More recently, the movie Changing Lanes (2002) featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck, is the story of what happens on a normal day when two men are involved in a minor car accident and how their road rage escalates into a feud. Throughout the movie, they look to one-up the other in getting revenge. This is a common theme throughout history. And here in the Owens House.
Eye for an eye and we’d all be blind
We instituted a policy with our girls, though we’re not always consistent with it, that whoever hits back will receive a harsher punishment than the original offender. She who retaliates will get a longer timeout. The words, “But she hit me first,” were all the confession we needed. (In this system I guess you’re better off striking first.) This is an attempt to help them see that our hearts, darkened as they are with sin, are bent towards revenge.
Sin messed this up in our hearts. What is a yearning for justice, as we’ll see, gets distorted when we seek to avenge the sins of others against us.
The Brutality of Ancient (and some modern) Warfare
The song we’ve been looking at ends rather disturbingly.
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! 9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! —Psalm 137:8-9 ESV
Before we condemn the songwriter for wishing someone would violently kill Babylonian babies, we should note that none of us here in America has experienced anything like the cruelties inflicted on Jerusalem or on the inhabitants of any ancient culture where warfare was brutal. We have been a free country for over 200 years, and it has been some time since our armed forces have fought to liberate us from a foreign power. We are isolated here on our continent, most of us not fearing our neighbors to the north and south. This is not the case in many parts of the world, and definitely not in Jerusalem when this song was written.
You may remember from “Laughing at God” that Babylon was God’s chosen instrument to discipline the Jews for their idolatry. But they went too far.
For I was angry with my chosen people and punished them by letting them fall into your hands. But you, Babylon, showed them no mercy. —Isaiah 47:6 NLT
They abused the elderly, murdered the babies and children, they violated the women, and they killed indiscriminately. I think of Schindler’s List when the Nazis would shoot Jews at whim.
Charles Spurgeon helps us to understand these harsh words:
The desire for righteous retribution is rather the spirit of law than of the gospel; and yet in moments of righteous wrath the old fire will burn; and while justice survives in the human breast it will not lack for fuel among the various tyrannies which still survive. … The murder of innocent infants can never be sufficiently deplored, but it was an incident of ancient warfare which the Babylonians had not omitted in their massacres, and, therefore, they were not spared it themselves. —The Treasury of David
These final verses are not an appeal for revenge but justice, which “survives in the human breast.” The composer is “appealing to God to do what is right and judge those who have been excessively wicked and cruel in their actions” (James Montgomery Boice). Eventually, God would render justice when Babylon would fall (see Isaiah 13:16 and 47:1-15).
Turning the Other Cheek
This plea for retribution would seem to contradict Jesus’ teaching on how to respond to our enemies (see Matthew 5:38-42), except Scripture teaches that God is just and will secure justice for his people. Jesus said we shouldn’t resist an evil person, that if they slap us on the cheek then we should offer the other. God will repay.
17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” —Romans 12:17-19 ESV
God used the sinful nature of the Babylonians to punish his people, just as God has used the times when people have sinned against me. Instead of retaliating, I’m learning to trust in him and am maturing. Children say things like, “They hit me first.” If people gossip about me, for instance, I try to remember my identity is found in Christ and that I live to please God first.
God also used Satan to punish his people, though sadly, innocent people (including children) were killed. In the same way God used Satan to crucify his innocent Son, who kept turning his cheek to the point of death. Satan, like the Babylonians, thought he was victorious, but only destruction awaits him.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The violence continues, when I take a different look next week at the Nativity as we’ve come to know it, how God sent Jesus into enemy territory to reclaim the captives.
How about you? Is your first instinct to retaliate? Are you learning to trust in God who alone is responsible for justice?