Meditation on Psalm 91(92)

John Paul II on the Contrast Between the Righteous and the Wicked

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 3, 2003 ( Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave at today’s general audience, in which he commented on Psalm 91(92).

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1. We were just proposed the canticle of a man faithful to the holy God. It is Psalm 91(92) that, as the old title of the composition suggests, was used by the Jewish tradition for «a sabbath day» (verse 1). The hymn opens with a general appeal to celebrate and praise the Lord in song and music (see verses 2-4). It is a line of prayer that seems never to be interrupted, as divine love must be exalted in the morning, when the day begins, but must also be proclaimed during the day and throughout the course of the nocturnal hours (see verse 3).

In fact, the reference to the musical instruments, which the Psalmist makes in the introductory invitation, elicited in St. Augustine this meditation, which appears in his «Exposition on Psalm 91»: «What does it mean, brothers, to sing hymns with the Psalter. The Psalter is a musical instrument equipped with strings. Our Psalter is our work. Whoever does good works with his hands sings hymns to God with the Psalter. Whoever confesses with the mouth, sings to God. Sings with the mouth! Sings Psalms with his works! … But, then, who are those who sing? Those who do good with joy. Singing, in fact, is the sign of joyfulness. What does the Apostle say? «God loves a cheerful giver» (2 Corinthians 9:7). Whatever you do, do it with joy. Then, you do good and you do it well. If, instead, you act with sadness, even if through it you do good, it is not you who do it: hold the Psalter, do not sing» («Esposizioni sui Salmi,» III [Expositions on the Psalms], Rome, 1976, pp. 192-195).

2. Through St. Augustine’s words we can penetrate the heart of our reflection, and address the fundamental topic of the Psalm: that of good and evil. Both are weighed by the just and holy God, «forever on high» (verse 9), he who is eternal and infinite, from whom none of man’s action escape.

Thus are confronted, in a reiterated way, two antithetical modes of behavior. The conduct of the faithful is dedicated to celebrate the divine works, to penetrate the depth of the Lord’s thoughts, and in this way his life radiates light and joy (see verses 5-6).

On the contrary, the perverse man is described in his own obtuseness, incapable as he is of understanding the hidden meaning of human affairs. Momentary fortune renders him arrogant, but in reality he is inwardly fragile and, after ephemeral success, doomed to failure and ruin (see verses 7-8). The Psalmist, following a cherished model of interpretation of the Old Testament, that of retribution, is convinced that God will recompense the righteous already in this life, giving them a happy old age (see verse 15) and will soon punish the wicked.

In reality, as Job will affirm and Jesus teach, history cannot be interpreted in such a linear way. The vision of the Psalmist becomes, therefore, a supplication to the just and Most High God (see verse 9) so that he will enter in the series of human events to judge them, making the good shine forth.

3. The contrast between the righteous and the wicked is taken up again by the man of prayer. On one hand, we see the «enemies» of the Lord, the «evildoers,» once again doomed to dispersion and failure (see verse 10). On the other hand, the faithful appear in all their splendor, incarnated by the Psalmist who describes himself with colorful images, derived from Eastern symbolism.

The righteous has the irresistible force of a buffalo, and is ready to challenge every adversity; his glorious forehead is anointed with the oil of divine protection, which becomes a sort of shield, which guards the elect rendering him secure (see verse 11). From the height of his power and security, the man of prayer sees how the iniquitous precipitate themselves into the abyss of their ruin (see verse 12).

Psalm 91(92) exudes, therefore, happiness, trust, optimism: gifts which we must ask God for precisely in our time, in which the temptation to lack of trust and even despair easily insinuates itself.

4. In the wake of the profound serenity that pervades it, our hymn casts a glance on the days of old age of the righteous and foresees them to be equally serene. Even when these days are imminent, the spirit of the man of prayer will still be vivacious, happy and industrious (see verse 15). He feels like the palms and cedars, which are planted in the courtyard of the temple of Zion (see verses 13-14).

The roots of the righteous are plunged in God himself from whom he receives the sap of divine grace. The life of the Lord nourishes him and transforms him, rendering him flourishing and luxuriant, that is, able to give himself to others and to witness to his own faith. The last words of the Psalmist, in this description of a righteous and industrious life and of an intense and active old age, are connected to the proclamation of the perennial faithfulness of the Lord (see verse 16).

We can conclude, therefore, with the proclamation of the song that rises to the glorious God in the last Book of the Bible, the Apocalypse: a book of terrible struggle between good and evil, but also of hope in the final victory of Christ: «Great and wonderful are thy deeds. O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are thy ways, O King of the ages! … For thou alone art holy, All the nations shall come and worship thee, for thy judgments have been revealed. … Just art thou in these thy judgments, thou art and wast, O Holy One. Yea, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are thy judgments!» (15:3-4; 16:5.7).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 91 describes the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The just man understands and celebrates God’s deeds, is strengthened by prayer and is filled with joy in his old age. The wicked man lives in darkness, and does not understand God’s ways. This man’s deeds, even when successful, are destined to doom. The hope of the Psalmist and of all who are just, lies in God, who will not allow evil to prevail over good.

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience, especially those from India, Japan and the United States. Upon all of you I cordially invoke joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

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