Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”
The Influence of Psalm 137 and the surmised influence of the By the Waters of Babylon story in Honest Hearts
About Honest Hearts
The Fallout video game series takes a player on dangerous adventures through various regions of the United States after a future nuclear war with China has taken place. The series is one of the more successful in the “role playing game” (RPG) genre, taking place in “post-apocalyptic” times (2161 and forward). “Honest Hearts” is a 2011 add-on to the Fallout New Vegas game of 2010, taking place in what is Zion National Park in the real world, year 2281. While it’s obvious that people died in the park due to the historic nuclear cataclysm, the park itself is mostly unscathed by this point in time.
There are two outside leaders, both Mormon and both from the recently destroyed “New Canaan,” who lead two neighboring tribes, the “Sorrows” and the “Dead Horses,” in Zion Canyon. However, these two leaders have wildly different backgrounds and, not surprisingly, their views on how to handle the invading “White Legs” tribe are miles apart. It is no secret that the White Legs want to kill the Zion Valley inhabitants, just as they destroyed New Canaan. But what will the player do? Aid Joshua Graham and the tribals that wish to stay in Zion by meeting the White Legs head on, or will you side with the more pacifist Daniel and help the Sorrows flee the valley for a new home?
This post, which is the first of three, is a summary of sorts of C.S. Lewis’s work, Reflections on the Psalms (1955; the edition of this book used here is found in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, published in 1994 by Inspirational Press). Note that word spellings as found in the book are kept in this essay. I hope you are blessed by Lewis’ insight and these easily accessible summaries!
[This is a slightly edited version of the article I originally published at Examiner.com.]
Psalms and the Christian: Judgment and Cursing?
Judgement in the Psalms
Judgement itself is not too controversial since there are, in fact, many verses related to it in the New Testament. Jesus is the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42), and we expect Him to return and judge the earth: “. . . He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man [Jesus] He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
However, the psalmists tend to have a different focus than we do when it comes to judgement. As Christians, we know that we are sinners and that if we had to go before a court to be judged, we would be defendants, not plaintiffs. We look to Jesus to have our “case against us” dismissed, and we speak to others of this salvation. But the Jews rarely used judgement in this context; rather, they were the plaintiffs and they wanted God to bring their enemies into judgement. They wanted justice, if not vengeance, and they didn’t often see themselves as part of the problem.
There is one verse in the New Testament that is more like the Old Testament’s focus on judgement, and that is found in Revelation 6:9-11:
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”
At first, this is pretty shocking (well, it was for me), since the New Testament teaches us to forgive and pray for our enemies, and to leave vengeance to God. The martyrs here do leave vengeance to God, but they do not seem forgiving and they are not rebuked by God. I thought I had a clever explanation for this before I studied what others had to say about it. It is reckoned that these are the prophets of the Old Testament and that the others to be killed are the tribulation saints. If this is correct, then they are expressing the exact sentiments we see in the Psalms and there is no need to reconcile them with New Testament teachings.
Most calls for judgement, however, are very morally sound. Some examples are:
“For he who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted” (9:12); “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (68:5); “He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice” (72:2).
The psalmists cried out in this way because, simply put, peoples in biblical times did not have honest judges! Well, a judge may have given a good ruling, but you had to pay him for it. One of Jesus’ parables, which provides some instructing us regarding prayer, illustrates this norm about judges in Luke 18:1-8. A widow kept pestering a particular judge for justice, and he finally gave her a ruling—not because she was wealthy and could pay him, but because he didn’t want to be bothered by her anymore. Normally, only the wealthiest people were able to obtain a judgement and get justice. Of course there were no international courts either; people needed a hero to act on their cries for justice. So justice is sought from God.
What is more difficult to swallow and understand than calls for judgement in the psalms are the cursings, which we look at next.
If God is in all of the bible, how do we take the cursings? As Christians, we are called to forgive, not curse, so how do we use the verses that contain curses? Examples of “curses” are:
“May the table set before them become a snare; may it become retribution and a trap. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever” (69:22-23); “May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out” (109:14); “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (137:8-9).
First, we can look at the culture in which these were written. At that time, it was considered OK to express your anger in this way; it wasn’t considered crazy or rude. Another aspect of their experience is that the times were more violent (at least compared to those of us who live in “the west” today) and definitely more bloody. Remember, blood sacrifice was a common occurrence.
Second, these cursings help us to remember a simple fact: when a person is hurt by someone, the natural reaction is to do a hurt back. A hurt person may never fully recover from the wrong done to them. Even if that person forgives, and forgives again, the hurt is not obliterated and there are consequences or repercussions from the hurt. Though it is a natural feeling to curse or want vengeance, it is wrong for the Christian. It is possible that hurtful actions will cause a lifetime of difficulties for another person, difficulties that can lead them to sin, and this Christians are to avoid.
Another aspect of the cursings shows that the Jews were closer to God than many Pagans, or people today. “What?!,” you’re thinking. Let me explain. Very simply, the Jews expressed indignation: righteous anger. And they expected God to act on it since He is a righteous God. There are many people in the world who, when confronted with evil, shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” They don’t care about evil much, and they certainly don’t get offended on God’s behalf, as the Jews did. As Lewis stated: “If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously” (p. 147).