Commentary on Psalm 109(110)

Pope Focuses on Theme of Kingship

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 26, 2003 ( Here is the address John Paul II delivered at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to reflection on Psalm 109(110).

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1. We have heard one of the most famous Psalms in the history of Christianity. Psalm 109, which the liturgy of vespers proposes to us every Sunday, is, in fact repeatedly quoted in the New Testament. In a particular way, verses 1 and 4 are applied to Christ, following the ancient Jewish tradition, which had transformed this hymn from a royal song of David into a Messianic Psalm.

The popularity of this prayer is also due to the constant use made of it in Sunday’s vespers. For this reason, Psalm 109(110), in the Latin version of the Vulgate, has been the object of numerous and splendid musical compositions which have dotted the history of Western culture. The liturgy, according to the practice chosen by the Second Vatican Council, has cut out from the original Hebrew text of the Psalm, which in fact has only 63 words, the violent verse 6. The latter stresses the tone of the so-called imprecatory Psalms and describes the Hebrew king while he advances in a kind of military campaign, crushing his adversaries and judging the nations.

2. As we will have the opportunity to reflect on this Psalm again on other occasions, given its frequent use in the liturgy, we will content ourselves for now to glance at it as a whole.

In so doing, we can clearly distinguish two parts. The first (see verses 1-3) contains a saying addressed by God to him whom the Psalmist calls «my lord,» that is, the sovereign of Jerusalem. The saying proclaims the enthronement of David’s descendant «at the right hand» of God. The Lord, in fact, addresses him saying: «[Sit] at my right hand» (verse 1). Similarly we have here the mention of a ritual, according to which the chosen one would be seated at the right hand of the ark of the covenant, so as to receive the power of government from the supreme king of Israel, in other words, from the Lord.

3. In the background are perceived hostile forces, neutralized however by a victorious conquest: The enemies are pictured at the feet of the sovereign, who advances solemnly in their midst holding the scepter of his authority (see verses 1-2). It is certainly the reflection of a concrete political situation, which was took place in the moments of the handing of power from one king to another, with the rebellion of some subordinates or with attempts at conquest.

At this point, however, the text refers to a confrontation of a general nature between the plan of God, who operates through his chosen one, and the designs of those who would like to affirm their hostile and prevaricatory power. There is, therefore, the eternal clash between good and evil, which unfolds in historical events, through which God manifests himself and speaks to us.

4. The second part of the Psalm contains, instead, a priestly saying, which has a king in David’s line again as protagonist (see verse 4-7). Guaranteed by a solemn divine oath, the royal dignity also unites in itself the priestly dignity. The reference to Melchisedek, king and priest of Salem, that is, of ancient Jerusalem (see Genesis 14), is perhaps the way to justify the special priesthood of the king next to the official Levitical one of the temple of Zion. It is known, then, that the Letter to the Hebrews, will begin precisely from this saying: «Like Melchisedek, you are a priest forever» (Psalm 109[110]:4) to illustrate the particular and perfect priesthood of Jesus Christ.

We will examine Psalm 109(110) later on in greater depth, analyzing the individual verses with care.

5. In conclusion, however, we would like to read again the beginning verse of the Psalm with the divine saying: «[Sit] at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool.» And we will do so with St. Maximus of Turin (fourth- to fifth-century), who in his Sermon on Pentecost commented on it thus: «According to our custom, the sharing of the throne is offered to him who, having accomplished some undertaking, and being victorious, merits to be seated as a sign of honor. In the same way, the man Jesus Christ, in vanquishing the devil with his Passion, opening with his Resurrection the kingdoms underground, arriving victorious in heaven after having completed an undertaking, hears from God the Father this invitation: «Sit at my right hand.» We should be surprised if the Father offers to share the throne with the Son, who by nature is of one substance with the Father. … The Son sits at the right hand because, according to the Bible, the sheep will be on the right; on the left, instead, will be the goats. It is necessary, therefore, that the first Lamb occupy the side of the sheep and that the immaculate Head take possession in anticipation of the place destined for the immaculate flock that will follow him» (40,2: «Scriptores circa Ambrosium,» IV, Milan-Rome, 1991, p. 195).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the following summary was read in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Each Sunday at Evening Prayer the Church celebrates Christ’s resurrection by chanting Psalm 109(110). The Psalm, originally composed for the enthronement of an earthly King born of the line of David, celebrates the final victory of the Messiah over all his enemies. By a solemn divine oath, the King is also made «a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedek.» The Church reads this Psalm as a prefigurement of the enthronement of Jesus Christ, our King and High Priest, at the right hand of the Father. From his heavenly throne the Risen Lord invites us to contemplate the glory to which we are called as members of his Mystical Body.

I am pleased to greet the members of the Anglican clergy visiting Rome for a renewal course. My greetings also go to the pilgrims from Melbourne, Australia. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience I cordially invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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