Commentary on Psalm 135(136):10-26

“God’s Wondrous Deeds in the History of Salvation”

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 16, 2005 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience, which he dedicated to comment on the latter part of Psalm 135(136).

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1. We reflect again on the hymn of praise of Psalm 135(136), which the Liturgy of Vespers proposes in two successive stages, following a specific distinction offered by the composition on the thematic level. In fact, the celebration of the Lord’s works is delineated in two ambits, that of space and that of time.

In the first part (cf. verses 1-9), which was the object of our preceding meditation, before us were the divine acts displayed in creation: They gave origin to the marvels of the universe. In that part of the psalm is proclaimed faith in God the Creator, who reveals himself through his cosmic creatures. Now, instead, the psalmist’s joyous song, called by the Hebrew tradition “the great Hallel,” namely, the highest praise raised to the Lord, leads us to a different horizon, that of history. The first part, therefore, speaks of creation as reflection of the beauty of God; the second speaks of history and of the good God has done to us in the course of time. We know that biblical Revelation proclaims repeatedly that the presence of God the Savior is manifested in a particular way in the history of salvation (cf. Deuteronomy 26:5-9; Genesis 24:1-13).

2. Thus before the psalmist eyes pass the liberating actions of the Lord, which have their heart in the fundamental event of the exodus from Egypt, to which is profoundly connected the difficult journey in the Sinai desert, which ends in the promised land, the divine gift that Israel experiences in all the pages of the Bible.

The famous crossing through the Red Sea, “divided in two parts,” rent and tamed as though a conquered monster (cf. Psalm 135:13), gives birth to the liberated people called to a mission and a glorious destiny (cf. verses 14-15; Exodus 15:1-21), which will have its Christian interpretation in the full deliverance from evil with baptismal grace (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4). Then the itinerary of the desert opens: In it the Lord is shown as a warrior who, continuing the work of deliverance begun in the crossing of the Red Sea, aligns himself in defense of his people by striking their adversaries. Desert and sea represent, then, the passage through evil and oppression to receive the gift of freedom and the promised land (cf. Psalm 135[136]:16-20).

3. At the end, the psalm reveals that country that the Bible exalts in an enthusiastic way as ” a good country, a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains … a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey, a land where you can eat bread without stint and where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones contain iron and in whose hills you can mine copper” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9).

This emphatic celebration, which goes beyond the reality of that land, intends to exalt the divine gift, directing our expectation to the highest gift of eternal life with God. A gift that allows the people to be free, a gift that is born — as is continuously repeated in the antiphon that dots every verse from the Lord’s “hesed,” namely, from his “mercy,” from his faithfulness to the commitment assumed in the Covenant with Israel, from his love that continues to reveal itself through the “memory” (cf. Psalm 135:23). In the time of the “humiliation,” that is, of the successive trials and oppressions, Israel will always discover the saving hand of the God of liberty and love. In the time of hunger and misery the Lord will also appear to offer food to the whole of humanity, confirming his identity as Creator (cf. verse 25).

4. In Psalm 135(136) are interlaced, therefore, two modalities of the only divine Revelation, the cosmic (cf. verses 4-9) and the historical (cf. verses 10-25). The Lord is, of course, transcendent as Creator and arbiter of being; but he is also close to his creatures, entering into space and time. He does not stay far away, in the distant heaven. On the contrary, his presence among us reaches its summit in the incarnation of Christ.

This is what the Christian interpretation of the psalm proclaims clearly, as attested by the Fathers of the Church who see the summit of the history of salvation and the supreme sign of the merciful love of the Father in the gift of the Son, as Savior and Redeemer of humanity (cf. John 3:16).

Thus, St. Cyprian, a third-century martyr, when beginning his treatise on “The Works of Charity and Alms,” contemplates with wonder the works that God has accomplished in Christ his Son for his people, breaking out at the end in an impassioned acknowledgment of his mercy: “Dearest brothers, many and great are God’s benefits, which the generous and copious goodness of God the Father and of Christ has accomplished and will always accomplish for our salvation; in fact, to preserve us, to give us a new life and to be able to redeem us, the Father sent the Son; the Son, who was sent, wanted to be called also Son of Man, to make us become children of God: He humbled himself to raise the people who were first lying on the ground, was wounded to heal our wounds, he became a slave to lead us, who were slaves, to freedom. He accepted death to be able to offer immortality to mortals. These are the many and great gifts of divine mercy” (1: “Trattati : Collana de Testi Patristici” [Treatises: Collection of Patristic Texts] CLXXV, Rome, 2004, p. 108).

[Putting his notes to one side, the Pontiff added:]

With these words, the holy Doctor of the Church develops the psalm with a litany of the benefits that God has given us, adding it to what the psalmist still did not know, but still hoped for, the true gift that God has given us: the gift of the Son, the gift of the Incarnation, in which God has been given to us and with which he remains with us, in the Eucharist and in his Word, every day until the end of history.

We run the danger that the memory of evil, of the evils suffered, is often stronger than the memory of the good. The psalm helps to awaken in us the memory of the good, of all the good the Lord has done to us and does to us, and that we can see if our heart is attentive: It is true, God’s mercy is eternal, it is present day after day.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 135 forms part of the joyous song known in the Hebrew tradition as “the great Hallel.” The psalmist contemplates the two dimensions of God’s revelation, the cosmic and the historical. The first part of the psalm, which we considered last Wednesday, praises the Lord for his great works in creation.

Today, in the second part of the psalm, we hear of God’s wondrous deeds in the history of salvation: the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the passing of the Red Sea, and the journey through the desert. These events symbolically represent the passage through evil towards the gift of freedom in the promised land.

The psalm therefore is a celebration of God’s loving, active and faithful mercy (called “hesed” in Hebrew). This divine participation in human history culminates in the mystery of the Incarnation. St. Cyprian, contemplating the great deeds God has accomplished in Christ, invites Christians to praise the Lord for “the many and great benefits of his divine mercy.” This call is a faithful echo of the psalmist’s words: “To the God of Heaven give thanks, for his love endures for ever.”

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

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present in today’s audience. I extend particular greetings to the members of the Executive Committee of Caritas Internationalis. I am also pleased to greet the groups from England, Spain, South Africa and the United States of America. May your pilgri
mage strengthen your faith and renew your love for the Lord and may God bless you all!

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