The Song of Vengeance

Boney M’s cover of “Rivers of Babylon” playing on the radio meant only one thing, Christmas season is here! So, I grew up associating this song with merrymaking, not knowing the horrors attached to it. Let me give you a little background about this song. “Rivers of Babylon” was released in 1978 and it became a worldwide hit, topping charts everywhere. The song was much adored by Jamaicans, and mostly among the Rastafarians. The Jamaican government banned an earlier version of it claiming it’s undermining the government.

The ‘Babylon’ concept plays a pivotal role in Rastafarian theology because Marcus Garvey’s teachings likened Africans in the west to Jews exiles in Babylon. In the article We are all Slaves , we discovered that millions of Africans were taken to the Americas and the Caribbean in the 15th Century. Babylon is used to refer to evil individuals like the slave traders, corrupt government systems and other forms of unjust and inhuman practices, hence when a Rasta says “Babylon must fall,” he or she is declaring opposition to oppression. Now you know why Jamaica banned one of the covers of the song “Rivers of Babylon.” Bony M’s song is based on Psalm 137, a psalm that gives an account of Jews enslavement in Babylon.

Lex Taloinis: An Eye For An Eye.

Jeremiah 52 talks about the harrowing narrative of Judah’s attack. Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon. He marched out against Jerusalem. All his armies went with him and captured the city (Jeremiah 52:4). Babylonian troops looted temple treasures, destroyed buildings, and without mercy, they slaughtered both men and women.

Nebuchadnezzar then killed the sons of King of Judah (Zedekiah). He forced him to watch it with his own eyes the murder of his sons. As if that was not enough, the then Babylonian king poked out Zedekiah’s eyes, put him in bronze chains. And he took him to Babylon together with other Jews (Jeremiah 52:10:11). At the time, this was not just a defeat for Judah; it was a statement of dominance and subjection by their captures to the rest of the nations around Babylon.  

The most gut-wrenching thing was that the soldiers snatched small babies from their mothers’ breasts and smashed them against rocks, spilling their brains out. Children were seen as future threats by attackers in ancient time, and the only way to ensure they don’t grow up and seek revenge is by killing them. Psalm 137:8-9 was sung by Jews praying against Babylonians, desiring the same barbarism of killing babies be done to theirs as well.

We read, 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. That was not all, as the Jews were mourning bitterly while in exile, the Babylonians would tease them, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137:3).  For the Jew sung Songs of Zion to celebrate their victories and strength against their enemies through God.

But the situation they were in at that time was different. Similarly, Jews in concentration camps during the holocaust were forced by Germans to sing songs as they were marched into the gas chambers. Guards regularly ordered the Jews detainees to sing while marching or face thorough beatings. The command went something like “In even steps! March! Sing!”  It’s agonizing for someone to harm you then mock you while you are groaning.

Psalm 137:9, which I like to refer to as the “an eye for an eye verse,” is written in such a context. The Jews believed in the principle of an” eye for an eye” (Latin: lex talionis.) This meant that a person is supposed to incur the same degree of the harm he has caused you for justice to be done. Jesus knew Jews firmly held to this in Mathew 5:38 when he was preaching, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”

Turn The Other Cheek.

Psalm 137 is to teach us the valuable lesson of forgiveness and how to pray for those who harm us. What do you pray about your enemies? While studying this chapter, God reminded me about two people in my life whom I once hated passionately. I regrettably even wished they were dead. It was that bad. We are all prone to this sin of unforgiveness and bitterness, and unless we take the preaching of Jesus Christ in Matthew 5 seriously, we will continue to live in anger and hate.

After Jesus reminded his listeners about their law of retaliation in Mathew 5:38, he commands them not to seek vengeance but to turn the other cheek (Mathew 5:39-42.) He further urges them to love their enemies and pray for (not against) those who persecute them (Mathew 5:43-45.) This sounded so ridiculous. You mean a person takes your suckling child, smashes him on the rock, and you do nothing? I recall the reactions we got from the article on Police brutality https://kuzaapp.com/blog/2020/6/11/police-brutality?rq=ENTRUST Majority of the readers were so vengeful and demanded the same be done to those police officers who were on a killing spree. Many thought those law enforcers who brutally killed George Floyd (the death leading to #blacklivesmatter) must face the same fate.

Paul writes to Timothy, “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2nd Timothy 4:14.) We must all have this attitude demonstrated by Paul toward his Alexander, who did him great ( not just harm but great) harm. We should strive to apply what he wrote in Romans 12:19, “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.”

Conclusion

I’ll be upright with you and say that this command of forgiveness is never easy, and I am still asking God to give me and help me keep it. Take this article as a reminder to leave vengeance to God as well as an acknowledgement that it’s okay to vent emotions of hate and unforgiveness to God in prayer. Psalm 137 is one of several chapters in the Bible, where we see people asking God to intervene and punish their enemies.

The words of Thomas Watson gives us a good summary, from “The Beatitudes” 1660:
To render evil for evil is brutish;
to render evil for good is devilish;
to render good for evil is Christian.

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