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.

Reading the Psalter with Captain America

Yes, an odd title to be sure. It was last summer that I found myself reflecting on the character Captain America in the films collectively known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I know these films well, in part due to my previous publication on the fictional material vibranium [1]. In my moment of reflection I wondered at the similarities between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and the psalmist. This started simply with the thought that both are often judged harshly because of a thirst for righteousness that is all too easily misunderstood as arrogance. Today some readers of the Psalter react negatively to Psalm 1’s call to meditate on God’s torah or instruction. Due to a misunderstanding of torah and its relationship to righteousness as framed in the Bible. This is especially problematic given Psalm 1’s hermeneutical importance at the opening of the Psalter [2] and the psalmist’s ongoing self-understanding as being righteous before God.

Shield

This led to significant further reflection that culminated in a paper. This paper can be downloaded below. Whilst the paper will hopefully interest some readers of this blog (please add a comment below if this proves to be the case) it turned out ill-suited for more formal publication. Importantly for me it has seeded something bigger. It has galvanised some ideas for a book on the Psalter that I have been grappling with for around 5 years, or so. I hope to have more news about this later in 2019.

For now I hope some readers might persevere and see what can happen when we read the Psalter with Captain America. Please click on the text below to download the paper as a pdf.

Rereading the Psalter with Captain America 23rd March 2019 PsalterMark

 

References

  1. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Is it a Ceramic? Is it Graphene? No it’s Vibranium’ pp.93‒110 in The Secret Science of Superheroes (Eds: M. Lorch and A. Miah), London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017.
  2. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (3), 246‒262, 2013.

 

A Glimpse into Ian Stackhouse’s “Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter”

Ian Stackhouse, Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018

This brief post is not really a review, more of a preview, of this book. I know Ian, and I find it difficult to be certain of impartiality regarding a book written by someone I count as a friend.

There are so many books on the psalms; even narrowing the field to the more personal, devotional and reflective genres means there are still tens of rivals to this volume. So it is natural to ask: Does this book offer something fresh? A second sensible question is: Just who are the intended audience? I hope to answer both questions below by describing the form of this book.

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After a very brief Preface and some intriguing Acknowledgements, the book opens with a four-page introduction. Short though this is, it provides a helpful explanation of Stackhouse’s presuppositions and personal context for this personal journey with the Psalms. Despite the brevity of the Introduction, it becomes clear that two paradigms will inform the interpretation of the Psalms in this volume.

The first is something akin to Brueggemann’s typology of function approach which finds that psalms tend to fall into three categories; psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Whilst Brueggemann formalised this interpretive model in terms of modern hermeneutical theory, it is the testimony of psalm readers across three millennia that these poems come to life as the disciple’s life experience fuses with the ‘function’ of the composition. Later in Stackhouse’s book we catch glimpses of the challenging realities of the life of faith which motivated this book’s creation.

The second interpretive approach is less obvious in the book itself but will be important to Stackhouse’s readers. He testifies to the value of engaging with the psalms in canonical order, or seriatim. Anyone who has done just this can echo Stackhouse’s satisfaction with this discipline. Rather oddly, psalms scholars have rediscovered this afresh only in the last thirty years or so—of course the monastic orders never forgot this most natural of approaches.

A third interpretive method emerges in the body of the book, where from-time-to-time, Stackhouse uses David’s life as a lens through which to engage with a psalm—although this approach is only adopted for the small number of psalms that have biographical Davidic headings.

The bulk of the book follows a delightfully simple form. Each psalm has a single page entry. On each page the psalm’s numerical designation is given, along with the form-critical category as per Brueggemann and Bellinger. A selection of one to four verses are quoted from the NIV, although Stackhouse makes it clear he hopes the reader will read the whole of each psalm. This is followed by the real meat of the book, a reflection, typically around 200 words in length. Each reflection is rounded off with a very short prayer.

Once this form is appreciated it becomes apparent how the book is likely to be used. It is not designed to be read in large chunks, but to be savoured like the psalms themselves. In this way, it lends itself to supporting a personal devotional practice of reading one to five psalms per day. I have found it helpful in supporting my personal practice of one psalm per day.

An unexpected aspect of this book’s straightforward personal engagement with the psalms is the invitation to do something similar. These reflections offered by Stackhouse set the bar high for heartfelt articulate testimony to the life-changing ‘grappling in prayer’ that the psalms offer all disciplined disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Afterword or After Z

I hope that readers of this blog have found the recent posts on the Hebrew Bible interesting and informative. My aim was twofold.

Firstly, for Christian readers of the Old Testament my aim was to highlight how the Old Testament is not in some senses the same as the Hebrew Bible. Although the texts are the same, they are arranged differently and even more importantly our presuppositions as a reader transform the texts in terms of their meaning and significance. In this way I regard the Old Testament as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible—in seeing it as such an already initiated trajectory for the texts is continued. This is because, even before Christ the very process of collecting the texts necessitated they be re-read.

Secondly, for the more casual reader with little familiarity with the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament I was hoping that the posts might point to the richness of the Hebrew Bible and the various writings found within. In this way I would be delighted if the reader left my blog in favour of the object which it hopefully signifies.

I hope that the above aims will have worked for some readers of this blog. Like all such enterprises it has various weaknesses. I am sure that the posts betray some of my idiosyncrasies. What is a bigger concern for me, and one I can see all too evidently, is what has been omitted. In putting together the posts with the rather poetic constraint of the A to Z motif, I was conscious that the Hebrew Bible’s Latter Prophets were largely absent. It is possible that I might attempt to remedy the absence of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve at a later date—perhaps another A to Z challenge beckons? For the coming months, however, this blog will return to the more infrequent and normal occasional posting of short contributions centered on the Psalter and the occasional pertinent book review.

 

 

Psalms for the New Year

The Christian life has many challenges. One of the common problems encountered, in our devotional life, is a lack of passion and enthusiasm for finding time to spend in prayer and Bible reading. This malaise rarely appears overnight. More usually it is a slow process helped by a self-deception that does not want to admit that all is not right in our relationship with God.

One way of addressing such a problem is to attempt something new. I cannot claim that the Psalms are in any sense a panacea to address spiritual malaise, but they are a sensible choice. If is not without reason that so many believers have found comfort and sustenance in these songs, prayers and poems.

This New Year why not try something new with the Psalms? It might be worth making the psalms the centre of your devotions, or simply to supplement a more established devotional pattern. The attraction of the Psalms is that they can just as well be used for a season or for a longer period.

Some might find it refreshing to read and reflect on the whole Psalter in a month, or so. This is perhaps rather demanding and not to be undertaken unless a serious amount of time can be given over each day. Others might want to take a more leisurely 150 day pilgrimage. A psalm a day for 5 months. It sounds like a long haul, but it passes with surprising speed. I am strongly of the opinion that reading the Psalms in canonical order has a number of advantages, not least because it seems that there is some purpose in their order (see some previous posts here). The slow journey of a psalm a day is perhaps too slow for those unfamiliar with the Psalms. If you are new to the Psalms then three a day might be better.

My experience with the Psalms has been that ongoing cycling through them is rewarding. Rather than ‘familiarity breeding contempt’ they become a world, a series of familiar prayers and poems. They also retain vitality; frequently a fresh insight is gained or a new depth encountered.

The advantage of starting out with the Psalms afresh in the New Year is of course the simplicity of keeping an eye on ones progress. Whilst legalism is not the normal recipe for escaping the spiritual doldrums, self-deception and a lack of personal accountability are no friends to spiritual recovery either.

Psalms 1 and 2 are both, in very different ways, marvellous prayers to start the New Year. They are arguably nothing less than central parts of the worldview of the Psalter. This worldview will stretch our mind, heart and spirit so that we might learn to see freshly and aright this creation in which we dwell before our gracious creator who imparts life through His word.

The Psalms have a Structure – So What?

In some previous posts we have explored the structure of the Psalter. We have seen that although much scholarship has denied there is a structure within The Psalms there has more recently been recognition that there is evidence of structure at a number of levels. The combination of an overarching structure (macrostructure), the uncontroversial recognition of groups of psalms (mesostructure) and the long-recognised pairing of psalms (microstructure), begs the question ‘so what’? For the moment, we will set aside the question of the motivation of those who collected and edited the psalms and simply think through the implications for using the psalms.

If at every level, the psalms have been selected, ordered and probably edited to give coherence, this implies that the structure needs to be appreciated as part of the reading process. In other words to use a psalm in isolation, whilst not wrong, runs the risk of missing something. For example, Psalm 1 can give a very different impression if viewed in isolation compared to a reading that notes its role at the opening of the Psalter. We will return to Psalm 1 in a later post, but for now we note two observations that temper the stark claims of Psalm 1.

Firstly, the personal certitude displayed in Psalm 1 is immediately questioned by the difficulties and challenges facing the psalmist in the sequence of psalms 3–7.

Secondly, the simplistic (but eschatologically true) view of the righteous and wicked portrayed in Psalm 1 is questioned and revisited in psalms that use the same language and ideas as Psalm 1, for example Psalms 37 and 73.

In short, what is being suggested is that engaging with the psalms is best done by reading them sequentially. This is of course a recognised practice in many different traditions of spirituality. Virtually all religious orders sing/chant the psalms sequentially in an on-going cycle. Many denominations used to, or still do, practice daily psalms singing in services at various times of the day. Regular psalm reading is also part of many formal and less formal Bible reading programmes, old and new.

Such regular and on-going use of the psalms gets to the heart of the central point of Scripture itself. The Scriptures obviously contain useful information, the sort that is essential for defining the Christian faith. More fundamentally, the psalms remind us that to engage with God’s word is an on-going even demanding practice. The point being that they don’t primarily provide information but they enable transformation. A regular reading through the Psalter enables an honesty of emotion and acknowledged life experience, articulated before God. Surely handling our emotional life before God must be central to any mature spirituality? The psalms also, because of their emotional and ‘real’ dynamic, touch our very being so the truths they contain become embedded in our daily beliefs and actions.

These seem to be reasons enough for reading, praying and/or singing regularly through these God-inspired poems and songs.

If the claims above are correct, this is also a challenge as to how we interpret Scripture (hermeneutics). Many modern approaches to hermeneutics function at the level of information, when reading Scripture is more fundamentally about transformation. This might well be a matter we return to in later posts.