Psalm 92 Bolsters Our Optimism and Trust
“Psalm 92 exudes happiness, confidence and optimism,” Pope John Paul II said. “These are the gifts that we need to ask God for especially in these days of ours, when the temptation to discouragement and even despair can easily creep in.”
The Holy Father was speaking to the 9,000 pilgrims from 17 countries who gathered in Rome for his general audience Sept. 3. He was continuing his series of teachings on the psalms and canticles that appear in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Psalm 92 inspired St. Augustine to write a meditation on the value of song and music in prayer, John Paul pointed out. However, the basic theme of the psalm is the contrast between good and evil — the just and the wicked. The just man understands and celebrates God's deeds, is strengthened by prayer and is filled with joy in his old age.
“The just man is rooted in God himself, from whom he receives the sap of divine grace,” the Holy Father said. “The Lord's life nourishes him and transforms him, so that he flourishes and is luxuriant, that is, he is able to give to others and to witness to his own faith.”
The wicked man, on the other hand, lives in darkness and cannot comprehend God's ways. “A momentary stroke of luck makes him cocky and arrogant, but in reality he is very fragile and doomed, after fleeting success, to failure and ruin,” the Holy Father noted.
Psalm 92, which we just heard, is the canticle of a man who is faithful to the holy God. As the ancient title of this composition indicates, it was used in the Jewish tradition as “a Sabbath song” (see verse 1). The hymn opens with a broad appeal to celebrate and praise the Lord in song and music (see verses 2-4). It is a stream of prayer that seems to flow uninteruptedly since God's love must be exalted in the morning, when the day begins, and yet be proclaimed again throughout the day and throughout the hours of the night (see verse 3). Indeed, the reference to musical instruments the psalmist makes in his invitation in the introduction inspired St. Augustine to write the following meditation in his Exposition on Psalm 92: “What does it mean, brothers, to sing a hymn to God with a lute? The lute is a musical instrument that has strings. Our lute is our works. Whoever does good works with his hands sings hymns to God with his lute. Whoever confesses with his mouth sings to God. Sing with your mouth! Sing psalms with your works! … Who, then, are those who sing? Those who do good with joy. Indeed, singing is a sign of cheerfulness. What does the apostle say? ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7). Whatever you do, do it with joy. Then you do good and you do it well. If, on the other hand, you act out of sadness, and even if good is accomplished through your efforts, you are not the one doing it: Hold your lute, do not sing” (Esposizioni sui Salmi, III, Rome, 1976, p. 192-195).
Good and Evil
Through St. Augustine's words, we are able to penetrate to the heart of our meditation and address the basic theme of this psalm: the theme of good and evil. God, who is just and holy, the one who is “forever on high” (see verse 9), the one who is infinite and eternal, from whom nothing that man does can escape unnoticed, carefully weighs both of them.
Thus, two opposite ways of behaving are repeatedly contrasted. The faithful man conducts himself in a way that is devoted to celebrating God's work and to penetrating the depths of the Lord's mind, and in this way his life radiates light and joy (see verses 5-6). On the other hand, the perverse man is characterized by slowness in understanding, that is, incapable of perceiving the hidden meaning of the events in human life. A momentary stroke of luck makes him cocky and arrogant, but in reality he is very fragile and doomed, after fleeting success, to failure and ruin (see verses 7-8). The psalmist, in keeping with an interpretive key that is characteristic of the Old Testament, one of retribution, is convinced that God will reward the just already in this life by granting them happiness in their old age (see verse 15) and will swiftly punish the wicked.
In reality, as Job affirms and as Jesus teaches us, life cannot be interpreted in such a linear way. With this in mind, the psalmist's vision becomes a plea to God, who is just and “on high,” to enter into the train of human events in order to judge them and make his good shine forth.
Later on, the psalmist once again takes up the contrast between the just and the wicked. On one hand, we see the “enemies” of the Lord, the “sinners,” once again doomed to being scattered and defeated (see verse 10). On the other hand, the faithful appear in all their splendor, incarnated in the psalmist, who describes himself with colorful images derived from Eastern symbolism. The just man has the irresistible strength of a wild bull and is prepared to challenge every adversity; his glorious brow has been anointed with the oil of God's protection, which becomes a sort of shield that protects the chosen man and keeps him safe (see verse 11). From the heights of power and security, the psalmist sees the wicked falling into the abyss of their ruin (see verse 12).
Psalm 92 exudes, therefore, happiness, confidence and optimism. These are the gifts we need to ask God for especially in these days of ours, when the temptation to discouragement and even despair can easily creep in.
In the wake of the profound serenity that pervades it, this hymn glances toward the end at the just in their old age and sees that they are equally peaceful. Even when this time is imminent, the spirit of the psalmist will still be vigorous, happy and industrious (see verse 15). He feels like the palm trees and cedars that are planted in the courtyard of the Temple of Zion (see verses 13-14).
The just man is rooted in God himself, from whom he receives the sap of divine grace. The Lord's life nourishes him and transforms him, so that he flourishes and is luxuriant, that is, he is able to give to others and to witness to his own faith. The psalmist's final words, in this description of a righteous and industrious life and of a full and active old age, are in fact connected to the proclamation of the Lord's eternal faithfulness (see verse 16).
We can conclude, therefore, with the proclamation of the song that rises up to our glorious God in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, which is about the terrible struggle between good and evil, but also about hope in Christ's final victory: “Great and wonderful are your works, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations … For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed … You are just, O Holy One, who are and who were, in passing this sentence … Yes, Lord God Almighty, your judgments are true and just.” (Revelation 15:3-4; 16:5, 7).