I knew John Coleman only at the end of his life. An aged man of diminutive stature, he offered nothing imposing or impressive to the casual eye. And yet, in his youth, this man fought under General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines during World War II, was captured along with as many as eighty thousand other soldiers, both Philippine and American, and endured the horrors of the Bataan Death March. We never spoke of those horrors—of the humiliation, the summary executions, the torture, the exhaustion, the boxcars, the dysentery, the conditions, the march itself, or anything approaching them—though he had written about them. Nevertheless, the post-war tribunals declared these war crimes, and rightfully so. Despite having a record of these events, it remains difficult to understand how these men, reduced to such circumstances, must have felt as they endured the heat, the march, the sense of abandonment, and the death all around them. However, Psalm 137 offers just such an insight into the heart of the Jews taken captive by Babylon and heartsick at their plight.
Sometime after arriving in Babylon following their own march away from the devastation of war, the psalmist recalls the mocking request of a Chaldean asking him to entertain him with a song. But he requested not merely any song, but one of the songs of Zion. This itself inherently mocked his captives, for Zion celebrated the grandeur of the kingdom that no longer existed and the beauty of the city that the Babylonians had turned into rubble (Psa. 137:3). It was a cruel and humiliating barb, and the Jews felt its sharp sting, weeping in memory of land that, essentially, no longer existed (Psa. 137:1). Therefore, in response, they defied their captors, put away their instruments, and refused to sing (Psa. 137:2). They would not dare to sing praise to Jehovah to satisfy the pride of those who mocked, to offer it as entertainment rather than worship (Psa. 137:4). This people who had forgotten the LORD in Canaan now remembered Him well in a land far from home. Their pride now gone and perspective renewed, they saved their song for its true object (Psa. 137:5-6). Then, turning away from the mockery of the moment and recalling the ruin from which they came, the psalmist’s righteous indignation sprang forth with an imprecation so strong that it shocks the senses, asking the LORD to remember the joyous complicity of the Edomites in the destruction of Jerusalem and calling for retribution on the Babylonians who not only destroyed the temple and the city but also cruelly murdered Jewish children in the process (Psa. 137:7-9). How could the Holy Spirit inspire someone to cry for vengeance, especially when the Babylonians were acting as instruments of God’s providence? The two are not mutually exclusive, nor is this call for justice a political outcry. Neither the Edomites nor the Babylonians appreciated that the destruction of Jerusalem was divine discipline on Judah. Therefore, they reacted politically—not spiritually. Yet they themselves fell under even greater condemnation, as Obadiah and Jeremiah had already made clear. More than that, the psalmist directed his call for justice not to his fellow Jews in rising up against their enemies but to the LORD Himself. This, as Paul also emphasized, is where vengeance truly belongs (Rom. 12:17-21)—in the hands of God.
I wonder how many times John Coleman had thoughts similar to this while held by his Japanese captors? We will never know. But whenever we find ourselves struggling to comprehend a difficult situation, whether victims of spiritual persecution or the devastation of politics and war, we should turn our attention to our God—in remembering His blessings, in seeking His honor, in trusting His justice—and so find peace and contentment regardless of circumstances (Phil. 4:11). The devastation so regularly meted out upon the landscape of the earth displays only a shadow of the destruction accomplished upon souls. No matter where we may reside—even as captives in a foreign land—we must never forget that we belong to God. And this is all we truly need.