Commentary on Psalm 137(138)

God «Cares for the Lowly»

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 7, 2005 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on Psalm 137(138), a hymn of thanksgiving.

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1. Attributed by the Judaic tradition to David’s patronage, although it probably arose in the subsequent period, the hymn of thanksgiving that we now heard, which constitutes Psalm 137[138], opens with a personal song of the psalmist. He raises his voice in the assembly of the temple, or at least having as a point of reference the Sanctuary of Zion, seat of the presence of the Lord and of his encounter with the faithful people.

In fact, the psalmist acknowledges that he bows «low toward your holy temple» of Jerusalem (see verse 2): There he sings before God who is in the heavens with his court of angels, but who is also listening in the earthly space of the temple (see verse 1).

The psalmist is certain that the «name» of the Lord, that is, his personal living and working reality, and his virtues of faithfulness and mercy, signs of the covenant with his people, are the basis of all confidence and hope (see verse 2).

2. One’s gaze turns, then, for an instant to the past, to the day of suffering: Then the divine voice responded to the cry of the anguished faithful one. It infused courage in the disturbed soul (see verse 3). The Hebrew original speaks literally of the Lord who «excites strength in the soul» of the oppressed righteous one: It is like the invasion of an impetuous wind that sweeps away hesitations and fears, imprints a new vital energy, and makes fortitude and confidence flourish.

After this seemingly personal preamble, the psalmist extends his gaze over the world and imagines that his testimony spans the whole horizon: «All the kings of earth,» in a sort of universal adherence, associate themselves with the Hebrew psalmist in a common praise in honor of the Lord’s grandeur and sovereign power (see verses 4-6).

3. The content of this common praise that rises from all the peoples enables one to see already the future Church of pagans, the future universal Church. This content has as its first subject the «glory» and «ways of the Lord» (see verse 5), namely, his plans of salvation and his revelation. Thus one discovers that God is certainly «high» and transcendent, but «cares for the lowly» with affection, while he averts his gaze from the haughty in sign of rejection and judgment (see verse 6).

As Isaiah proclaimed, «For thus says he who is high and exalted, living eternally, whose name is the Holy One: On high I dwell, and in holiness, and with the crushed and dejected in spirit, to revive the spirits of the dejected, to revive the hearts of the crushed» (Isaiah 57:15). God chooses, therefore, to be with the weak, with victims, with the last: This is made known to all kings, so that they will know what their options should be in the governance of nations. Of course, he does not just say it to kings and to all governments, but to all of us, as we also must know which option we must choose: to be on the side of the humble, the last, the poor and the weak.

4. After this worldwide reference to leaders of nations, not only of that time but of all times, the psalmist again speaks of personal praise (see Psalm 137[138]:7-8). With a gaze that is directed to the future of his life, he also implores help from God for the trials that life still holds in store for him.

There is talk in a synthetic way of «the wrath of enemies» (verse 7), a kind of symbol of all the hostilities that the just man might have to face during his journey in history. But he knows that the Lord will never abandon him and will stretch out his hand to support and guide him. The end of the psalm is, therefore, a last impassioned profession of confidence in the God of everlasting goodness: He «will not forsake the work of his hands,» namely, his creature (verse 8). And in this confidence, in this certitude of confidence in God, we too must live.

We must be certain that, no matter how heavy and tempestuous the trials are that await us, we will never be abandoned to ourselves, we will never fall from the Lord’s hands, those hands that have created us and that now follow us on life’s journey. As St. Paul would confess: «The one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it» (Philippians 1:6).

5. Thus we have been able to pray with a psalm of praise, thanksgiving and confidence. We want to continue with this line of hymnal praise through the testimony of a Christian singer, the great Ephraim of Syria (fourth century), author of texts of extraordinary poetic and spiritual fragrance.

«No matter how great our wonder is for you, O Lord, your glory surpasses what our tongues can express,» sings Ephraim in a hymn («Inni sulla Verginità, 7: L’Arpa dello Spirito,» [Hymns on Virginity, 7: The Lyre of the Spirit], Rome, 1999, p. 66), and in another he says: «Praise to you, for whom all things are possible, because you are Almighty» («Inni sulla Natività» [Hymns on the Nativity] 11: ibid., p. 48), this is a further reason for our confidence: God has the power of mercy and uses his power for mercy. And, finally, a last quotation: «Praise to you from all those who understand your truth» («Inni sulla Fede» [Hymns on Faith] 14: ibid., p. 27).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today I would like to reflect with you on Psalm 137, a hymn of thanksgiving. From the temple in Jerusalem, the psalmist lifts his voice in praise and adoration of God. Despite trials and tribulations, he is confident that the ever faithful God will hear him.

What began as the psalmist’s personal prayer becomes a song of praise from «all the kings of the earth,» giving glory to God who «looks on the lowly» and comes to the aid of the oppressed.

Finally the psalmist prays that the Lord will continue to watch over him and to protect him from danger in the future. In the words of St. Ephraim, «Praise to you, for whom all things are possible; praise to you from all those who understand your truth.»

I welcome the English-speaking pilgrims here today, from Australia, Canada, England, Finland and the United States of America. A special greeting to the newly professed Missionaries of Charity, to the English priests who are celebrating their 10th anniversary of ordination, and to the choir members from Veteli in Finland. I pray that your visit to Rome will strengthen your faith and your love for the Lord. May God bless you all.

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