During his Jan. 11 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours with a meditation on the first part of Psalm 144. The audience was held in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall with 8,000 people in attendance.
“Since Jewish royalty ended with the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C. and since the psalm belongs to a later period,” the Holy Father explained, “it is easy to see that the king who is exalted no longer represents King David, but rather the glorious and shining figure of the Messiah, whose victory is not a political event or the result of war, but an intervention of freedom against evil.”
The psalm begins with a string of praises exalting the greatness of the Lord. The king, in spite of his royal position, feels weak and fragile before God’s omnipotence.
“The question then arises,” Pope Benedict noted, “Why is God so concerned with this poor and lowly creature?” His questioning evokes a plethora of images of divine intervention that illustrate how the transcendence of the supreme king of the universe saves mankind from idolatry, moral perversion and evil.
The Pope explained how Origen, the early Christian writer, draws to our attention the great happiness we gain through knowing God our Creator. It is this knowledge that distinguishes us from other creatures.
He said, “The psalm, which begins with the discovery that we are weak and far removed from God’s splendor, ends with this great surprise of God’s work: The God-Emmanuel — who in Christianity has the loving face of Jesus Christ, God made man, who became one of us — is with us.”
Our journey through the psalms of the Liturgy of Hours’ evening prayer now brings us to one of the royal psalms, Psalm 144, whose first part we have just heard. The Liturgy of the Hours divides this psalm into two parts.
The first part (see verses 1-8) clearly reveals the literary nature of this composition. The psalmist uses quotations from the texts of other psalms, formulating them into a new hymn and prayer.
The Messiah King
Since Jewish royalty ended with the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C. and since the psalm belongs to a later period, it is easy to see that the king who is exalted no longer represents King David, but rather the glorious and shining figure of the Messiah, whose victory is not a political event or the result of war, but an intervention of freedom against evil. The messiah (anointed one) has been replaced by the Messiah par excellence, who, according to our Christian interpretation, is Jesus Christ, “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).
The hymn begins with a blessing, that is, with shouts of praise unto the Lord, who is celebrated in a little litany of titles indicating salvation: He is our sure and stable rock, our loving safeguard, the fortress that protects us, the stronghold that defends us, our deliverer, and the shield that keeps every evil assault at bay (see Psalm 144:1-2). There is also an image drawn from military life of a God who trains the faithful for battle so that they will be able to face the hostilities that surround them, the dark powers of the world.
Notwithstanding his royal dignity, the psalmist feels weak and fragile before the Lord almighty. At this point he professes his humility, using, as we have already noted, words from Psalms 8 and 39. He feels he is “but a breath,” like “a passing shadow” that is faint and fleeting, submerged in the passing flow of time and marked by the limitations that are proper to his state as a created being (see Psalm 144:4).
The Almighty King
The question then arises: Why is God so concerned with this poor and lowly creature? A grandiose divine apparition — a so-called theophany that is accompanied by a procession of cosmic elements and historical events that celebrate the transcendence of the supreme king of living beings, of the universe and of history — responds to this question (see verse 3).
Thus, mountains spew forth smoke in volcanic eruptions (see verse 5), flashes of lightning seem like arrows that scatter the wicked (see verse 6), yet the king is saved by this very same work of God’s hand from the “many waters” of the ocean — a symbol of chaos (see verse 7). The wicked, who “speak untruth” and whose “right hands are raised in lying oaths” (see verses 7-8) remain in the background, which, according to Semitic style, is a concrete portrayal of idolatry and moral perversion — of the evil that is truly opposed to God and to his faithful.
To Know Christ
In our meditation, we now pause and reflect on the psalmist’s initial profession of humility, guided by some words from Origen, whose commentary on this text was handed down to us by St. Jerome in a Latin translation. “The psalmist speaks of the fragile nature of the body and of the human condition,” since “by virtue of his human condition, man is nothing. ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,’ says Ecclesiastes.” Yet, the question still arises amidst wonder and thanksgiving: “‘Lord, what is man that you care for him?’ … It is a great happiness for man to know his own Creator. In this way we are different from the beasts and other animals because we know we have our Creator while they do not know it.”
It is worthwhile to meditate for a moment on these words from Origen, who sees the fundamental difference between man and other animals in the fact that man is able to know God, his Creator and in the fact that man is capable of truth and of knowledge that becomes a relationship, a friendship. It is important in our times that we do not forget God along with all the other knowledge we have acquired in the meantime — which is a lot! Such knowledge becomes a problem — sometimes dangerous — if the fundamental knowledge that gives meaning and direction to everything is lacking: the knowledge of God our Creator.
God Became Man
Let us return to Origen. He says: “You will not be able to save this misery that is man unless you yourself take him upon your shoulders. ‘Lord, incline your heavens and come.’ Your abandoned sheep will find no relief if you do not carry them on your shoulders. …These words are addressed to the Son: ‘Lord, incline your heavens and come.’ … You have come down, you have lowered the heavens and stretched out your hand from on high; you have deigned to take on yourself the flesh of man and many have believed in you” (Origen-Jerome, 74 Omelie sul Libro dei Salmi, Milan, 1993, pp. 512-515).
For us Christians, God is no longer, as in the philosophy prior to Christianity, a theory but a reality, because God has “inclined the heavens and come.” He himself is heaven, and he has come down in our midst. Origen sees, with good reason, the parable of God’s incarnation in the parable of the lost sheep that the shepherd carries on his shoulders. Indeed, in the incarnation he has come down and taken our flesh — he has taken us — upon his shoulders. In this way, the knowledge of God has become a reality and has become friendship and communion. Let us give thanks to the Lord for “he has inclined his heavens and come,” he has taken our flesh upon his shoulders and he leads us on the path of life.
The psalm, which begins with the discovery that we are weak and far removed from God’s splendor, ends with this great surprise of God’s work: The God-Emmanuel — who in Christianity has the loving face of Jesus Christ, God made man, who became one of us — is with us.
- January 29-February 4, 2006