Psalm 140(141) in the Liturgy of Vespers

Pope on Words and Actions as Expression of Moral Choice

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 5, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address prepared for today’s general audience. He dedicated the address to reflect on Psalm 140(141).

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1. In previous catecheses we reviewed the structure and value of the liturgy of vespers, the great ecclesial prayer of the evening. Now we will go more deeply into it. It will be like going on pilgrimage to that «holy land» made up of Psalms and canticles. Every now and then we will reflect on one of those poetic prayers, which God has sealed with his inspiration. They are the invocations which the Lord himself desires should be addressed to him. He loves to listen to them, hearing in them the vibrations of the hearts of his beloved children.

We will begin with Psalm 140[141], which opens the Sunday vespers of the first of the four weeks in which, following the Council, the evening prayer of the Church was articulated.

2. «Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening sacrifice.» Verse 2 of this Psalm can be considered as the distinctive sign of the whole song and the evident justification for its being included in the liturgy of vespers. The idea expressed reflects the spirit of the prophetic theology that intimately unites worship with life, prayer with existence.

The same prayer made with a pure and sincere heart becomes a sacrifice offered to God. The whole being of the person who prays becomes a sacrificial act, thus foreshadowing all that St. Paul would suggest when he invited Christians to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God: This is the spiritual sacrifice that he accepts (see Romans 12:1).

Hands raised in prayer are a bridge of communication with God, as is the smoke that rises as sweet odor from the victim during the sacrificial rite of the evening.

3. The Psalm continues with a tone of supplication, transmitted to us by a text that in the Hebrew original presents not a few interpretative difficulties and obscurities (especially in verses 4-7).

In any case, its general sense can be identified and transformed into meditation and prayer. Above all, the man of prayer implores the Lord that he not permit his lips (see verse 3) and the sentiments of his heart to be attracted and lured to evil and lead him to commit «wicked deeds» (see verse 4). Words and deeds are, in fact, the expression of the moral choice of the person. It is easy for evil to exert so much attraction as to drive even the faithful one to taste the «delights» that sinners can offer, sitting down at their table, that is, participating in their perverse actions.

Thus the Psalm acquires almost the character of an examination of conscience, which is followed by the commitment to always choose the ways of God.

4. At this point, however, the man of prayer has a shock which makes him express an impassioned declaration of rejection of any complicity with the evildoer: In no way does he wish to be the guest of the wicked, or permit that the perfumed oil reserved for the guests of honor (see Psalm 22:5) should attest to his connivance with the evildoer (see Psalm 140[141]:5). To express with greater vehemence his radical dissociation from the wicked, the Psalmist then proclaims a scornful condemnation, expressed with the colorful recourse to images of a vehement judgment.

It is one of the typical imprecations of the Psalter (see Psalm 57 and 108), whose purpose is to affirm — in a vivid and even picturesque way — hostility to evil, the choice of the good, and the certainty that God intervenes in history with his judgment of severe condemnation of injustice (see verses 6-7).

5. The Psalm closes with a final confident invocation (see verses 8-9): It is a hymn of faith, of gratitude and of joy, in the certainty that the faithful one will not be engulfed in the hatred that the perverse are reserving for him and will not fall into the trap they set for him, after having noted his decided choice of the good. The righteous will thus be able to overcome unharmed every deceit, as another Psalm says: «We have escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken and we have escaped!» (Psalm 123:7).

Let us conclude our reading of Psalm 140[141] returning to the images of the beginning, that of the evening prayer as a sacrifice pleasing to God. John Cassian, a great spiritual master who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries, who came from the East and spent the last part of his life in southern Gaul, reread those words in a Christological vein: «In them, in fact, one can understand spiritually an allusion to the evening sacrifice realized by the Lord and Savior during his Last Supper and entrusted to the apostles, when he sanctioned the beginning of the holy mysteries of the Church, or (one can perceive an allusion) to that same sacrifice that he offered in himself the following day in the evening, with the raising of his own hands, a sacrifice that will be prolonged until the end of time for the salvation of the whole world» («Le Istituzioni Cenobitiche» [The Cenobitic Institutions], Abbey of Praglia, Padua, 1989, p. 92).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s Psalm speaks of our prayer rising to God like incense and like the evening oblation. It underlines the intimate link between prayer and daily life and reminds us that our prayer is in itself an act of sacrifice to God. The Psalmist recognizes that words and actions are an expression of moral choice. He pleads to the Lord to keep him safe from any complicity with evil. The Psalm concludes with joy and faith knowing that we may take refuge in the Lord.

I extend a special greeting to the group from the Pontifical Irish College accompanied by Cardinal Connell and other Irish Bishops. I welcome all the English-speaking visitors here today, including groups from England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the United States. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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