm-singer gives thanks to the Lord for answering when he cries out and are generally made up of three parts: (1) an introduction, in which the psalmist declares the intention of giving thanks and praising God; (2) a narrative, in which the psalmist tells what has happened to the psalmist that has prompted the words of praise; and (3) a conclusion, in which the psalmist praises God for all that God has done on the psalmist’s behalf.[25]

Thus, the placement of Psalm 137 between these bookends of praise and thanksgiving is by no accident and further demonstrates the covenant faithfulness of God and His steadfast love being present, even in the midst captivity or exile.

THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION

 Sin Separates and Exiles People from God (vv. 1-4)

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres.  For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?  Psalm 137:1-4 (ESV) 

The psalmist immediately reveals those in Babylonian captivity wept for Zion. This imagery forces the reader to view the Israelites as prisoners of war. Knowing the captivity lasted seventy years provided ample time to reflect upon and realize God’s presence and His blessing were lost as a result of the nation’s sin. The psalmist contrasts of the waters of Babylon with the hills of Zion and uses these landscapes to demonstrate the dramatic change of environment. When the psalmist says on the willows they hung their harps, he is including himself with the repentant exiles that had lost all desire for music and the image of a weeping-willow adds to this imagery, emphasizing the time for joyous songs was long since past. This could be from the result of feeling God’s judgment, but the primary reason seems to be related to the Babylonians demanding the Israelites to play the joyful songs of Zion and God’s greatness, but given their torment, the exiles could not envision singing while absent from the presence of God.

Must Never Forget God’s Blessing and Covenant (vv. 5-6)

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!  Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!  Psalm 137:5-6 (ESV) 

Despite the persecution and tormenting the Israelites faced, the psalmist switches back to the singular person to make two pledges. First, he says it is better to have a paralyzed hand than to forget Jerusalem and then he says it is better to have a paralyzed mouth than not to consider Jerusalem the greatest joy. The psalmist, no doubt, was a highly trained harpist and singer of the psalms, but he makes the oath he would rather lose the ability to play the harp and to sing rather than use those gifts to allow the Lord’s enemies to belittle him and mock the Lord. For the psalmist, Jerusalem was much more than just a place; it represented where the temple once stood and where the Spirit of the Lord dwelt. This conviction led the psalmist to never allow the Babylonians to take away the sanctity and holiness of Zion. If this psalm was written near the end of the exile or just following the return to Jerusalem, this would have meant, either the psalmist was very young when taken into captivity, or that he was born while in captivity. In either case, his vow to not forget Jerusalem takes on an entirely different meaning when viewed from these perspectives.

Ask Righteous God to Execute Swift Justice on Oppressors of God’s People (vv. 7-9)

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” 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!  Psalm 137:7-9 (ESV) 

In the final verses, the psalmist appeals to the righteous God to execute swift justice against the oppressors of His children. It is interesting how the psalmist prayed specifically against two nations: Edom and Babylon. Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney reveal:

The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. Instead of showing kindness to their Israelite kinsmen, they called for Jerusalem’s destruction. Some link Edom’s crimes against Jerusalem with the judgment pronounced against them in Obadiah. The law of retaliation[26] is applied here and such crimes had been perpetrated against Israelite children,[27] and the Babylonians were guilty of them.[28] This shocking imprecation is ultimately grounded on God’s promise in Genesis 12:3.[29]

            The Edomites taunted the Jews as Jerusalem fell and even rejoiced over the destruction of the city as they looted it and prevented the escape of many Israelites. Obadiah records the Edomites calling for the Babylonians to tear the city down to the very foundation.[30] On numerous occasions, the prophets declared Edom would answer for any role played in the demise of Jerusalem,[31] so the psalmist was merely praying God would fulfill what had already been promised.

            In the following verses, the psalmist recalls the aftermath of the exile and calls for God’s judgment against the people who had enslaved and slaughtered the Israelites. John Ahn explains, “There is clearly a heightened and more dramatically unrehearsed emotional outburst of pain as verse seven begins with imperatives. The compositional style no longer holds the lyrical poetic beauty that was present in the previous sections. It is slightly more terse, and the vocabulary, theme, and images become unilaterally children-based, war-oriented, and specific to locales.”[32] This presents somewhat of a paradox, since the Babylonians were acting as agents of God because of Israel’s sin and refusal to repent. This further demonstrates God can use anyone and anything to accomplish His plans, as He did with Cyrus and Babylon. Just as the psalmist prayed for the judgment promised against Edom, he prays the Lord fulfills the same promise over Babylon.[33] Against Babylon, the psalmist goes one step further and pronounces a blessing on the agent God uses to fulfill His promise. The psalmist’s final plea is shocking because of the brutality of the request, but he is simply praying for reciprocity because this is exactly what the Babylonians did when Jerusalem was invaded and plundered. Picturing the cries of babies being killed against rocks and the screams of the mothers is an image engrained in the mind of the reader. As Warren Wiersbe points out, “Our human emotions can become strongly inflamed when we think about the cruelty of wicked people toward others. Our rage is even fiercer when we are personally involved, or when the victims are our loved ones, fellow-citizens of our communities or nation, or our brothers and sisters in Christ.”[34] DeClaissé-Walford et al. remind the readers “of the basic human desire for revenge, when those we love have been wronged. God does not ask us to suppress those emotions, but rather to speak about them in plain and heartfelt terms. In speaking out to God, we give the pain, the helplessness, and the burning anger to God. And we trust that God’s justice will be done.”[35] This point of view allows the final verse to harmonize with the first and permits the reader to fully appreciate the attitude of the psalmist and understand the nature of God’s faithfulness and covenant love.

MODERN APPLICATION

            Erich Zenger writes that, “Psalm 137 is an attempt, in the face of the most profound humiliation and helplessness, to suppress the primitive human lust for violence in one’s own heart, by surrendering everything to God — a God whose word of judgment is presumed to be so universally just that even those who pray the psalm submit themselves to it.”[36] Knowing and understanding this principle illustrates how one of the first observations from this psalm relates to both the righteous and the wicked suffering the judgment of God. Even though not everyone turned away from Yahweh, the nation suffered together. Sin in essence is rebellion of God, so the second application from this psalm relates to the consequences of sin. Without the presence and Spirit of God, the people suffered physically, by having to leave the promise land and they suffered spiritually because they refused to listen to the prophets and repent of their sins.

            Another interesting principle stems from the Israelites who chose to stay even when allowed to return home. While Jeremiah instructed them to make the best of the situation, he did not want them to become complacent and ensnared with the worldly practices and things Babylon possessed. Many lifestyles and places today are representative of Babylon, because the desire to remain outweighs the desire to see what else God might have planned. Babylon was evil, corrupt, and godless and in principle, Babylon exists all over the earth. Wherever wickedness stands opposed to the truth claims of God and the gospel message is rejected represents Babylon. The psalmist emphasizes the importance of never forgetting Jerusalem, no matter the cost. Even then and especially now, Jerusalem is so much more than just a physical location because of what it represents. There are Christians all over the world experiencing torture and death, all in the name of Christ. What the psalmist is declaring is each believer must count the cost and determine if nothing is worth forgetting what Jerusalem stood for and what the personal presence of God means. Persecution is something that will only continue to grow the closer the return of Christ comes, so Christians must learn how to stand up for God and against the enemies of the Lord, in order to not fall for things of this world. Matthew Henry illustrates:

What we love, we love to think of. Those that rejoice in God, for His sake make Jerusalem their joy. They steadfastly resolved to keep up this affection. When suffering, we should recollect with godly sorrow our forfeited mercies, and our sins by which we lost them. If temporal advantages ever render a profession, the worst calamity has befallen him. Far be it from us to avenge ourselves; we will leave it to Him who has said, Vengeance is mine. Those that are glad at calamities, especially at the calamities of Jerusalem, shall not go unpunished. We cannot pray for promised success to the church of God without looking to, though we do not utter a prayer for, the ruin of her enemies. But let us call to mind to whose grace and finished salvation alone it is, that we have any hopes of being brought home to the heavenly Jerusalem.[37]

            Imprecations against the wicked do not just appear in the Old Testament; in fact, numerous passages in the New Testament reaffirm the validity of continuing to cry out for justice and judgment of the wicked.[38] However, when someone prays for the judgment of the wicked, Gary Yates demonstrates, “[He or she] are in fact praying for the full realization of God’s kingdom rule on earth and are praying in anticipation of God’s complete removal of evil from the new creation. God will be glorified in the destruction of the wicked and the ungodly.”[39]

            There was also not a complete understanding of Sheol or of life after death, when the psalmist prays for God to act swiftly and to severely judge the wicked in this life. Today, through the New Testament and a Christological lens, the interpreter is able to pray with a greater understanding of how God’s judgment will make all things right, even if that judgment is deferred until after death. Yates further demonstrates, “Since they are righteous prayers, the imprecatory psalms have many benefits for the believer today and should not be removed from either our private or public worship. These psalms remind us of God’s holiness and of His righteous and perfect hatred of all evil.”[40] Imprecatory psalms teach the severity and finality of God’s judgment and they demonstrate the price of sin. The world is full of evil and these psalms serve as a reminder for the need to cry out to God for only His divine justice and His supreme righteousness. The psalmist knew the importance of crying out for God to purge evil from our own lives because as Yates establishes, “Hating evil in the world without hating its presence in our lives is an indication that we have been blinded by our own self-righteousness.”[41]

CONCLUSION

            Fee and Stuart are correct in their assertion that, “Understood in their context as part of the language of the laments and used rightly to channel and control our potentially sinful anger, the imprecatory psalms can indeed help keep us from harboring or displaying anger against others [and] they do not contradict Jesus’s teaching to love our enemies.”[42] This exegesis has shown why Psalm137 is just as relevant to the church today as it was for its original recipients by showing how it is possible to harmonize this and other imprecatory psalms with the teachings of Jesus, when they are viewed in the light of God’s divine purpose. Once the psalm is understood in light of the psalmist’s attitude and in light of New Testament revelation, the reader is able to comprehend how the psalmist completely entrusted all hatred and desires for revenge to God. While sin and the lack of repentance separated the Israelites from God’s presence, the psalmist shows God remains faithful to the assurances found in the Abrahamic Covenant[43] and how it is always appropriate to call upon God to be stay faithful to His promises.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ahn, John. “Psalm 137: Complex Communal Laments.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, no. 2 (Summer, 2008): 267-89. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/214610260?accountid=12085. (accessed November 18, 2016).

Belcher, Richard P. Jr. The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from all the Psalms. Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2006.

Broyles, Craig C. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series: Psalms. Edited by W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1999.

Bullock, C. Hassell. Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2001.

Day, John N. “The imprecatory psalms and Christian ethics.” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 634 (April 2002): 166-186. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 7, 2016).

DeClaissé-Walford, Nancy, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.

Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.

Futado, Mark D. Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook. Edited by David M. Howard Jr. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007.

Gaebelein, Frank E., ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961.

Hughes, Robert B. and J. Carl Laney. Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.

Keil, Karl and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament – Volume 5: Psalms. Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1891.

Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004.

Leadership Ministries Worldwide, Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible, The – Psalms III. Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 2016.

Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Steenkamp, Yolande. “Violence and hatred in Psalm 137: The psalm in its ancient social context.” Verbum et Ecclesia, 25 no. 1 (October, 2004): 294-310.

Stern, Philip. “Psalm 137: the Babylonian exile: pieces of the puzzle.” Midstream 53, no. 4 (2007): 33-37. http://p2048-ezproxy.liberty.edu.ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/ps/i.do?p=ITOF&sw=w&u=vic_liberty&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA166933958&sid=summon&asid=d610485f0e84038f4ea9ced0a48ce5a4. (accessed November 18, 2016).

Wenham, Gordon. The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.

Yates, Gary. “Some Thoughts and Observations on the Imprecatory Psalms.” OBST 660: Psalms, Liberty University School of Divinity, 2016.

Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance? Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.


[1] 2 Timothy 3:16

[2] Matthew 5:44

[3] Genesis 12:1-3

[4] Richard P. Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from all the Psalms (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2006), 78.

[5] Philip Stern, “Psalm 137: the Babylonian exile: pieces of the puzzle,” Midstream 53, no. 4 (2007): 33. (accessed November 18, 2016).

[6] Karl Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament – Volume 5: Psalms (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1891), 800.

[7] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament – Volume 5: Psalms, 800.

[8] Jeremiah 29:4-9

[9] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 206-207.

[10] (Eshkachekh and Ushkack).

[11] Stern, “Psalm 137: the Babylonian exile: pieces of the puzzle,” 34.

[12] Book I: 1-41; Book II: 42-72; Book III: 73-89; Book IV: 90-106; & Book V: 107-150

[13] Leadership Ministries Worldwide, Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible, The – Psalms III (Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 2016), Under: “Introduction”.

[14] John N. Day, “The imprecatory psalms and Christian ethics.” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 634 (April 2002): 167. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 7, 2016).

[15] C. Hassel Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2001), 231.

[16] Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 231.

[17] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf Jacobson, Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 956.

[18] De-Claissé-Walford et al., NICOT– The Book of Psalms, 956.

[19] Leadership Ministries Worldwide, Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible, The – Psalms III (Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 2016), Under: “Psalm 137”.

[20] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 826.

[21] De-Claissé-Walford et al., NICOT– The Book of Psalms, 953.

[22] Exodus 21:24

[23] Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 221.

[24] Ḥesed

[25] De-Claissé-Walford et al., NICOT– The Book of Psalms, 958.

[26] Leviticus 24:17-21

[27] II Kings 8:12; Hosea 10:14

[28] Jeremiah 51:24; Isaiah 13:16

[29] Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990), 226.

[30] Obadiah 11-14

[31] Ezekiel 25:12-14; 35:1-15; Obadiah 1-10

[32] John Ahn, “Psalm 137: Complex Communal Laments.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, no. 2 (Summer, 2008): 285. (accessed November 18, 2016).

[33] Isaiah 13:17-22; 21:1-10; Jeremiah 50:1-54:64

[34] Warren Wiersbe, Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible, The – Psalms III, Under Psalm 137.

[35] De-Claissé-Walford et al., NICOT– The Book of Psalms, 956.

[36] Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? trans. Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 48.

[37] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961, Under: “Chapter 137”.

[38] Luke 10:10-16; Acts 8:20; 1 Cor 16:21-22; Gal 1:8-9; 5:12; 2 Thess 1:6-10; Rev 6:9-11; 19:1-2

[39] Gary Yates, “Some Thoughts and Observations on the Imprecatory Psalms,” OBST 660: Psalms, Liberty University School of Divinity, 2016, 1-2.

[40] Ibid., 2.

[41] Yates, “Some Thoughts and Observations on the Imprecatory Psalms,” 3.

[42] Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 221.

[43] Genesis 12:1-3