Meditation on the Shortest Psalm

Address on Psalm 116[117] at the General Audience

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 28, 2001 ( John Paul II spoke about Psalm 116[117] at today´s general audience. Here is a translation of his address.

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1. This is the shortest of all the Psalms, made up, in the original Hebrew, of only 17 words, of which nine are particularly salient. It is a short doxology, namely an essential song of praise, which ideally could serve as the conclusion to longer prayers. This happens at times in the liturgy, as with our Glory Be, which we place at the end of the recitation of every Psalm.

In truth, these few words of prayer, taken in a universal context, are significant and profound in their acclaim of the covenant between the Lord and his people. In this light, the first verse of the Psalm is used by the Apostle Paul to invite all peoples of the world to glorify God. Indeed, he writes to the Christians of Rome: «that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: ´Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him´» (Romans 15:9,11).

2. Therefore, the brief hymn on which we are meditating opens, as often happens with such Psalms, with an invitation to praise, addressed not only to Israel but to all peoples on earth. An «alleluia» should pour forth from the hearts of all the righteous who seek and love God with a sincere heart. Once again the Psalter reflects a very wide vision, no doubt nourished by Israel´s experience during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C. At that time, the Hebrew people met other nations and cultures and felt the need to proclaim their own faith to those among whom they lived. There is awareness in the Psalter that goodness flowers in many places and can be directed toward the one Lord and Creator.

Hence, we can speak of an «ecumenism» of prayer, which holds in one embrace peoples of different origins, histories and cultures. We are in line with the great «vision» of Isaiah, who describes the coming together of all peoples «in the latter days» toward «the mountain of the house of the Lord.» Then swords and spears will fall from their hands; indeed, they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, so that humanity will live in peace, singing its praises to the one Lord of all, hearing the word and observing the law (see Isaiah 2:1-5).

3. In this universal horizon, Israel, the Chosen People, have a mission to fulfill. They must proclaim two great divine virtues, which they experienced in living the covenant with the Lord (see verse 2). These two virtues, which are the fundamental features of the divine face, the «good binomial» of God, as Gregory of Nyssa said (see «Sui Titoli dei Salmi,» Rome, 1994, p. 183), are expressed in many other Hebrew words which, in translations, do not reflect the richness of their meaning.

The first is «hésed,» a word used repeatedly in the Psalter, on which I already reflected on another occasion. It indicates the series of profound sentiments that pass between two persons, linked by a genuine and constant bond. Thus, it embraces values such as love, fidelity, mercy, goodness, tenderness. Therefore, between us and God there is a relationship that is not cold, as is the case between an emperor and his subject, but alive, as that which develops between two friends, two spouses, parents and children.

4. The second word is «´emét,» and is virtually synonymous with the first. It is also dear to the Psalter, which repeats it almost half the times in which it is found in the rest of the Old Testament.

The word itself expresses «truth,» namely, the authenticity of a relationship, its genuineness and loyalty, which remain despite obstacles and trials; it is pure and joyful loyalty that knows no betrayal. It is no accident that the Psalmist says it «is faithful forever» (verse 2). God´s faithful love will not fail and will not abandon us to ourselves, or to the darkness of nihilism, or of a blind end, or of the void or death.

God loves us with an unconditional, tireless, never-ending love. This is the message of our Psalm, which is brief as a short prayer, but intense as a great song.

5. The words that it suggests are like an echo of the song that resounds in the heavenly Jerusalem, where a great multitude of every tongue, people and nation, sings the divine glory before the throne of God and the Lamb (see Revelation 7:9). The pilgrim Church joins in this song with infinite expressions of praise, often accompanied by poetic genius and musical art. By way of example, let us think of the Te Deum, which generations of Christians throughout the centuries have used to praise and thank: «Te Deum laudamus, te Dominum confitemur, te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur.» For its part, the short Psalm that we are meditating upon today is an effective synthesis of the everlasting liturgy of praises with which the Church raises her voice in the world, uniting herself to the perfect praise that Christ himself addresses to the Father.

Therefore, let us praise the Lord! Let us praise him tirelessly. But let our praise be expressed with our life, rather than with words. Indeed, we will not be very credible if, with our Psalm, we invite people to give glory to the Lord, and do not take seriously Jesus´ admonition: «Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven» (Matthew 5:16). In singing Psalm 116[117], as in all Psalms praising the Lord, the Church, People of God, strives to become herself a song of praise.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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[Here is the summary that the Pontiff delivered in English at the end of the audience.]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 116[117] is the shortest of all the Psalms; in the original Hebrew, it is made up of only 17 words.

It is a song of praise acclaiming the covenant between God and his people. This covenant is placed within a universal context, and the Psalm is in this sense a kind of ecumenical prayer embracing all peoples with their different origins, histories, and cultures.

Speaking of God´s faithfulness, mercy, and unconditional love, the words of this Psalm are like an echo of the canticle which will resound in the heavenly Jerusalem, sung by an immense host from every people and nation before the throne of God and the Lamb. As she sings this Psalm, the Church strives to become herself a song of praise to the Lord: «Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and give praise to your Father who is in heaven» (Matthew 5:16).

I extend a special greeting to the Sisters of the Divine Savior in Rome for their General Chapter: may the Lord´s light and grace accompany you in your deliberations and guide you always in your life of service in the Church.

I am pleased to greet also two groups from Norway: the Pastoral Council of the Prelature of Trondheim with Bishop Georg Muller, and a group of Church of Norway clergy from Stavanger. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of all the universe.

[text distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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