Reflection on Psalm 45(46)

God a Helper in Time of Distress, Says John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 16, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on Psalm 45(46).

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1. We have just heard the first of six hymns to Zion that are contained in the Psalter (see Psalms 47;75;83;86;121). Psalm 45(46), as other similar compositions, celebrates the holy City of Jerusalem, “the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High” (verse 5), but above all it expresses an unbreakable confidence in God, who “is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress” (verse 2; see verse 8 and 12). The Psalm evokes the most terrible upheavals to affirm the force of the victorious intervention of God, who gives full security. Because of God’s presence, Jerusalem “shall not be shaken; God will help it at break of day” (verse 6).

We are reminded of the sayings of the prophet Zephaniah who addresses Jerusalem and says: “Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! / sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! … The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; / He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, / He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals” (Zephaniah 3:14,17-18).

2. Psalm 45(46) is divided in two great parts by a sort of antiphon, which resounds in verses 8 and 12: “The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.” The title “Lord of hosts” is typical of Jewish worship in the temple of Zion and, despite the martial aspect, linked to the ark of the covenant, makes reference to the lordship of God in the whole cosmos and in history.

This title is, therefore, source of confidence, because the whole world and all its affairs are under the supreme governance of the Lord. This Lord, therefore, is “with us,” as the antiphon repeats, with an implicit reference to Emmanuel, “God-with-us” (see Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).

3. The first part of the hymn (see Psalm 45[46]:2-7) is centered on the symbol of water and has a double contrasting meaning. On one hand, in fact, the tempestuous waters roar, which in biblical language are the symbol of devastation, chaos and evil. They make the structures of the human being and of the universe tremble, symbolized in the mountains, as the outpouring of a sort of destructive deluge (see verses 3-4). On the other hand, however, we behold the refreshing waters of Zion, a city located on arid mountains, but with “a river whose streams” make her glad. The Psalmist — though alluding to the springs of Jerusalem as that of Shiloah (see Isaiah 8:6-7) — sees in them a sign of the life that prospers in the Holy City, of its spiritual fecundity, of its regenerating force.

For this reason, despite the upheavals of history that make the people tremble and kingdoms totter (see Psalm 45[46]:7) the faithful one finds in Zion the peace and the serenity deriving from communion with God.

4. The second part of the Psalm (see verses 9-11) thus sketches a transfigured world. The Lord himself from his throne in Zion intervenes with extreme vigor against the wars and establishes the peace for which all yearn. Verse 10 of our hymn, “Who stops wars to the ends of the earth, breaks the bow, splinters the spear, and burns the shields with fire,” reminds us spontaneously of Isaiah.

The prophet also sang the end of the race of armaments and the transformation of warlike instruments of death into means for the development of peoples: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; / One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Isaiah 2:4).

5. With this Psalm, Christian tradition has praised Christ “our peace” (see Ephesians 2:14) and our liberator from evil through his death and resurrection. Thought provoking is the Christological commentary made by St. Ambrose on verse 6 of Psalm 45(46), which describes the “help” the Lord will offer the city “right early.” The famous Father of the Church sees in it a prophetic allusion to the Resurrection.

In fact, he explains, “the morning resurrection procures heavenly help for us. Having driven back the night, it has brought us to the day, as Scripture says: ‘Awaken and rise, and come out from among the dead! And the light of Christ will shine for you.’ Observe the mystical meaning. The passion of Christ took place in the evening … His resurrection at dawn … In the evening of the world he was killed, when the light is extinguished, as this world was lying in darkness and would have been immersed in the horror of even greater darkness, if Christ had not come down from heaven, light of eternity, to bring back the age of innocence to humankind. The Lord Jesus suffered, therefore, and with his Blood remitted our sins, the light of a more limpid conscience shone and the day was illuminated with a spiritual grace” (“Commento a Dodici Salmi” [Commentary on Twelve Psalms], Saemo, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, p. 213).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 45 celebrates the City of Jerusalem, the “holy place where the Most High dwells” and gives expression to the believer’s unshakeable confidence in God who “is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand in times of distress.” The Psalmist sings: “The waters of a river give joy to God’s city.” They represent the security and peace one finds when in Communion with God, a communion spreading out from Jerusalem and establishing a reign of universal peace.

The Christian Tradition applies this Psalm to Christ, who is our Peace. Indeed St. Ambrose sees in the expression “at the dawning of the day” a prophecy of Christ’s Resurrection and so he exhorts us: “Awaken, arise from the dead! And thus will shine for you the light of Christ.”

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

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience. I greet particularly the groups from England, Ireland, Canada, Singapore and the United States of America. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. My greeting goes especially to the numerous young people present. The month of June is the month of the Sacred Heart. I invite you to place your trust in the Heart of Jesus, who is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand. Upon all of you I cordially invoke joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

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