On Psalm 110, to Christ the King

"We Are Invited to Look to Christ in Order to Understand the Meaning of True Royalty"

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 16, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catecheses Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter's Square. The Pope continued with his series of catecheses on prayer, concluding today his reflection on the prayer of the Psalter.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to conclude my catecheses on the prayer of the Psalter by meditating on one of the most famous "royal psalms" -- a psalm that Jesus Himself quoted and that the authors of the New Testament have amply taken up and read with reference to the Messiah, to Christ. It is Psalm 110 according to the Hebrew tradition, 109 according to the Greco-Latin. It is a psalm much beloved by the ancient Church and by believers in every age. Initially, perhaps, this prayer was linked to the enthronement of a Davidic monarch; yet its meaning extends beyond the specific circumstances of the historical event and opens up to broader dimensions, thus becoming the celebration of the victorious Messiah, glorified at God's right hand.

The psalm begins with a solemn declaration:

"The Lord said to my lord:

"Sit at my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool" (Verse 1).

God Himself enthrones the king in glory, seating him at His right hand, a sign of highest honor and of absolute privilege. The king is thus admitted to share in the divine lordship, and becomes its mediator for the people. The king's lordship is also realized in his victory over his adversaries who are placed at his feet by God Himself. The victory over the enemy is the Lord's, but the king is made a sharer in it, and his triumph becomes a witness and sign of the divine power.

The kingly glorification expressed at the beginning of the psalm was understood in the New Testament as a messianic prophecy. The verse is therefore among the most used by the New Testament authors -- both as an explicit reference and as an allusion. Jesus Himself quotes this verse in speaking of the Messiah, in order to show that the Messiah is more than David, that he is David's Lord (cf. Matthew 22:41-45; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44). And Peter employs it in his speech on the day of Pentecost, announcing that the enthronement of the king has been realized in Christ's Resurrection, and that henceforth Christ stands at the right hand of the Father, as a sharer in God's Lordship over the world (cf. Acts 2:29-35).

It is in fact the Christ, the Lord enthroned, the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God who comes on the clouds of heaven, as Jesus Himself says of Himself during the trial before the Sanhedrin (cf. Matthew 26:63-64; Mark 14:61-62; cf. also Luke 22:66-69). He is the true king who by His Resurrection entered into glory at the Father's right hand (cf. Romans 8:34; Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 8:1, 12:2), made superior to the angels, seated in the heavens above every power with every adversary at His feet, until the last enemy -- death -- is definitively destroyed (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:24-26; Ephesians 1:20-23; Hebrews 1:3-4, 13; 2:5-8; 10:12-13; 1 Peter 3:22). And immediately we understand that this king who is at the right hand of God and who shares in His Lordship, is not one of David's successors, but rather the new David -- the Son of God who conquered death and who truly shares in the glory of God. He is our king who also gives us eternal life.

Between the king whom our psalm extols and God, there exists, then, an indissoluble relationship; the two together rule a single government, so much so that the psalmist is able to affirm that it is God Himself who extends the king’s scepter, giving him the task of ruling over his enemies, as Verse 2 says:

"The scepter of thy power the Lord sends forth from Sion: Rule thou in the midst of thy enemies!"

The exercise of power is a duty the king receives directly from the Lord, a responsibility he must live out in dependence and obedience -- thereby becoming a sign, in the midst of the people, of the powerful and provident presence of God. Dominion over his enemies, glory and victory are gifts received that make of the king a mediator of divine triumph over evil. He rules over his enemies by transforming them -- he conquers them by his love.

Therefore in the verse that follows, the greatness of the king is extolled. Actually, Verse 3 presents several difficulties for interpretation. In the original Hebrew text, reference is made to the summoning of the armies -- to which the people generously respond, rallying around their king on the day of his coronation. The Greek translation of the Septuagint (LXX), which goes back to the third or second century before Christ, makes reference instead to the king's divine sonship, to his birth or generation from the Lord, and this is the interpretive choice of the Church's entire tradition, for which reason the verse is expressed in the following way:

"Thine is princely rule in the day of thy power

in holy splendor:

From the womb before the daystar have I begotten thee."

This divine oracle concerning the king therefore affirms a divine generation suffused with splendor and mystery, a secret and mysterious origin bound to the arcane beauty of the dawn and to the marvel of the dew that in the day’s first light shines upon the fields and makes them fruitful. Thus is there sketched -- in a way indissolubly bound to heavenly realities -- the figure of the king who truly comes from God, the Messiah who brings divine life to His people and who is the mediator of holiness and salvation.

Here also we see that this is not realized by the figure of a Davidic king, but by the Lord Jesus Christ, who truly comes from God -- He is the light who brings divine life to the world.

With this evocative and enigmatic image the first stanza of the psalm ends, and another oracle follows that opens to a new perspective of a priestly dimension related with royalty. Verse 4 reads:

"The Lord has sworn and will not repent:

Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek."

Melchizedek was the kingly priest of Salem who blessed Abram and offered bread and wine following the victorious military campaign conducted by the patriarch to save his nephew Lot from the hands of his enemies who had captured him (cf. Genesis 14). In the figure of Melchizedek, kingly and priestly power converge and now are proclaimed by the Lord in a declaration that promises eternity: The king whom the psalm extols will be a priest forever and the mediator of the divine presence among the people, by means of the blessing which comes from God and which -- in the liturgical action -- meets with man's response of blessing.

The Letter to the Hebrews makes explicit reference to this verse (cf. 5:5-6, 10; 6:19-20), and all of Chapter 7 focuses on it by developing its reflection on the priesthood of Christ. Jesus -- the Letter to the Hebrews thus tells us in light of Psalm 110 (109) -- Jesus is the true and definitive priest, who brings to fulfillment the features of the priesthood of Melchizedek by rendering them perfect.

Melchizedek, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, was "without father or mother or genealogy" (7:3a), a priest therefore not according to the dynastic rules of the Levitical priesthood. For this reason, he "continues a priest for ever" (7:3c), prefiguring Christ the perfect High Priest who "has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life" (7:16). In the Lord Jesus -- risen and ascended into heaven where He sits at the Father's right hand -- the prophecy of our psalm is fulfilled and the priesthood of Melchizedek is brought to completion, for it is made absolute and eternal and becomes a reality that never fades (cf. 7:24).

And the offering of bread and wine, accomplished by Melchizedek in the time of Abram, finds its fulfillment in the Eucharistic act of Jesus, who in the bread and wine offers Himself and who, having conquered death, brings life to all believers. A priest forever, "holy, blameless, unstained" (7:26): He -- the Letter to the Hebrews tells us -- "is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (7:25).

After the divine oracle in Verse 4 -- with solemn judgment the setting of the psalm changes, and the poet -- addressing himself directly to the king -- proclaims: "The Lord is at thy right hand!" (Verse 5a). If in Verse 1, it was the king who was seated at the right hand of God as a sign of highest prestige and honor, now it is the Lord who places Himself at the king’s right to protect him with His shield in battle and to save him from every danger. The king remains in safety, for God is his defender and together they fight and conquer every evil.

Thus, the final verses of the psalm open with the vision of the triumphant king who, supported by the Lord -- and having received from Him power and glory (cf. Verse 2) -- thwarts the enemy by destroying his adversaries and by executing judgment over the nations. The scene is painted with striking colors in order to signify the drama of the combat and the fullness of the royal victory. The king, protected by the Lord, tears down every obstacle and proceeds securely toward victory. He tells us: yes, in the world there is great evil; there is a perennial battle between good and evil, and it appears that evil is stronger. No -- it is the Lord who is mightier -- Christ our true king and priest -- for He battles with all the strength of God, and despite all the things that cause us to doubt history's positive outcome, Christ conquers and the good conquers -- love conquers, not hatred.

And here enter the evocative image and the mysterious word that bring our psalm to a close.

"He will drink from the brook by the way;

Therefore he will lift up his head" (Verse 7).

Amid a description of battle, we see the figure of the king who stands in a moment of truce and rest quenching his thirst at a brook of water -- finding in it relief and renewed vigor in order to resume his triumphant journey with head raised as a sign of definitive victory.

It is obvious that such a mysterious word was a challenge for the Fathers of the Church, on account of the different interpretations that might be given. Thus, for example, St. Augustine says: this brook is the human being -- humanity -- and Christ drank from this brook by becoming man; and thus, by entering into the humanity of the human being, He lifted up His head and now is the Head of the Mystical Body -- He is our head; He is definitively victorious (cf. Ennarratio in Psalmum CIX, 20: PL 36, 1462).

Dear friends, following the New Testament's line of interpretation, the Church’s tradition has held this psalm in high regard as one of the most significant messianic texts. And in an eminent way, the Fathers made continual reference to it as a Christological key: the king of whom the psalmist sings is Christ, the Messiah who establishes the Kingdom of God and who conquers the powers of the world. He is the Word generated by the Father before every creature -- before the dawn -- the Son who was made incarnate, who died, rose and ascended into heaven, the eternal priest who in the mystery of bread and wine, grants the remission of sins and reconciliation with God, the king who lifts up His head by triumphing over death with His Resurrection.

It is enough to remember again a passage of St. Augustine in his commentary on this psalm, where he writes: "It was necessary to know the only Son of God, who was to come among men, who was to assume human nature and who was to become man through the nature He assumed: He died, rose, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the Father's right hand, and He has fulfilled what He promised among all peoples … All this, therefore, had to be prophesied; it had to be announced in advance; it had to be signaled as destined to come, for occurring suddenly it may have caused fear, but rather, having been preannounced, it could be accepted with faith, joy and anticipation. This Psalm is one of those promises, surely and openly prophesying our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; so that we are utterly unable to doubt that Christ is announced in this Psalm" (cf. Enarratio in Psalmum CIX, 3: PL 36, 1447).

The paschal event of Christ is therefore the reality the psalm invites us to consider; [and we are invited] to look to Christ in order to understand the meaning of true royalty, which is to be lived in service and in the gift of oneself, on a path of obedience and love "to the end" (cf. John 13:1 and 19:30). As we pray this psalm, let us therefore ask the Lord to enable us also to proceed along His paths in the following of Christ, the Messiah king -- ready to ascend with Him the mountain of the Cross so that with Him we might attain to glory and contemplate Him seated at the Father's right hand, the victorious king and merciful priest who grants pardon and salvation to all people. And may we, made by God’s grace "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9), be able to draw joyfully from the waters of salvation (cf. Isaiah 12:3) and proclaim to all the world the marvels of Him who has "called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).

Dear friends, in these last catecheses I have wanted to introduce several of the psalms to you -- these precious prayers that we find in the Bible, that reflect life's various situations and the various states of soul that we can have in relation to God. Therefore, I would like to renew to all the invitation to pray the psalms, perhaps forming the habit of using the Church's Liturgy of the Hours -- Lauds in the morning, Vespers in the evening, Compline before going to sleep. Our relationship with God cannot but be enriched in our daily journey to Him and be realized with great joy and trust. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catechesis on Christian prayer, we now turn to Psalm 110, one of the famous "royal psalms", originally linked to the enthronement of a Davidic monarch. The Church reads this Psalm as a prophecy of Christ, the messianic king and eternal priest, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father. Saint Peter, in his speech on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:32-36), applies its words to the Lord’s victory over death and his exaltation in glory. From ancient times, the mysterious third verse of the Psalm has been interpreted as a reference to the king’s divine sonship, while the fourth verse speaks of him as "a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek". The Letter to the Hebrews specifically applies this imagery to Christ, the Son of God and our perfect high priest, who lives eternally to make intercession for all those who, through him, approach the Father (cf. Heb 7:25). The final verses of the Psalm present the triumphant King as executing judgment over the nations. As we pray this Psalm, we acclaim the victory of our risen Lord and King, while striving to live ever more fully the royal and priestly dignity which is ours as members of his Body through Baptism.

I offer a cordial greeting the many student groups present at today’s Audience. My welcome also goes to the delegation of the American Israel Affairs Committee. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims present, especially those from Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Canada and the United States, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2011 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, I greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. Yesterday we remembered St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church, and today we celebrate the memorials of St. Margaret of Scotland -- who performed works of mercy -- and of St. Gertrude, a Cistercian nun. May their example and their intercession encourage you, dear young people, to remain always faithful to the Lord; may they help you, dear sick, to know how to welcome with serene abandonment all that the Lord gives in every situation of life; and may they support you, dear newlyweds, in forming a truly Christian family.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]