From Psalm 102:

  1. Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come before you; *
    hide not your face from me in the day of my trouble.
  2. Incline your ear to me; *
    when I call, make haste to answer me,
  3. For my days drift away like smoke, *
    and my bones are hot as burning coals.
  4. My heart is smitten like grass and withered, *
    so that I forget to eat my bread.
  5. Because of the voice of my groaning *
    I am but skin and bones.
  6. I have become like a vulture in the wilderness, *
    like an owl among the ruins.
  7. I lie awake and groan; *
    I am like a sparrow, lonely on a house-top.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 102:1-7 [BCP version] – May 25, 2012)

These three similes – I am like a vulture in the wilderness; I am like an owl in the ruins; I am like a lonely sparrow – intrigue me. They are metaphors of solitude but worse than solitude, of loneliness, of being completely cut off. ~ The word translated as “vulture” in the NRSV is qa’ath; older translations rendered this as “pelican”. According to the lexicon the word signifies “a ceremonially unclean bird”, but the lexicon admits that the exact meaning of the ancient Hebrew is unknown. The root of the word is qow’ which means “to vomit”. From some bit trivia learned long ago, I recall that vultures defend themselves with intentional projectile vomiting. The simile depicts one so distraught , so distressed, so stricken that she keeps others away, spewing her grief onto those who would comfort her. ~ The Hebrew word translated as “owl” is kowc: owls also are ritually unclean birds. The lexicon tells us that it is “from an unused root meaning to hold together.” This simile perhaps suggests the same thing as the English phrase “barely holding it together”; amidst the waste and devastation of his life, the psalmist is barely holding on, hanging from his last thread, unable to handle one more thing even a small expression of sympathy and support without “losing it altogether.” ~ In the third simile, the psalm uses the word tsippowr, here translated as “sparrow” although more generically it simply means “bird”. This simile holds out hope where the others do not. The same word is used by prophet Ezekiel to paint a picture Jesus will later use as an encouragement to faith: “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant [a cedar], in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” (Ezek. 17:23) Jesus will change the cedar to a mustard tree and promise that even the smallest amount of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, can accomplish miracles. (Matt. 13:31-32; Matt. 17:20) For the lonely sparrow on the house-top there is the hope of flocking with others in tree planted by the Lord; for the lonely sparrow there is the hope provided by faith. ~ The rest of the morning psalm expresses that hope. The psalmist acknowledges gratefully that God “will look with favor on the prayer of the homeless; he will not despise their plea” and “their offspring shall stand fast in [God’s] sight.” No matter how cast out, unclean, despairing, or distraught, even the vulture and the owl, together with the sparrow, can come and make nests in the branches of the tree planted by God.