Returning to his series of teachings on the psalms used in the Church's morning prayer, Pope John Paul described Psalm 149 as a hymn of festive joy in response to God's deliverance.
The Holy Father elaborated the meaning of the psalm during his May 23 general audience, which drew about 13,000 people to St. Peter's Square.
God's deliverance is needed, the Pope said, because his faithful and humble people are marginalized in this world “by all those who choose violence, wealth and arrogance.”
Yet God's people are certain to triumph, he said, because God loves them and “honors the poor with victory.”
“Let the faithful rejoice in their glory; cry out for joy at their banquet.” This appeal from Psalm 149 [verse 5] refers to a dawn that is about to break, finding the faithful ready to intone their morning praise. Their praise is described, with the significant expression, “a new song” (verse 1) — for it is a solemn and perfect hymn, suitable for the final days when the Lord will gather the just in a renewed world. The entire psalm overflows with a festive atmosphere, beginning right away with an initial alleluia and marked by a rhythm of song, praise, joy, dance, and the sound of tambourines and lyres. This psalm inspires a prayer of thanksgiving from a heart filled with religious exultation.
In the Hebrew original of the hymn, the central characters of the psalm are referred to by two words that are typical of the spirituality of the Old Testament. Three times they are described, above all, as hasidim (verses 1,5,9) — namely, “the pious, the faithful,” those who respond with fidelity and love (hesed) to the paternal love of the Lord.
Battling to Serve God
The second part of the psalm is surprising, because it is full of warlike expressions. It seems strange that in the same verse the psalm combines “the praise of God in their mouths” with “a two-edged sword in their hands” (verse 6). Upon reflection, we are able to understand why: The psalm was composed by “faithful” who were involved in a struggle for liberation; they were fighting to free their oppressed people and to give them the chance to serve God. During the time of the Maccabees, in the second century B.C., the combatants for liberty and for the faith, subjected to harsh repression by the Hellenistic power, were, in fact, called hasidim — that is, “the faithful” to the Word of God and the tradition of the fathers.
In today's perspective, considering our own prayer, this warlike symbolism becomes a reflection of our commitment as believers who, having sung our morning praise to God, go into the streets of this world in the midst of evil and injustice. Unfortunately, the forces that are opposed to God's kingdom are impressive; the psalmist speaks of “nations, peoples, kings and nobles.” Yet, he is confident because he knows he has, by his side, the Lord who is the real King of history (verse 2). Therefore, his victory over evil is certain, and it will be the triumph of love. All the hasidim participate in this struggle — all the faithful and just who, with the strength of the Spirit, fully carry out all the wonderful work conveyed by the expression, kingdom of God.
Singing in One Accord
Beginning with the psalm's references to the “choir” and the “tambourine and lyre,” St. Augustine comments: “What does a choir represent? […] The choir is an ensemble of singers who sing together. If we sing in a choir we must sing in harmony. When one sings in a choir, just one flat voice wounds the listener and puts the choir itself into a state of confusion” (Enarr. in Psalm 149: CCL 40,7,1-4).
Then, referring to the instruments used by the psalmist, he asks: “Why does the psalmist take the tambourine and psaltery in hand?” He answers: “Because not only voices but works also praise the Lord. When the tambourine and psaltery are taken, the hands are in agreement with the voice. So it is for you. When you sing the alleluia, you must give bread to the hungry, dress the naked, welcome the pilgrim. If you do this, it is not only the voice that sings, but the hands harmonize with the voice, for the words are in agreement with the works” (Ibid., 8,1-4).
The whole psalm overflows with a festive atmosphere of song, praise, joy, dance.
Living in Poverty
There is a second word describing those who pray this psalm — they are the ‘anawim, that is, “the poor, the humble” (verse 4). This is a very common expression in the psalms, indicating not only the oppressed, the poor, those persecuted for the cause of justice, but also those who, because they are faithful to the moral commitments of the covenant with God, are marginalized by all who choose violence, wealth and arrogance. In this light, one understands that the concept “poor” refers not only to a social class, but also to a spiritual choice. This is the meaning of the well-known first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The prophet Zephaniah already addressed the ‘anawim, saying: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of Lord's anger” (Zephaniah 2:3).
Raising Up the Lowly
Now, the “day of the Lord's anger” is exactly the one described in the second part of the psalm when the “poor” are marshalled on the side of God to fight against evil. On their own, they do not have the sufficient strength, or the means, or the necessary strategies to oppose the outbreak of evil. Yet the expression of the psalmist does not allow for hesitations: “For the Lord takes delight in his people, he honors the poor (‘anawim) with victory” (verse 4). This same idea is epitomized when the Apostle Paul declares to the Corinthians: “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something” (1 Corinthians 1:28).
With this confidence, “the people of Zion” (verse 2), hasidim and ‘anawim — that is, the faithful and poor — prepare to live their witness in the world and in history. The Magnificat, Mary's song in Luke's Gospel, is the echo of the best sentiments of the “people of Zion” — joyful praise to God the Savior, thanksgiving for the great things accomplished in her by the Almighty, struggle against the forces of evil, solidarity with the poor, faithfulness to the God of the covenant (see Luke 1:46-55).
(Zenit and Register translation)