Reflection on Psalm 141(142)

God Is Man’s Refuge, Says John Paul II

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 12, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on Psalm 141(142).

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1. On the evening of Oct. 3, 1226, St. Francis of Assisi was dying: His last prayer was, precisely, the recitation of Psalm 141[142], which we have just heard. St. Bonaventure recalls that Francis “exclaimed with the Psalm: ‘I cry with my voice to the Lord, with my voice I make supplication to the Lord’ and he recited it to the last verse: ‘The righteous will surround me; for thou wilt deal bountifully with me'” (“Legenda Maggiore” [Major Reading], XIV, 5, in: Franciscan Sources, Padua-Assisi, 1980, p. 958).

The Psalm is an intense supplication, dotted with a series of verbs of imploration addressed to the Lord: “I cry […],” “I beseech the Lord,” “I pour out my complaint, lay bare my distress” (verses 2-3). The central part of the Psalm is dominated by trust in God who is not indifferent to the suffering of the faithful one (see verses 4-8). With this attitude, St. Francis faced death.

2. God is addressed with a [familiar] “you,” as a person who gives security: “You are my refuge” (verse 6). “You know my path,” that is, the course of my life, a course marked by the option for justice. On that path, however, the wicked have set a trap (see verse 4): It is the typical image taken from a hunting scene, and frequent in the supplications of the Psalms, to indicate the dangers and snares to which the just man is subjected.

Before this nightmare, the Psalmist hurls a sign of alarm so that God will see his situation and intervene: “I look to my right hand” (verse 5). According to Eastern custom, to the right of a person was his defender or favorable witness in a court; or, in the case of war, his bodyguard. The faithful one, then, is alone and abandoned, “no friend is there.” Because of this, he expresses an anguished fact: “There is no escape for me; no one cares for me” (verse 5).

3. Immediately after, a cry reveals the hope that dwells in the heart of the man of prayer. In such a situation, the only protection and effective company is that of God: “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (verse 6). In biblical language, the “lot” or “portion” is the gift of the Promised Land, sign of divine love in the vicissitudes of his people. The Lord now remains the last and sole foundation on which to base oneself, the only possibility of life, the supreme hope.

The Psalmist invokes him with insistence, because he is “brought very low” (verse 7). He entreats him to intervene to break the chains of his prison of solitude and hostility (see verse 8) and to bring him out of the abyss of trial.

4. As in other Psalms of supplication, the final aspect is that of thanksgiving, which will be offered to God after being heard: “Lead me out of my prison, that I may give thanks to your name” (ibid.). When he is saved, the faithful one will go to thank the Lord in the midst of the liturgical assembly (ibid.). He is surrounded by the just, who will regard the salvation of their brother as a gift made also to them.

This atmosphere should also pervade Christian celebrations. The pain of the individual should find echo in the hearts of all; equally the joy of each should be lived by the entire praying community. In fact, it is “good and pleasant when brothers dwell in unity” (Psalm 132[133]:1) and the Lord Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

5. Christian tradition has applied Psalm 141(142) to the suffering and persecuted Christ. In this perspective, the luminous goal of the Psalm’s supplication is transfigured in a paschal sign, which is based on the glorious outcome of the life of Christ and of our destiny of resurrection with him. It is affirmed by St. Hilary of Poitiers, famous doctor of the Church of the fourth century, in his “Treatise on the Psalms.”

He comments on the Latin translation of the last verse of the Psalm, which speaks of the recompense for the man of prayer and the expectation of being with the just. “Me expectant iusti, donec retribuas mihi.” St. Hilary explains: “The Apostle shows us the recompense that the Father has given Christ: ‘God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11). This is the recompense: to the body, which has ascended, is given the eternity of the glory of the Father.

“What then is the expectation of the just, which the same Apostle teaches, saying: ‘Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to conform it to his own glorious body’ (Philippians 3:20-21). The just, in fact, await him so that he will recompense them, rendering them in conformity to the glory of his body, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (PL 9, 833-837).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Psalm we have just heard was the last prayer recited by Francis of Assisi on the night of his death in 1226. It is an intense supplication to the Lord, who is the sure refuge of those who place their trust in him. The assembly of the just gives thanks to God for his gift of salvation. Christian tradition sees in this Psalm a reference to the persecuted and suffering Christ, whose resurrection has become the foundation and goal of our hope, the gift of eternal life in the glory of our God forever.

I offer special greetings today to the participants in the NATO Defense College: May you ever be strengthened in your commitment to build peace and increase stability in the world. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present, especially those from England, Malawi and the United States of America, I invoke the grace and peace of the Lord Jesus.

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