I have an admission to make: I’ve always found poetry really hard, and I don’t read it for pleasure. I blame it on leadenly bad English teaching at school, and the historian’s training in evidence, logical argument and clear expression rather than intuition and artistry. But there are the Psalms. Every day, I read and pray them, and they do get under your skin, and they are poetry.
Today’s daily eucharistic psalm is 110, which has the glorious verse 3: In the beauty of holiness have I begotten you, like dew from the womb of the morning. But then it goes on to some very nasty verses about the vengeance to be wreaked on the ‘nations’ and a strange final verse (7): He will drink from the stream by the path; therefore he will lift up his head.
Curious about v. 7, I looked up some commentaries. It may be about refreshing yourself in the midst of battle. It could be a reference to a coronation ceremony, like Solomon’s at the spring of Gihon in the Kidron Valley. Or it might not be about water at all. And so on.
Inevitably, my eyes strayed to commentary on v.3 No one knows how to translate it definitively. ‘From the womb of the dawn you will receive the dew of your youth’ (NIV). Or ‘from the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth shall come to you‘ (NRSV). Does this mean young warriors are going to join him? Does God have a womb? (Yes and no, says Augustine; it’s a bit like his ‘bosom’.) Is it all about the Messiah? Or Jesus?
Of course, the beautiful verse 3, which I had grasped at once on first reading, is now opaque to me. It reminds me of the story about Lord Birkenhead, the inter-war lawyer and statesman. A judge responded to a long speech he had made in court, ‘”I have listened to you for over an hour and I do not think I am any the wiser”. “No, my Lord, ” Birkenhead quipped, “but perhaps better informed”.