Meditation on Psalm 19(20)

Violence Does Not Have Last Word, Says John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 10, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on Psalm 19(20).

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1. The final invocation: «Lord, grant victory to the king; answer when we call upon you» (Psalm 19[20]:10), reveals to us the origin of Psalm 19[20], which we have heard and on which we will now reflect. We find ourselves, therefore, before a royal Psalm of ancient Israel, proclaimed in the temple of Zion during a solemn rite. In it is invoked the divine blessing above all «in time of distress» (verse 2), that is, at the time the whole nation is overwhelmed by profound anguish because of the nightmare of war. In fact, chariots and horses are evoked (see verse 8) which seem to advance on the horizon; the king and the people confront them with their trust in the Lord, who places himself on the side of the weak, the oppressed and the victims of the arrogance of the conquerors.

It is easy to understand that Christian tradition has transformed this Psalm in a hymn to Christ the King, the «Anointed One» par excellence, «the Messiah» (see verse 7). He does not come into the world with armies, but with the power of the Holy Spirit, and launches the final attack against evil and prevarication, against arrogance and pride, against lies and egoism. One can perceive the profound echo of the words Christ pronounced when addressing Pilate, emblem of the earthly imperial power: «You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice» (John 18:37).

2. Examining the connection of this Psalm, we realize that it reflects a liturgy celebrated in the temple of Jerusalem. On the scene appears the assembly of the children of Israel, who pray for the king, leader of the nation. What is more, at the beginning one can perceive the rite of a sacrifice, as the sacrifices and holocausts offered by the sovereign to the «God of Jacob» (Psalm 19[20]:2), who does not abandon his «anointed» (verse 7), but protects and supports him.

The prayer is characterized by the conviction that the Lord is the source of security: He comes to respond to the confident prayer of the king and of the whole community to which he is tied by the bond of the covenant. The climate is certainly that of a warlike event, with all the fears and risks it awakens. The Word of God is not presented, therefore, as an abstract message, but as a voice that adapts itself to the small and great miseries of humanity. For this reason, the Psalm reflects military language and the atmosphere that prevails over Israel in times of war (see verse 6), thus adapting itself to the feelings of the man in difficulty.

3. In the text of the Psalm, verse 7 marks a turn. While the preceding verses express implicitly petitions addressed to God (see verses 2-5), verse 7 affirms the certainty of having been heard: «Now I know victory is given to the anointed of the Lord. God will answer him from the holy heavens.» The Psalm does not specify what has been the sign by which he has come to know this.

In any case, it expresses clearly a contrast between the position of the enemies, who base themselves on the material strength of their chariots and horses, and the position of the Israelites, who put their trust in God and who, therefore, come out victorious. It recalls the famous passage of David and Goliath: Before the arms and arrogance of the Philistine warrior the young Jew confronts him in the name of the Lord who protects the weak and defenseless. In fact, David says to Goliath: «You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies … it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves. For the battle is the Lord’s» (1 Samuel 17:45,47).

4. Despite its historical character connected to war, the Psalm can become an invitation to not allow oneself ever to be captured by the attraction of violence. Isaiah also exclaimed: «Woe to those who … depend upon horses: who put their trust in chariots because of their number, and in horsemen because of their combined power, but look not to the Holy One of Israel nor seek the Lord!» (Isaiah 31:1).

In the face of all kinds of violence, the just man opposes with faith, kindness, forgiveness, the offer of peace. The Apostle Paul warned Christians: «Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all» (Romans 12:17). And the historian of the Church of the first centuries, Eusebius of Caesarea (who lived between the third and fourth centuries), in commenting on our Psalm, widens his view to include the evil of death that the Christian knows that he can conquer by the power of Christ: «All adverse powers and the enemies of God, hidden and visible, faces that flee from the Savior himself, will fall. But all who receive salvation, will rise from their former ruin. Because of this Simeon said: «This one is placed for the fall and resurrection of many,» that is, for the ruin of his adversaries and enemies, and for the resurrection of those who, once fallen, have been resurrected by him» (PG 23,197).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, one of the Holy Father’s aides read the following summary in English:]

Psalm 19 is a solemn liturgical prayer asking the Lord to grant the king victory over his enemies. It expresses the conviction that God will be faithful to his people. He is the God who sustains those who trust in him. The Christian Tradition applies this Psalm to Christ, the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, who triumphs over evil. In him all Christians are called to overcome evil, not by violence, but by the power of faith and by forgiveness.

[The Pope then greeted English-speaking pilgrims as follows:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience. I greet particularly members of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services. My greeting goes also to the groups from Denmark and from the United States, and especially to the numerous young people present. Upon all of you I cordially invoke joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ who calls us to share in his victory over evil.

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