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.

One of the best song lyrics ever

By the rivers of Babylon

The middle of Lent is approaching, exciting because it’s the Pink Sunday in the middle of so much purple, because it’s Mothering Sunday, because it’s the one that starts by encouraging us to rejoice;  and also it has Psalm 136/137 as its responsorial Psalm for this year, Year B.

This has to be one of the best song lyrics ever written.  It’s a good length (four verses);  it’s regular without being repetitive or boring;  it’s poignant, but not simply miserable;  and it’s beautiful.  It’s also elegant, witty and self-reflexive: it is a song written about the impossibility of writing a song. It talks about the impossibility of singing, while singing.

Initial S with illustration for Ps 137 - the best song lyric
By the rivers of Babylon, hanging harps and tragic captives
The two verses we leave out

There are two more verses, which are usually omitted in performance, as you might say.  The first one is a curse against those who attacked Jerusalem, to pull it down; the second amplifies the curse and warns Babylon that vengeance is coming, climaxing in a truly horrific image of the child of the guilty man being seized and dashed against the rock.  I’m not going to speculate about whether these verses are part of the original psalm, as I don’t have the linguistic tools or the expertise.  I would just say that this was written in a time very different and remote from our own, in a culture where cursing your enemies and seeking violent vengeance was accepted, expected and even virtuous.  Jesus showed a different way, for which we are deeply grateful.  But you can’t edit bits out of a historic text just because you don’t like them.  However, you can choose which bits to use in the liturgy, so it’s fair enough to stop after the four verses we have for Sunday.

Unusual shape for a psalm

The form is really unusual.  It has  five short lines to each verse, and the UK Response has such a strong ternary movement that it is written as three lines in the Missal (I think this is unique among the psalms).  The Response has an exclamation mark, which is again unusual, but intended to show strong feeling (which, as the words are a self-curse, is also arresting).  The line of the verses looks short, but in fact it rolls on like a great wave, with the parallelism  (‘our captors, for songs; our oppressors, for joy’) that is so strong a feature of the psalms here deepening the feeling and accumulating it until the wave breaks into the response.  It reminds me of the movement of the lines in ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ when you suddenly realise that each seven-line stanza is only one sentence (a wonderful piece of hymn translation).

It’s a perfect lyric because it is attractive in both shape and content, and you can see immediately why so many people have wanted to set it to music.  Presumably some are attracted more by the form than the matter, and vice versa, but the whole is irresistible to musicians.  From Palestrina to Don Maclean, from Victoria to Boney M, it calls out to be set to a good tune, and the tune we make never fulfils all our aspirations, so we have to keep trying.

Singing a sad song

Unlike many psalms, though, it is only rarely used in the liturgy (this is its one outing as a Sunday psalm, so only once every three years).  I think this is because it is painful to sing.  It is a lament.  Crucially, it is in the past tense, so we are looking back at past rather than undergoing present suffering, and I think this is because it would be unbearable if it were in the present tense.  As well as a lament, it is a prayer for survival.  We are reminded of the Jewish orchestra in Terezin concentration camp.  Singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land has been a part of the Jewish experience for centuries.  As it says in the Book of Tobit,’I give him thanks in the land of my captivity'(ch 13).  The paradox of making a song to renounce music is itself comforting.  If we were not able to look back at the experience from a better place, we would not be able to address it at all.

Setting the scene : water and trees

The words are immediately gripping, and we identify with them so simply that it’s easy to miss how clever they are.  ‘By the (rivers or waters) of Babylon/there we sat and wept, remembering Zion’, and we are immediately there in the story, remembering, or imagining, if we are lucky,  how it feels to be desolate.  The waters of Babylon remind the psalmist of the beloved and blessed river Jordan, but the setting is also somewhere which should be a place of pleasant repose: ‘near restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit’ (Psalm 22/23) and every locus amoenus has a water feature.  River banks are green and pleasant places.

Narcissus by a piscina
Water, trees, and greenery : must be a locus amoenus

Here are also trees, and it was only when I came to think about this that I realised that I think of them as weeping (of course) willows, because that’s what I associate with rivers.  These are poplars, because that’s what grows in the Holy Land, but apparently ones that look like willows, according to the Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible.  Job has willows by the stream (40, v.22) which are also translated as poplars.  It seems that foreign tree names are as tricky to translate as exact species of fish.  The US translation has aspens. When I was little, reading Anne of Green Gables in an English edition, one of the later volumes was called Anne of Windy Willows.  I felt cheated to discover it was Anne of Windy Poplars in the US and Canada, but I reckon this is another case of the same overlap.

Willows on the riverbank
Willows (or poplars, or aspens) by the water

The trees are where the harps are hung….and left behind.  This is a total renunciation of music, and goes with the awful self-curses which make up the Response.  Remember, this is in a culture where every joyful event, every victory, is marked by singing a new song.  Here though, my tongue should cleave (CAN cling) to my mouth, I should be unable ever to sing or even speak, and my right hand, the one I use to play, should wither and be of no further use.  I shall not need my harp, so I hang it on a tree (I don’t destroy it, because others might be able to use it) and I leave it behind.  Rivers mark borders as well as resting places.

Musical instruments hung on a tree
Hanging up all sorts of instruments
Not silence but silenced

The idea of silencing people is a terrifyingly powerful act.  That is why the protests where people sew up their mouths are especially horrific.  Even a taped mouth produces a visceral fear in the onlooker.  It seems even worse than gagging, because it obliterates the means of communication (remember that bit in The Matrix, where Neo’s mouth is removed).  Taking away someone’s voice is a sign of complete hostile power (the legend of Philomela, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the Church’s attitude to female voices singing or speaking until very lately).  This is why speech therapists are so important, and why what they do has so much impact.

What had happened before the psalm was written

The link between the First Reading and the chosen psalm this week is particularly clear.  The first reading tells the history of the destruction of the Temple and the whole of Jerusalem, with Nebuchadnezzar carrying the survivors off to Babylon and into captivity,  but ends on a note of hope as Cyrus, in a voice like a bugle, says that God has ordered the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem.  He continues,’Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him!  Let him go up.’  This would truly be a situation full of joy,  and therefore, naturally,  songs of joy. ‘I will come to the altar of God, the God of my joy.  My redeemer, I will thank you on the harp, O God, my God’ (Ps 42/43).

Jerusalem the other character in the story

Zion or Jerusalem is lovingly named in every verse, in the context of remembering, not forgetting, or singing.  The song itself does what it is talking about not being able to do, and the tenses move from a simple dreadful past (sat and wept, hung up our harps) to a past conditional (how could we sing) and then pivots towards the future: ‘if I forget…if I prize not Jerusalem’.  The psalmist moves from renunciation to a determination to keep the song going, and prays only for the physical capacity to do so, for the memory to stay green.  Like Henley’s Invictus, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, who specifically rejects ‘eternal silence’, this perfect lyric is a testimony to the unquenchable human spirit, so it never goes out of fashion.  From the ashes of desolation arises a strong determination never to give up, never to stop singing.


© 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.