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BY Jim Cosgrove
Pope Benedict continued his series of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours during his general audience on Dec. 7. Addressing more than 20,000 pilgrims in St. Peter's Square, he spoke about Psalm 138, a song of thanksgiving that Jewish tradition attributes to King David.
The psalm begins and ends on a very personal note, the Holy Father pointed out.
“He sings before God, who is in the heavens with his host of angels, but who also listens within the earthly confines of his Temple,” Pope Benedict said. Despite trials and tribulations, the psalmist is confident that the ever faithful God will hear him: “The psalmist is certain that the “name’ of the Lord — in other words his personal, living and active reality — as well as his virtues of faithfulness and mercy, signs of his covenant with his people, are the basis of all faith and hope.”
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 upon the lowly and comes to the aid of the oppressed.
“God has chosen, therefore, to defend the weak, the victims, the least among the people,” the Holy Father noted. “This fact is conveyed to all the kings, so that they will know what their option should be when governing the nations.”
At the end of the psalm, Pope Benedict said, the psalmist begs the Lord to help him amidst the trials in life: “We have to be certain that, no matter how turbulent and burdensome the trials that await us, we will never be left alone and we will never fall from the Lord's hands, the hands that created us and that now follow us on our journey through life.”
Although it probably originated in a later period, Jewish tradition attributes Psalm 138, the hymn of thanksgiving that we just heard, to David. It opens with the psalmist's own personal song. He raises his voice before the assembly in the Temple, or at least has the Temple of Zion as a point of reference, the place where the Lord is present and meets the people who are faithful to him.
The psalmist acknowledges that he “bows low towards the holy Temple” (see verse 2) in Jerusalem. There he sings before God, who is in the heavens with his host of angels, but who also listens within the earthly confines of his Temple (see verse 1). The psalmist is certain that the “name” of the Lord — in other words his personal, living and active reality — as well as his virtues of faithfulness and mercy, signs of his covenant with his people, are the basis of all faith and hope (see verse 2).
God Gives Us Courage
Then, he gazes back for an instant to the past, to a day of suffering. At that time, this man of faith heard God's voice respond to his cry of anguish. It instilled courage into his troubled soul (see verse 3). The original Hebrew text speaks literally of the Lord, who “stirred up strength within the soul” of the just man who was oppressed. It was as though a violent wind burst in and swept away any hesitation and fear, imparting new, life-giving energy, and enabling fortitude and trust to flourish.
After this apparently personal preface, the psalmist widens his view to encompass the world, and he imagines that his personal testimony spans the whole horizon: “All the kings of the earth” in a universal sign of allegiance join together with the Jewish psalmist in a common song of praise in honor of the Lord's greatness and sovereign power (see verses 4-6).
God Helps the Lowly
The content of this chorus of praise rising from all the peoples provides us with a glimpse of the future Church of pagans — the universal Church of the future. Its primary theme is the “glory” and the “ways of the Lord” (see verse 5), namely, his plan of salvation and revelation. In this way, it reveals that God is clearly “on high” and transcendent, yet lovingly “cares for the lowly” and removes the haughty from his sight as a 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 has chosen, therefore, to defend the weak, the victims, the least among his people. This fact is conveyed to all the kings, so that they will know what their option should be when governing the nations. Of course, it is directed not only to kings and to all those who govern, but to all of us, because we, too, must know what our option should be: to be on the side of the lowly, the least among the people, the poor and the weak.
God Never Abandons Us
After this appeal on a worldwide scale to the leaders of nations, not only of that particular time but throughout the ages, the psalmist returns to his personal song of praise (see Psalm 138:7-8). Looking toward his future, he begs God to help him even amid the trials that life holds in store for him. When doing so, all of us join in this prayer with this psalmist from of old.
There is a brief reference to when his “enemies rage” (see verse 7), a kind of symbol of all the hostilities that the just might face on the road ahead during their journey through 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, passionate profession of trust in the God whose goodness lasts for all eternity. He “will never forsake the work of his hands,” those who are his creatures (see verse 8). We, too, must live in this trust and in this certainty of God's goodness.
We have to be certain that, no matter how turbulent and burdensome the trials that await us, we will never be left alone and we will never fall from the Lord's hands, the hands that created us and that now follow us on our journey through life. As St. Paul later confessed: “The one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it” (Philippians 1:6).
God Is Merciful
Thus, we, too, have prayed this psalm of praise, thanksgiving and trust. We would like to let this stream of praise in song keep flowing through the testimony of a Christian composer, the great Ephrem of Syria from the fourth century, the author of several texts of extraordinary poetic and spiritual fragrance.
“However great is our wonder at you, O Lord, your glory surpasses what our tongues can express,” Ephrem sings in one hymn (Inni sulla Verginità, 7: L'Arpa dello Spirito, Rome, 1999, p. 66), while in another he says, “Praise to you, for whom all things are easy because you are almighty” (Inni sulla Natività 11: ibid., p. 48). This is the ultimate reason for our trust: God has the power of mercy and uses his power for mercy. Finally, here is one last quotation: “Praise to you from all those who understand your truth” (Inni sulla Fede 14: ibid., p. 27).