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.

Animals in the Psalms

The animals went in two by two

Ever since we had the psalm with the seas and whatever moves in them in the last line (Ps 68/69), I have been thinking about the animals in the psalms, so I went back and had a systematic look; and it’s amazing how many there are. They fall into three main categories : creepy-crawlies, birds, and beasts, which is what you would expect.

Beasts, raging and otherwise

The beasts are the most frequent characters on the scene, and they range from sheep and goats to raging beasts. To be specific, we see bulls, cattle, beasts of the field, calves, the young wild ox, mules, wild asses, oxen and deer. We have boars, lions, rabbits (possibly rock hyraxes, in one translation.  I like hyraxes, we came across them in Africa, and they are like overgrown guinea pigs or small wombats), horses and dogs.  At the exciting end of the spectrum we have lions and raging beasts (as a category in their own right), we have monsters in the sea (Ps 73/74) and monsters to play with (Ps 103/104, clearly my kind of psalmist there), we have a dragon (Ps 90/91) and we have Leviathan .  I’ve included sea creatures here, as there are also unspecified fish and the creatures moving in the deep, who set off this line of inquiry in the first place. Interestingly, we do not have any cats in the Psalms, and I think this is more likely to be a reaction against the importance of cats in Egyptian religion than anything else.

Insects and things that sting

I am also using creepy-crawly as a general term, and including not just gnats, dogflies, worms, moths, good bees and bad bees (interesting), grubs, locusts,  but also frogs, adders and vipers.  I suppose you could make out a case for the fish, dragon and Leviathan fitting better into this category (dragons are loathly worms in Malory and old ballads), but I think scale means they fit better among the beasts.

Feathered creatures

In my third category :  apart from the generic ‘birds of the air’, we have sparrows, swallows, hawks and doves, pelicans (very glad to see them.  I have always had a soft spot for that verse in the Adoro te devote which addresses the Lord as a pelican), storks, owls, young ravens, quail (sadly, only in there for meat, and I think God could have given the Israelites something a little less labour-intensive), eagles and another generic, the ‘birds of heaven’, which is the same thing but in a different translation.

Positive and negative

That’s quite a line-up.  I’m sticking rigidly to the Psalms, because if I try and take in a wider part of the Bible, this would be a book rather than a blog;  but even so, that’s quite a lot of variety and differentiation.  The creatures are all real ones (I include the dragon here, as so many animals have been discovered that the psalmist would not have known about that I think it’s only fair to allow him all the ones he names).  What are they there for?  The birds are usually there as an example of praising God, but also the psalmist describes himself as clamouring and moaning like a dove.  The insects are usually there as a bad thing, reminiscences of the plagues of Egypt; the bees are ambiguous because they produce honey from the comb, which is the sweetest thing that the psalmist can think of to compare to the sweetness of God’s law and the joy of obeying it, so they have a good side, as well as being a stinging danger.

Good and bad animals

The beasts fall into two camps.  Like the birds, they can rejoice in creation and give thanks to God.  Beasts of the field are usually entirely positive, because they are there ‘to serve man’s need’, very much according to the original model at creation.  Horses are usually creatures of war.  A horse in war array was the nearest ancient equivalent to the modern tank, and equally devastating if you were a humble foot-soldier, but the psalmist warns that even if it is on your side,’ a vain hope…is the horse, despite its power it cannot save’, and God is the only real source of victory.

Dogs tend to move in packs (sometimes they are even translated as jackals), and they are a threat to a wounded man or a lone traveller.  This reflects reality even today, particularly in mountainous lonely areas.  Raging beasts are obviously a challenge, but they are often generalised because they are metaphorical.

Men more dangerous than animals

One of the striking things about looking at the animals in the psalms is that it is clear the main threat to the good man is from evil men, and they are the problem that he most often calls to God to help with.  The lion roams about roaring and seeking whom he may devour, but it’s just dangerous, it’s not personal spite (unless it’s a metaphor for the devil).  Evil men lurk and prowl like the lion, but without any metaphor they seek your life, take away your good name, deprive you of any pleasure in life so that you might as well be dead, make plots against you;  and God does not move to protect the victim as quickly or completely as he would like.   This is the free will problem.  People cause trouble, and God can help you to deal with the consequences, but he can’t (unlike Superman) change the fact once happened that a wicked person has done something wicked.  Salvation history in a nutshell.

Animal metaphors

One interesting reference to sheep and goats, since herds were usually mixed, is in Psalm 22/23, where they represent us (also in Ps 73, where we are only sheep with no ambiguity).  Usually they are just there as a sort of chorus line or part of the scenery to show peace and tranquillity.  Lambs are emblems of innocence, sometimes joy,  and patient suffering.  They gambol in the fields or they are sacrificed.  It’s very unsentimental.   On the whole though, the animals in the psalms are there as animals, not as representations of something else.  They reflect real observation and experience.  The psalmists are all observant people, and they see all creation as part of God’s plan, either praising him directly  (even inanimate mountains clapping their hands) or just witnessing to him by existing, like the stars.  The lion stands in for the devil, but then it’s difficult to talk about supernatural beings without metaphor (look at what we do when talking about God).  Mostly, evil men are referred to as precisely that, because they can choose to be evil; the animals are all behaving according to their nature, so they can be dangerous but not sinful.

God the ruler over all

God is described as a ‘mighty man’, a ‘man of war’ (I’m accepting the Canticles as part of my psalm corpus again here).   As they say, God made man in his own image and man has been returning the compliment ever since.  He would not be described as any sort of animal (exceptionally he is ‘like a moth’ in Ps 38/39) because I think that would be regarded as disrespectful, with man seen as so clearly the top of the tree.  (I think the moth simile is allowed because the scale makes it so clear that it is indeed merely a simile, not a real comparison.)  C.S.Lewis embodies Christ as a lion, because he’s thinking in more African terms about the lion as the king of beasts (with the mane like an aureole around his face), but God the Father never actually appears in the Narnia universe; he is a shadowy off-stage figure like the point at which parallel lines meet.  The psalmists’ lion is more of a mountain lion, a big and fearsome lynx-like creature, dangerous but not so impressive, not kingly.  In the psalms, where obviously the emphasis is on the Father rather than the Son, we don’t talk about what he looks like, except in human terms of role (the shepherd, the King, the warrior, the judge).  After all, in Jewish tradition, you never try to portray the Almighty.  He’s always modestly wrapped in a cloud, even in the text.

God’s mighty wings

There is one exception to this though:  the Lord has pinions, has mighty wings, (in some translations, feathers, which is a bit too concrete) with which he shelters and rescues us.  (I think this is why it is always the eagles who sort things out at the end of Tolkien’s stories.) God is never described directly as an eagle in the Psalms.  The eagles are one of the parts of creation that do his bidding, sailing in with supplies for the starving prophet  (sorry, that’s not in Psalms, I’m cheating) or being a metaphor for deliverance.   God has pinions.  ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ is a most comforting verse for many.  But I love the dynamism of ‘he will conceal you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Ps 90/91).  You don’t need the wings of a dove (Ps 54/55) for yourself, if the Lord is there to enfold you in soft warmth and carry you to safety.  But imagine how wonderfully exciting it would be.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.