Psalm 102:3-7

3. For my days are consumed like smoke 1 and my bones are burnt up as a hearth. 24. My heart is smitten, and withered like grass, because I have forgotten to eat my bread. 5. By reason of the voice of my groaning, my bones cleave to my flesh. 36. I have become like a pelican 4 of the wilderness; I have become like an owl 5 of the deserts. 7. I have watched, and have been like a sparrow which is alone upon the house-top. 6


3. For my days are consumed like smoke. These expressions are hyperbolical, but still they show how deeply the desolation of the Church ought to wound the hearts of the people of God. Let every man, therefore, carefully examine himself on this head. If we do not prefer the Church to all the other objects of our solicitude, we are unworthy of being accounted among her members. Whenever we meet with such forms of expression as these, let us remember that they reproach our slothfulness in not being affected with the afflictions of the Church as we ought. The Psalmist compares his days to smoke, and his bones to the stones of the hearth, which, in the course of time, are consumed by the fire. By bones he means the strength of man. And, were not men devoid of feeling, such a melancholy spectacle of the wrath of God would assuredly have the effect of drying up their bones, and wasting away their whole rigor.

4. My heart is smitten, and dried up like grass. Here he employs a third similitude, declaring that his heart is withered, and wholly dried up like mown grass. But he intends to express something more than that his heart was withered, and his bones reduced to a state of dryness. His language implies, that as the grass, when it is cut down, can no longer receive juice from the earth, nor retain the life and rigor which it derived from the root, so his heart being, as it were, torn and cut off from its root, was deprived of its natural nourishment. The meaning of the last clause, I have forgotten to eat my bread, is, My sorrow has been so great, that I have neglected my ordinary food. The Jews, it is true, during their captivity in Babylon, did eat their food; and it would have been an evidence of their having fallen into sinful despair, had they starved themselves to death. But what he means to say is, that he was so afflicted with sorrow as to refuse all delights, and to deprive himself even of food and drink. True believers may cease for a time to partake of their ordinary food, when, by voluntary fasting, they humbly beseech God to turn away his wrath, but the prophet does not here speak of that kind of abstinence from bodily sustenance. He speaks of such as is the effect of extreme mental distress, which is accompanied with a loathing of food, and a weariness of all things. In the close of the verse, he adds, that his body was, as it were, consuming or wasting away, so that his bones clave to his skin.

6. I have become like a pelican of the wilderness. Instead of rendering the original word by pelican, some translate it bittern, and others the cuckoo. The Hebrew word here used for owl is rendered by the Septuagint nuktikorax, which signifies a bat. 7 But as even the Jews are doubtful as to the kind of birds here intended, let it suffice us simply to know, that in this verse there are pointed out certain melancholy birds, whose place of abode is in the holes of mountains and in deserts, and whose note, instead of being delightful and sweet to the ear, inspires those who hear it with terror. I am removed, as if he had said, from the society of men, and am become almost like a wild beast of the forest. Although the people of God dwelt in a well cultivated and fertile region, yet the whole country of Chaldea and Assyria was to them like a wilderness, since their hearts were bound by the strongest ties of affection to the temple, and to their native country from which they had been expelled. The third similitude, which is taken from the sparrow, denotes such grief as produces the greatest uneasiness. The word rwpu, tsippor, signifies in general any kind of bird; but I have no doubt that it is here to be understood of the sparrow. It is described as solitary or alone, because it has been bereaved of its mate; and so deeply affected are these little birds when separated from their mates, that their distress exceeds almost all sorrow. 8

1 Hammond reads, "My days are consumed in the smoke." "The Syriac," says he, "read, in smoke, and so the sense will best bear, either my days or time of my life, wlk, consume and wither in smoke, as Psalm 119:83, a bottle in the smoke, afflictions have had the same effect on me as smoke on those things which are hung in it, dried me up, and deformed me: or perhaps wlk, end or fail, or consume in smoke, (as when any combustible matter is consumed, smoke is all that comes from it, and so it ends in that;) and to that the latter part of the verse may seem to incline it, 'And my bones, or members, or body, are burnt up,' that being all one with consumed."

2 Hammond reads, "are burnt up as dry wood." "As for dqwmk, that is added," says he, "the interpreters differ in the understanding of it. The word coming from dqy, accensus est, may be either the place where the fire is, or the pot which is heated by the flame of the fire, or the wood which is set on fire. The Syriac seems to take it in the first notion, rendering it, 'my bones are grown white as the hearth,' for so the chimney or hearth doth with the fire constantly burning on it. The Chaldee reads, 'as one of the stones that is set under the pot or caldron.' But the LXX. read, wJsei> fru>cion, 'as dry wood,' and the Latin, sicut cremium, 'as dry combustible wood,' and that is most applicable to the matter in hand; the bones or members of the body, their being burnt up as dry wood denotes the speedy exhausting of the radical moisture, which soon ends in the consumption of the whole. And then the whole verse fitly accords, 'My days are withered away in the smoke,' or perhaps 'end in smoke, my bones are burnt up like dry wood.'"

3 "Tienent a ma peau." -- Fr. "Cleave to my skin." Flesh is more literal; but see Psalm 119:120, and Job 19:20.

4 The pelican is a bird of the desert, to which frequent allusion is made by the sacred writers. Its Hebrew name taq, kaath, literally means, the vomiter, being derived from the verb awq, ko, to vomit. It has a large pouch, or bag, suspended from its bill and throat, which serves both as a repository for its food, and as a net for catching it. In feeding its young ones, whether this bag is loaded with water, or more solid food, it squeezes the contents of it into their mouths, by strongly compressing it upon its breast with its bill, an action which might well explain the origin of the name given to it by the Hebrews. It is a bird of solitary habits, and is said by Isidore to live "in the solitude of the river Nile:" indeed, it generally builds its nest in mossy, turfy places, in the islands of rivers or lakes, far from the abode of man. It is here described as living in the wilderness, a circumstance not inconsistent with its natural fondness for water; for lakes, as well as fountains, are to be found in the most desert parts. And although a water-fowl, it sometimes retires to a great distance from the water, where, in some remote and concealed situation, it may hatch its young with greater security. Its huge pouch, which is said to be capable of containing near the size of a man's head, seems to be given to it for the purpose of its being provided with a supply of food for itself and its young ones when at a distance from the water. Bochart thinks that taq, kaath, here means the bittern. His chief reason for this opinion is, that the Psalmist compares himself to the two birds specified, on account of his groaning, and that, therefore, both of them should have a mournful cry. But he finds that natural historians make no mention of this as a property of the pelican, whereas they all agree that the bittern, by inserting its bill in the mud of the marsh, or plunging it under water, utters a most disagreeable cry, like the roaring of a bull, or the sound of distant thunder. But the Psalmist may not so much compare his groaning to the plaintive cry of these birds, as compare his situation to their solitary condition. Sorrow, when pungent, drives the sufferer to solitude, and, on this occasion, the inspired bard, under the overwhelming pressure of grief, seems to have become weary of society, and, like the pelican, or the owl, to have contracted a relish for deep retirement. Shaw's Travels, volume 2, page 302; Paxton's Illustrations of Scripture, volume 2, pages 247-250.

5 The owl, it is highly probable, is the bird here intended. The original word owk, kos, which is evidently derived from the verb hok, kasah, to hide, is applied, with much propriety, to denote that bird, which constantly hides itself in the day-time, and comes abroad only in the evening, or at night. owk, kos, is followed in construction by twbrx, charaboth, which comes from brx, charab, to be destroyed, or laid waste; (Isaiah 60:12; Jeremiah 26:8; Zephaniah 3:6) and signifies a waste or desolate place, as the ruins of an uninhabited house. The proper translation, then, should be, not the owl of the desert, but the owl of the desolate or ruined buildings, which exactly corresponds with the habits of this bird; for such ruinous places, as is well known, are its ordinary haunt, where, in undisturbed solitude, it may utter its melancholy howlings. The allusion in Gray's celebrated Elegy may illustrate the language of the text, --

"Save that from yonder ivy mantled tower,
The moping owl does to the night complain," etc.

The habit of the owl in shunning the light of day, and delighting in solitude, well describes the sensitiveness with which the Psalmist, through the greatness of his grief, shrunk from society, and courted seclusion. Bochart contends that owk here signifies, not the owl, but the ostrich, and, if the Psalmist is comparing himself to the two birds specified, on account of his groaning, this seems to favor that translation; for the female ostrich has a most dismal and mournful voice, very much resembling the lamentation of a human being in deep distress. But, as has been before observed, the Psalmist seems to refer, not so much to the mournful voice of these birds, as to their solitary condition.

6 There is here a reference to the flat roof of the eastern houses, a usual place of retirement, in ancient times, and even at this day, to the inhabitants of these countries.

7 "La translation Grecque ha Nicticorax qui est Chauvesouris." -- Fr.

8 Although Calvin expresses himself as having no doubt that the sparrow is here intended, the most eminent expositors are of a different opinion, contending that it is difficult to reconcile with the nature of the sparrow the ideas of wakefulness and solitude which the Psalmist represents as characteristic of the bird to which he compares himself. The sparrow is not a solitary moping bird which sits mournfully on the housetop, nor so timid as to betake itself to the darkest corners for concealment, and to spend the live long night in sleepless anxiety. It is gregarious, is commonly found chirping and fluttering about in the crowd, a pert, loquacious, and bustling creature, and builds its nest in the habitations of men. Every part of the description leads to the supposition that some nocturnal bird is to be understood, which from instinct hates the light, and comes forth from its hiding-place only when the shadows of the evening fall to hunt its prey, and from amidst the fragments, of some mouldering ruin to attract the attention of mankind by its mournful voice. Accordingly, it has been thought that the Psalmist refers to some species of the owl, distinguished for its plaintive cry and solitary disposition. -- Paxton's Illustrations of Scripture, volume 2, pages 355-357. "But," says Merrick, "as chos, mentioned in the preceding verse, seems also to signify an owl, we are perhaps to suppose two sorts of owls intended, one of which confines itself to deserts or ruinous places, and the other sometimes approaches cities or villages, and according to Virgil's description, (which Bochart quotes as conformable to that of the Psalmist,) sits alone on the house-top.

'Solaque culminibus ferali carmine bubo Visa queri, et longas in fletum ducere voces.' Æneid, lib. 4. 50. 462.

I doubt whether the Psalmist would in two verses together compare his situation to that of the very same bird, with no other difference than that of its sitting in the desert in one verse, and on the house-top in the other." Bochart thinks that the screech-owl is intended. The reason which Calvin assigns for the sparrow being called solitary, namely, because of the extreme sorrow which she feels when deprived of her mate, does not agree with the natural history of that bird; for, unlike the turtle, who, on losing her spouse, remains in a state of inconsolable widowhood, she accepts without reluctance the first companion that solicits her affections.


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