It is a distinctly American expression, probably because the gray catbird is a North American bird. Catbirds like to sit in the highest branches of the trees to sing and display. The expression has come to mean being in a superior or advantageous position. One of the first uses found is in a story by James Thurber in which he talks about a batter in a baseball game being “in the catbird seat” with three balls and no strikes.
You know the problem with being “in the catbird seat?” You can get a little too sure of yourself. Obadiah prophesied against the nation of Edom, a country full of mountains, whose inhabitants lived high above any who would try to attack their nearly impregnable rocky dwellings. The pride of your heart has deceived you, O you who dwell in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; who says in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground? Though you mount on high as the eagle, and though your nest be set among the stars, I will bring you down from there, says Jehovah, Oba 1:3,4.
The Edomites, though they were brothers of the Israelites through their father Esau, had forgotten that Jehovah made those very mountains they counted on. That meant that He could destroy them with a word if He were of a mind to, and He was. The Edomites were subject to Israel off and on throughout history, and were finally run out of their land completely by the Nabataeans.
It is easy for us to perch ourselves high above others and “display.” Like the Jews in John 8, we want to boast of our spiritual heritage and our quest to follow the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We are Abraham's seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man: how do you say, You shall be made free? John 8:33.
They bring it up again in verse 39 and Jesus answers, If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham. Abraham would have denounced them all. What would he say to us, who are supposed to be “Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise?” Gal 3:29, when pride causes us to place ourselves above the rest of the religious world as if we were more deserving of salvation. Jesus warns, For everyone that exalts himself shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted, Luke 14:11. Just like those Edomites of old, God can bring us down off that catbird seat.
He can do that because that is where He dwells. Jehovah is exalted; for he dwells on high: he has filled Zion with justice and righteousness, Isa 33:5. We count on Him, not on ourselves. Jehovah also will be a high tower for the oppressed, A high tower in times of trouble, Psalm 9:9. Just as the imagery in Obadiah, He is a high steep place where we are removed from danger.
And in a Messianic passage he tells us that He will take us to new heights. And Jehovah their God will save them in that day as the flock of his people; for they shall be as the stones of a crown, lifted on high over his land, Zech 9:16. As children of the Most High God we have an exalted position nothing on this earth can possibly match.
Sitting in the catbird seat is a good thing. Just remember who put you there.
Yea, they shall sing of the ways of Jehovah; For great is the glory of Jehovah. For though Jehovah is high, yet he has respect unto the lowly; But the haughty he knows from afar, Psalm 138:5,6