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: As Stubborn as a Mule

Dissecting Butterflies
Have you ever sat through someone else’s holiday photographs? It is rarely an edifying experience. Have you ever heard someone waxing lyrical about an event that you never experienced? It is difficult to draw any excitement from someone else’s experience. Something is lost in translation as we hear of experiences second-hand. Even as the person with first-hand experience of an exciting event we only have our memory.

Later we might struggle to remember the feelings, the emotion, pathos, or adrenaline, depending on the performance we are thinking of. This is of course part of the reason why Jesus uttered the words, “Do this in remembrance of me”.

The same challenge is true of the psalms. They are prayers, poems, and songs. Prayers function properly when prayed. Poems are at their best when performed. Songs are made for gathering together.

In this sense preaching a psalm is only an hors d’oeuvre, a starter, a taster, an invitation to do something with the psalm in question. Trying to distil the propositional truth from any psalm, or any piece biblical poetry—including the Prophets of the First Testament and Jesus’ teaching in the Second Testament—is akin to dissecting a butterfly to show how beautiful it was in flight.

The stakes are higher with the Bible. The power of praying goes beyond the best theatre, concert, or sport. As God-breathed, the Bible does not just work at an emotional level it has transformative potential. It works through the Spirit and in Christ to save, and to sanctify—to make us more like Jesus Christ.

Blessed and Happy
Psalm 32 as prayer, song, and poem, opens with two verses that start with the word ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, depending on the English translation. Or as the New Living Translation puts it:

Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!

Psalm 32:1–2, NLT

The very first psalm, the one that sets the ball rolling in the Book of Praises, starts with the same Hebrew word, ’ašrê. There the imagery of a tree planted by streams of water reminds us that not only are we blessed and happy in Christ, but we are places where God’s grace is at work, where others can find the living water that Jesus promised, and the fruitfulness of being rooted in Christ.

Psalm 119 also starts off with the same idea of double blessing as Psalm 32. There is an English saying about counting your blessings. There’s even a hymn that tells us to do this:

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done.

Johnson Oatman, 1897

Whilst counting our blessings, in one sense, is a sensible response to all the wonderful things that God has given us in creation and in our lives, the blessing in Psalm 32 is of a different level. The double blessing here is the most basic happiness, blessing, and joy, that we can experience, because it enables life to be lived to the full—here and now. More than that, it is the foundation of a relationship with the living God and therefore our future life too. It is the knowledge of sin and guilt taken away by God.

Most of us will remember the joy described here, that of our first taste of forgiveness. This joy, that comes from having no barriers between us and God, is not meant to be a one-off event. Such joy, that comes through faith and forgiveness, is the central plank of a relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ. If we do not have this forgiveness there is no relationship for us to deepen. As with a human relationship, trust and faith are essential not just for growth but for survival.

Illness and Sin
Before the psalmist experienced the blessing, happiness, and joy captured poetically on a scroll, they were in a dark place. The natural sense of this psalm is that the psalmist—the heading encourages us to see David as the psalmist—experienced illness. An illness summed up as ‘wasting away’ and experiences that led to ‘groaning’:

When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

Psalm 32:3–4, NLT

Perhaps it is metaphorical language? Is it possibly the language of anxiety or fear? Perhaps it is a psychosomatic illness arising from fear of God? Or is it old age or a virus? All of these are plausible when we look at other penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) as a group. It is also apparent that the psalmist links their emotional or physical illness with sin.

Sin can be the cause of both emotional and physical illness, but this is not the same as suggesting that all ailments can be explained in this way. Nor that we should be quick to make such judgements. The Book of Job warns against such missteps.

An important point is raised here—the same point raised by Hebrews 12. Do we moderns, or post-moderns, still have an openness to being disciplined as God’s children? Do we ever stop for a minute to ask such a question? The psalmist is in no doubt, on this occasion, that they learned the need to repent of sin from an experience of lack of blessing, happiness, and joy. The author of Hebrews tells us to learn discipline from God as his children:

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Hebrews 12:4–6, NIV [Quoting Proverbs 3:11–12 LXX]

Our first thoughts, and our first prayers, look to deliverance from every ill from the trivial to the severe. There is nothing wrong with this being our first thought and prayer, and of course God in his mercy can deliver. But what if there is something to be learned from our affliction?

I confess I do not entirely like this idea. It is, however, too much of the fabric of the Bible to be ignored. Paul has a struggle, a ‘thorn in his flesh’ (2 Cor. 12:7), that he wanted gone but God saw fit to discipline him through it. The beatitudes in Luke 6 and Matthew 5—sayings of happiness, blessing, and joy turn the notions of blessing on its head. The beatitudes celebrate being poor in spirit, weeping, and being persecuted.

Praying the Psalms
This is exactly why we need the psalms. In praying them we find ourselves praying differently to the one-dimension prayer we default to—the dreaded shopping list prayer.

The psalms are tantalising snapshots of all manner of the type of conversations that we can experience with God. We can find new things to say and we can hear new things in return, when we open up to them. Though they can appear to be hard work at times, they have famously been understood as a school of prayer by spiritual giants such as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, and more recently Eugene Peterson. If they are a school perhaps, we should not be surprised that they are hard work. Why would we be surprised that being a disciple should require discipline?

Learning prayer from the Bible helps us avoid two errors in prayer. One of these errors is the praise of self rather than God. This is what prayer becomes when it is the wish list, or shopping list, of what we want. The second error avoided by using the Psalms, and other biblical prayers, is the vacuum of no prayer which we sometimes find ourselves in.

As Stubborn as a Mule
One of the challenges of the psalms is how they switch between ideas, images, and moods. A good practice in praying a psalm is to ask the question, “Who is saying this verse?”. Verses 8 and 9 come across as being spoken by God himself. Now we might expect that God has some nice words with which the psalmist is inspired at the close of the psalm. Not so much. Instead God says:

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.

Psalm 32:8–9, NRSV

God is reminding us that we are as stubborn as mules, we are sinners despite also being saints through Christ.

We are all asses when it comes to walking with God, praying, and especially staying close to God by confessing our sin. Or perhaps it is just me?

As the proverb says, ‘You can lead a horse, or a mule, to water but you cannot make it drink’. So, it is over to you. What will you do with Psalm 32? How can you experience it for yourself?

Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton

Having actively prayed and studied the Psalms regularly for more than fifteen year, I have been meaning to read Merton’s small book for much of that time. For some reason, his work has taken a long time to work its way to the top of my reading list. This is odd because this book has been mentioned to me positively on a number of occasions.

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was an American Cistercian. Unusually for a twentieth century monk he become a household name in the late 1940 to late 1960s. This fame was in part because he was a prolific writer—author of more than fifty books. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain (1948), is said to have motivated many young Americans to turn to the monastic life. He was also a poet and social activist—his writings often reflected the latter. He was very active in dialogue with followers of Eastern religions with a strong meditative and mystical dynamic. In this respect he was a pioneer, as few Catholic monks had ever attempted such wide-ranging and open-ended interfaith discussions.

It will be clear as you pick this book up, from its diminutive size and mere 45 pages, that it is not going to be a thoroughgoing introduction to the Psalter. So, what do we find in these pages?

The book opens with the question, ‘Why has the Church always considered the Psalms her most perfect book of prayer?’ (p.7). His answer is a one of ressourcement. He argues that rather than being old they are young: ‘we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection’ (p.7). Because of this the psalms are the means to full participation in the liturgy and the deepening of the interior life (p.9).

The next section considers what it means that the Psalms teach us how to praise (p.10). He concludes that this requires us to be simple, that is to set aside our modern tastes and prejudices and to ‘be, to some extent, “Orientals”’ (p.12). He goes on to explain, following Augustine, that we are united with Christ as we pray the psalms contemplatively (p.14). He then develops this further, calling all Christians, clergy and lay, to use the Psalms daily (pp.15–19).

Merton claims that few really appreciate the psalms. This

small minority, consists of those who know by experience that the Psalms are a perfect prayer, a prayer in which Christ prays in the Christian soul uniting that soul to the Father in Himself. They have entered into the Psalms with faith. They have in a sense “lived” out the meaning of some of the Psalms in their own lives. They have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet. Or, indeed, they have been privileged to share with Him the chalice of His Passion (p.21).

The latter half of the book briefly examines some key psalms. Merton gives priority to Psalm 1 because he sees the call to delight in the law (Psalm 1:2) as a call to pray the Psalter. Other psalms are mentioned in groups which accord to their mood and approximate to form-critical groups.

Finally, we must ask, what value is there in reading this short book? For anyone already convinced of the spiritual value of the Psalms this book does little more than rehearse in eloquent outline what they already know. It will be valuable to those who have an interest in Merton or still need convincing of the spiritual value of the Psalms today.