God watches over all the events of human history, protecting the weak and encouraging all people to hope in him, Pope John Paul II said at his weekly general audience Aug. 8.
Speaking to thousands of people in the Vatican's audience hall, the Pope continued his series of talks on the Psalms, focusing on Psalm 33, which he called a “catechesis” on God's constant care for his creation.
The psalm, he said, teaches that God is the Lord of human history and that his plan for humanity often faces opposition from “the plans of earthly powers.”
Psalm 33, which is divided into 22 verses, the same as the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, is a hymn of praise to the Lord of the universe and of history. A wave of joy permeates it from the very first lines: “Rejoice, you just, in the Lord; praise from the upright is fitting. Give thanks to the Lord on the harp; on the ten-stringed lyre offer praise. Sing to God a new song; skillfully play with joyful chant” (verses 1-3).
This acclamation is therefore accompanied by music and is the expression of an interior voice of faith and hope, of happiness and trust. The hymn is “new,” not only because it renews our certainty about God's presence within the created world and human events, but also because it anticipates the perfect praise that will be sung on the day of definitive salvation, when the Kingdom of God will reach its glorious fulfillment.
The final fulfillment in Christ is essentially what St. Basil has in mind when he explains the passage this way: “In general, ‘new’ means either something unusual or something recently come to be. If you are thinking of the astounding manner, beyond all imagining, of the Lord's incarnation, you are necessarily singing a new and uncommon song. And if you are reflecting on the regeneration and renewal of all humanity, which was made old by sin, and are proclaiming the mysteries of the Resurrection, then you, too, are singing a new and uncommon song.” (Homily on Psalm 32, PG 29, 327B).
In a word, according to St. Basil, the psalmist's invitation — “Sing to God a new song” — means, for believers in Christ: “Honor God not according to the ancient custom of the ‘letter,’ but in the newness of the ‘spirit.’ Actually, whoever is not following the Law externally, but is honoring its ‘spirit,’ such a one is singing a ‘new song’” (Ibid.).
In its central section, the hymn is divided into three parts that form a trilogy of praise.
The first part (verses 6-9) celebrates God's creative word. The wonderful architecture of the universe, like a cosmic temple, did not emerge or develop from a struggle between gods, as some cosmogonies of the ancient Near East suggested, but only on the basis of God's effective word. This is exactly what the first page of Genesis teaches: “God said … and it was so.” The psalmist, in fact, is repeating: “For he spoke, and it came to be, commanded, and it stood in place” (verse 9).
The psalmist particularly highlights control of the sea waters, since in the Bible they are the sign of chaos and evil. The world, along with its boundaries, however, is preserved in being by the Creator who, as mentioned in the Book of Job, commands the sea to halt at the shore. “Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled” (Job 38:11).
God's loving faithfulness covers, warms and protects us, offering us serenity.
The Lord is also the ruler of human history, as stated in the second part of Psalm 33, in verses 10-15. In a vigorous juxtaposition, the plans of the earthly powers are contrasted with the wonderful project that God is outlining in history.
Human programs, when intended as alternatives, introduce injustice, evil and violence, rising up against the divine plan of justice and salvation. Despite transitory and apparent successes, they are nothing more than mere schemes, destined to dissolution and failure.
The biblical book of Proverbs succinctly states: “Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the decision of the Lord that endures” (Proverbs 19:21). Similarly, the psalmist reminds us that from heaven, his transcendent dwelling, God follows all the doings of humanity, even the mad and absurd ones, and sees into all the secrets of the human heart.
“Wherever you go, whatever you do, whether in darkness or in the light of day, God's eye sees you,” comments St. Basil (Homily on Psalm 32, PG, 29, 343A). Happy will that people be who accept divine revelation and observe its instructions for life, following its paths on the journey of history. At the end only one thing remains: “But the plan of the Lord stands forever, wise designs through all generations” (verse 11).
The third and last part of the psalm (verses 16-22), picks up, from two new angles, the theme of the lordship of God alone over human affairs. The powerful are invited not to delude themselves with the military power of armies and cavalry. The faithful, often oppressed, starving and on the brink of death, are invited to hope in the Lord who will not let them fall into the abyss of destruction.
This shows that the psalm also has a catechetical function. It turns into a call to belief in a God who is not indifferent to the arrogance of the powerful and who is close to the weakness of humanity, comforting and sustaining it as long as it trusts and relies on him, and raises its prayer and praise to him.
“The humility of those who serve God” — as St. Basil explains — “shows that they hope for his mercy. Indeed, whoever does not put his trust in his own great enterprises, nor expect to be justified by his own works, sees in God's mercy his only hope for salvation (Homily on Psalm 32, PG 29,347A).
The psalm ends with an antiphon that has become part of the well-known hymn, the Te Deum: “May your kindness, Lord, be upon us; we have put our hope in you” (verse 22). Divine grace and human hope meet and embrace. Or rather, like a blanket, God's loving faithfulness (according to the meaning of hésed, the original Hebrew word used here) covers, warms and protects us, offering us serenity and giving a secure foundation to our faith and hope.