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Deliverance from Terror

BY Jim Cosgrove

September 30 - October 6, 2001 Issue | Posted 9/30/01 at 1:00 PM

 

It is a dark night. Voracious wild animals are sensed all around. The psalmist is awaiting the break of dawn, so that light can dispel the darkness and his fears.

This is the background of Psalm 57, which we are reflecting on today. It is a night song which prepares the psalmist for the eagerly awaited light of daybreak, so he can praise the Lord with joy (verses 9-12). The psalm moves from dramatic lament addressed to God to serene hope and joyful thanksgiving expressed in words that will ring out once again in another psalm (Psalm 108:2-6).

In reality, we are witnessing the passage from fear to joy, from night to day, from nightmare to serenity, from plea to praise.

This is an experience which is often described in the psalms: “You changed my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. With my whole being I sing endless praise to you. O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks” (Psalm 30:12-13).

The First Movement: In the Dark, Trust Amid Fear

There are, therefore, two movements to Psalm 57, on which we are meditating. The first one has to do with the experience of fear at the assault of the evil that tries to strike the just one (verses 2-7).

At the center of this scene are lions in attack position. In no time, this picture turns into a symbol of war, as depicted by spears, arrows and swords. The psalmist feels assailed by a kind of death squad. He is surrounded by a band of hunters who set traps and dig pits to capture their prey.

But this atmosphere of tension is suddenly dispelled. Actually, at the beginning of the psalm appears the protective symbol of the divine wings (verse 2). Specifically, this refers to the Ark of the Covenant with its winged cherubim—that is, God's presence among the faithful in the holy Temple of Zion.

The psalmist insistently asks God to send his messengers from heaven, and gives them symbolic names: “Faithfulness” and “Grace” (verse 4), qualities characterizing the saving love of God. So, although he shudders at the fearsome roaring of the wild beasts and the treachery of his persecutors, the faithful one remains inwardly serene and trusting, like Daniel in the lions' den (see Daniel 6:17-25).

The Lord's presence is not slow to show its effectiveness through the adversaries' punishment of themselves: they tumble into the pit they had dug for the just one (verse 7).

This confidence in divine justice, vividly expressed throughout the psalter, wards off discouragement and surrender to the oppression of evil. Sooner or later, God takes the side of his faithful, upsetting the tactics of the impious and making them stumble over their own treacherous plans.

The Second Movement: At Dawn, Joyful Thanks

And so we come to the second movement of the psalm: thanksgiving (verses 8-12). Here is a passage that shines with vividness and beauty: “My heart is steadfast, God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and chant praise! Awake, my soul! Awake, lyre and harp! I will wake the dawn!” (verses 7-8).

The darkness has now been dispelled. The psalmist's song has made the dawn of salvation approach.

In applying this image to himself, the psalmist may be reflecting—in the language of biblical spirituality, which is rigorously monotheistic—the practice of Egyptian and Phoenician priests who were commissioned to “awake the dawn”: that is, to bring about the reappearance of the sun, which they viewed as a beneficent deity.

He is also alluding to the custom of hanging and covering musical instruments during times of mourning and trial (see Psalm 137:2), and then “reawakening” them to a festive sound in times of liberation and joy.

This liturgy, then, makes hope blossom: it turns to God, asking him to draw near his people again and to hear their plea. In the psalms, dawn is often the moment when God answers, after a night of prayer.

So, the psalm ends with a song of praise to the Lord, who acts with his two great saving attributes; these have already appeared under different names in the first part of the plea (verse 11). Now, described almost as persons, divine Goodness and Faithfulness come on the scene. They flood the heavens with their presence and are like a light shining in the darkness of trials and persecutions (verse 11).

The Christian Reading: Easter Joy Conquers Death

For this reason, Psalm 57 has become, in the Christian tradition, a song of awakening to the light and joy of Easter, which shines on the faithful, removing the fear of death and opening up the prospect of heavenly glory.

Gregory of Nyssa discovers in the words of this psalm a kind of typical description of what happens in every human experience that is open to the recognition of God's wisdom. “Indeed, he saved me,” he exclaims, “by shading me under the cloud of the Spirit, and those who trampled on me have been humiliated” (Sui titoli dei Salmi [On the Titles of the Psalms], Rome, 1994, p. 183).

Then, referring to the phrases at the end of the psalm, where it says, “O God, arise above the heavens; may your glory shine on earth!” Gregory concludes: “To the extent that the glory of God is spreading over the earth—increased by the faith of those who are being saved—the heavenly powers, exulting over our salvation, are raising hymns to God” (ibid., p. 184).