Psalm 137 records the experience and confessions of the temple musicians during their first years in Babylon after their deportation in 586 BC. This Levitical order of musicians were likely among those who had ignored Jeremiah’s teaching and watched him as he was publicly mocked in stocks on the temple mount (Jeremiah 20:1-6), possibly while they had performed in the background. Now, Jeremiah’s words had been fulfilled and his warnings had proven just.
The Hebew noun neharot in Psalm 137:1 translated “rivers” or “streams” is a reference to the many canals cut through and around the beautiful city of Babylon connecting the Tigris and Euphrates for protection, travel and resources.
Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation of the Jews included the plundering of the Temple of precious metal (gold, silver, bronze, etc.), furniture and articles, but also the transportation of the priestly musical instruments into Babylon. Taking the levitical musicians along with their musical instruments captive would be similar to kidnapping your favorite rock and roll band along with their guitars and sound equipment. Then, setting up their stage and demanding they perform an outdoor concert of party and celebration. This is seen in Psalm 137:2, “There among the poplars,” when the Levites express how difficult it is to perform the joyful songs (example: the Psalms of Ascent) while they are in a foreign land and the image of their burning temple and slaughtered bodies of members of their community is still fresh in their memory. (The remains of the Assyrian palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh preserves a similar setting in a relief showing Assyrian captors watching their Jewish prisoners from Lachish carry and play their lyres, or “guitars”, as they are deported into a foreign land in 701 BC.)
In 137:5 the Jewish musicians take an oath and curse their tongue from singing and their right hand, which was used to strum the lyre, from its skill of playing if they sing the joyful songs of Zion for the Babylonians.
Instead these Levitical musicians turn this chance to perform songs of joy formerly sung on the Temple Mount into a song (Psalm 137) with lyrics of angry vengeance and rebellion toward their Babylonian captors and their Edomite neighbors (see book of Obadiah) who cheered the success of the Babylonian destruction. These priestly musicians end this song that is sung for their captors with the lyrics:
“Happy is he who repays you…he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
These lyrics are on the opposite side of the spectrum of musical lyrics. These words swinging from words of joy and celebration to shouts of chaos and rebellion.