Meditation on Psalm 29(30)

A Hymn of Thanksgiving for Deliverance From Death

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 12, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave today at the general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on Psalm 29(30).



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1. An intense and gentle thanksgiving rises to God from the heart of the one praying, after the nightmare of death has been dispelled in him. This is the sentiment that emerges forcefully from Psalm 29(30), which has just resounded not only in our ears but, without a doubt, also in our hearts.

This hymn of thanksgiving has great literary fineness and is based on a series of contrasts which express in a symbolic way the deliverance obtained from the Lord. In this way, the descent into "the pit" is opposed by the bringing "up from Sheol" (verse 4); God's "anger" of "a moment" is replaced by his "favor" for "a lifetime" (verse 6); the "weeping" of the night is followed the "rejoicing" of the morning (ibid.); "mourning" is succeeded by "dancing," the dress of "sackcloth" by that of "gladness" (verse 12).

The night of death having passed, the dawn of a new day arises. For this reason, Christian tradition has read this Psalm as a paschal song. It is attested by the opening quotation that the edition of the liturgical text of vespers takes from John Cassian, a great monastic writer of the fourth century: "Christ renders thanks to the Father for his glorious resurrection."

2. The one praying addresses the "Lord" repeatedly -- no less than eight times -- either to announce that he will praise him (see verses 2 and 13), or to recall the cry directed to him in the time of trial (see verses 3 and 9) and his liberating intervention (see verses 2, 3, 4, 8 and 12), or to invoke his mercy again (see verse 11). In another passage, the one praying invites the faithful to sing hymns to the Lord to render thanks to him (see verse 5).

The sensations oscillate constantly between the terrible memory of the nightmare experienced and the joy of deliverance. Of course, the danger left behind is grave and it still causes shuddering; the memory of past suffering is still clear and vivid; weeping has been dried from the eyes only a short while ago. But now the dawn of a new day has arisen; death has been followed by the prospect of continuing life.

3. The Psalm thus shows that we must never be ensnared by the dark confusion of despair, when it seems that everything is lost. Of course, one must not fall into the illusion of being able to save oneself, with one's own resources. The Psalmist, in fact, is tempted by pride and self-sufficiency: "Complacent, I once said: 'I shall never be shaken'" (verse 7).

The Fathers of the Church also reflected on this temptation that insinuates itself in times of well-being, and they saw in the trial a divine call to humility. It is, for example, what Fulgentius, bishop of Ruspe (467-532), says in his Epistle 3, addressed to the religious Proba, in which he comments on the passage of the Psalm with these words: "The Psalmist said that at times he would be proud to be healthy, as if it was a virtue of his, and that in this he discovered the danger of a very grave illness. In fact, he says: 'In my prosperity I said: "I shall never be moved."' And for having said this he was abandoned by the support of divine grace and, disturbed, having precipitated into his infirmity, continued saying: 'In your goodness, O Lord, you have placed me on a secure mountain, but when you hid your face, I was disturbed.' Moreover, to show that the help of divine grace, even though he already had it, must nevertheless be invoked humbly and without interruption, he adds: 'To you I cry out, Lord, I ask my God for help.' No one, asks for help if he does not recognize his need, nor does he think he can keep what he has by trusting only in his own virtue" (Fulgentius of Ruspe, "Le Lettere" (The Letters), Rome, 1999, p. 113).

4. After having confessed the temptation to pride that he had in the time of prosperity, the Psalmist recalls the trial that followed, saying to the Lord: "when you hid your face I was struck with terror" (verse 8). The one praying now recalls the way in which he implored the Lord (see verses 9-11): He cried out, asked for help, prayed to be preserved from death, giving as the reason the fact that death does not bring any advantage to God, as the dead are no longer able to praise God and no longer have any reason to proclaim fidelity to God, having been abandoned by him.

We find the same argument in Psalm 87, in which the one praying, who is close to death, asks God: "Is your love proclaimed in the grave, your fidelity in the tomb?" (Psalm 87,12). Similarly King Hezekiah, gravely ill and then cured, said to God: "For it is not the nether world that gives you thanks, nor death that praises you. … The living, the living give you thanks" (Isaiah 38:18,19).

In this way, the Old Testament expressed the intense human desire of God's victory over death and refers to similar cases in which this victory was obtained: people menaced by death from hunger in the desert, prisoners fleeing from the death penalty, the sick healed, sailors saved from shipwreck (see Psalm 106[107]:4-32). They were, however, victories that were not final. Sooner or later, death prevailed.

Yet, despite everything, the aspiration to victory was maintained and became, in the end, a hope of resurrection. The satisfaction of this powerful aspiration was fully assured with the resurrection of Christ, for which we can never thank God enough.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the following summary was read in English by an aide of the Pope:]

Psalm 29, sung at the beginning of today's audience, is a hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance from death. The Psalmist forcefully contrasts his earlier anguish with the joy of his restoration to life, hope and freedom. His crisis has enabled him to pass from the illusion of self-sufficiency to an abiding trust in the Lord, who remains ever faithful to his promises.

The Psalm is an encouragement never to despair of God's saving power, even in the face of death. The Church reads this Psalm in the light of Christ's passover from death to life at Easter, which fulfills the deepest desire of every human heart by offering the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I welcome the personnel of the NATO Defense College and I offer prayerful good wishes for their efforts to promote international peace and security. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today's audience, especially those from England, Finland and the United States of America, I invoke an abundance of joy and peace in the Risen Lord.