Meditation on Psalm 118[119]

General Audience Address

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 14, 2001 ( Here is a text of John Paul II´s address at the general audience today in Paul VI Hall.

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1. The liturgy of lauds proposed to us for Saturday of the first week is a single verse of Psalm 118[119], a monumental prayer of some 22 verses, as many as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Every verse is characterized by a letter of the alphabet, with which its individual verses begin; the order of the verses follows that of the alphabet. The one we just proclaimed is the 19th stanza, corresponding to the letter koph.

This somewhat introductory premise enables us to understand better the meaning of this hymn in honor of the divine Law. It is similar to Eastern music, the sonorous movements of which seem never ending, rising to heaven in a repetition that engages the mind and senses, spirit and body of the Psalmist.

2. In a sequence articulated from ´aleph to tav, namely, from the first to the last letter of the alphabet — from A to Z, we would say in the Italian alphabet — the Psalmist pours out his praise of the Law of God, which he adopts as a lamp for his steps in the often dark path of life (see verse 105).

It is said that the great philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal recited this Psalm daily, which is the fullest of all the Psalms, while the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed by the Nazis in 1945, made it a living and timely prayer when he wrote: «Undoubtedly, Psalm 118[119] is heavy because of its length and monotony, but in fact we must proceed very slowly and patiently word by word, phrase by phrase. We will then discover that the apparent repetitions in reality are new aspects of one and the same reality: love for the Word of God. As this love is never ending, so are the words that confess it. They can accompany us all our life, and in their simplicity become the prayer of the youth, the man and the venerable old man» («Pregare i Salmi con Cristo, Brescia 1978, p. 48).

3. The fact of repetition, in addition to helping the memory in the choral singing is, therefore, a way to stimulate inner adherence and trustful abandonment to the arms of the God, who is invoked and loved. Among the repetitions of Psalm 118[119], we wish to point out a very significant one. Each of the 176 verses that make up this praise of the Torah, namely of the divine Word, contains at least one of the eight words with which the Torah itself is defined: law, word, witness, judgment, saying, decree, precept, order. In this way, divine Revelation is celebrated, which is a revelation of the mystery of God, but also a moral guide for the life of the faithful.

Thus God and man are united in a dialogue composed of words and works, of teaching and listening, of truth and life.

4. We now come to our stanza (see verses 145-152), which is well suited to the atmosphere of morning lauds. Indeed, the scene that is placed at the center of this set of eight verses is nocturnal, but open to the new day. After a long night of waiting and prayerful vigil in the temple, when the horizon appears at dawn and the liturgy begins, the faithful is certain that the Lord hears the one who has spent the night in prayer, hoping and meditating on the divine Word. Comforted by this awareness, in face of the day that opens before him, he will no longer fear dangers. He knows he will not be overcome by his enemies who treacherously besiege him (see verse 150), because the Lord is with him.

5. The verse expresses an intense prayer: «I call with all my heart, O Lord; answer me that I may observe your laws. … I rise before the dawn and cry out; I put my hope in your words» (verses 145,147). In the Book of Lamentations we read this invitation: «Rise up, shrill in the night, at the beginning of every watch; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord; lift up your hands to him for the lives of your little ones» (Lamentations 2:19). St. Ambrose repeated: «O man, know you not that every day you must offer to God the first expressions of your heart and voice? Make haste at dawn to carry to the church the first expression of your piety» (Exp. in ps. CXVIII: PL 15, 1476A).

At the same time, our stanza is also the exaltation of a conviction: we are not alone because God listens and intervenes. The Psalmist says: «Thou art near, O Lord» (verse 151). It is confirmed by other Psalms: «Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies!» (Psalm 68:19); «The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit» (Psalm 33:19).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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Summary of the catechesis

Today we reflect upon Psalm 118[119], which praises Almighty God for the gift of the Law, celebrated by the Psalmist as a shining lamp on the often dark path of life. The author rejoices in the Torah as a revelation of the mystery of God and a moral guide for the life of the people, uniting God and man in a dialogue involving words and deeds, teaching and listening, truth and life. The verses that we ponder today are prayed at the break of dawn, after a night prayer in the Temple. As the morning liturgy begins with the first light of day, the Psalmist expresses the sure hope that God will hear his prayer after the night he has spent meditating upon God´s word. His persecutors seek to betray him, but now all fear vanishes, for he knows that God will listen and act on his behalf. The entire Psalm is an exaltation of that wonderful and consoling truth: «You, O Lord, are close.»

[original text: English; distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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