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The Horror of War

The Horror of War

And how the horror verse of the Bible responds

Dear Friends

Tony is down sick and so this week’s edition is me interviewing myself. 

However, this is not a week for jokes and humour as we are confronted once more with the horror of war. The news out of the Israel/Hamas conflict is quite frankly appalling. The frightful cruelty and savagery of the incursion of Hamas into Israel villages on 7 October has opened up a new chapter in the protracted conflict. At the time of writing, we await with trepidation Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip. What are we to make of the ghastliness of human conflict and the inhumanity of war crimes?

God’s word speaks to every situation of life, not the least our sinfulness issuing forth in humanity’s inhumanity in warfare. So, in this edition we address the Bible’s horror verse – Psalm 137:9. 

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones

and dashes them against the rock!

It certainly isn’t our most light-hearted edition but given the seriousness of the present situation it is one of the most important to think, discuss and pray about. We need answers for ourselves as well as for our discussion with other Christians and non-Christians. 



Phillip Jensen:  It's the sad reality of life that we always have wars and rumors of wars. The war between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for over a year now. Last month, we heard of another conflict between Azerbaijan and some Armenians. But one that has pushed all others off the front page of the newspapers, has been that of Israel and Hamas. It's a war that's been going on for decades as part of the Palestinian conflict with Israel. But suddenly, earlier this month, it took a new and violent turn with Hamas’ attack on Israel villages. 

Now, I don't want to canvass the rights and wrongs of the Palestinian cause or the Israeli cause. Suffice it to say that around the world, opinion is deeply and dangerously divided, such that there is real fear of this conflict spreading internationally and locally—internationally as other Arab states support the Palestinians and America supports Israel, but even locally here in Sydney, with pro-Palestinian demonstrations and increased security placed outside synagogues and Jewish schools. No doubt as the war proceeds, we're going to hear of the horrors of this conflict, for all war involves the destructive forces of evil. 

The greatest tragedy of all wars is that it's the little people who have to pay the heaviest price. They say that in any war, truth is the first casualty. And yes, indeed, there's already conflict over the truth, such as with the gruesome destruction of the Baptist Hospital in Gaza where both sides are blaming the other for this tragedy. It is, again, the little people—the families of those in that hospital—who are suffering and grieving. 

However, the reason that this new round of conflict hit the world news was that Hamas’ raid was conducted with such a character of callous barbarity as to arouse opposition from almost everybody. Even some people who have been pro-Palestinian have lost some sympathy after what Hamas has done in the killing of families. It was the barbarity with which they killed them. It was the beheading of babies that have united the enemy Israel. So the state of Israel has now unified in opposition, and Hamas has aroused the possibility of a terrible, terrible war ahead.

The mention of babies reminded me of Psalm 137. It's the horror verse of the Old Testament. In fact, it's considered so horrible that some prayer books even omit it. And people have said that you can't really read that as a psalm in church because the last verse of Psalm 137 says, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.” 

It's brilliant poetry because it's so shocking in its crude barbarity. Our problem, if you're a believer, is that this is inspired by God. Some of the translations have “happy shall he be…” which is pretty dreadful. A person who's happy doing that to babies, well, what name would you give to such people? They sound psychiatrically disturbed in a very extreme sense. How could you be happy doing such a thing? But it's really worse when you look at the Hebrew because it's really saying, “Blessed shall he be…” which means he'll have God's approval, he'll have God's blessing. It's even worse than just being happy, which in itself is sick. 

Have you ever pondered on the subject of the ethics of war? Hamas’ error is breaking the ethics or code of warfare. Hamas and Israel have been sending all kinds of rockets against each other for days and months and years. But this is something different. This has a different character.  This is worse. This has broken the ethics and morality of war. But what do you think makes some aspects of war immoral and illegal? I mean, what we do in war would be condemned in peacetime. If somebody shoots somebody in peacetime, we lock them up. We think this is a terrible crime to kill people, and yet in war, that somehow is acceptable. The ethics here is really the issue of inhumanity. I think that's the word that could be used. War crimes are when people conduct war in a way which is considered to be beyond any moral necessity, beyond any kind of humane treatment of other people. 

It is so dreadful that it's not a crime simply in the sense of breaking international law (as if that could matter) in international warfare, but rather the excessive and extreme immorality in killing civilians, and women and children in particular. Rather than any real advance in the cause, it's just terrorizing the opposition. And of course, in the killing of women and children, there is that sense of genocide, that sense of obliterating your enemies so that they no longer even exist and live. 

So imagine Psalm 137, that God is blessing the worst of inhumanity: the dashing of little babies’ heads against the rocks. No wonder we don't like the psalm, no wonder it's the horror verse of the Bible. But when you read the psalm in context, well, does that change things? It was during Israel’s captivity by the Babylonians who taunts the captives to sing the songs of Zion. The opening verses of the psalm has been turned into several songs, even popular songs, which lack the seriousness of the taunt. 

By the waters of Babylon,

    there we sat down and wept,

    when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

    we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors

    required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

It was bad enough to be a captive, bad enough to be a slave in Babylon. To sing the songs of Zion for the entertainment of the Babylonians… Psalm 137:4-6 speak of how the psalmist refuses to do so. How could he possibly sing the songs of Zion? Zion was the most important thing in his life. How could he do such a thing in a place like Babylon, at the request of the enemies of God?

In verse 7 it follows on as the psalmist calls upon God to remember their enemies the Edomites, who when the Babylonians were taking Israel and Judah captive, the Edomites joined with glee at the destruction of Jerusalem, at the destruction of Jews.

And then Babylon. What of Babylon? What of Hamas? What does God think of people who act like that? Blessed shall he be who repays you for what you have done to us. “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.” You see, these verses ask us: what is the nature of justice? 

What do you think justice is? I think it is more than correction and rehabilitation or deterrence. They are good side effects or byproducts of justice, but they're not really justice. Justice is giving people what they deserve, be it good things like wages because they've earned them, or bad things like punishment because they've deserved that as well. And so the psalm is saying, “Blessed shall he be who repays you for what you have done for us.” It's the repayment of the Babylonians. But the repayment has limits in the scriptures. No more than an eye for an eye, a tooth for one tooth. You can't poke out both eyes in punishment for poking out one eye; there is a limit as the repayment must fit the crime. What the Babylonians did was bash little ones’ heads against the rocks. That's what they had done. They didn't just take the people of Israel and Judah into captivity. They didn't just destroy the temple and pull down the city. No, no, they did it with a barbarity that is said to be the barbarity of Hamas. So what is fair justice to people who torture children? What is fair justice for people who decapitate babies? 

“Blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done for us. Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.” 

The harshness of the verse powerfully captures the full horror of sin. It's not approving or requiring child bashing; its strength as a verse and a piece of poetry relies on its unthinkable horror for its powerful emotive effect. This verse is expressing the extreme sinfulness of sin, just how degenerate humanity will descend, how far humans will go in rejecting God that the only way of just punishment would be to dash babies’ heads against the rock. 

It's sadly not unique in the Bible or in history as I thought about it. I could remember a couple of other cases where this kind of genocidal murder of babies occurs in the Bible. One is Pharaoh in the time of Moses, killing the little Jewish boys there, and that’s why Moses got put into the reeds in the river. And the other one, of course, is Herod in the time of Jesus, killing all the little boys in Bethlehem. It is when people are so hostile to God that they will kill God's people like this. It just shows the full horror of sin and just how sinful sin can get, doesn't it? 

But the verse also is expressing the corporate nature of sin. We know that the babies aren't at fault. And yet, when we go to war, we take our family with us. When we go to war, we take our nation with us. It's the idea that you see through the Bible that as in Adam, all sin. Your sin and my sin affect not just you and me, but it also affects our children and our grandchildren. It's a horrible thing that these people’s sinfulness in the name of the Palestinians, in the name of Hamas, in the name of Gaza, are opening up the whole of the community to terrible warfare that may follow. A warfare that we don't want to have, but a warfare that is understandable because of its response to such ferocity. 

And this also expresses that there is no forgiveness without atonement. People want to forgive rather than to punish and that's right because mercy triumphs over judgment. But forgiveness without punishment is not forgiveness; forgiveness without punishment is acceptance. It's acceptance of the evil. We're not forgiven because God has forgotten our sinfulness or because our sin is a minor thing—just a little bit of naughtiness, nothing really significant. No, when the city of God is destroyed, when the little ones are barbarically slaughtered, when sin is exposed, even we can see that punishment is required. But it's very sad that it has to be something as grand as the Holocaust to reach the stage where we will say, “Yes, that deserves to be punished.” It has to be something as horrific as the image of little children being brutally killed before we say, “Yes, that deserves to be punished.” Because in reality, we are so sinful ourselves. We do not even see the sinfulness of sin. But what do you think is required for God to act justly? 

Well, the answer in the Scriptures is the cross. That's why Jesus died on the cross. That's why Jesus died and chose to die and in fact, had to die. That's why it was also so barbaric, killing him that way. Because our sin is so appalling. Our rebellion against God is so ghastly, it requires God to take upon himself the horror of our sin in all its force for us to be genuinely pardoned and forgiven. Because sin is so awful, justice is so harsh, and at the same time, God's love in Christ Jesus and God's grace is so amazing. Real justice, like Psalm 137, makes us recoil in horror. But actually, it is sin that should make us recoil in horror. Sadly, it's only these extreme sins that have this effect upon us—killing and beheading of little babies, the gas chamber, the Holocaust. But let's not remove verses like Psalm 137:9, out of our Bibles, because these are the very verses which touch the reality of human wickedness down the centuries and around the world that awaken us to our own sinfulness and prepare us to see why God's salvation was so terrible and so horrific as the cross itself. And it helps us understand just how amazing God's grace is.


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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