Pope John Paul II said Christians should learn to praise God continually and wholeheartedly, a practice he said was rooted in the prayer of “our elder brothers” in the faith, the Jews.
“Praise becomes a profession of faith in God as creator and redeemer, a festive celebration of God's love, which unfolds by creating and saving, by giving life and deliverance,” he said.
Speaking to pilgrims at his weekly general audience Jan. 9, the Pope highlighted Psalm 150, the last in the book of Psalms. His talk continued a series of reflections on the psalms used in the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Pope said the psalm's repeated invitations to praise seem “like an eternal song that will never end, something that also occurs during the famous Halleluia Chorus of Handel's Messiah.”
The hymn that has just sustained us in prayer is Psalm 150, the last canticle of the book of Psalms. The final word that resounds in Israel's book of prayer is the alleluia — a word of sincere and free praise of God. For this reason, the psalm is repeated twice during Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, on the second and fourth Sundays.
The brief text is punctuated with a series of ten imperatives, each repeating the word “hallelû” or “praise!” It almost seems like an eternal song that will never end, something that also occurs during the famous Halleluia Chorus of Handel's Messiah. Praise of God becomes like the ceaseless breathing of the soul.
As one author has written, “This is one of the rewards of being human: the quiet exaltation, the capacity to celebrate. Rabbi Akiba expressed it well in a phrase addressed to his disciples: “A song every day, a song for every day” (A.J. Heschel, Chi è l’uomo?, Milan, 1971, p. 198).
Three Movements of Praise
Psalm 150 seems to unfold in a triple movement. In the first two verses at the beginning, our gaze is fixed on “God” in “his holy sanctuary,” in “the mighty dome of heaven,” in “his mighty deeds,” and in “his great majesty” (verses 1 and 2). In the second movement — just as in a movement in a musical composition — the orchestra of the Temple of Zion joins in the praise (verses 3-5) and accompanies the song and sacred dance. Finally, in the last verse of the psalm (verse 6) the whole universe appears on stage, which the original Hebrew words of “everything that has breath” faithfully convey. Life itself becomes praise, a praise that rises from the creatures to the Creator.
We will limit ourselves during this first encounter with Psalm 150 to dwelling on the first and last movements of the hymn. They serve like a frame for the second movement, which is the heart of the composition and which we will examine in the future, when this psalm is repeated in Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.
The first place in which the prayerful, musical theme unfolds is the “sanctuary” (verse 1). The Hebrew original speaks of a pure and transcendent “holy” area where God dwells. So, there is a reference here to Paradise in heaven, where, as the book of Revelation tells us, the eternal and perfect liturgy of the Lamb is celebrated (for example, Revelation 5:6-14). The mystery of God, into which the saints are welcomed through full communion, is a place of light and joy, of revelation and love.
Not for nothing (though with a certain liberty) does the ancient Greek translation of the Septuagint and even the Latin Vulgate translation use the word “saints” instead of “sanctuary”: “Praise the Lord in his saints.”
From heaven our thoughts move implicitly to earth, with an emphasis on God's “mighty deeds” that manifest “his great majesty” (verse 2). These mighty deeds are described in Psalm 105, which invites the Israelites to “proclaim all [God's] wondrous deeds” (verse 2), and to “recall the wondrous deeds he has done, his signs and his words of judgment” (verse 5). The psalmist then recalls the covenant “which was made with Abraham” (verse 9), the extraordinary story of Joseph, the miracles of the deliverance from Egypt and the crossing of the desert, and, lastly, the gift of the land.
Another psalm speaks of anguishing situations from which the Lord delivers those who “cry out” to him; those who are delivered are repeatedly invited to give thanks for God's wonderful works: “Let them thank the Lord for such kindness, such wondrous deeds for mere mortals” (Psalm 107:8,15,21,31).
So, this is how we should understand the reference in psalm 150 to the “mighty deeds” (verse 2) or, as the Hebrew original says, the “powerful works” that God spreads throughout salvation history. Praise becomes a profession of faith in God as creator and redeemer, a festive celebration of God's love, which unfolds by creating and saving, by giving life and deliverance.
Mankind's Central Role
Finally we come to the last verse of Psalm 150 (verse 6). As I said earlier, the Hebrew word that is used to describe those who praise God refers to breath, but also to something intimate and profound that is innate to man.
Although we can think that all living creatures form a hymn of praise to the Creator, it is more precise, however, to maintain that a position of primacy is reserved in this choir for the human creature. Through the human being, the spokesman of the whole of creation, all living beings praise the Lord. Our breath of life, which also signifies self-consciousness, awareness and liberty (Proverbs 20:27), becomes a song and prayer of all the life that pulsates in the universe.
This is why all of us must engage one another with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord” with all our heart (Ephesians 5:19).
An Eternal Flame
When transcribing the verses of Psalm 150, Hebrew manuscripts often depict the menorah, the famous candelabrum with seven branches, that was placed in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. By doing so, they suggest a beautiful interpretation of this psalm, the veritable “amen” in the ageless prayer of our “elder brothers”: Every man, with all the instruments and musical forms that he has invented through his own genius, “horns, lyres, harps, tambourines, dance, strings, flutes, sounding cymbals, crashing cymbals,” as the psalm says, but also “everything that has breath,” is invited to burn like the menorah before the Holy of Holies, in a constant prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
Joined with the Son, the perfect voice of the entire world he created, we also become an incessant prayer before the throne of God.
(Translation by Zenit and Register)