Psalm 72: Why We Must Honor and Pray for Our Leaders

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           Psalm 72 is a royal psalm or coronation hymn marking the change of command ceremony in which power was being transferred from Kind David to his son Solomon. David’s prayer was for his son Solomon to reign in a way, which would reflect the justice of God, but it also contains elements which foreshadow the eternal kingship of Christ. To understand what a psalm means to believers today, or how it might foreshadow a future event, it must first be understood in both its historical-cultural and literary context. Thus, the chief aim of this analysis is to bridge the gap from an exegetical focus, which relies on historical events and principles to more of a contextualized approach, by illustrating the timeless truths found within the text. The end goal is to better understand Psalm 72 historically and then be able to declare what it means today.

HISTORICAL-CULTURAL CONTEXT

            The “why” behind the psalm is the key question to answer in understanding the historical-cultural context. Richard Belcher Jr. illustrates, “Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king asking that God bring about His rule on earth through the reign of the king [and] this psalm begins with the title ‘for Solomon’ and ends with a doxology that closes Book II of the Psalter.”[1] King David is the most likely author, but it is possible either Solomon wrote it about himself or someone else wrote it about Solomon. Either way, the people of the time would have been very familiar with the Davidic covenant,[2] which assured a descendant of David would rule an enduring kingdom, but the Father-son relationship established between the Lord and His descendant was symbolic of a covenant love that could never be taken away. The Lord is essentially adopting the king as His son and serves as His human vice-regent. The rule and reign of the Davidic king in Jerusalem was also a reflection of Yahweh’s heavenly rule and reign.

In addition to David praying, the people are also praying that God would give the king the ability to rule with wisdom and justice, so that the entire nation would be blessed, as a result of the king’s righteous reign. David’s prayer for his son is reminiscent of Solomon’s answer to the Lord when He offers Solomon anything he would ask for. This psalm is asking God to enable His king to rule and reign with righteousness. In Old Testament times righteousness was associated with being in the will of God, while unrighteousness was affiliated with sinful living, being unclean, and not being in the will of God. As a result of this reality, the people for obvious reasons wanted a righteous king, despite God warning them what an earthly king would lead to. So while this psalm began as a prayer from King David to his son Solomon, it was also a community prayer due to the consequences that resulted from an unrighteous king.[3] When looking at royal psalms in their historical context, Belcher clarifies, “[While] the king leads the people in military battle, Yahweh is the one who ultimately fights for His people and wins the victory.”[4][5] Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al. further clarify, “The deification of the human king was pervasive in Israel and these ideas were adapted into a concept of the king being the ‘son of God,’ an earthly representative of the Lord, chosen by the Lord to rule over the people Israel.”[6] Frank E. Gaebelein further explains, “The king was God’s anointed representative [and] submission to the king implied submission to the God of Israel.”[7]

LITERARY CONTEXT

            When approaching the psalms, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart rightly assert, “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.”[8] Psalms is made up of five books,[9] each of which concludes with a doxology and the final form came into existence during the post-exile time period. Belcher highlights, “The common thread in the royal psalms is kingship, [so] one of the main issues is the relationship of the psalm to the historical king.”[10] Clarence Bullock identifies, “The most obvious criteria are they (1) refer to the ‘king,’ (2) mention the ‘anointed’ one as a noun or make use of the verb, and (3) they refer to David by name.”[11] Royal psalms pray for the king of the day, but they also point to Jesus.

As the story of Psalms unfolds in Books I and II, Davidic psalms are prominent and seem to focus on God’s faithfulness over the house of David, so Belcher believes, “The best way to approach a royal psalm is to understand how the psalm fits into the historical setting of the monarchy, especially its relationship to the Davidic Covenant.”[12] Psalm 72 is found at the end of Book II and illustrates how this covenant promise has been passed from King David to his son Solomon. However, when the reader approaches Book III, there is immediately a crisis, the Israelites had been defeated in battle, their temple was destroyed, and God’s chosen people had been carried off to exile in Babylon. In light of these events, the people surely asked themselves what had happened to the promises God made to David and whether or not those promises were still in effect. As John Walton demonstrates, “Psalm 72 is the seam psalm, the conclusion of Book II. As David’s blessing on Solomon, it is one of the anchors of the cantata hypothesis.[13] Also of interest in this psalm is what Gerald Wilson identifies as the only explicit statement within the psalms that exercises an organizational function in verse twenty.”[14] Wilson views Books I thru III, as representative of the rise and fall of the Davidic monarchy, with Psalm 2 marking the inauguration of the Davidic Covenant, while Psalm 72 marked the transition to the future Israelite kings. Walter Kaiser then recognized by, “Leaving Psalm 89 at the end of Book III to lament over what appeared to be Yahweh’s ultimate rejection of the Davidic kingship. This, according to some, would explain why the Royal Psalms later on played a smaller role in Books IV-V in the Psalter.”[15] This coronation hymn defined the kingdom of God and Beth Tanner illustrates how Kind David’s, “Last prayer is for the next monarch and it sets the Psalter within a particular history of a particular people. But it also sets this particular history within the scope of the world and, indeed, within the cosmic scope of all that exists.”[16] DeClaissé-Walford et al. further demonstrate how, Psalm 72 strikes a high note and it is, “Flush with the hopes and dreams for the future. In contrast, Psalm 73 opens Book III on a note of confusion and doubt. Life with God will not be lived in an idyllic world, at least for the moment, but in a world where the values espoused in the previous psalm do not always meet with the realities of life.”[17] In Asaph’s prayer, the righteous suffered while the wicked prospered, which went against everything the people understood to be true. Ultimately, the movement and language throughout Psalms reflects what a life of faith is all about. Moments of disorientation are used by God to reorient the individual and community back into communion with God.

Structurally, in verse three, the psalmist speaks of the mountains bearing prosperity for the people. Karl Keil and Franz Delitzsch explain, “Mountains and hills describe synecdochically the whole land of which they are the high points visible afar off. ‏נָשָׂא‎ is used in the sense of ‏נָשָׂא  פְּרִי:[18]‎ may ‏שָׁלֹום‎ be the fruit which ripens upon every mountain and hill; universal prosperity satisfied and contented within itself.”[19] In verses five thru seven, there is a shift from the work of the king to the king himself. DeClaissé-Walford et al. illustrate, “Long life is associated with the vision of God’s kingdom,[20] and the wishes of the king extend to the people. The king’s good reign is to be like the life-giving showers that provide food.[21] The king is simply to provide the environment where the benchmarks of God’s kingdom can grow.”[22] Verses eight thru eleven focuses on the king’s dominion being from sea to sea and how the kings from surrounding kingdoms will bow and bring gifts. DeClaissé-Walford et al. stress the extent of this adoration demonstrating, “Kings are to fall down before him, and all the nations are to serve him. The final verb is especially important, for it is always a key word for Israel. Hebrew ʿāḇaḏ[23] means both to “serve” and “worship.”[24] Verses twelve thru fourteen contain the conjunction, “because,” which points back to what must happen for the petitions to come to pass. The king must have compassion on the oppressed and is called to save and rescue the weak and needy. Only when the king fulfills the requirements of verses twelve thru fourteen will the petitions and wishes in verses five thru eleven be a reality. Verses fifteen thru seventeen depict the abundance of blessings that will come forth from the kingdom and verse seventeen affirms, “May people be blessed in him, and all nations call him blessed,” which parallels the Abrahamic covenant.[25]

THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION

            The first request in Psalm 72 asked God to grant the king justice and righteousness. Jessica Tate demonstrates exactly how:

Justice and righteousness are bound together throughout the psalm just as they are bound in life. Righteousness means to be in right order, to be blameless or godly. Justice can also be translated as “righteousness” or “judgment.” One cannot have divine justice without righteousness, nor righteousness without justice. A word study on the matter suggests that when the king carries out justice, he is an “agent of the divine will.” Justice is associated with the basic requirements of life in the community.[26]

The imitation of God is one of the key principles of the psalms as Gordon Wenham explains, “Those in the best position to promote righteousness are the kings, and they are called on to exercise godlike qualities of justice.”[27]

The second request prayed for a universal ruler who had dominion all over the earth. Belcher demonstrates, “Although some take this psalm as a direct prophecy of the reign of Christ,[28] it is better to take the reign of the king in Psalm 72 as a type of the reign of Christ because the psalm clearly reflects the historical reality of Solomon’s reign”[29] and no earthly king has ever had dominion all over the earth. Wenham demonstrates how Psalm 2 and Psalm 72 are strategically placed royal psalms that open or close a book of the Psalter, but he then explains, “If the Psalter had ended with Psalm 72, we would probably have to agree with form critics that both psalms were just prayers for a coronation, and that the exaggerated language about the ‘ends of the earth’ and ‘all king falling down before him’ were just poetic hyperbole. But the Psalter does not end with Psalm 72; that is only the end of Book II.”[30]

The third request was for long life and prosperity. God promised Solomon his days would be lengthened[31] as long as he remained obedient, but in his later years, he turned away from the ways of the Lord.[32] Wenham highlights the first two books of the Psalter end with King David’s very upbeat prayer for Solomon, but “Solomon of course did not live up to his father’s hopes, either militarily or socially. Instead, Solomon’s reign was marked by oppressive policies.”[33] DeClaissé-Walford et al. note, “Verses 15-16 have much in common with vv. 5-7 but also add references to the lifting of prayers and blessings for the king. At v. 16, the creation reappears, and its abundance is an added wish. Verse 16 has the two most problematic lines of the psalm, and their exact meaning is unclear.”[34] While the failure of the Davidic Covenant appeared problematic, especially to those living in exile, it is important to understand the difference between the messiah in historical and eschatological terms.

Lastly, Belcher emphasizes, “Psalm 72 must be understood in light of the first and second comings of Christ. Now that the righteous king has come and won the victory on the cross, we do not pray for Him as much as we pray for the full coming of His righteous kingdom.”[35] Despite Psalm 72 being classified as a messianic psalm, nowhere is it quoted from in the New Testament, so Daniel Estes and many other scholars agree, “Several psalms have come to be called Messianic psalms even though it is quite likely the original psalmist did not grasp the Messianic dimensions that would later be explicated in the New Testament text.” The New Testament writers came to understand the Old Testament text in a deeper reality than the original authors.

MODERN APPLICATION

            Psalm 72 is historic as David intercedes for Solomon, it is prophetic with reference to another king (Christ,) and it also holds significance for the church today. First, it teaches people should honor all leaders and elected officials and not speak evil of them.[36] Second, God has commanded believers to pray for leaders, specifically regarding the salvation of his or her soul as well as the ability to rule righteously and justly, according to God’s will.[37] As David prayed for Solomon, Christians too should ask God to make leaders Christlike in how he or she rules. Finally, Psalm 72 should also point people to Christ’s return and future coming kingdom, following Peter’s strong example in Acts 3:19-21, which F.F. Bruce shows “If they would turn back in heart to God, the salvation and blessing procured by the Messiah’s death would be theirs. Their sins would be blotted out, even that sin of sins, which they had unwittingly committed in consenting to the death of the Author of life. Here is the heart of the gospel of grace.”[38]

Tanner explains Psalm 72 teaches what righteous leadership is supposed to look like. “God’s kingdom and God’s ways of justice and righteousness are to be the norms. This is the way that God intends the world to be; it was true in Abraham’s time, in the time of the kings, and in the world today. It is the kingdom to which we all press forward and the place in which our future hope is vested.”[39] These lessons are just as relevant today as they were three thousand years ago. By avoiding the traps and lust for power and position that tempts humans, ruling with righteousness becomes the motivation, allowing those in power to remain in the will of God, which, as history demonstrates, provides abundant blessings and justice for God’s people.

CONCLUSION

            The people wanted a king, so God gave them a king. As a result, Psalm 72 becomes universal in its petitions for the king, who with the guidance from the Lord would be greater than all the other kings and would recognize his primary role being to reign with justice and righteousness. The goal of this analysis was to bridge the gap from exegesis to application, so by explaining David’s and the people’s prayer for Solomon was to rule and reign righteously and justly, precedence was established for all people to pray the same today. As history has shown, only God’s perfect and holy Son Jesus Christ can truly fulfill all that David prayed for but that does not negate the obligation for Christians to honor and pray for all leaders or elected officials.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

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.

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 3: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.

_______. 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.

Kaiser, Walter. “PSALM 72: AN HISTORICAL AND MESSIANIC CURRENT EXAMPLE OF ANTIOCHENE HERMENEUTICAL THEORIA.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 2 (June, 2009): 257-70, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/211193181?accountid=12085. (accessed December 9, 2016).

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

Kselman, John S. “Psalm 72: Some Observations on Structure.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 220 (1975): 77-81. doi:10.2307/1356240. (accessed December 9, 2016).

Leadership Ministries Worldwide, Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible, The – Psalm 72. Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 2016.

Paul, Shalom M. “Psalm 72:5-A Traditional Blessing for the Long Life of the King.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 31, no. 4 (1972): 351-55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/543794 (accessed December 9, 2016).

Tate, Jessica. “Between Text and Sermon: Psalm 72:1–7, 10–14.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 68, no. 1 (2014): 66-68. DOI: 10.1177/0020964313505970 (accessed December 9, 2016).

Walton, John H. “PSALMS: A CANTATA ABOUT THE DAVIDIC COVENANT.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 no. 1 (March 1991): 21-31. (accessed December 9, 2016).

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

[1] Richard P. Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from all the Psalms (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2006), 135.

[2] II Samuel 7:12-16

[3] I Samuel 8:10-22

[4] 1 Chronicles 29:23

[5] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 132.

[6] 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), 419.

[7] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 347.

[8] 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.

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

[10] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 121.

[11] Clarence Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2001), 178.

[12] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 121.

[13] Views the Psalms as a cantata around the theme of the Davidic covenant.

[14] John H. Walton, “PSALMS: A CANTATA ABOUT THE DAVIDIC COVENANT,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34, no. 1 (March 1991): 27. (accessed December 9, 2016).

[15] Walter Kaiser, “PSALM 72: AN HISTORICAL AND MESSIANIC CURRENT EXAMPLE OF ANTIOCHENE HERMENEUTICAL THEORIA,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 2 (June, 2009): 260, (accessed December 9, 2016).

[16] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, 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), 579.

[17] DeClaissé-Walford et al., NICOT – The Book of Psalms, 584.

[18] Ezekiel 17:8

[19] Karl Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament – Volume 5: Psalms (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1891), 480.

[20] Isaiah 65:17-25

[21] The shalom and righteousness of v. 3 appear here again as entities that are independent of human action.

[22] DeClaissé-Walford et al., NICOT – The Book of Psalms, 578.

[23] Israel goes from being “slaves” of the bad reign of Pharaoh to being “servants/worshippers” in God’s kingdom. In Psalm 72, the entire world, through Israel and its king, will become servants in the kingdom of God.

[24] DeClaissé-Walford et al., NICOT – The Book of Psalms, 578.

[25] Genesis 12:1-3

[26] Jessica Tate, “Between Text and Sermon: Psalm 72:1–7, 10–14,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 68, no. 1 (2014): 66. DOI: 10.1177/0020964313505970 (accessed December 9, 2016).

[27] Gordon Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 121.

[28] Because of its typological use in 2 Corinthians 6:18 and Hebrews 1:5, verse fourteen has long been considered messianic in a Christological sense.

[29] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 137.

[30] Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed, 91.

[31] I Kings 3:14; Psalm 72:15

[32] I Kings 11-12:1-15

[33] Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed, 149-150.

[34] DeClaissé-Walford et al., NICOT – The Book of Psalms, 579.

[35] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 138.

[36] Exodus 22:28; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17

[37] 1 Timothy 2:1-4

[38] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 83.

[39] DeClaissé-Walford et al., NICOT – The Book of Psalms, 580.

An Exegesis on Psalm 137:1-9

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            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