Meditation on Part of Psalm 20(21)

A Hymn That Points to Christ, the Messiah-king

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 17, 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 20(21):2-8,14.

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1. The liturgy of vespers has taken from Psalm 20(21) the part we have just heard, omitting another of an imprecatory character (see verses 9-13). The part selected speaks of favors accorded by God to the king in the past and present, while the omitted part speaks of the future victory of the king over his enemies.

The text that is the object of our meditation (see verses 2-8.14) belongs to the category of royal Psalms. At the center, therefore, is the work of God in favor of the Jewish sovereign, portrayed perhaps on the solemn day of his enthronement. At the beginning (see verse 2) and at the end (see verse 14) an acclamation of the whole assembly seems to resound, while the heart of the hymn has the tone of a song of thanksgiving, which the Psalmist addresses to God for the favors accorded to the king: «goodly blessings» (verse 4), «length of days» (verse 5), «glory» (verse 6) and «joy» (verse 7).

As was the case with the other royal Psalms of the Psalter, it is easy to intuit that this song was given a new interpretation when the monarchy disappeared in Israel. In Judaism, it was already a hymn in honor of the Messiah-King: Thus the way was paved for the Christological interpretation, adopted, precisely, by the liturgy.

2. But first let us glance at the text in its original meaning. One breathes a joyful and resounding atmosphere of songs, considering the solemnity of the event: «Lord, the king finds joy in your power; in your victory how greatly he rejoices! … We will sing and chant the praise of your might» (verses 2,14). Reference is then made to the gifts of God to the sovereign: God has heard his prayer (see verse 3), he sets a crown of gold on his head (see verse 4). The splendor of the king is connected to the divine light that envelops him like a protective mantle: «majesty and splendor you confer upon him» (verse 6).

In the ancient Near East it was believed that the king was surrounded by a luminous halo, which attested to his participation in the very essence of divinity. Naturally, for the Bible the sovereign is, certainly, «son» of God (see Psalm 2:7), but only in a metaphorical and adoptive sense. Now, he must be the Lord’s lieutenant in guarding justice. Precisely because of this mission, God surrounds him with his beneficent light and blessing.

3. Blessing is an important subject in this brief hymn: «For you welcomed him with goodly blessings. … You make him the pattern of blessings forever» (Psalm 20[21]:4,7). Blessing is the sign of the divine presence that acts in the king, who thus becomes a reflection of the light of God in the midst of humanity. In the biblical tradition, blessing also includes the gift of life which is poured out on the anointed one: «He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days forever» (verse 5). The prophet Nathan also assured David of this blessing, source of stability, subsistence and security, and David had prayed thus: «Do, then, bless the house of your servant that it may be before you forever» (2 Samuel 7:29).

4. Reciting this Psalm, we see taking shape, behind the portrait of the Jewish king, the face of Christ, messianic king. He is the «refulgence of [the] glory» of the Father (Hebrews 1:3). He is the Son in the full sense and, therefore, the perfect presence of God in the midst of humanity. He is light and life, as St. John proclaims in the Prologue of his Gospel: «Through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race» (1:4). Following this line, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, commenting on the Psalm, will apply the subject of life (see Psalm 20[21]:5) to the resurrection of Christ: «For what reason does the Psalmist say: ‘He asked life of thee,’ at the moment that Christ was about to die? Therefore, the Psalmist proclaims his resurrection from the dead and that, risen from the dead, he is immortal. In fact, he assumed life to rise again, through space and time in eternity, to be incorruptible» («Esposizione della Predicazione Apostolica» [Explanations of Apostolic Preachings], 72, Milan, 1979, p. 519).

Based on this certainty, the Christian also cultivates in himself the hope of the gift of eternal life.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, a papal aide read the following summary in English:]

At the heart of Psalm 20 is a hymn of gratitude for the past and present favors God has granted us. It speaks clearly of the long awaited Messiah-king; a concept which, when adopted in the Christian liturgy, takes on a significant Christological meaning.

The Bible metaphorically describes the king, as the «Son of God» who assists the Lord as an administrator of justice. Because of his important mission, God surrounds him with his benevolent light and with his blessing. Christ, the true Messiah-king, is the «Son of God» in the fullest sense and is therefore the perfect presence of God in the midst of humanity. Christ is truly the light and the life in whom we find hope in the promise of eternal life.

[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in different languages. In English, he said:]

I am pleased to greet English-speaking pilgrims present at this audience, especially those from England, Wales, Denmark, Japan, Canada and the United States of America. Upon you and your loved ones, I invoke the Lord’s blessings of health and joy.

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