Meditation on Psalm 107(108)

A Song of Praise to God and a Plea for His Help

VATICAN CITY, MAY 28, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on Psalm 107(108), a praise to the Lord and a plea for help.

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Psalm 107(108), which was just recited to us, forms part of the sequence of the Psalms of the Liturgy of Lauds, object of our catechesis. At first glance, it presents a surprising characteristic. The composition is none other than the fusion of two passages of earlier Psalms, one taken from Psalm 56(57) (verses 8-12) and the other from Psalm 59(60) (verses 7-14). The first passage is like a hymn, the second has the character of a prayer, but it contains the inspired word of God that infuses serenity and trust in the man of prayer.

This fusion gives origin to a new prayer, and this fact becomes an example for us. In reality, Christian liturgy also often fuses different biblical passages in order to transform them into a new text, designed to shed light on new situations. However, the link with the original base remains. In fact, Psalm 107(108) — although it is not the only one; suffice it to think, for example, of another testimony, Psalm 143(144) — shows how Israel, in the Old Testament, would use the revealed word of God again and make it topical.

2. The Psalm resulting from this combination is, therefore, something more than the simple summation or juxtaposition of two pre-existing passages. Instead of beginning with a humble plea, like Psalm 56(57), “Have mercy on me, God, have mercy on me” (verse 1), the new Psalm begins with a resolute proclamation of praise to God: “My heart is steadfast, God, … I will sing and chant praise” (Psalm 107:1). This praise takes the place of the lament that was at the beginning of the other Psalm (see Psalm 59:1-6), and thus becomes the basis of the subsequent inspired divine word (Psalm 59:8-10 = Psalm 107:8-10) and of the plea that surrounds it (Psalm 59:7,11-14 = Psalm 107:7,11-14).

Hope and dread are blended together and become the substance of the new prayer, all designed to sow trust even in the time of trial experienced by the whole community.

3. The Psalm opens, therefore, with a joyful hymn of praise. It is a morning song accompanied by the harp and the lyre (see Psalm 107:3). The message is limpid and is centered on divine “love” and “truth” (see verse 5): in Hebrew, hésed and ’emèt, are the typical terms to define the loving faithfulness of the Lord to the covenant with his people. In virtue of this faithfulness, the people are sure that they will never be abandoned by God in the abyss of nothingness or despair.

The Christian re-reading of this Psalm interprets it in a particularly thought-provoking way. In verse 6, the Psalmist celebrates the transcendent glory of God: “Appear on high over the heavens, God.” Commenting on this Psalm, Origen, the famous Christian writer of the third century, refers to the phrase of Jesus: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12:32) alluding to the crucifixion. The latter has, as a result, the affirmation of the subsequent verse: “that your loved ones may escape” (Psalm 107:7). Origen then concludes: “What a wonderful meaning! The reason why the Lord is crucified and exalted is so that his beloved may be delivered. … All that we requested has come true: He has been exalted and we have been delivered” (Origin-Jerome, “74 Omelie sul Libro dei Salmi” [74 Homilies on the Book of Psalms], Milan, 1993, p. 367).

4. Let us now turn to the second part of Psalm 107, a partial quotation of Psalm 59, as we were saying. In Israel’s anguish, which feels that God is absent and distant (“Was it not you who rejected us, God?”: verse 12), the inspired divine word of the Lord resounds in the temple (see verses 8-10). In this revelation, God appears as Arbiter and Lord of all the holy land, from the city of Shechem to the Vale of Succoth beyond the Jordan, from the eastern regions of Gilead and Manasseh to those southern centers of Ephraim and Judah until arriving also at the vassal but foreign territories of Moab, Edom and Philistia.

With colorful images of a military style and juridical character the divine lordship over the Promised Land is proclaimed. If the Lord reigns, there must be no fear: One is not tossed here and there by the dark forces of fate or chaos. At all times, even in the darkest moments, there is a higher plan that governs history.

5. This faith enkindles the flame of hope. In any event, God will indicate a way out, that is, a “fortified city” located in the region of Edom. This means that, despite the trial and silence, God will respond and reveal himself, to sustain and guide his people. Only from him can the decisive help come and not from foreign military alliances, namely, from the force of arms (see verse 13). And only with him will liberty be obtained and “great things” be accomplished (see verse 14).

With St. Jerome we recall the last lesson of the Psalmist, interpreted in a Christian vein: “No one must despair in this life. You have Christ and you are afraid? He will be our strength, he will be our bread, he will be our guide” (Breviarum in Psalmos, Ps. CVII: PL 26,1224).

[Original in Italian; translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 107 is a song of praise to God and a plea for his help. The Psalm, which repeats sections of two earlier Psalms, is an example of Israel’s constant use of God’s inspired word to express her faith. The Psalm celebrates the Lord’s “love” and his “truth,” the everlasting mercy and fidelity which he shows to his People. The Psalmist prays that God will arise above the heavens and reveal his glory to earth. An early Christian interpretation saw this verse as a prophecy about Jesus Christ, who at his Crucifixion was lifted up from the earth in order to reveal God’s glory and to bring salvation to the world.

I welcome the international group of scholars attending a Conference sponsored by the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame University. My respectful greetings go to the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhists from Japan. I also thank the two choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s audience, especially those from England, Ireland and the United States, I cordially invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

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