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God Alone Governs History

BY Jim Cosgrove

June 08-14, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/8/03 at 1:00 PM

 

Psalm 108, which we just heard, is part of the sequence of psalms in the morning prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours that has been the theme of our weekly catechesis. At first glance, it has one surprising characteristic.

The composition consists of two passages from earlier psalms — one from Psalm 57 (verses 8-12) and the other from Psalm 60 (verses 7-14). The first passage sounds like a hymn, while the second passage is like a prayer of petition that contains an inspired word from God that imparts a sense of peacefulness and confidence to the psalmist.

This fusion gives birth to a new prayer, thereby becoming an example for us. Actually, our Christian liturgy often combines different biblical passages and transforms them into a new text that is designed to shed light on new situations. However, the connection with the original texts is still there. Indeed, Psalm 108 (although this is not the only one; see Psalm 144, to mention just one other example) shows how already in the Old Testament Israel would use the word that God had revealed in a different way in order to make it relevant for current times.

A New Song

The psalm that results from this combination is, therefore, something more than the simple sum or juxtaposition of two pre-existing passages. Instead of beginning with a humble plea like Psalm 57, “Have mercy on me, God, have mercy on me” (verse 1), the new psalm begins with a resolute proclamation of praise to God: “My heart is steadfast, God…I will sing and chant praise” (Psalm 108:1). This praise takes the place of the lament found at the beginning of the other psalm (see Psalm 60:1-6), and thus becomes the basis of the inspired word from God that follows (Psalm 60:8-10; Psalm 108:8-10) and the plea that precedes and follows it (Psalm 60:7,11-14; Psalm 108:7,11-14). Hope and despair blend together to form the basis of a new prayer that aims at sowing trust, even during the time of trial that the whole community is experiencing.

Thus, the psalm opens with a joyful hymn of praise. It is a morning song that is accompanied by harp and lyre (see Psalm 108:3). The message is clear and is centered on God's “love” and “truth” (see verse 5). In Hebrew, these words hÈsed and 'emËt are terms that are typically used to define the Lord's loving faithfulness to his covenant with his people. On the basis of this faithfulness, God's people can be sure that he will never abandon them to the abyss of nothingness and despair.

God Is Exalted

The Christian interpretation of this psalm is particularly thought provoking. In verse 6, the psalmist celebrates God's transcendent glory: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.” When commenting on this psalm, Origen, the famous Christian writer of the third century, recalled Jesus' words: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12:32), which refers to the crucifixion. The effect of the crucifixion is what is affirmed in the subsequent verse: “that your loved ones may escape” (Psalm 108:7). Origen concluded with these words: “What a wonderful meaning! The reason why the Lord was crucified and exalted was so that his loved ones may be delivered…All that we asked for has come true: He has been exalted and we have been delivered” (Origen-Jerome, 74 Omelie sul Libro dei Salmi, Milan, 1993, p. 367).

God Governs History

Let us now turn to the second part of Psalm 108, which, as we have noted, is a partial quote from Psalm 60. Although Israel in its anguish feels that God is absent and distant (“Was it not you who rejected us, God?” in verse 12), the voice of the Lord resounds in the Temple (see verses 8-10). In this revelation, God appears as arbiter and lord of all his Holy Land, from the city of Shechem to the valley of Succoth that lies beyond the Jordan, and from the eastern regions of Gilead and Manasseh to the southern centers of Ephraim and Judah until finally reaching the vassal but foreign territories of Moab, Edom and Philistia.

In colorful military and juridical images, God's lordship over the Promised Land is proclaimed. If the Lord reigns, there is no reason to fear: We are not tossed here and there by the dark forces of fate or chaos. There is at all times, even in the darkest moments, a higher plan that governs history.

This faith enkindles the flame of hope. In any event, God will show us a way out, a “fortified city” located in the area around Edom. This means that, in spite of trial and silence, God will return and will reveal himself in order to sustain and guide his people. Decisive help can only come from him and not from foreign military alliances or from human help (see verse 13). He alone is the source of freedom and through him alone “we will triumph” (see verse 14).

With St. Jerome, let us recall the psalmist's last lesson, interpreted in a Christian perspective: “No one must despair in this life. You have Christ yet you are afraid? He will be our strength, he will be our bread, and he will be our guide” (Breviarum in Psalmos, Ps. CVII: PL 26, 1224).