By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion…
our captors asked for songs of joy…
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
… Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Daniel had been taken into exile with perhaps thousands of Judeans. Many may have become slaves, used as cheap labour in the fields and cities of Babylon. As we read this Psalm, we can feel the raw emotion of desolation and hopelessness, where the only comfort is the thought of revenge and judgment. Daniel knew the prophecy of Jeremiah, so perhaps some of the exiles knew the reference in 51:56, that ‘a destroyer will come against Babylon… for the LORD is a God of retribution; he will repay in full’. They cried out for justice that would repay the Babylonians in full.
There are a number of Psalms that contain ‘curses’, sometimes arising from a legitimate concern for the honour of God: ‘Rise up, O God, and defend your cause’ (74:22). There are also calls for a demonstration of God’s judgment that will bring his enemies to their senses: ‘The righteous will be glad when they are avenged… Then people will say, “Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth”’ (58:10-11).
Perhaps answers to the problem of these ‘curses’ lie in two New Testament themes. Firstly, there is the teaching of Paul in Romans 12: ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Do not repay anyone evil for evil’ (12:14, 17). Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, ‘Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay”.’ These cries from the depths of desolation and persecution are cries for God’s judgment, not by human acts of revenge, but within God’s purposes, and sometimes by the judicial processes of the state.
The second answer comes from Jesus himself and his journey to the cross. He knew the depths of desolation when assailed by the worst humans can do; he knelt in anguish in Gethsemane, and he cried out from the cross as he bore the weight of sin. He took the judgment and the wrath not only for our rebellion against God, but for all the terrible things humans have done to each other, from the days of the Babylonians to the wars of the last hundred years. In humility and repentance we accept the boundless grace of his forgiveness and pray for our enemies to find it too.