Reports of new injustices come up every day, both here in the United States and overseas, and they seem to be coming more rapidly as each day passes. Many people ask why this is happening, and many people of faith wonder where God is in all this.
Below I’ve provided excerpts from a sermon I gave a couple years ago on Psalm 137, a psalm demanding justice in a cry from the pit of oppression. The psalmist might seem harsh in desiring a particular brand of justice, but that demand is straight from the heart of the oppressed.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
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.
Jerusalem – also known as Zion – is the capital of the ancient nation of Israel, the land God promised his people. In Leviticus 25, we see details about God’s promises concerning this land:
Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. (Leviticus 25:18-19.)
Sounds great, right? The blessings go on at length in Leviticus 25 and 26, but the bottom line is: follow God; live there safely; eat your fill. Nice.
But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: … (Leviticus 26:14-16.)
“Do this to you ….” The list of things God will do gets more and more severe as the passage goes on, until finally:
I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its Sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its Sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the Sabbaths you lived in it.
As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. (Leviticus 26:33-36.)
That doesn’t sound so good. He tells the Israelites: Forget God and you can forget eating your fill and living in safety.
But we have a faithful God, and in his final words in this list of promises he assures:
Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 26:44-45 .)
God does not break his covenant, but promises to remember it; the people of Israel knew that. So this gives us an idea about Jerusalem, Zion; it’s in the land God promised to his people, a special place just for them.
What about the Edomites, also mentioned in Psalm 137? Edom was a nation southeast of Israel, founded by the descendants of Esau, Isaac’s son and Jacob’s twin brother (Jacob, also known by the name Israel). The Edomites didn’t get along so well with their distant relatives the Israelites, Jacob’s descendants. To understand why, let’s look at Isaac’s prophecy and blessing pronounced on Esau, his eldest son. In Genesis 27, after pronouncing great blessings on Jacob, Isaac tells his other son Esau:
Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.” (Genesis 27:39-40.)
So we’ve got Jerusalem in the Promised Land, we’ve got Edom happy to be free and cheering the destruction of Jerusalem, but what about Babylon and this call for their babies to be dashed against the rocks?
Babylon was a vast Middle Eastern empire in the late period of the Kingdom of Israel, an empire that God used to carry out his promises to his people. Not the happy promises, but the other ones:
The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. (2 Chronicles 36:15-20.)
- God is faithful in all his promises
Notice that one line in the middle of the passage from 2 Chronicles 36, where Nebuchadnezzar
… carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors.
This is the promise God gave the people back in Leviticus 26, centuries before the Babylonian conquest. What was that promise? If God’s people the Israelites disobey God and don’t take care to follow his decrees, he will send them to exile while the land recovers from their disobedience. Babylon was that place of exile.
And so the psalmist wrote Psalm 137: far from the land God promised them if they would only follow him and his laws and decrees; ridiculed by their ancient enemies, the Edomites; and mighty Babylon, cruelly mocking them, calling for songs of Jerusalem when all the exiles could do was weep.
So in his despair the psalmist writes, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
Psalm 137 is one of the imprecatory psalms, meaning it calls for God’s judgment on Isreal’s enemies. It serves as a reminder that our God is not only faithful, but he’s also a God of justice.
The people of Israel knew what God could and would do for his people.
Now this I know:
The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
with the victorious power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
Answer us when we call! (Psalm 20:6-9.)
There is a difference between the way we see God deliver justice under the Old Covenant, which defined the relationship between God and Israel, and that under the New Covenant, the relationship God now has with his people through the work of the true Anointed One – the Messiah – Jesus Christ.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12.)
Our present day struggles are not against flesh and blood – not against people – but against the dark powers of the world, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
How do we do this? How do we struggle against them? Frankly, we don’t.
Jesus, who brought us into a right – and righteous – relationship with God, does it for us. In Matthew 12 we get an interesting view of how Jesus fights this fight for us.
But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12:14-21.)
God’s anointed doesn’t arrive to smash babies’ heads against rocks. He doesn’t even quarrel or cry out, but instead heals bruised reeds and nurses smoldering wicks, and proclaims justice to the nations.
This is true justice for God’s people.
This is justice better than any we could hope for on our own.
This is God’s justice.