John Paul II Meditates on Prayerful Song for Lasting Peace

Reflects on Psalm 143 [144]

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 21, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at the Wednesday general audience, which he dedicated to Psalm 143 [144], a prayerful song for peace.


Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for battle,
my fingers for war;
My safeguard and my fortress,
my stronghold, my deliverer,
My shield in whom I trust,
who subdues people under me.

Lord, what are mortals that you notice them;
human beings, that you take thought of them?
They are but a breath;
their days are like a passing shadow.

Lord, incline your heavens and come;
touch the mountains and make them smoke.
Flash forth lightning and scatter my foes;
Shoot your arrows and rout them!
Reach out your hand from on high;
deliver me from the many waters;
rescue me from the hand of foreign foes,
Their mouths speak untruth;
their right hands are raised in lying oaths.

O God, a new song I will sing to you;
on a ten-stringed lyre I will play for you.
You give victory to kings,
you delivered David your servant.

1. We just heard the first part of Psalm 143 [144]. It has the characteristics of a royal hymn, interlaced with other biblical texts, which give life to a new prayerful composition (see Psalm 8:5; 17:8-15; 32:2-3; 38:6-7). The one who is speaking is King David himself, who acknowledges the divine origin of his successes.

The Lord is portrayed with martial images, according to the ancient symbolic use: in fact, he is seen as a military instructor (see Psalm 143:1), an impregnable fortress, a protective shield, a victor (see verse 2). Thus, the personality of God is exalted, who commits himself against the evil in history; he is not a dark power, or a sort of fate, nor an impassible and indifferent sovereign in regard to human affairs. The references and the tone of this divine celebration are influenced by the hymn of David found in Psalm 17 and in chapter 22 of the Second Book of Samuel.

2. Before the divine power, the Hebrew king sees himself as fragile and weak as all human creatures are. To express this sensation the praying king takes recourse to two phrases present in Psalms 8 and 38, and he combines them conferring on them a new and more intense efficacy: «Lord, what are mortals that you notice them; human beings, that you take thought of them? They are but a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.» (see verses 3-4). The firm conviction emerges here that we are inconsistent, like a breath of wind, if the Creator does not sustain us in life, He in whose hand — as Job says — «is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind» (12:10).

Only with divine support can we overcome the dangers and difficulties that stud every day of our life. Only counting on the help of Heaven will we be able to be committed, like the ancient King of Israel, to walk toward freedom from every oppression.

3. Divine intervention is depicted with traditional cosmic and historical images, in order to illustrate the divine lordship over the universe and over human affairs. Behold, then, mountains that smoke in sudden volcanic eruptions (see verse 5). Behold the flashes of lightning that seem like arrows shot by the Lord, ready to rout evil (see verse 6). Behold, finally, the «great waters» that, in biblical language, are the symbol of chaos, of evil, and of nothingness, in a word, of the negative forces in history (see verse 7). To these cosmic images are associated others of an historical nature: they are «foes» (see verse 6), the «foreign foes» (see verse 7), the liars and perjurers, namely the idolaters (see verse 8).

It is a very concrete and Eastern way to represent wickedness, perversion, oppression, and injustice: tremendous realities from which the Lord delivers us, while we go forward in the world.

4. Psalm 143 [144], which the Liturgy of Lauds proposes to us, ends with a brief hymn of thanksgiving (see verses 9-10). It arises from the certainty that God will not abandon us in the struggle against evil. Because of this, the man of prayer intones a melody accompanied with his ten-string harp, certain as he is that the Lord «gives victory to his anointed one and delivers David, his servant» (see verses 9-10).

The word «anointed» in Hebrew is «Messiah»: we are, therefore, before a royal Psalm that is transformed, already in the liturgical use of ancient Israel, into a messianic song. We, Christians, repeat it keeping our gaze fixed on Christ, who delivers us from every evil and sustains us in the battle against hidden, perverse powers. Indeed, the battle is not «against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places» (Ephesians 6:12).

5. Let us conclude with a consideration that is suggested by St. John Cassian, monk of the 4th-5th century, who lived in Gaul. In his work The Incarnation of the Lord, taking his cue from verse 5 of our Psalm, — «Lord, incline your heavens and come,» — he sees in these words the awaiting of Christ’s entrance in the world.

And he continues thus: «The Psalmist prayed that … the Lord would manifest himself in the flesh, appear visibly in the world, be assumed visibly in glory (see 1 Timothy 3:16) and that finally the saints would be able to see, with the eyes of the body, all that was spiritually foreseen by them» (The Incarnation of the Lord, V,13, Rome, 1991, pp. 208-209). This is precisely what every baptized person witnesses to in the joy of faith.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the Audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s Psalm is a testimony of hope. Faced with great danger and difficulty, King David turns with confidence to the Lord, knowing that he will not ignore his people’s prayer but will intervene in history and defeat evil.

The King recognizes the weakness of man who is «merely a breath» (verse 4) and understands humanity’s utter dependence upon God. Today’s men and women must also acknowledge their need for God. Jesus Christ has won victory over evil, and gives us the strength to overcome trials. It is he who sustains us in the life of true freedom. Let us rejoice and bear witness to this hope for which our world longs.

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including groups from England, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of the Risen Lord, and wish you a happy stay in Rome.

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