Beginning the Day Without Fear

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The longest psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119 is both a meditation on how God's law should guide human behavior and a reminder that God is always near, John Paul II said. During his weekly general audience on Nov. 14, the Pope reflected on eight of the psalm's 176 verses, a section that is especially suitable for Morning Prayer.

In these verses, the psalmist looks toward the dawning day with serene trust, following an all-night vigil in which he begged God's help. Comforted, “he no longer fears dangers,” said the Pope. “He knows he will not be overwhelmed by his enemies, because the Lord is by his side.”

Speaking to thousands of pilgrims gathered in Paul VI Hall, the Pope invited all Christians to make this passage a “living and timely prayer.” This, he said, is what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, before his death at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. The Pope also recalled that philosopher-scientist Blaise Pascal prayed the entire psalm every day.

Every Saturday of Week I of the Liturgy of the Hours, puts before us a single section of Psalm 119 for Morning Prayer. This psalm is a monumental prayer made up of some 22 sections—as many as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section is characterized by a certain letter of the alphabet, and each individual verse within a section begins with that letter. The order of the sections follows that of the alphabet. The one we have just proclaimed is the nineteenth section, which corresponds to the letter koph.

This introductory remark, which might seem peripheral, enables us to better understand the meaning of this hymn in honor of the divine Law. It resembles Eastern music, whose resonant modulations seem never-ending and which rise to heaven in a recurrence that engages the psalmist's mind and senses, spirit and body.

Unfolding His Word

In a sequence that runs from the first to the last letter of the alphabet—from ‘aleph to tau, or, as we would say, from A to Z—the psalmist pours out his praise of God's Law, which he takes as a lamp for his steps on the often dark path of life (verse 105).

The great philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal is said to have recited this, the most extensive of all the psalms, every day. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1945, made it a living and timely prayer when he wrote: “Undoubtedly, Psalm 119 is heavy because of its length and monotony, but we must take it very slowly and patiently, word by word, phrase by phrase. We will then discover that the apparent repetitions are really new aspects of one and the same reality: love for the Word of God. Just as this love can never come to an end, neither can the words that proclaim it. They can accompany us throughout our whole life and become, in their simplicity, the prayer of the youth, of the man, of the very old man” (Pregare i Salmi con Cristo, Brescia 1978, p. 48).

Revelation That Guides

The act of repeating, besides helping the memory for choral singing, is therefore a way of stimulating interior attachment and trusting surrender to the arms of God, who is invoked and loved. Among the repetitions of Psalm 119, we wish to point out a very significant one. Each of the 176 verses that make up this praise of the Torah—that is, of the Law and the divine Word—contains at least one of the eight words with which the Torah describes itself: law, word, witness, judgment, saying, decree, precept, order. In this way, divine Revelation is celebrated: it is a revelation of the mystery of God, but also a moral guide for the life of the faithful.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1945, made this psalm a living and timely prayer.

Thus, God and man are united in a dialogue composed of words and works, teaching and listening, truth and life.

Dawn of Hope

We now turn to our section of Psalm 119 (verses 145-152). It is well suited for the atmosphere of Morning Prayer. The scene that is placed at the center of this set of eight verses is in fact nocturnal, but it is open to the new day. After a long night of waiting and prayerful vigil in the temple, when dawn appears on the horizon and the liturgy begins, the believer is certain that the Lord will hear the one who has spent the night praying, hoping, and meditating on the divine Word. Comforted by this awareness, he no longer fears dangers as he faces the day that is opening before him. He knows he will not be overwhelmed by his enemies who treacherously besiege him (verse 150), because the Lord is by his side.

A God Who Is Near

All these verses of the psalm express an intense prayer: “I call with all my heart, O Lord; answer me that I may observe your laws …. I rise before the dawn and cry out; I put my hope in your words” (verses 145, 147). In the Book of Lamentations we read this invitation: “Rise up, shrill in the night, at the beginning of every watch; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord; lift up your hands to him for the lives of your little ones” (Lamentations 2:19). St. Ambrose took up the theme: “O man, know you not that every day you must offer to God the first expressions of your heart and voice? Make haste at dawn to carry to the church the first expression of your piety” (Exp. in Ps. XVIII: PL 15, 1476A).

At the same time, these verses of Psalm 119 are also the exaltation of a conviction: we are not alone, because God listens and intervenes. The psalmist says: “You are near, O Lord” (verse 151). Other psalms affirm the same thing. “Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies!” (Psalm 69:19). “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:19).