Pope John Paul II met with 7,000 pilgrims in Rome for his general audience on Sept. 18. He continued his series of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours by reflecting on Psalm 96.
This psalm, the Holy Father explained, proclaims God's kingship over the earth and the entire universe. Even though Israel was a small nation surrounded by powerful neighbors, the Israelites understood that God is great and worthy of praise. Psalm 96 teaches us an important lesson: “We can be certain that we have not been abandoned to the dark forces of chaos or of fate,” he said. “Rather, we are always in the hands of a just and merciful Ruler.”
The Pope pointed out that the psalm also offers a lesson on prayer. “The fundamental response to the Lord King, who manifests his glory in salvation history, is, therefore, a song of adoration, praise and blessing. These attitudes should also be present in our daily liturgy and personal prayer,” he noted. “God's truth can be discovered through intimate communion with God in prayer.”
The Holy Father also offered a Christian perspective on Psalm 96 by drawing on the Fathers of the Church: “They saw in it a prefiguration of the incarnation and crucifixion, which are a sign of Christ's paradoxical kingship.” God reigns by humbling himself, he noted. “Christ ... reigns from the cross, a throne of love and not of dominion.”
John Paul ended his mediation with Jesus' exhortation from Mark 10:43–45: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve...”
“Say among the nations: The Lord is King.” This exhortation from Psalm 96, which we have just heard, sets so to speak the tone for the entire hymn. Actually, this psalm is one of the so-called “Psalms of the Lord King” that include Psalms 96–99 as well as Psalm 47 and Psalm 93. We have already had the opportunity in the past to examine and comment on Psalm 93, and we saw how these canticles are centered on the majestic figure of God, who rules over the entire universe and governs human history.
Psalm 96 also exalts both the Creator of all creatures and the Savior of the nations: “The world will surely stand fast, never to be moved. God rules the peoples with fairness” (verse 10). Thus, we can be certain that we have not been abandoned to the dark forces of chaos or of fate. Rather, we are always in the hands of a just and merciful Ruler.
Glorify the King
This psalm begins with a joyful invitation to praise God, an invitation that immediately gives us a universal perspective: “Sing to the Lord, all the earth” (verse 1). The faithful are invited to “tell God's glory among the nations” and to tell “among all peoples God's marvelous deeds” (verse 3). Indeed, the psalmist directly addresses the “families of nations” (verse 7) to invite them to glorify the Lord. Lastly, he asks the faithful to “say among the nations: The Lord is king” (verse 10) and states that the Lord “rules the peoples” (verse 10) and “the world” (verse 13). This universal openness of a small nation that is sandwiched between great empires is rather significant. This nation knows that its Lord is the God of the universe and that “the gods of the nations all do nothing” (verse 5).
The psalm essentially consists of two pictures. The first part (see verses 1–9) includes a solemn epiphany of the Lord “in his holy place” (verse 6), which is the Temple at Zion. It is preceded and followed by songs and sacrificial rites of the assembly of the faithful. Praises flow freely before God's majesty: “Sing to the Lord a new song ... sing ... sing ... bless ... announce his salvation ... tell God's glory ... God's marvelous deeds ... give to the Lord glory and might ... give to the Lord glory ... Bring gifts ... bow down” (verses 1–3 and 7–9). The fundamental response to the Lord King, who manifests his glory in salvation history, is, therefore, a song of adoration, praise and blessing. These attitudes should also be present in our daily liturgy and personal prayer.
Purity of Faith
We find an injunction against idolatry at the heart of this choral song. Thus, prayer is a means for attaining purity of faith, in keeping with the well-known saying lex orandi, lex credendi: The norm for true prayer is also a norm for faith, and is a lesson on God's truth. In fact, God's truth can be discovered through intimate communion with God in prayer.
The psalmist proclaims: “For great is the Lord and highly to be praised, to be feared above all gods. For the gods of the nations all do nothing, but the Lord made the heavens” (verses 4–5). Through liturgy and prayer, our faith is purified from any form of deterioration, we forsake those idols to which we so easily sacrifice a part of ourselves in the course of daily life, and we make the transition from fear of God's transcendent justice to a living experience of his love.
Lord of the Universe
We now come to the second picture, which opens with a proclamation of the Lord's kingship (see verses 10–13). At this point the universe is singing, including its most mysterious and obscure elements such as the sea, which is depicted in ancient biblical terms: “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Let the trees of the forest rejoice before the Lord who comes, who comes to govern the earth” (verses 11–13). As St. Paul tells us, even creation, along with man, “awaits with eager expectation ... that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19, 21).
At this point, we would like to devote a little time to how the Fathers of the Church understood this psalm. They saw in it a prefiguration of the incarnation and crucifixion, which are a sign of Christ's paradoxical king-ship.
Thus, St. Gregory Nazianzen, at the beginning of an address that he gave in Constantinople on Christmas in the year 379 or 380, repeated some expressions from Psalm 96: “Christ is born: Give him glory! Christ came down from heaven: Go out to meet him! Christ is on earth: Arise! ‘Sing to the Lord, all the earth’ (verse 1) and, bringing together two different concepts, ‘Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice’ (verse 11) because he who is heavenly has now become earthly” (Omelie sulla natività, Discorso 38, Rome, 1983, p. 44).
In this way the mystery of God's kingship is revealed in the incarnation. Indeed, he who reigns “by becoming earthly” reigns specifically in the humiliation of the cross. It is significant that many people of old saw in verse 10 of this psalm a thought-provoking Christological integration: “The Lord reigned from the wood.”
For this reason, the Letter of Barnabas already taught that “the reign of Jesus is on the wood” (VIII, 5: I Padri Apostolici, Rome 1984, p. 198), and St. Justin martyr quoted this psalm almost in its entirety in his First Apology, which he concluded by inviting all people to be glad because “the Lord reigned from the wood” of the cross (Gli apologeti greci, Rome 1986, p. 121).
This was the inspiration for the Christian poet Venanzio Fortunato's hymn, Vexilla Regis, which exalts Christ who reigns from the cross, a throne of love and not of dominion.
Regnavit a ligno Deus [God reigned from the Wood]. Indeed, during his life on earth Jesus warned us: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).