Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

This is the third of a series of occasional posts on the penitential psalms. Here we will focus on a single aspect of Psalm 102: its use of ornithological imagery. Pictorial language is not only central to the very nature of the psalms, but it is also key to understanding them. Focusing on the threefold use of bird metaphors will help us reflect on the question, ‘who is speaking this psalm?’

Here are verses 6 and 7 [verses 7 and 8 in the Latin and Hebrew textual traditions] from the NIVUK translation:

6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.

Augustine, following the Latin text, identifies the three birds as pelican, owl (or night raven) and sparrow. Perhaps because of his desire to distil everything of value from the Scriptures he argues that the three birds are not necessarily to be understood as a metaphorical unity:

We have three birds, then, and three habitats. A single person may combine the characteristics of all three birds; alternatively, the characteristics of the bids may be distributed among three persons. [1]

This is arguably a case of overinterpretation when we consider the uncertainty of the original terms and the use of parallelism in the Hebrew text. When we recognise the parallelism of v.6a and v.6b, the ‘pelican’ and ‘owl’ become one and the same. It is perhaps the case that the translators of the NIVUK have made this more readily apparent by their choice of rendering the first two uncertain Hebrew words as ‘desert owl’ and ‘owl’, and thus inviting a singular interpretation. The identity of a single persona behind the threefold imagery is also natural in that v.7 in its entirety parallels v.6.

Augustine also makes another interpretive decision that does not chime with modern understanding, although this time it is scientific rather than poetic understanding that has changed. And to be fair Augustine seems at pains to indicate the facts are far from certain:

Pelicans are alleged to kill their chicks by pecking them, then for three days to mourn the dead chicks in the nest. Finally the mother is said to wound herself gravely and pour her blood over her babies, which came back to life as her blood flows over them. [1]

From this supposed ornithological observation an argument is then developed by Augustine linking the pelican’s unusual childrearing approach with Christ’s salvific blood. Reading Augustine on the Psalms is worthwhile but, on this occasion, his Christological interpretation is forced. Interestingly, although Augustine is often thought to have established the identification of the seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—he does not make a consistent focused penitential interpretation here. Writing a century, or so, later Cassiodorus dismisses a Christological interpretation of the bird imagery and the psalm as a whole [2]. He does focus on a penitential interpretation. He also makes much of the physiology and behaviour of the three birds [3]. In doing so he argues that they are figuratively distinct types of penitents. His close reading is nevertheless an over-interpretation of the text given its overt reliance on a rich parallelism. This Hebraic poetic convention has often, and perhaps surprisingly, been variously forgotten and eclipsed over much of the past two millennia.

Writing rather more recently than the two Fathers, Goldingay, argues that tawny owl, screech owl and bird are fitting translations arguing from both a philological and poetic basis that the three terms point to birds that stay awake at night and are likely to keep people awake through their cries. His translation reads:

6 I have come to resemble a tawny owl of the wilderness,
I have become like a screech owl among the ruins.
7 I have been wakeful and I have become like a bird
on its own on a roof. [4]

Comparison with the NIVUK text above reveals this to be a less terse and more explanatory translation. The tension between preserving the terseness of the Hebrew text and helping the modern reader is a constant challenge for the translator. Robert Alter famously accuses the modern English textual tradition of ‘the heresy of explanation’, of being too quick to explain, thus undermining the texts intentional mystery and polyvalency [5]. In translating these verses, Alter captures both the terseness of the original and provides a clear poetic translation:

7 I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.
8 I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof. [5]

Addressing the question of the psalmist’s identity in a given psalm, or set of verses, can be a fruitful reflection. It can also be rather vexed, if any singular and overriding claim or assumption is applied across the Psalter. Over the centuries attempts have been made to read the psalms as consistently the words of David. Others have pursued, with similar singlemindedness, Christological readings. Hypothetical religious festivals have been proposed which make the words of the psalms the words of the king of Israel. In the past century there have been a series of critical methods for reading the psalms. My suspicion, however, is that those who have read the psalms as a spiritual discipline have rarely felt the need to be so singular in their reading. The same words and psalms can readily be heard as David, Christ, a precentor, or an anonymous ancient poet. Such polyvocality is not always welcomed by the academy because of its desire for explanation nor some conservative readers who expect contextual certainty. Early Christian interpreters were sometimes too quick to read Christ—his person and actions—into the text. Historical critical interpreters have sometimes been guilty of reading quite different things into the text. The nature of the Psalter stands against any such singular agendas.

Our reflecting on the identity of the psalmist is arguably most important in as far as it helps us to become the psalmist. How do we make these words our own? Are we being instructed? Are we being given words to pray? Are we being taught a vocabulary of prayer? How do we sing these words as a new song?

Psalm 102 is an example of the plasticity of so many of these poems. Countless faithful followers of Christ have owned this song in the midst of old age, loneliness, failure, impending death, and/or moral failure. Numerous others have prayed these words remembering and praying for others whose experience of the life of faith is currently a dark valley. We can also find Christ here, whether in his own experience or in gathering all our prayers as petitions to the Father. The ‘I’ of this psalm at the authorial level is undoubtedly singular, the voice of one psalmist. And yet in faith by the Spirit the reading of this psalm is infinitely polyvalent: it is a sing for all the faithful who are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

To conclude, we note that Psalm 103 might have been deliberately placed after Psalm 102 because it frames the answer to the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 102 with a positive bird metaphor:

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

References
1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 5, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003, p.53.
2. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms: Volume 3, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.1.
3. Ibid. pp.6–8.
4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90–150, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, p.152.
5. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3 The Writings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, p.xix.

The Scorpion: Jesus in the Wilderness

This post is inspired by The Scorpion, one of Stanley Spencer’s Christ in the Wilderness series. Here the painting is not a replacement for the Bible but rather a means to a fresh perspective on some aspects of Jesus preparing for his ministry. Given recent world events we don’t need to work hard to remember that all that we have here and now is always prone to becoming a wilderness. The riches of the gospel and our relationship with the living God are immense but the fullness of what Christ has done awaits the age to come.

The Scorpion is in some ways the most difficult of Spencer’s series as it prefigures the disturbing trajectory of the rest of Jesus’ life. For here we perceive a wilderness experience that starts in the literal wilderness and continues through a remarkable, yet short, ministry to Gethsemane and then the Cross.

The Scorpion points to a small number of biblical texts. In Luke 10:18–19 we read:

He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
Luke 10:18–19, NIVUK

Spencer’s painting portrays a stark and empty place, but it is nevertheless a place where God’s creation can be found. Here creation is experienced as a scorpion rather than the more prosaic daisies in Consider the Lilies (another of the unfinished series of eight paintings).

The people of Jesus’ day already knew all too well that the wilderness was a place of scorpions and snakes. As it says in Deuteronomy:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.
Deuteronomy 8:15, NIVUK

Scorpions are only mentioned twice in the Gospels. Both times by Luke. But they are mentioned occasionally outside the gospels. Sometimes they are literal and sometimes metaphorical. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, they are a metaphor for God’s rebellious people:

And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.
Ezekiel 2:6, NIVUK

In Ezekiel the scorpions are first the people of God who would not listen to the prophet. The verse can also be understood as a prelude to Jesus, the Son of Man who came to minister to all mankind. Jesus holds the rebellious peoples of this world in hands just as certainly as he holds a scorpion in this painting.

Jesus in the quiet wilderness escapes people as he focuses for 40 days on his future ministry. He has taken leave of the figurative scorpions but finds the literal ones that nip and sting so painfully. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is bitter-sweet. Here he finds a closeness to his Father but a revelation of a difficult path yet to be trod. He encounters creation, from the sweetness of the flowers of the field to the bitterness of the stinging scorpion.

Jesus’ ministry would also be bitter-sweet—a ministry to the sick, the demon possessed, the lost and yet rejection by a rebellious people. Jesus came into a world that is a perpetual night despite the sun’s best efforts. He came into the world because it is the night.

The second of two gospel passages that mention scorpions is also found in Luke just one chapter on from the first:

‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
Luke 11:11–13, NIVUK

Surely a rhetorical question if ever there was one? Jesus’ point in Luke is that God will not give us something bad when we ask for something good. At first sight literal food seems to be the focus and it does follow on from the Lord’s prayer with its talk of daily bread. But then fish versus snake, and egg versus scorpion, dissolve into a promise of the gift of Holy Spirit.

In Luke 11 there can only be one answer as to whether God will give us an egg or a scorpion. But this is perhaps not the case in Jesus’ wilderness experience. There he is, driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he has been sent not one but two scorpions. Perhaps he has even been stung? His hands look swollen.

Why would God the Father give Jesus a scorpion in his hour, or 960 hours, of need? Well, whatever actually happened in the desert is perhaps not Spencer’s only concern here. He probably has an eye on Gethsemane and the night when Jesus was betrayed. In that Garden Jesus knew that the ministry that had been discerned three years earlier in the wilderness was coming to its painful conclusion. His prayer crystallises the bittersweetness of the Son of Man’s actions for us:

‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
Luke 22:42, NIVUK

It is probably no coincidence that Jesus’ hands are cupped in the same manner that many receive communion wafers to this day—this is exactly how Stanley Spencer would have received it in his early years, in the army in Macedonia and in his later life in his beloved Cookham. For Christ in the painting, and the faithful communicant, this is a gesture of utter dependence on God. This is an expectant surrender and waiting for His gift of grace. Yet, Jesus received a scorpion that we might receive his body.

Whether or not Jesus’ hands are swollen by a scorpion’s sting—a foretaste of the literal pains of ministry to come—they look distinctive. It’s not that Spencer can’t paint hands it’s that he is making a point. Perhaps they are meant to look like a loaf of challah bread. Challah bread is a type of offering bread. Perhaps Spencer is reminding us that Jesus is the bread of life. Our cry to God gives us Jesus the bread of life who bore a scorpion for us.

For Spencer Jesus is going through the acutest form of the Dark Night of the Soul, a term for spiritual angst coined by St John of the Cross, the 16th Century Spanish mystic. We—that is me and most readers of this blog—are more likely to experience a milder form amidst all our numbing distractions, something that Douglas Adams referred to as The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul. Douglas Adams is ridiculing serious spirituality and yet there’s a sting in the tail when we remember what Jesus experienced for us and what some Christians elsewhere on the world experience for the sake of the gospel.

The experience of a scorpion and the sting of death was always going to be where Jesus’ ministry led. He probably discerned this as he prepared in those forty days. He certainly knew the time was close in Gethsemane. How else can the night brought on by humanity’s rebellion be dealt with? Jesus would know darkness that we might know light. Jesus would taste the sting of death that we might have life.

Darkness and night are, of course, a constant feature of the Passion. Just after Judas leaves the Last Supper we read:

As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
John 13:30, NIVUK

Jesus’ trial was undertaken at night. In the crucifixion itself we have night intruding into the day:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).
Mark 15:33-34

Finally at the resurrection the darkness and the night end:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
John 20:1, NIVUK

 Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus in Gethsemane and Jesus on the cross, in accepting a scorpion, points to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Another twentieth century work of art can help us perceive this remarkable gift. Here are the last verses of Seamus Heaney’s remarkable poem Station Isaland XI:

And from these two a third current proceeds
Which neither of these two, I know, precedes
Although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
Although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
Because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
Although it is the night.

Further Reflection

Stephen Cottrell (2012), Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting On The Paintings By Stanley Spencer, SPCK Publishing.