Pope John Paul II urged the 8,000 pilgrims who gathered in the Paul VI Hall for his general audience on June 12 to see human suffering “from an eternal perspective.” He was commenting on Psalm 92 in his series of meditations on the psalms and canticles in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Psalm 92 portrays two opposing figures: the sinful man and the just man, the Holy Father said. “Though the wicked flourish like grass and all sinners thrive,” he noted, quoting verse 8 of the psalm, “they are destined to dry up and disappear.” This is a natural result of the evil that pervades their minds and hearts.
The just man is certain that the Lord will come to bring justice to the earth and crush the arrogance of the foolish, he said. “It is only with God's light that we can fully understand good and evil and justice and wickedness,” the Pope added.
Psalm 92 is an optimistic song of praise and thanksgiving, he said, that celebrates our trust in God, who is the source for peace and tranquility. “It is a peace that will remain intact even in old age, a stage in life that can still be a time of fruitfulness and security,” he noted.
Psalm 92, the song that a just man sings to God his creator, has a special place in the ancient Jewish tradition. As the TITLE of the psalm indicates, it is really a Sabbath song (see verse 1). Thus, it is a hymn that people lifted up to the eternal and almighty Lord as the sun was setting on Friday and they were beginning a holy day of prayer, contemplation and peaceful repose for their body and for their soul.
God the almighty appears solemnly and majestically in the middle of the psalm (verse 9), surrounded by a world that is harmonious and peaceful. The just man stands before him. According to a concept that is popular in the Old Testament, he is blessed with well-being, joy and long life as a natural consequence of his faithful and honest life. According to this so-called “theory of retribution,” every wrong doing merits a punishment on earth, and every good deed is rewarded. Even though there is an element of truth in such a vision, the reality of human suffering is, nonetheless, much more complex and cannot be reduced to such simple terms. Job helps us to understand this, and Jesus confirms it (John 9:2-3). In fact, human suffering must be considered from an eternal perspective.
A Call to Praise
Now we will examine the liturgical implications of this very wise hymn. It includes a resounding call to praise, to a joyful song of thanksgiving, to a musical celebration with a 10-stringed harp and a lyre (see verses 2-4). We should celebrate our love for the Lord and our faithfulness to him through liturgical songs that are done in good taste (see Psalm 47:8). This invitation holds true for our celebrations today. They should radiate a splendor not only in words and actions, but in the music that inspires them.
After this appeal to never stifle the prayer that is within us and around us — truly the steadfast breath of mankind that is faithful, Psalm 92 presents two portraits: one of a sinful man (see verses 7-10) and the other of a just man (verses 13-16). The sinful man, however, stands before the Lord “forever on high” (verse 9), who will destroy his enemies and scatter all sinners (see verse 10). Thus, it is only with God's light that we can fully understand good and evil, and justice and wickedness.
The Weakness of Sinners
An image from the plant kingdom is used to depict the sinful man. “Though the wicked flourish like grass and all sinners thrive” (verse 8), they are destined to dry up and disappear. In fact, the psalmist uses several different expressions to describe their destruction: “They are destined for eternal destruction … Indeed your enemies, Lord, indeed your enemies shall perish; all sinners shall be scattered” (verses 8 and 10).
The evil that pervades the mind and heart of the wicked man is at the root of his catastrophic outcome: “A senseless person cannot know this; a fool cannot comprehend” (verse 7). The adjectives that are used are characteristic of the language of the wise and denote the harshness, blindness and foolishness of whoever thinks he can ravage the face of the earth with any moral consequences, under the illusion that God is absent or indifferent. The psalmist, on the other hand, is certain that the Lord will appear sooner or later on the earth's horizon. He will bring justice to the earth and crush the arrogance of the foolish man (see Psalm 14).
The Strength of the Just
Now we can examine the portrait of the just man, who is depicted in a multitude and variety of terms. Here, too, the image of a plant that is growing and flourishing is used (see Psalm 92: 13-16). Unlike the wicked that flourish like grass in the fields and quickly disappear, the just man rises up toward the sky, solid and majestic like the palm tree and the cedar of Lebanon. Moreover, the just are “planted in the house of the Lord” (verse 14). They have a very solid and stable relationship with the Temple and with the Lord, who has established his dwelling place there.
Our Christian tradition toys with the double meaning of the Greek word phoenix, which is used to translate the Hebrew word for palm tree. Phoenix is the Greek word for the palm tree, but it is also the name for a bird that is called a phoenix. Now it is worth noting that the phoenix was a symbol of immortality because people believed that this bird rose renewed from its ashes. The Christian undergoes a similar experience thanks to his participation in Christ's death, which is the source for new life (see Romans 6: 3-4). “But God … even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ,” Ephesians 2:5-6 tells us, and “raised us up with him.”
Strength in Old Age
Another image that is used to portray the just man is an image from the animal kingdom. It exalts the strength that God lavishly pours out on us, even in old age: “You have given me the strength of a wild bull; you have poured rich oil upon me” (Psalm 92:11). On one hand, the gift of God's power is a source of triumph and security (see verse 12). On the other hand, the forehead of the just man is gloriously anointed with oil that is a source of energy and a protective blessing. Thus, Psalm 92 is an optimistic hymn that is strengthened by music and song. It celebrates our trust in God, who is the source for peace and tranquility even when we witness the apparent success of the wicked. It is a peace that will remain intact even in old age (see verse 15), a stage in life that can still be a time of fruitfulness and security.
We will conclude with some words from Origen that were translated by St. Jerome, which were inspired by the psalmist's words to God: “You have poured rich oil upon me” (verse 11). Origen made the following comment: “We, too, need God's oil in our old age. When are bodies are exhausted, we refresh them by rubbing them with oil. When the flame of an oil lamp is dying out, we add oil to it. So, too, the flame of my old age needs the oil of God's mercy in order to grow. Moreover, the Apostles also went up to the Mount of Olives (see Acts 1:12) to receive light from the Lord's oil, because they were weary and their lamps needed the Lord's oil … Thus, let us pray to the Lord so that our old age, and all our weariness and all the dark shadows of our life will be illuminated by the Lord's oil” (74 Omelie sul Libro dei Salmi, Milan 1993, p. 280-282, passim).