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How Pacifism Provides an Answer to The Most Difficult Passage in the Bible (Psalm 137:9)

This afternoon, while reflecting on my still burgeoning and solidifying pacifistic beliefs, I suddenly realizied that here I had an asnwer to the most difficult and troubling passage in all of the Bible.

By common assent, the most problematic passages in the Bible are the Old Testament “inprecatory psalms” – the foremost of which is Psalm 137:9:

1By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
2Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
3For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4How can we sing the LORD’S song
In a foreign land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
6May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

7Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it
To its very foundation.”
8O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
9How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock.

Every Christian recognizes that the attitude expressed here is just wrong – and yet it is in the Bible. What do we do with that? Immanuel Kant leveraged this passage to prove his point that ultimately it is the human conscience which should be the judge of ethics, not the other way around. Two centuries of Liberals build a thoroughly man-centered theology on Kant’s foundation. More recently, I have heard this passage quoted by Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis) and Rich Mullins (see clip here) to say, in effect, “The Bible says a lot of confusing/contradictory things. You need to pick and choose what you take from it. It has no unified voice of its own: you must use your own rationality as the filter through which to determine what to take, and what to leave.” In seminary, I heard at least one chapel sermon in which this text was a major portion. The teacher admitted that it was a significant problem, then provided an answer which – either because of its complexity or my simplicity – I cannot recall.

In my experience, then, this passage is both the most embarassing to Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians, and the most exciting to Liberals. It is their trump-card: the one-liner which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that God’s word, when taken on its own, is incoherent, incapable of organizing itself rationally, and in need of some external organizing principle in order to be rendered intelligible.

Recently, as I have said, I have finally begun to make more small, incremental steps towards relaxing my white-nucked grasp on Just-War theory, on Augustine, and on my own wisdom. I have finally stilled my heart to stop my fretting and running and thinking and worrying: to simply sit at the feet of the master and – like a babe – to let the clear, unflitered message of Jesus wash over me, and cleanse and remake every protion of my soul.

“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, ‘do not resist an evil man. whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Whoever sues you for your jacket, give to him your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Serve your enemies. Bless those who mistreat you. Pray for those who persecute you.'”

But don’t you see? It is so obvious now – how could we have missed it before?!?

But we are so blinded by our thoroughly Augustinian tradition, I suspect I am being met with blank stares: allow me to indulge in an example which is more obvious.

There was no condemnation of vows in the Old Testament – indeed the pages of the Old Testament are fairly soaked in solemn pledges, covenants and vows. But in the new covenant, Jesus has done away with such things: for those who are filled with the Spirit of Truth, vows will be necessary. In the new dispensation, we are simply to “let our yes be yes.” “You have heard it said, but I say to you”: with these words, Jesus has made the old covenant obsolete (Heb. 8:13), in that his teachings are about to “fulfill” the law (Mat. 5:17), by engraving a deeper law – the law of love (Mat 22:39-40) – on the hearts (2 Cor. 3:3) of His brethren.

Psalm 137 was written in the previous dispensation – the dispensation of law. In this dispensation, Jesus’ ethic of enemy-love had not yet been introduced. God was here operating on a strict quid-pro-quo model. One example of this is when Saul was sent to slaughter the Amalekites for refusing to allow the Israelites passage through their land.

Had Saul been truly obedient, Samuel may have greeted him in the vein of Psalm 137: blessed are you, Saul, for being obedient to the Lord. Blessed are you for being an agent of vengeance on His behalf. Blessed are you for killing even the infants of that nation which has rejected the Lord.

Such an action of genocide most certainly is appalling to Modern ears – however, God has determined that whatsoever people sow, this they will also reap (Hos. 8:7). He is a just God – and this justice extends to the children of sinners (Ex. 20:5), and to whole nations, as is well-attested in the prophets. God made it perfectly clear to Israel (through Joshua) that God was not on their side, but rather that they were on his side (Josh. 5:14).Thus, when they were sent to annihilate a nation, they did so as agents of God – it was not their war but His that they were fighting.

This was not “just-war,” but holy war, slaughtering a nation doomed by God, in His perfect justice.

Is such justice revoked in the New Coveant? No, for “he who bears the sword does not bear it in vain. For it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” (Romans 14:4) Only, this mantle of vengeance is lifted from God’s people to God himself in the new covenant: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ” VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

What, rather, is to be the Christian response? It has been said once, but our ears are so well trained in ignoring the words of our Savior, that there is need of repeating them again.

Only would you come – would you stop all your business and headiness and heaviness and just listen to what your Lord requires of you?


38“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’

39“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

40“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.

41“Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.

42“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’

44“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

46“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

47“If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

48“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Do you not see that a simple reading of Jesus’ words – unhindered by the wisdom and folly of men – has made plain this great confusion of Psalm 137? Indeed – the solution is so simple that a child could understand it: God is always just. He will repay people who do bad things. The Babylonians had cruelly invaded Israel: therefore, God would ensure that they would be cruelly invaded. However, God has revealed through Jesus that all are sinners, in need of grace. God has shown us mercy, so we must pray for mercy even for those who harm us, as Jesus did on the cross. We are never to be violent against our enemies, since justice is God’s business now.

Thus it is that the one God has told His people to do two radically different things, in the two great dispensations of His dealings with His people. Both sets of commandments are contained in the same book – but there should be no confusion when we allow that section flowing directly from the author of the book to be our guide and key to the rest of the words of Scripture.

By way of contrast, those who attempt to mute or marginalize Jesus’ words on pacifism in Matthew 5 thus have no real mechanism for dealing with Psalm 137:9, or way of distancing themselves from those who have crusaded, burned and slaughtered in the name of Christ, or from modern-day murderers of abortion doctors.

My greatest encouragement in proceeding down the road of pacifism is that with every step, I am finding that more and more of the obscure/difficult/ avoided/overlooked passages of the Bible begin to explode with new life and vitality. Psalm 137:9 is but one small example of this.

“”I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (Mat. 11:25) – oh, that you would grant us all that great poverty of spirit, that all your children may possess that kingdom of God (Mat. 5:13), and in your love, cast out our fear that we may cry out joyfully, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15)

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