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.

Psalm 32: The Second Penitential Psalm Today

This is the second of seven posts that aim to show how the Penitential Psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—have been read by interpreters such as Augustine, Cassiodorus, Luther and Calvin. One reason for doing this is the conviction that we can learn from past interpretations as we compare them with modern readings. These posts will also allow interpreters to speak for themselves by means of some carefully chosen examples of their work. In this post the value of prosopological exegesis is the specific focus. This is a rather grand term for reading a psalm by mapping out the speaker and audience for the various sections of a psalm. The term prosopological is derived from the Greek prosopa meaning characters.

Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) was fond of prosopological exegesis. In his commentary on all 150 psalms, he has a specific introductory section for each and every psalm that considers the speakers of the psalm. His answers invariably inform his subsequent verse by verse commentary. In the quotation from his Explanation of the Psalms below I have added modern versification in square brackets as well as a definition. This is how he reads Psalm 32:

In the first section of the psalm [vv.1–4] the penitent speaks, openly admitting his sin and declaring that the punishment served on him is deserved, for he thought that his baneful deeds should be kept hidden. In this section, both exordium [a Latin term in rhetoric for a formal introductory statement] and narration are included. In the second part [v.5] there is nothing but correction, for since he has condemned himself by his own admission he believes that the Lord must spare him. In the third part [vv.6–7] the psalmist praises the blessings of repentance, and maintains that even the saints in this world entreat the Lord. He attests that his refuge lies justly in Him, where the words of the penitent likewise find their goal. In the fourth part [vv.8–11] the Lord Christ replies to his words, and promises to invest with mercy those who hope in Him, so that none may believe that the purity of the suppliant is being disregarded through any indifference. These four sections are separated by diapsalms lying between them. Clearly we must take these sections one by one. [1]

The term diapsalms refers to the Hebrew word rendered Selah in the NRSV and many other modern English translations and their supposed place in marking out transitions within some psalms. Whilst the term is present at key breaks in some psalms, in Psalm 32 this function is more questionable. The position of the three occurrences of Selah has clearly influenced Cassiodorus’ breaks between what he terms parts one, two and three. To the modern interpreter the identification of Christ as the recipient of the words of vv.1–7, voiced by the psalmist as a prayer, and his words of reply in vv.8–11 might seem anachronistic. And, of course, this cannot have been the initial intention of the human author and editors—a yardstick central to modern approaches to the Old Testament. The possibility of Christ’s involvement in this psalm as hearer and speaker is even more alien when matters such as the situation in life and/or cultic use of the psalm are brought to the interpretive table. Yet, not only is this a dominant mode of pre-critical reading it is also elegant and self-consistent in the light of the Christology of the Great Tradition. The reader is strongly encouraged to pause and approach the psalm in this manner to experience this reading.

The issue of what we take to the Bible by way of presuppositions is a vexed question. Karl Barth expressed this matter colourfully and memorably in his remarkable essay The Strange New World within the Bible:

The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if it is transitory and “historical” content that we seek—nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek. The hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it. [2]

John Calvin (1509–1564), writing almost a millennium after Cassiodorus, identifies very different voices in Psalm 32. No longer is the speaker abstracted as the psalmist or the penitent, but King David emerges from the background to the fore. This is evident as Calvin introduces his exegesis of Psalm 32:

David having largely and painfully experienced what a miserable thing it is to feel God’s hand heavy on account of sin, exclaims that the highest and best part of the happy life consists in this, that God forgives a man’s guilt, and receives him graciously into his favor. After giving thanks for pardon obtained, he invites others to fellowship with him in his happiness, showing, by his own example, the means by which this may be obtained. [3]

Throughout Calvin’s subsequent verse by verse commentary David is the speaker of the whole psalm. He is referred to by name repeatedly as well as being given the epithet of prophet. This is true of the second half (vv.8–11)—whereas Cassiodorus identifies the speaker as Christ, for Calvin the instruction found in these latter verses is from David as he addresses the faithful.

Other notable commentators on this psalm lack the focus on who is speaking. This is the case with Augustine (354–430) who does not mention David by name other than when explaining the psalm’s Davidic title. Throughout Augustine’s account the author of the psalm is the psalmist. This is of course not to say that Augustine would not have identified David as the psalmist, but rather the person of David is not central in his exegesis. Closer to Calvin’s time, John Fisher (1469–1535) also pays little attention to prosopological exegesis. He does allude on occasion to David as the author via his designation of him as the prophet. His concern, however, is that this psalm teaches doctrine and obedience to it, in particular the practice of penance. For example he argues that:

This psalm is fittingly and not unworthily called a penitential psalm, because penance is here so carefully treated and spoken of. First, the prophet praises those whose sis are utterly removed by penance, and, on the other side, he shows the wretchedness of those who forsake penance. He also shows the reason for and the manner of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, which are the three parts of penance. First, he praises greatly the virtue of contrition, especially where these is a full purpose of confession. He also teaches the necessity of contrition and shows the impediments to it, with the proper remedies. Next, he comforts and lifts up those who are weak in soul. He calls to those who are out of the right way for coming into bliss and in a manner threatens them. He promises damnation to those who refuse penance; to those who do penance, forgiveness; to those who go forward and profit in it, joy; and lastly, he promises eternal glory to those who are perfect. This holy prophet goes briefly into all of these points in the order we have just declared to you. [4]

Should we be concerned with the rival voices behind this psalm? For some interpreters this is a key to their exegesis and for others such concerns are peripheral. Does it matter whether we read parts of Psalm 32 as voiced by an anonymous penitent to Christ or a confession from the very lips of David? Does it make a difference whether the latter verses are spoken by Christ or they are a prayer of King David to the faithful of his day? Is it appropriate to read later events into the psalm, such as knowledge of the person of Christ or the penitential practices that evolved in the medieval period? Before attempting to answer these questions we will consider a modern view of the voices that lie behind this psalm.

Susan Gillingham [5] focuses largely on the audience for each of four sections as she suggests the following:

vv.1–2 Instruction in the third person to the community
vv.3–7 God addressed in light of vv.1–2
vv.8–9 God speaks to the psalmist
vv.10–11 The community addressed again (third then second person)

No doubt the reader of this post will already have found which interpreter/s they most warm to, and which seem more distant. We all have a complex array of presuppositions we bring to the text as Barth reminded us above. Listening to diverse interpreters can enable us to see and test our presuppositions. Gillingham [6] argues, by building on the work of H. J. Levine, that there is something positively transformative about recognising that the psalms are at their very heart performative. The identification of speakers and audiences for the various parts of a psalm can enable this performative dynamic in individual and corporate worship. The Psalms transformative potential is perhaps at its most profound when confession is part of the nature of a psalm. This is arguably one of the reasons behind the generative success of the Penitential Psalms.

If we embrace this transformative potential then the prosopological approach is, I think, incredibly valuable. A conscious process of perceiving which words are ours and which are spoken to us can open familiar psalms with a valuable freshness and vitality. It is a secondary matter as to how we fit David, an anonymous author, editors, or even Christ’s voice into such readings. In recognising the performative nature of Psalm 32, we will find ourselves before the God of David who is the God of Lord Jesus Christ, confessing our blessings before a merciful God. As we proceed we will not only remember our blessings but examine how much of the untamed mule lies within. Such instruction is not dusty legalism this is life-giving dialogue of creature with Creator.

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1–2, NRSV)

In light of such blessing let us not keep silent.

References

  1. Cassiodorus, Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990) p.305.
  2. Karl Barth, ‘The Strange New World within the Bible’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man, edited and translated by Douglas Horton (Pilgrim Press, 1928) p.32.
  3. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.391.
  4. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), p.25.
  5. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) pp.195–196.
  6. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) p.196.