The psalm that was just sung is the first part of a composition that the original Hebrew version of the Bible preserves in its unity. The ancient Greek and Latin versions divide the song in two different psalms.
The psalm begins with an invitation to praise God and then lists a long series of reasons for praising him, all of which are expressed in the present tense. These are God's activities that are considered to be characteristic of him and that he still carries out at this time. However, they vary in nature. Some refer to God's interventions in the life of mankind (see Psalm 147:3, 6, 11), particularly for the benefit of Jerusalem and Israel (see verse 2); others concern the universe he has created (see verse 4), especially the earth with its plants and animals (see verses 8-9).
Finally, when describing those in whom the Lord takes pleasure, the psalm invites us to adopt a twofold attitude: one of devout fear and one of trust (see verse 11). We have not been abandoned to our own devices or to cosmic energy; we are always in the hands of the Lord for his plan of salvation.
Creator of the Universe
After a festive call to praise (see verse 1), the psalm unfolds in two poetic and spiritual movements. The first movement (see verses 2-6) presents, first of all, God's work in history, using the image of a builder who is rebuilding Jerusalem, which has returned to life after the Babylonian exile (see verse 2). However, this great architect, who is the Lord, also reveals himself as a father who bends down to help those who are wounded interiorly and physically — those who are present in the midst of his people who have been humiliated and oppressed (see verse 3).
In his Exposition of Psalm 147, which he delivered at Carthage in 412, St. Augustine commented on the phrase, “The Lord heals the brokenhearted,” in the following words: “Whoever does not have a broken heart cannot be healed … Who are the brokenhearted? The humble. Who are those who are not brokenhearted? The proud. Therefore, the broken heart is healed, and the heart swollen with pride is abased. Moreover, in all probability, if it is abased, it is precisely so that once it is broken, it can be straightened out and healed … ‘He heals the brokenhearted, binds up their wounds’ … In other words, he heals the humble of heart, those who confess, those who expiate, those who judge themselves with severity so that they will be able to experience his mercy. Behold the one he heals. Perfect health, however, will only be reached at the end of the present mortal state when our corruptible being will be clothed with incorruptibility and our mortal being will be clothed in immortality” (5-8: Esposizioni sui Salmi, IV, Rome, 1977, p. 772-779).
A Loving Father
But God's work is not only manifested when he heals his people of their suffering. He who surrounds the poor with his tenderness and care manifests himself as a severe judge when confronting the wicked (see verse 6). The Lord of history does not remain indifferent to the raging storms of the arrogant, who think that they are the only arbitrators of human affairs: God flings down into the dust of the earth those who defy heaven with their pride (see 1 Samuel 2:7-8; Luke 1:51-53).
God's work, however, is not exhausted in his lordship over history; he is also the king of creation and the whole universe responds to his cry as its Creator. Not only can he number all the limitless series of stars; he is also able to give each one its name, thus defining its nature and its characteristics (see Psalm 147:4).
As the prophet Isaiah already sang: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who has created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name …” (Isaiah 40:26). The “armies” of the Lord, then, are the stars. The prophet Baruch added: “The stars shone in their watches and were glad; he called them, and they said, ‘Here we are!’ They shone with gladness for him who made them” (Baruch 3:34-35).
After a new joyful invitation to praise (see Psalm 147:7), the second movement of Psalm 147 unfolds (see verses 7-11). God's creative work in the universe is still at the center of the stage. In a land that is often arid, as is the land of the East, the first sign of God's love is the rain that makes the earth fertile (see verse 8). In this way, the Creator prepares a banquet for the animals. Moreover, he takes care to give food to the smallest living being, such as the young ravens that cry out with hunger (see verse 9). Jesus later invites us to look at “the birds in the sky — they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26; see also Luke 12:24, where there is an explicit reference to the “ravens“).
God Loves the Humble
But once again our attention shifts from creation to human existence. Thus the psalm ends by showing us the Lord bending down to those who are righteous and humble (see Psalm 147:10-11), as was already stated in the first part of the hymn (see verse 6). Through two symbols of strength, the horse and the legs of a runner, God's attitude emerges: He does not allow itself to be conquered or intimidated by force. Once again, the Lord, in his logic, ignores the pride and arrogance of the powerful and takes the side of those who are faithful, “those who hope in his steadfast love” (verse 11) — those who have abandoned themselves to God's guidance in their way of acting, thinking, planning and living out their daily life.
It is among these faithful ones that people of prayer must place themselves, basing their hope on the Lord's grace, with the certainty of being enveloped in the mantle of God's love: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death, and keep them alive in famine … Yea, our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name” (Psalm 33: 18-19, 21).