After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Psalmist famously ends Psalm 137 with these disturbing lines:
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!
Or again, in the middle of a prophesy against the Tyrant in Babylon, hear Isaiah 14:20b-21:
Let the offspring of the wicked
never be mentioned again.
Prepare a place to slaughter his children
for the sins of their ancestors;
they are not to rise to inherit the land
and cover the earth with their cities.
What do we do with such verses that seem to desire or prophesy the destruction of the children of the wicked as punishment? They seem bloodthirsty and an affront to justice, unfitting for God’s people. Perhaps they can be excused as the outburst of an angry populace who has suffered much violence, but why are they included in Scripture? How might Christians learn from them or approach them?
Dealing with these questions is too much for a short post, but Walter Brueggemann’s comments on the passage from Isaiah are illuminating:
The poem, however, is not yet finished when tyrant is incarcerated in the permanent land of the impotent. The poet looks past this former tyrant to the future. Such tyrannical clusters–dynasties, families, clans, organizations–have an amazing capacity for survival and reemergence. Always there is somewhere a hidden heir to the brutality who waits for a revival of power. Always there is a possible resurgence of barbarism. And so the poet is not content to carry the brutalizer to weakness. The heirs must be considered: the descendants of exploiters are prone to exploitation. For every Nebuchadrezzar, there is a neo-Nebuchadrezzar. Thus it is important that those now consigned to weakness should included all possible future carriers. The heirs must be obliterated. The sons must be executed. The name must be nullified (cf. Ps. 109:13). Steps must be taken to assure that the deathly possibility remains dead–to the third and fourth generations and forever. The permanent exclusion of the dynasty of abuse is the only sure way to guarantee that it will not happen again. (Isaiah 1-39, 132-133)
The language of prophecy aimed at the heirs of oppressors and destroyers of God’s people, such as Nebuchadrezzar, evinces a certain historical and moral realism that most of us trained in Western individualist societies often overlook. Evil and oppression are not merely matters of individuals, but systems and social inheritances. And the poor and oppressed who have seen their families ground into the dust by the sword cannot be blind to these realities.
The prayers, then, are not necessarily about overkill, or simple tit-for-tat vengeance against the possibly innocent children (esp. Ps. 137) of their enemies. They are testimonies to the depth of evil, as well as a hope that lies beyond the temporary reprieves from violence we receive in history. They are prophecies about the Lord eradicating evil by tearing it up at the root, not merely chopping down its largest branches.
This does not address the problem entirely, of course. We still need to decide whether this language is hyperbolic, where and when it is fulfilled by the Lord, and especially how we relate to it as Christians on this side of the cross and resurrection. How might Christians who serve a God who gave his own Son to be executed for the sins of his ancestors read this text for today? But whichever way we go, we cannot simple write off these prophecies as the perverse deliverances of a benighted people long dead. Somehow, by the Spirit of God, they speak to us about the end of evil today.
Soli Deo Gloria