John Paul II's Meditation on Psalm 95(96)

God Reigns Through Humility

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 18, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on Psalm 95(96).

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1. «Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king.'» This exhortation of Psalm 95[96] (verse 10), which we just proclaimed, sets the tone, so to speak, which colors the whole hymn. In fact, it is one of the so-called Psalms of the Lord King, which include Psalms 95-98[96-99], as well as 46[47] and 92[93].

In the past, we already had the opportunity to look at and comment on Psalm 92[93], and we saw that these canticles are centered on the grandiose figure of God, who rules the entire universe and governs human history.

Psalm 95[96] also exalts both the Creator of beings as well as the Savior of nations: God established the world, «never to be moved. God rules the peoples with fairness» (verse 10). In fact, in the Hebrew original the verb translated [sometimes] as «judge» in reality means «to govern»: So there is the certainty that we are not abandoned to the dark forces of chaos or chance, but are ever in the hands of a just and merciful Sovereign.

2. The Psalm begins with a joyful invitation to praise God, an invitation that immediately opens a universal prospect: «Sing to the Lord, all the earth» (verse 1). The faithful are invited to «declare the glory» of God «among the peoples,» and then to address «all the peoples» to declare «God’s marvelous deeds» (verse 3). Indeed, the Psalmist asks the «families of nations» directly (verse 7) to invite them to glorify the Lord. Lastly, he asks the faithful to say «among the nations: The Lord is king» (verse 10), and specifies that the Lord «rules the peoples» (verse 10), «the world» (verse 13). This universal opening, on the part of a small people oppressed by great empires, is very significant. These people know that their Lord is God of the universe and that «the gods of the nations all do nothing» (verse 5).

The Psalm is composed substantially of two scenes. The first part (see verses 1-9) includes a solemn epiphany of the Lord «in his holy place» (verse 6), namely in the Temple of Zion. It is preceded and followed by songs and sacrificial rites of the assembly of faithful. Praise flows urgently before the divine majesty: «Sing to the Lord a new song … sing … sing …bless … announce his salvation … Tell God’s glory … God’s marvelous deeds … Give to the Lord glory and might … give to the Lord the glory … Bring gifts … bow down» (verses 1-3,7-9). The fundamental gesture before the Lord King, who manifests his glory in the history of salvation, is, therefore, the song of adoration, of praise and of blessing. These attitudes should also be present in our daily liturgy and our personal prayer.

3. At the heart of this choral song we find an anti-idolatrous declaration. Thus prayer reveals itself as a way to attain purity of faith, in keeping with the well-known affirmation «lex orandi, lex credendi»: The norm of true prayer is also the norm of faith and lesson on divine truth. The latter, in fact, can be discovered precisely through intimate communion with God experienced in prayer.

The Psalmist proclaims: «For great is the Lord and highly to be praised, to be feared above all gods. For the gods of the nations all do nothing, but the Lord made the heavens» (verses 4-5). Through the liturgy and prayer, the faith of every generation is purified, those idols to which one sacrifices easily during daily life are abandoned, passing from fear before the transcendent justice of God to the real experience of his love.

4. So we come to the second scene, the one that opens with the proclamation of the royalty of the Lord (see verses 10-13). Now the universe sings, including with its most mysterious and dark elements, such as the sea according to the ancient biblical concept: «Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the Lord who comes, who comes to govern the earth» (verses 11-13).

As St. Paul will say, nature also, together with man, «awaits with eager expectation … [to] be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God» (Romans 8:19,21).

And at this point we would like to make room for the Christian reading of this Psalm as carried out by the Church Fathers, who saw in it a prefiguration of the incarnation and crucifixion, sign of the paradoxical royalty of Christ.

5. Thus, at the beginning of the address delivered at Constantinople during Christmas of 379 or 380, St. Gregory Nazianzen takes up some expressions of Psalm 95[96]: «Christ is born: Glorify him! Christ comes down from Heaven: Go out to meet him! Christ is on earth: Arise! ‘Sing to the Lord, all the earth’ (verse 1) and, to bring together the two concepts, «Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice» (verse 11) because of him who is heavenly but then became earthly» («Omelie sulla natività,» «Discorso 38» [Homilies on the Nativity, Address 38], 1, Rome, 1983, p. 44).

In this way the mystery of the divine royalty is manifested in the Incarnation. In fact, he who reigns «becoming earthly,» reigns specifically in humiliation on the cross. It is significant that many of the ancients read verse 10 of this Psalm with a thought-provoking Christological integration: «The Lord reigned from the wood.»

Because of this, the Letter of Barnabas already taught that «the reign of Jesus is on the wood» (VIII, 5: «I Padri Apostolici» [The Apostolic Fathers], Rome, 1984, p. 198) and the martyr St. Justin, quoting the Psalm almost integrally in his «Prima Apologia,» concluded by inviting all the people to rejoice because «the Lord reigned from the wood» of the cross («Gli apologeti greci» [The Greek Apologists], Rome, 1986, p. 121).

From this terrain sprang the hymn «Vexilla regis» of the Christian poet Venanzio Fortunato, in which Christ is exalted who reigns from the height of the cross, throne of love and not of dominion: «Regnavit a ligno Deus.» Indeed, already during his earthly existence Jesus had warned: «Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many» (Mark 10:43-45).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Pope gave the following summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Many Psalms speak of the greatness of God, who sustains the universe and governs our human history. Psalm 95 invites us to contemplate God’s glory, celebrated in the splendid liturgy of the Temple on Mount Sion. There, a small and oppressed people expressed its full confidence in the true God, knowing that the gods of the heathens were nothing.

But it is the whole universe which manifests God’s greatness: «the sea and all within it … the land and all it bears» sing the praises of the Creator.

The Psalm is, therefore, an invitation to us to turn our personal and liturgical prayer into a joyful song of adoration, praise, and blessing to our King, the Lord Jesus, who reigns from the Cross.

I extend a cordial welcome to the English-speaking visitors, and, in particular, to the Diocesan pilgrimages from Cloyne in Ireland, Thunder Bay in Canada, and Boston in the United States. Upon all of you present here, and upon your families and communities back home, I invoke the joy and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

[English-language text distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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