More than 18,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square on May 21 for Pope John Paul II's weekly general audience. The Holy Father based his teaching on Psalm 144, which he characterized as a testimony of hope that was composed by King David.
Faced with great danger and difficulty, King David turned to the Lord with confidence, knowing that God would not ignore his prayer but would intervene in history and defeat evil. “It is only with God's support that we can overcome the dangers and difficulties that occur repeatedly throughout each day of our life. It is only with help from heaven that we will be able to make a commitment, like the ancient king of Israel, to walk toward freedom and away from all oppression,” John Paul said. “God will not abandon us in the struggle against evil.”
Like King David, we, too, must recognize our weakness and understand that we are totally dependent upon God, the Holy Father said. He urged Christians to pray Psalm 144 as they fix their gaze on Jesus, “who delivers us from every evil and sustains us in the battle against hidden and perverse powers.”
We just heard the first part of Psalm 144. It has the characteristics of a royal hymn and is interlaced with other biblical texts, thereby giving birth to a new prayer (see Psalms 8:5; 18:8-15; 33:2-3; 39:6-7). It is King David himself who is speaking, acknowledging the divine origins of his success.
The Lord is portrayed in images that are related to war, following the usage of symbols typical of those ancient times. So, he is envisioned as an army instructor (see Psalm 144:1), an impregnable fortress, a protective shield and a victor (see verse 2). This is the way in which the psalmist wished to exalt God as one personally committed to fighting against evil in history. He is not some dark power or inexhorable fate, nor is he an unfeeling ruler indifferent to human events. The references and the tone of this divine celebration were influenced by a hymn of David that was recorded in Psalm 18 and in chapter 22 of the Second Book of Samuel.
Compared with God' power, this Jewish king sees himself as fragile and weak, as all human creatures are. In order to express this feeling in his prayer, the king uses two phrases that are found in Psalms 8 and 39, which he combines in order to give them an effectiveness that is new and more intense: “Lord, what are mortals that you notice them; human beings, that you take thought of them? They are but a breath; their days are like a passing shadow” (see verses 3-4). Here his firm conviction emerges that we would be empty and shallow, like a breath of wind, if it were not for our Creator who keeps us alive and who — as Job says — “is the soul of every living thing and the life-breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10).
It is only with God's support that we can overcome the dangers and difficulties that occur repeatedly throughout each day of our life. It is only with help from heaven that we will be able to make a commitment, like the ancient king of Israel, to walk toward freedom and away from all oppression.
God Frees Us
God's intervention is portrayed in traditional cosmic and historical images in order to illustrate God's lordship over the universe and over human affairs. Therefore, mountains are in smoke due to sudden volcanic eruptions (see verse 5). Flashes of lightning seem like arrows that the Lord has shot and that seem ready to rout evil (see verse 6). Finally, there are the “many waters” that are the symbol in biblical language of chaos, evil and nothingness — the negative forces in the unfolding of history (see verse 7). Other images of a historical nature are joined to these cosmic images: They are the “foes” (see verse 6), the “foreign foes” (see verse 7) and the liars and perjurers who are idolaters (see verse 8).
This is a very concrete, Eastern way to portray wickedness, perversion, oppression and injustice, tremendous realities from which the Lord delivers us as we go forth in the world.
Christ Our Messiah
Psalm 144, as found in morning prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, ends with a brief hymn of thanks-giving (see verses 9-10). It arises from the certainty that God will not abandon us in the struggle against evil. For this reason the psalmist sings a melody that he accompanies with his 10-string harp, since he is certain that the Lord “will give victory to his anointed one and deliver David, his servant” (see verses 9-10).
The word for “anointed” in Hebrew is “messiah”: We see, therefore, this royal psalm that was already transformed in the liturgical use of ancient Israel into a messianic song. We Christians repeat it as we keep our gaze fixed on Christ, who delivers us from every evil and sustains us in the battle against hidden and perverse powers. Indeed, the battle “is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).
Let us conclude, then, with a thought from St. John Cassian, a monk who lived in Gaul in at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries. In a work called The Incarnation of the Lord, where he used verse 5 of this psalm as his starting point (“Lord, incline your heavens and come”), he saw these words as an anticipation of Christ's entrance in the world.
He continued in the following words: “The psalmist prayed that … the Lord would manifest himself in the flesh, appear visibly in the world, be assumed visibly in glory (see 1 Timothy 3:16) and finally that the saints would be able to see, with the eyes of their body, all that they had spiritually foreseen” (L'Incarnazione del Signore, V, 13, Rome, 1991, p. 208-209). This is exactly what every baptized person is a witness to in the joy of faith.