Commentary on Psalm 123(124)

«The Lord Watches Over and Saves the Just Man»

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 22, 2005 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave during today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on Psalm 123(124).

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1. We have before us Psalm 123(124), a canticle of thanksgiving intoned by the whole praying community, which raises praise to God for the gift of deliverance. At the beginning, the Psalmist proclaims this invitation: «Let Israel say» (verse 1), stimulating all the people to raise a lively and sincere thanksgiving to God the Savior. If the Lord had not been on the side of the victims, they, with their limited forces, would have been powerless to free themselves and their adversaries, like monsters, would have torn and shattered them to pieces.

Although thought has been given to a particular historical event, such as the end of the Babylonian exile, it is more probable that the psalm is an intense hymn to thank the Lord for having overcome the dangers and to implore him for deliverance from all evil.

2. After the initial reference to some «men» who assailed the faithful and were capable of «swallowing them up alive» (see verses 2-3), the song has two passages. In the first part, the raging waters dominate, symbol in the Bible for devastating chaos, of evil and of death: «the waters would have engulfed us, the torrent overwhelmed us; seething waters would have drowned us» (verses 4-5). The Psalmist now feels the sensation of being on a beach, having been miraculously saved from the impetuous fury of the sea.

Man’s life is surrounded by the ambushes of the wicked who not only attack his life, but also want to destroy all human values. However, the Lord intervenes and watches over and saves the just man, as sung in Psalm 17(18): «He reached down from on high and seized me; drew me out of the deep waters. He rescued me from my mighty enemy, and foes too powerful for me … the Lord came to my support. He set me free in the open; he rescued me because he loves me» (verses 17-20).

3. In the second part of our song of thanksgiving we move from the marine image to a hunting scene, typical of many Psalms of supplication (see Psalm 123[124]:6-8). It evokes a beast which has its prey between its teeth, or a snare of fowlers that captures a bird. But the blessing expressed by the psalm leads us to understand that the fate of the faithful, which was a fate of death, has changed radically thanks to a saving intervention: «Blessed be the Lord, who did not leave us to be torn by their fangs. We escaped with our lives like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare was broken and we escaped» (verses 6-7).

At this point the prayer becomes a sigh of relief that rises from the depth of the soul: Even when all human hopes are destroyed, the divine liberating power can appear. The psalm ends with a profession of faith, which centuries ago entered the Christian liturgy as an ideal premise of all prayer: «Adiutorium nostrum in nomine Domini, qui fecit caelum et terram — Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth» (verse 8). The Almighty places himself in particular on the side of the victims and the persecuted «who cry to him day and night» and «will vindicate them speedily» (see Luke 18:7-8).

4. St. Augustine offers an articulated commentary to the psalm. In the first place, he observes that this psalm is properly sung by the «members of Christ, who have reached blessedness.» In particular, «it has been sung by the holy martyrs, who having left this world, are with Christ in happiness, ready to take up incorrupt again those same bodies that before were corruptible. In life, they suffered torments in the body, but in eternity these torments will be transformed into adornments of justice.»

However, in a second instance the bishop of Hippo tells us that we can also sing this psalm with hope. He states: We, too, animated by a sure hope, will sing exulting. The singers of this psalm are not strangers to us. Therefore, let us all sing with only one heart: both the saints who already possess the crown as well as ourselves, who with affection unite ourselves to their crown. Together we desire that life which we do not have down here, but which we will never be able to have if we have not first desired it.»

St. Augustine then returns to the first perspective and explains: «The saints recall the sufferings they faced and from the place of happiness and tranquility in which they find themselves look at the road traveled; and, given that it would have been difficult to attain deliverance if the hand of the Liberator had not intervened to help them, full of joy, they exclaim: ‘If the Lord had not been on our side.’ So begins their song. They do not even speak of that from which they have been delivered because of the joy of their jubilation» («Esposizione sul Salmo 123» [Commentary to Psalm 123], 3: «Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana,» XXVIII, Rome, 1977, p. 65).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father read this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today I would like to reflect with you on Psalm 123, a song of joy and thanksgiving because God has saved his people from every evil. Whether they were threatened by enemies who rose against them, by raging waters about to engulf them, or by beasts of prey, the Lord was by their side. He came to their help and rescued them from danger.

We too can be sure that God will come to save us, even when all hope seems lost. And so the psalm concludes with a profession of faith, «Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.»

St. Augustine gives two different interpretations to this psalm. It can be thought of as the song of martyrs in heaven, rejoicing that God has delivered them from their sufferings and rewarded them with the crown of glory. And it can be thought of as our song, the song of the Church on earth, expressing our confident hope that whatever difficulties may befall us, the Lord will be by our side.

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

I am happy to greet all the English-speaking visitors present at this audience, including pilgrims from England, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the United States of America.

I offer a special welcome to the women religious attending a formators course, to the members of the choir of the Pontifical Josephinum College, and to the representatives of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services. May your time in Rome bring you joy in the Lord’s service, and may God bless you all!

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