Commentary on Psalm 114(116)

«Intense Prayer of the Man in a Desperate Situation»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 26, 2005 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on Psalm 114(116):1-2,5,7-9.

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1. In Psalm 114(116), which was just proclaimed, the Psalmist’s voice expresses his grateful love to the Lord, after he heard an intense supplication: «I love the Lord, who listened to my voice in supplication./ Who turned an ear to me» (verses 1-2). Immediately after this declaration of love there is a vivid description of the mortal nightmare that has gripped the life of the person at prayer (see verses 3-6).

The drama is portrayed with the usual symbols of Psalms. The coils that entangle life are those of death, the snares that cause it anguish are the pangs of hell, which tries to entice the living to itself without ever being placated (see Proverbs 30:15-16).

2. It is the image of a prey fallen into the trap of a relentless hunter. Death is like a grip that tightens (see Psalm 114[116]:3). Behind the person at prayer, therefore, is the risk of death, accompanied by a painful psychic experience: «I felt agony and dread» (verse 3). But from that tragic abyss he cries out to the only one who can extend a hand and snatch the anguished person at prayer from that inextricable tangle: «Then I called on the name of the Lord, ‘O Lord, save my life!'» (verse 4).

It is a brief but intense prayer of the man who, finding himself in a desperate situation, holds fast to the only plank of salvation. In the same way, the disciples cried out in the Gospel in the storm (see Matthew 8:25), in the same way Peter implored when, walking on the sea, he began to sink (see Matthew 14:30).

3. Once saved, the person at prayer proclaims that the Lord is «gracious and just,» more than that, «merciful» (Psalm 114[116]:5). This last adjective, in the Hebrew original, makes reference to the tenderness of a mother, evoking her «depths.»

Genuine trust always sees God as love, even if at times it is difficult to understand his actions. It is certain, nevertheless, that «The Lord protects the simple» (verse 6). Therefore, in misery and abandonment, one can always count on him, «Father of the fatherless, defender of widows» (Psalm 67[68]:6).

4. A dialogue then begins between the Psalmist and his soul, which continues in the next Psalm 115, and should be considered as a whole with the one on which we are reflecting. It is what the Jewish tradition has done, giving origin to the sole Psalm 116, according to the Hebrew numbering of the Psalter. The Psalmist invites his soul to recover serene peace after the mortal nightmare (see Psalm 114[116]:7).

Invoked with faith, the Lord extended his hand, broke the coils that encircled the person at prayer, dried the tears from his eyes, and stopped his precipitous descent into the infernal abyss (see verse 8). The change is clear and the song ends with a scene of light: The person at prayer returns to «the land of the living,» that is, to the paths of the world, to «walk before the Lord.» He joins the community prayer in the temple, anticipation of that communion with God that will await him at the end of his life (see verse 9).

5. In concluding, we would like to take up again the most important passages of the Psalm, allowing ourselves to be guided by a great Christian writer of the third century, Origen, whose commentary in Greek on Psalm 114(116) has come to us in St. Jerome’s Latin version.

When reading that the Lord «inclined his ear to me,» he observed: «We are little and low, we cannot stretch ourselves and raise ourselves on high. Because of this, the Lord inclines his ear and deigns to hear us. When all is said and done, given that we are men and we cannot become gods, God became man and inclined himself, according to what is written: ‘He bowed the heavens, and came down’ (Psalm 17[18]:10).»

In fact, the Psalm continues further on, «The Lord protects the simple» (Psalm 114[116]:6): «If one is great, if one exalts oneself and is proud, the Lord does not protect one; if one thinks one is great, the Lord does not have mercy on one; but if one abases oneself, the Lord has mercy on one and protects one. So much so that he says: ‘Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me’ (Isaiah 8:18). And again: «When I was brought low, he saved me.'»

Thus the one who is little and poor can recover peace, rest, as the Psalm says (see Psalm 114[116]:7) and as Origen himself comments: «When it is said: ‘Return to your rest,’ it is a sign that at first he had rest, and then lost it. … God created us good and made us arbiters of our decisions, and placed us all in paradise, together with Adam. But because, by our free decision, we were precipitated from that blessedness, ending up in this valley of tears, the righteous one exhorts his soul to return to the place from which it fell. … ‘Return, my soul, to your rest: because the Lord has done good to you.’ If you, soul, return to paradise, it is not because you are worthy, but because it is the work of the mercy of God. If you left paradise, it was by your fault; instead, your return is the work of the mercy of the Lord. Let us also say to our souls: ‘Return to your rest.’ Our rest is Christ, our God» (Origen-Jerome, «74 Omelie sul Libro dei Salmi» [74 Homilies on the Book of Psalms], Milan, 1993, pp. 409,412-413).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 114 reminds us of the great value of prayer. It speaks of an appeal for help addressed to God in a situation of extreme danger. The believer clings to the Lord as his only hope of salvation and expresses his grateful love for the protection he receives.

Authentic faith always sees God as love, even if at times we find it difficult to understand fully his actions. Prayer helps us to rediscover the loving face of God. He never abandons his people but guarantees that, notwithstanding trials and suffering, in the end good triumphs.

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

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including groups from Denmark, Canada and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the peace and joy of our Lord, and I wish you a happy stay in Rome!

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