Commentary on Psalm 129(130)

“A Canticle to Divine Mercy”

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 19, 2005 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on Psalm 129(130).

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1. Just proclaimed was one of the best-known and loved psalms of the Christian tradition: the “De Profundis,” so called by the way it begins in the Latin version. Together with the “Miserere,” it has become one of the favorite penitential psalms of popular devotion.

Beyond its funeral application, the text is above all a canticle to divine mercy and to reconciliation between the sinner and the Lord, a just God, but always ready to reveal himself as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). Precisely for this reason our psalm is inserted in the Christmas liturgy of vespers and of the whole Christmas octave, as well as in that of the 4th Sunday of Easter and of the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord.

2. Psalm 129(130) opens with a voice that rises from the depths of evil and guilt (see verses 1-2). The “I” of the psalmist addresses the Lord saying: “I call to you, Lord.” The psalm then develops in three moments dedicated to the subject of sin and forgiveness. There is first of all a turning to God, called directly as “thou”: “If thou, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who would stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (verses 3-4).

Significant is the fact that what generates respect, an attitude of fear mixed with love, is not punishment but forgiveness. More than the anger of God, his generous and disarming magnanimity must arouse a holy fear in us. God, in fact, is not an inexorable sovereign who condemns the guilty, but a loving Father, whom we must love not out of fear of punishment, but because of his goodness ready to forgive.

3. At the center of the second moment is the psalmist’s “I” who no longer addresses the Lord, but speaks about him: “I wait with longing for the Lord, my soul waits for his word. My soul looks for the Lord more than sentinels for daybreak” (verses 5-6). In the heart of the repentant psalmist there now arises expectation, hope and certainty that God will pronounce a word of deliverance and cancel his sin.

The third and last stage in the psalm’s development extends to the whole of Israel, the people often sinful and aware of the need of God’s salvific grace: “Let Israel look for the Lord, / For with the Lord is kindness, with him is full redemption. And God will redeem Israel from all their sins” (verses 7-8).

The personal salvation, first implored by the psalmist, is now extended to the whole community. The psalmist’s faith is inserted in the historic faith of the People of the Covenant, “redeemed” by the Lord not only from the anxieties of the Egyptian oppression, but also “from all guilt.”

From the dark depth of sin, the supplication of the “De Profundis” reaches the luminous horizon of God, where “mercy and redemption” prevail, two great characteristics of the God of love.

4. Let us entrust ourselves now to the meditation that Christian tradition has made of this psalm. Let us choose the word of St. Ambrose: In his writings, he often recalls the reasons that lead one to invoke forgiveness from God.

“We have a good Lord who wants to forgive everyone,” he reminds us in his treatise on penance, and adds: “If you want to be justified, confess your misdeed: a humble confession of sins loosens the tangle of guilt. … You see with what hope of forgiveness he leads you to confess” (2,6,40-41: SAEMO, XVII, Milan-Rome, 1982, p. 253).

In the Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, repeating the same invitation, the bishop of Milan expresses wonder at the gifts that God adds to his forgiveness: “See how good God is, and disposed to forgive sins: not only does he give back what he had taken away, but also grants unexpected gifts.” Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, remained mute for not having believed the angel, but later, forgiving him, God granted him the gift of prophecy in the Canticle: “He who shortly before was mute, now already prophesies,” observes St. Ambrose, “it is one of the greatest graces of the Lord, that the very ones who denied him confess him. No one therefore should lose confidence, no one should despair of receiving the divine recompenses, even if he is remorseful of past sins. God knows how to change his mind, if you know how to amend your guilt” (2,33: SAEMO, XI, Milan-Rome, 1978, p. 175).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today I would like to reflect with you on the “De Profundis,” Psalm 129, one of the best-known penitential psalms. It is a celebration of the mercy of God, who is always ready to forgive and to be reconciled with sinners. Even from the depths of his suffering, the psalmist recognizes that God is a loving Father, and for this he reveres him.

From this confidence in God’s love springs hope, both for the individual and for the whole people of Israel. Even though they often sin against him, the Lord has redeemed them from slavery and from “all their iniquity.”

St. Ambrose, in his Commentary, reminds us that God not only forgives our sins when we confess to him, but he gives us new and unexpected graces. For example, Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, not only had his speech restored when he repented of his doubt, but he was granted the gift of prophecy.

St. Ambrose says this: “Never lose hope in divine forgiveness, however great your sin. With God there can always be a change of heart, if you acknowledge your offense.”

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

I welcome the English-speaking pilgrims at today’s audience, including visitors from England, Scotland, Nigeria and the United States of America. I assure all of you here today, and your families and loved ones, of a remembrance in my prayers, and I hope that you will enjoy your visit to Rome. May your pilgrimage strengthen your faith and renew your love for the Lord, and may God bless you all.

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