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1. Psalm 91, which we have just heard, the song of the righteous man to God the creator, is given a special place in the ancient Hebrew tradition. In fact, the title given to the Psalm indicates that it is to be sung on the Sabbath (see verse 1). Hence, it is the hymn raised to the Eternal and Most High Lord when, at sundown on Friday, the holy day of prayer, contemplation, [and] serene stillness of body and spirit begins.
The solemn and grandiose figure of God the Most High is at the center of the Psalm (see verse 9), around whom is depicted a harmonious and peaceful world. Also placed before him is the righteous person who, according to a concept dear to the Old Testament, is filled with well-being, joy and long life, as a natural consequence of his honest and faithful existence. This refers to the so-called theory of retribution, according to which every crime is already punished on earth and every good act recompensed. Although there is an element of truth in this view, yet -- as Job will intuit and Jesus confirm (see John 9:2-3) -- the reality of human suffering is much more complex and cannot be so easily simplified. In fact, human suffering must be considered in the perspective of eternity.
2. But let us now examine this wise hymn of liturgical implications. It is made up of an intense call to praise, to the joyous song of thanksgiving, to the festival of music, plucked from the 10-chord harp, the lyre and the zither (see verses 2-4). The love and faithfulness of the Lord must be celebrated through liturgical song that is conducted "with art" (see Psalm 46:8). This invitation is also valid for our celebrations, so that they will recover splendor not only in the words and rites, but also in the melodies that inspire them.
After this appeal never to break the internal and external thread of prayer, true constant breath of faithful humanity, Psalm 91 proposes, as though in two portraits, the profile of the wicked (see verses 7-10) and of the righteous (see verses 13-16). The wicked, however, is placed before the Lord, "forever on high" (verse 9), who will make his enemies perish and will scatter all the evildoers (see verse 10). In fact, only in the divine light is one able to understand the depth of good and evil, of righteousness and wickedness.
3. The figure of the sinner is depicted with vegetable images: "the wicked flourish like grass and all sinners thrive" (verse 8). However, this flowering is destined to dry up and disappear. Indeed, the Psalmist multiplies the verbs and words that describe the devastation: "They are destined for eternal destruction; ... Lord, indeed your enemies shall perish; all sinners shall be scattered" (verses 8,10).
At the root of this catastrophic outcome is the profound evil that grips the mind and heart of the wicked: "A senseless person cannot know this; a fool cannot comprehend" (verse 7). The adjectives used belong to the language of wisdom and denote the brutality, blindness, foolishness of the one who thinks he can rage over the face of the earth without moral consequences, deceiving himself that God is absent and indifferent. Instead, the man of prayer is certain that, sooner or later, the Lord will appear on the horizon to establish justice and break the arrogance of the foolish (see Psalm 13).
4. Here we are, then, before the figure of the righteous, sketched as in a vast colored painting. In this case also there is recourse to fresh and verdant vegetable images (see Psalm 91:13-16). As opposed to the wicked who is luxuriant but ephemeral like the grass of the fields, the righteous rises toward heaven, solid and majestic like a palm or a cedar of Lebanon. The righteous "are planted in the house of the Lord" (verse 14), namely, they have a relation that is extremely solid and stable with the temple and, hence, with the Lord, who has established his dwelling in them.
Christian tradition also toys with the double meaning of the Greek word "phoinix," used to translate the Hebrew term that indicates the palm. "Phoinix" is the Greek name for palm, but also for the bird that we call the "phoenix." Now, it is known that the phoenix was the symbol of immortality, because it was thought that this bird was reborn from its ashes. The Christian lives through a similar experience in his participation in the death of Christ, source of new life (see Romans 6:3-4). "[God] ... even when we were dead in our transgression, brought us to life with Christ" -- the Letter to the Ephesians says -- "[and] raised us up with him" (2:5-6).
5. Another image, taken from the animal kingdom, represents the righteous and is directed to exalting the strength that God lavishes, even in old age. "You have given me the strength of a wild bull; you have poured rich oil upon me" (Psalm 91:11). On one hand, the gift of divine strength makes one triumph and gives security (see verse 12); on the other, the glorious forehead of the righteous is anointed with oil that radiates energy and a protective blessing. Psalm 91, therefore, is an optimistic hymn, strengthened by music and song. It celebrates trust in God who is the source of serenity and peace, even when one witnesses the apparent success of the wicked. A peace that is intact even in old age (see verse 15), a stage still lived in fruitfulness and security.
We conclude with the words of Origen, translated by St. Jerome, which take their cue from the phrase in which the Psalmist says to God: "You have poured rich oil upon me" (verse 11). Origen comments: "Our old age has need of God´s oil. As when our bodies are tired, they are only refreshed by being anointed with oil, as the flame of a lamp is extinguished if oil is not added to it: so, also, the flame of my old age needs to grow with the oil of the mercy of God. The Apostles also went up to the Mount of Olives (see Acts 1:12), to receive light from the oil of the Lord, because they were tired and their lamps had need of the Lord´s oil. ... Hence we pray to the Lord so that our old age, and our every effort, and all our darkness will be illuminated by the oil of the Lord" (74 Homilies on the Book of Psalms -- "Omelie sul Libro dei Salmi," Milan, 1993, pp. 280-282, passim).
[Translation by ZENIT]
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[At the end of the audience, John Paul II read this summary of his address in English.]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Psalm Ninety-One is a hymn of praise to God the Creator. In it, the figure of the wicked person and that of the righteous are presented in stark contrast. The wicked have hearts and minds filled with evil. In the end they are destined to perish. The righteous, on the other hand, are filled with strength by the Lord. They will flourish and sing for ever the praises of God, who anoints them with the oil of gladness and enlightens them with the knowledge of salvation. The hope of the righteous finds its ultimate foundation in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the source of new and everlasting life for all who believe.
I am pleased to greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today´s Audience. Upon all of you, especially those from England, Iceland, Australia, Singapore, Japan, and the United States of America, I invoke the joy and peace of the Risen Savior.
[text distributed by Vatican Press Office]