Commentary on First Part of Psalm 71(72)

John Paul II Reflects on God as Defender of Poor

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 1, 2004 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on Psalm 71(72):1-11.

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1. The liturgy of vespers, whose Psalms and canticles we are commenting progressively, proposes in two stages one of the Psalms most cherished by the Jewish and Christian tradition, Psalm 71(72), a royal song which the Fathers of the Church meditated and reinterpreted in a messianic vein.

We just heard the first great movement of this solemn prayer (see verses 1-11). It opens with an intense choral invocation to God so that he will grant the sovereign that gift which is fundamental for good government, justice. It is explained especially in relation to the poor who, instead, are usually the victims of power.

Noteworthy is the particular insistence with which the Psalmist emphasizes the moral commitment to rule the people according to justice and law: «O God, give your judgment to the king; your justice to the son of kings; / That he may govern your people with justice. … That he may defend the oppressed among the people» (verses 1-2.4).

As the Lord rules the world according to justice (see Psalm 35[36]:7), so the king, who is his visible representative on earth — according to the ancient biblical conception — must conform himself to the action of his God.

2. If the rights of the poor are violated, an act is carried out which is not only politically incorrect and morally unjust. According to the Bible, an act against God is also perpetrated, a religious offense, as the Lord is the guardian and defender of the poor and the oppressed, of widows and of orphans (see Psalm 67[68]:6), namely, of those who do not have human protectors.

It is easy to understand how tradition has substituted the frequently disappointing figure of the Davidic king — as early as the collapse of the monarchy of Judah (sixth century B.C.) — with the luminous and glorious figure of the Messiah, according to the line of prophetic hope expressed by Isaiah: «he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted» (11:4). Or, according to the announcement of Jeremiah, «Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David; / As king he shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land» (23:5).

3. After this intense and impassioned imploration of the gift of justice, the Psalm widens the horizon and contemplates the messianic-royal reign in its development along two coordinates, that of time and of space. On one hand, in fact, is exalted its duration in history (see Psalm 71[72]:5,7). The images of a cosmic type are vivid: Mention is made of the succession of days following the rhythm of the sun and the moon, but also that of the seasons with rain and blooming of flowers.

A fecund and serene kingdom, therefore, but always characterized by those values that are fundamental: justice and peace (see verse 7). These are the signs of the entrance of the Messiah in our history. In this perspective, the commentary of the Fathers of the Church is enlightening, who see in that king-Messiah the face of Christ, eternal and universal King.

4. Thus St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his «Explanatio in Psalmos» observes that the judgment which God gives the king, is that of which St. Paul speaks, «a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him» (Ephesians 1:10). In fact, «in his days, righteousness will flourish and peace abound,» as if to say that «in the days of Christ through faith justice will arise for us, and in our turning toward God the abundance of peace will arise.» In fact, we are, precisely, the «pitiful» and the «children of the poor» that this king rescues and saves: and if first of all «he calls the holy Apostles ‘pitiful,’ because they were poor in spirit, he has saved us then, inasmuch as we are ‘children of the poor,’ justifying and sanctifying us in the faith through the Spirit» (PG, LXIX, 1180).

5. On the other hand, the Psalmist also describes the spatial realm in which the royalty of justice and peace of the king-Messiah (see Psalm 71[72]:8-11) is found. A universal dimension appears that extends from the Red Sea or Dead Sea to the Mediterranean, from the Euphrates, the great eastern «River,» to the ends of the earth (see verse 8), evoked also with Tarsis and the islands, the most remote western territories according to ancient biblical geography (see verse 10). It is a look that extends over the whole map of the then known world, which involves Arabs and nomads, sovereigns of remote states and even enemies, in a universal embrace often sung by the Psalms (see Psalm 46:10; 86:1-7) and the prophets (see Isaiah 2:1-5;60:1-22; Malachi 1:11).

The ideal seal to this vision might then be formulated precisely with the words of a prophet, Zechariah, words that the Gospels will apply to Christ: «Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he. … I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth» (Zechariah 9:9-10; see Matthew 21:5).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We have listened to one of the «royal Psalms» cherished by the Jewish and Christian tradition. It stresses the commitment to moral integrity on the part of the sovereign, who has been called to govern according to law and equity. As the Lord rules the world in truth and justice (see Psalm 35:7), likewise the king, his visible representative on earth, according to the biblical perspective, must imitate God’s actions.

It is easy to understand how Tradition has seen in this Psalm a prophecy of the coming of Christ, the promised Messiah, reading in these words the traits of Christ’s eternal and universal Kingdom.

[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 in today’s audience. I greet particularly the groups from Australia, the Philippines and the United States of America. I cordially invoke upon you in this Advent season joy, hope and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Have a happy stay in Rome!

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