How the Gospel Transforms Vengeance to Love
Reading: Psalm 137; Acts 16
This psalm begins with the people of God captive in Babylon, instruments of worship hung on the poplars, no longer in use for the people of God were unable to bring themselves to worship. Their captors were asking for songs—songs of Zion. This provoked a question in the hearts of these captives: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4) This question remains unanswered in this psalm; but it doesn't remain unanswered in the Scriptures. Paul knew how to sing the songs of the Lord while a captive in a foreign land.
22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:22-25)
What had Paul discovered that allowed him to sing songs in this Gentile prison after a severe beating? How does his thinking compare to that of the captives in Psalm 137? What has changed for him since Psalm 137 was written?
In Psalm 137, the joy of the captives was linked to the condition of a city, a geographical location on a map: Jerusalem. To sing songs of joy while Jerusalem lay dilapidated seemed like betrayal (Psalm 137:5-6). Additionally, the captives could not forget what was done to their city by their captors, and they did not want the Lord to forget (Psalm 137:7). The psalmist wanted vengeance for what was done (Psalm 137:8-9). The psalmist seems consumed with these things at the time of writing. I can't say I blame him either. These are natural feelings considering the pains they had experienced.
Paul did not have these natural feelings. How could Paul sing the songs of Zion while a captive in a foreign land? It may help to recall that Paul was the captor before he was the captive. He presided over the stoning of the church's first martyr and, just as the Edomites had said of Jerusalem, “Raze it to it's very foundations,” so he had set out to “destroy the church [the city of God]. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Psalm 137:7; Acts 8:1, 3) It was in this state that the Lord Jesus called Paul. He asked, “Why are you persecuting Me?” He forgave Paul's sin and showed him how much he would suffer for his name's sake. Just as Paul persecuted those who identified with Jesus, now Paul would identify with Jesus and be persecuted.
Paul was in that Philippian jail because he was preaching the Gospel. He had been beaten. He could not forget the beatings—the wounds were fresh! However, Paul had been forgiven; Paul was now forgiving. Paul did not seek vengeance for he once was just like the very men who harmed him. Paul's joy was not tied to an earthly city, or an earthly temple. His joy was tied to Jesus, the real temple that was destroyed but raised up in three days! And the church, raised up in Him, was the city that brought Paul joy. In the midst of his suffering the church was being built. Suffering is no hindrance to the glorious purposes of God in the world. (Oh to remember that in suffering!)
Isaiah had prophesied that Israel would make captives of their captors and rule over their oppressors (Isaiah 14:2). Paul was doing this in that Philippian jail through the Gospel. Before the sun came up, the jailer was bowing before Paul in fear, and had been brought captive to the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:29-34). (See also Isaiah 45:14.)
What had Paul discovered? When interrupted on the road to Damascus and scales fell from his eyes, he discovered the Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Messiah. That is why Paul could sing the songs of Zion after a flogging in a foreign prison. The Gospel transformed Paul so that rather than desiring vengeance, he loved his enemy just as he had been loved. In what captivity are you called to sing songs of joy? Who are the enemy captors that you are called to love just as you have been loved?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,