July 11, 2014

Voices of Faith: A sparrow ‘alone on a housetop’— Thoughts?

Misery pours from from Psalm 102, and even an image of a sparrow alone above contributes to it … and is it really a sparrow?

The Rev. Betty Hanna-Witherspoon, Ebenezer A.M.E. Church: This verse, Psalm 102:7, has a notation in the New Living Translation, “A prayer of one overwhelmed with trouble, pouring out problems before the Lord.”

The notation predisposes me to step into the anguish of an individual; one who is, perhaps, filled with despair. The urgency of this prayer makes me think that there were previous prayers.

Now the psalmist says to God “don’t turn away … bend down … my heart is sick.” All of this hurt and despair he wraps in verse seven’s image of a lone and alone bird, without the comfort of mate or flock; unable to sleep and therefore, unable to rest, be restored or renewed.

Furthermore, this bird is atop a roof, his pain exposed to the world. Other translations picture this bird as a sparrow. The loneliness of a spirit without peace, of anguish when God is not responding to prayer are not affected by the translations. The feelings in both cases easily connect to our experiences.

Despite the notation that this is an individual’s prayer, the psalmist turns from his concerns to concerns for the restoration and rebuilding of God’s people in the 12th verse.

Is the psalm a merging of two prayers, one a lament and the other a prayer of reassurance that God’s goodness will prevail?

Is the psalmist saying to us that even in the most troubled separated moments from God, there will come a time when “He (God) will listen to the prayers of the destitute, He will not reject their pleas”?

Rabbi Mark H. Levin, founder of Congregation Beth Torah: Translating to discover original meaning of many verses in the Bible is often fraught with difficulty. This is among those texts.

Verse seven (of Psalm 102) is consistent with the dismal suffering of the speaker from the opening of the psalm. He lies awake, painfully regarding his physical deterioration and the triumph of his enemies.

The Hebrew word in verse seven, translated in the King James version and some others as sparrow, actually primarily means “bird” in the Hebrew. There are places, like Psalm 84:4, where all translations have sparrow for that same word. But that meaning is not likely here.

The previous verse also uses bird images: owls and vultures, negative images notably sitting painfully alone. This bird watches from atop a roof, anxiously wandering and contemplating his isolated existence, no family to accompany his sorrow, while the author’s enemies contemplate their victory and his bitter quandary.

The Hebrew word for “alone” in verse seven is a scribal error, confusing two Hebrew letters. It should have said “wandering on a housetop.” The Aramaic translation preserves the original.

There is no poetic aloneness here. Just a human suffering physically, mentally and spiritually before his enemies.

The psalmist compares his situation to Israel’s desolation, possibly in exile. He praises God’s dominion, and appeals for Israel’s restoration. He compares Israel’s desolation to his own, and prays for restoration.

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