Psalm 91 (92) : horns, oxen, strength and honour

My horn shalt thou exalt (Ps 91/92:10)

The psalm for this week is one that just keeps on giving.  It starts with  a fine mission statement for the entire Book of Psalms : ‘It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to make music to your name’,   and then goes on to list some musical instruments (which I blogged about before).   Later in the psalm, there is some beautiful tree imagery which nagged at me until I sat down and worked through it on another blog which you can find  here.   But even so I am still worrying away at this week’s psalm because of another group of images and symbols, to do with young wild oxen, horns, vigour, strength and majesty .

Sculpture of ox
Paul Bunyan’s ox as the image of strength
Hunting for an image in places where it’s been taken out

I nearly missed it, because it isn’t in the group of verses which we use this week.   It is interesting because it’s a rather odd image, striking when you first hear it.  However, you will only catch it in some translations, usually the older versions of the psalms, and it doesn’t occur in the Grail translation, which is the base for the verses (as opposed to the Responses) for the UK and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and Canada.  So it comes up in the US settings,  not (usually) in the others in the Sunday Missals, but it is there of course in the Anglican psalter.

How many horns do the Psalms have?

There are about half a dozen psalms where this image of the horn appears, starting with Ps 17/18:2f.  Here is a link , so that you can see how it is present in many different translations.  God is described as ‘the horn of my salvation’, but in the Grail Psalter, this is rendered as ‘my mighty help’.  Next Ps 74/75:11, where God threatens to cut off all the horns of the wicked, but the horns of the righteous will be lifted up (Grail uses ‘power’ and ‘strength’).   Ps 88/89 has two examples : our horn is exalted by God’s favour in v17, and God promises to exalt the horn of the just man in v24 (Grail ‘might’ both times).  Ps 91/92 expresses gratitude ‘for you have exalted my horn like that of a wild ox’ (Grail ‘To me you give the wild ox’s strength’) and so on in Ps 111/112:9 (Grail ‘head’), in Ps 131/132:17 (Grail ‘stock’) and in Ps 148:14 (Grail ‘strength’).

Jesse tree with descendants pictured
The Jesse tree : a ‘stock’ bringing forth the Saviour

It is usually linked to the word ‘exalt’ or ‘exalted’, which was very helpful when looking for examples in the Grail psalter.  It’s hard to prove a negative, and it’s even harder checking references to something that isn’t there!  There are obviously other examples in the Bible, because the metaphor of power can be extended even as far as meaning ‘kingdom’, plus there are the horns of the mythical animals in Daniel and in Revelation, but I’m trying to keep to the Psalms most of the time here.

Stop sniggering there in the back

The meaning is clear, but it’s a tricky metaphor for us in our post-Freudian era.  I think, though I am no Hebrew scholar, that it must be a dead metaphor in Hebrew, not provoking any mental picture of oxen or anything else, the way that people use ‘under way’ with no sense of a ship, or choose an airline seat ‘over the wing’ with no idea of feathers.  That’s why the animals appear only occasionally in the text.

Different ways of handling it

Cruden, in his great Concordance of the Old and New Testaments, says valiantly; ‘[the word ‘horn’] is often used metaphorically to signify strength and honour, because horns are the chief weapons and ornaments of the animals which possess them’, but Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (revised, John Murray 1974) admits that the horn is a phallic symbol, believed to promote fertility, and associates it with pagan religions.  Some translations of the word in the Psalms use the happy chance of a horn also being a musical instrument, and the Aramaic Bible in Plain English offers ‘trumpet of redemption’ as a possible translation, which is effective though a bit heavy, and certainly wouldn’t produce unseemly mirth.  Someone else translates ‘horn of my salvation’ as ‘peak of safety’, on the grounds that many languages use ‘horn’ as a name for a mountain, and of course they do (the Matterhorn is the obvious example).

Great white rhino (endangered)
A two-horn rhino, for purposes of comparison

To go outside the Psalms for a moment, there is evidence in 1 Samuel 2 that it is a dead metaphor if phallic, because Hannah starts her song by saying ‘My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high’ – and she’s a girl.  Usually though, it is God or the righteous man or his enemies who have horns (singular or plural), so I was glad to find the Hannah example.   Jesus himself is described as ‘an horn of salvation for us’ (Luke 2:69) in Zechariah’s Benedictus after the birth of John the Baptist.  That’s the KJV; the new Revised Jerusalem says ‘a saving power’.  It is a shame to lose the image completely, because it is arresting and powerful, more than the abstract nouns which replace it, partly because it does surprise us slightly.

Buffalo at bay
Horns as a display of strength : buffalo
Lots of animals have horns

The animal with the horn(s) varies too, some opting for buffalo, bison or oxen, but the young wild ox is the favourite generally.  By far the best, though, is the unicorn. The early versions of this psalm all use the unicorn (Wycliffe, Coverdale, DouayRheims, Geneva and Luther) and you can find them all here, if you rootle about on the site.   The Scottish metrical psalter has a unicorn, even though the translation is a bit clunky.  The KIng James Bible came out in 1611 and was then the official (so influential) translation.  There this verse is : ‘But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn’, and immediately we have a wonderful image.

Armoured rhino and multi-coloured unicorn
Clear distinction between a rhino and a unicorn

Unicorns are special because they are uni-corns, and this is quite rare in nature (even a rhino has two, though of different sizes), but also because they are unicorns, rare, magical and mythical. Cruden says (but I think this must be the person who revised the Concordance, it doesn’t sound like the man himself),’ This animal is mythical. The word as used in the Bible probably means the wild ox, as the Revised Versions render it’.

Stand up for unicorns

I think we should keep the unicorn.  This is poetry, not the Discovery Channel.  I want the dragons, the Leviathan, and I want the unicorn.  Not those ghastly cutesy rainbow things so popular at the minute, but something like the little white horse in Elizabeth Goudge’s eponymous book, the tragic unicorn in T.H.White’s The Once and Future King or the Licorne in the tapestry, with overtones of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  Unicorns are liminal animals : they have only two feet in this world, and this makes them very powerful as an image.

French unicorn tapestry
The lady and the unicorn, in the final tapestry of the sequence

Unicorns are wild, eerie, potentially dangerous, bringing together the animal and the spiritual.  Only virgins need apply to get near them.  (What does that remind you of?)  There’s a whole package of possible mystical imagery appearing here, and Marina Warner unpacks it deftly in her study of Our Lady, Alone of all her sex,with Christ as the unicorn captivated by his virgin mother (pp 200f).  This takes us some distance away from the original metaphor, but I think anyone would rather be a unicorn than a young wild ox (or a buffalo).

woodcut of maiden with unicorn
Maiden with unicorn, with a less-exalted horn than usual
The Sidney psalter

While I was working on this psalm, I came across, quite by chance, Mary Herbert’s translation of it.  She was Sir Philip Sidney’s sister, and when he died without finishing the translation of the psalms (into a metrical, singable version, like the Scottish Psalter) which they were working on together, she finished it alone.  I can’t find the whole psalm in the public domain on the net, so I’ll just quote this verse :

Fresh oiled I

 Will lively lift my horn,

And match the matchless unicorn:

Mine eye shall spy

My spies in spiteful case;

Mine ears shall hear my foes’ disgrace.

Like cedar high

And like date-bearing tree,

For green, and growth the just shall be.

She presented a copy of the completed version to Elizabeth I in 1599, but the book was not published until much later, because the KJV had the effect of suppressing alternative translations (the Sidney psalter is freer, and uses different metres etc).  It is thought that it had an influence on Tallis and George Herbert (you can see that, even in the verse I quoted), and I’m trying to find out more about it;  watch this space.  I hadn’t even heard of the Sidney Psalter before this; now I am trying to get hold of a copy.  As I said, this psalm just keeps on giving.

Unicorn in round enclosure
The matchless unicorn


©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The trees of the Lord drink their fill (Psalm 103)

The significance of trees

You could see the Bible as a narrative arc starting with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (N.B. two separate trees) in Genesis chapter 2, moving onward to the Tree of the Cross at the (nearly) end of the Gospels, and looking towards the trees of life in Revelation chapter 22, which are many, bear fruit twelve times a year and have healing leaves. Adam and Eve are ejected from paradise in Genesis 2 ff. because they have eaten of the knowledge tree and shown that they can’t be trusted to be obedient, and God is worried that they will next eat from the tree of life and live for ever (Genesis 3:22).  So trees are an integral part of the story right from the beginning.

Christ on cross superimposed on tree in Paradise
Crucifix, tree of knowledge, blond snake,  Adam and Eve. This image is mid-fifteenth century

We feel that trees are important, significant, mysterious; and we are only at the beginning of understanding how they work, and maybe even have systems of communication.   They can be enormous and mysterious, like the great Canadian redwoods and the African podocarpus, or smaller and familiar, like the fruit tree in our garden, but there is always something special about trees.  I feel that slogan about some watch or other is much truer of any tree; you don’t own it, you’re just looking after it for the next generation…..or several.

Trees in the Holy Land

There are only a few species of tree in the psalms, though there are more in the Bible as a whole (think of Noah and the ark made of gopher wood, which I imagine as having attractive stripes like some African woods, though I have no evidence for that at all, I think it’s probably based on Disney chipmunks).  When we think of the bible landscape, it’s not usually forested, though Lebanon is famous for, and identified with, its cedars.  It’s more sort of desert-like, dry and dusty, with lots of stunted bushes and not much shade.  One great thing about the old blockbuster bible films is that the makers were so reverent that they filmed on the spot or as near as they could manage, so our mental pictures are probably fairly accurate.  All the making the desert bloom and orange groves are of much later date.

Singing about trees in the psalms

But there are some trees in the psalms : olive, oak, fig, the mighty cedars, poplars (or maybe willows or aspens), date palms and other fruit trees.  I am sad to say that there are no terebinths mentioned in the psalms.  I’m not sure what sort of tree a terebinth is, but it is a lovely word.  There are references to forests and green valleys, trees near to water.  The psalmists wrote about their real world,  and they refer to trees both literally and metaphorically.  The very first psalm describes the just man as ‘a tree planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season’, but the leaves are described as never fading, so it’s a fantasy as well as metaphorical tree rather than a real one.  The real ones occur in the Creation psalms, and they are often invoked to demonstrate God’s power (and sometimes the strength of his wrath).

The just man…..and the wicked

The just man is like a tree, but so are the unjust, though the point of comparison there is that God will uproot them and burn them up. The wicked are triumphant and tower like cedars of Lebanon in Psalm 36, but then vanish totally and no trace of them is left when the just man next passes by.   I think there are two things going on here.  Trees are the biggest thing that grows, so we are impressed by their size and strength; they live longer than a man.  But when God chooses, he can uproot these mighty things by no more than his voice (the Lord’s voice shattering the cedar, rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare, Ps 28).  God’s power is always mysterious and seen only in its effects.  This is one of the few things we can grasp about the Holy Spirit, as I said before, and the mystery adds to the effect (‘and no-one saw your footprints’  Ps 76).

God creates them and nurtures them, and he has the power to destroy them (his voice shatters the cedars as a divine punishment, Ps 104:33, the violence of the image paradoxically emphasizing the strength of the victim).  Destroying trees is something only God does.  Men may burn pieces of wood and branches, but only God is big enough to handle a tree.   When the wicked attack the great vine in Psalm 79, they burn it with fire, but retribution is swift, and they will perish at the frown of God’s face.  If a tree is strongly planted, with a safe water supply, only God can uproot it, as he does the wicked in psalm 51, ‘but’,  the psalmist adds with blithe self-confidence, ‘I am like a growing olive tree in the house of God’, so we are imagining one of those beautiful courtyards inside the house, green and pleasant.

..and women and children

The neutrality of the image is unusual (trees as both good and wicked men), and slightly surprising.  I think it is another consequence of the appreciation of trees as something much bigger than we are, and therefore hard to pigeonhole.  Both good and bad men can be compared to trees, but women never rank anything bigger than a vine (smaller, need something to lean on, good when they are fruitful, Ps 127).  Children are shoots of the olive, and we want them to flourish like saplings (Ps 143).

A vine can be as big as a tree, indeed can spread to fill all the available space (like Groot in the crisis in Guardians of the Galaxy, with a strong protective instinct leading to self-sacrifice; how myths recur).  The mighty vine in Psalm 79 covers the mountains with its shadow, overtops the cedars and spreads from sea to sea: this is the same vine as in Isaiah 5, but on a huge scale.  It represents the nation of Israel, and it sounds to be equivalent to Yggdrasil.  Maybe women should not repine at being limited to vine metaphors.

Yggdrasil tree with woven roots
Mighty vine with mighty woven Celtic roots
Practical uses of trees

Trees also feature in the psalms as habitats: the birds of the air nest in them,  but an altar can be an even better dwelling place (Ps 83), just as a tent is often the source of shade (Ps 26), because sometimes there aren’t trees when you need them.  Again, we need to read the psalms in their own context.  We think of tents as exotic or at least not a part of everyday life because we are used to trees; but in this desert land, tents are the norm, and trees are something special.  This is one reason why sacrifices are burnt: wood is precious as well as whatever you are sacrificing.  It takes time to grow; this is why a forest fire is shocking.  A man can last eighty years if he is strong (Ps 89), but trees can last much longer.  God can choose to uproot either, ‘swept away, green wood or dry’ (Ps 57).

Trees are valued for their fruit, their sap, their shade and all the things you can make from them : staffs, crooks, pipes, timbrels, two very important types of ark, Noah’s and Moses’.  People celebrate by carrying branches to the altar (Ps 117, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem).  Jesus himself is very clear about what makes a tree valuable, pruning it together with God to make it bear more fruit.  ‘I am the vine and my Father is the vinedresser’  (Jn 15).  He is not happy when he comes across a figtree which bears no fruit (Mk 11, Mtt 21).  The idea of Jesus himself as fruit hanging on the tree of the Cross dates from at least the Middle Ages, considerably antedating ‘Strange Fruit‘, but our shock at that song ought to make us realise how much we have become habituated to the horror of the Cross.

Crucifixion scene on a living tree
Crucifixion on a living green tree
Death on the  Cross, the Tree of Life

Jesus’ cross as the tree of life is the central paradox which brings all the tree images together.  The Armenian cross (and remember Armenia was the first country to become officially Christian) always has buds on the end of the arms of the cross, to show life not death.

Armenian kachqar with ornate cross
The cross sprouting new life from every corner

It’s not the only cut wood with potential for growth in the psalms. ‘O gates, lift high your heads; grow higher, ancient doors,’ chants Psalm 23.  Like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the valley, something fixed and dead becomes alive and dynamic; it can move and stretch.  Resurrection is not limited.  We have just seen in the Pentecost liturgy the power of the Holy Spirit to bring things to life, and because of Jesus and Easter, we can add ‘again’.


I’ve given the standard Grail numbering of the Psalms in this blog, because giving alternatives took up so much room.  For US psalms, just add 1 to the number (not for Ps 1, obviously, but usually).


©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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