On Psalm 119, the Acrostic Psalm

"Wholly Pervaded by Love for God's Word"

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 9, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at today's general audience.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In previous catecheses, we meditated on several of the psalms that exemplify the typical kinds of prayer: lament, trust and praise. In today's catechesis, I would like to turn to a consideration of Psalm 119 according to the Hebrew tradition, 118 according to the Greco-Latin: It is a very special psalm, the only one of its kind. First, it is unique for its length: It is composed of 176 verses, divided into 22 stanzas of eight verses each. Then, it has the peculiar characteristic of being an "acrostic alphabet": It is constructed, that is, according to the Hebrew alphabet, which is made up of 22 letters. Each stanza corresponds to a letter of that alphabet, and with this letter the first word of the stanza's eight verses begins. It is an original and very demanding literary construction in which the psalm's author had to employ all his skill.

But what is more important for us is this psalm's central theme: It is, in fact, an imposing and solemn hymn about the Lord's Torah; i.e., about His Law -- a term which in its broadest and most complete acceptation is understood as teaching, instruction, as a directive for life. The Torah is revelation; it is the Word of God that questions man and calls forth from him a response of trusting obedience and of generous love. 

And this psalm is wholly pervaded by love for God's Word -- it extols its beauty, its saving power, and its capacity to bestow joy and life. For the divine Law is not a heavy yoke of slavery but a gift of grace that liberates and leads to happiness. "I will delight in thy statues; I will not forget thy word" (Verse 16); and again: "Lead me in the path of thy commandments, for I delight in it" (Verse 35), and yet again: "Oh, how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day" (Verse 97). The Lord's Law, His Word, is the center of the life of the one praying; in it he finds consolation, he makes it the object of his meditation, he keeps it in his heart: "I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee" (Verse 11), and this is the secret of the psalmist's happiness; and again: "The godless besmear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep thy precepts" (Verse 69).

The psalmist's faithfulness is born of listening to the Word, of keeping it in his inmost heart, of meditating on it and loving it -- like Mary, who "kept all these things, pondering ... in her heart" the words that had been spoken to her and the wondrous events wherein God revealed Himself and asked her assent of faith (cf. Luke 2:19,51). And if our psalm begins in its first verses by proclaiming "blessed" "those who walk in the law of the Lord" (Verse 1b) and "who keep His testimonies" (Verse 2a), it is again the Virgin Mary who brings to completion the perfect figure of the believer described by the psalmist. She, in fact, is the truly "blessed" one, and was declared so by Elizabeth, for she "believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Luke 1:45).  And it is to her and to her faith that Jesus Himself gives testimony when, to the woman who cried out "blessed is the womb that bore you," He responds: "Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!" (Luke 11:27-28). Certainly, Mary is blessed because she carried the Savior in her womb, but she is blessed above all for having welcomed the announcement of God, for having been the attentive and loving keeper of His Word.

Psalm 119 is therefore wholly woven around this Word of life and blessedness. If its central theme is the "Word" and the "Law" of the Lord, alongside these words there also recur, in nearly all of the verses, the synonyms "precepts," "decrees," "commands," "teachings," "promise," "judgments"; and then also many related verbs such as to observe, to keep, to understand, to know, to love, to meditate upon, to live. The entire alphabet unfolds through the 22 stanzas of this psalm, as does the whole vocabulary of the believer's trusting relationship with God; therein we find praise, thanksgiving and trust, but also supplication and lament -- always pervaded, however, by the certainty of divine grace and of the power of God's Word. Even the stanzas most notably marked by suffering and a sense of darkness remain open to hope and permeated by faith. "My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to thy word" (Verse 25), the psalmist trustingly prays; "For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten thy statutes" (Verse 83) is the cry of the believer. His fidelity, even though put to the test, finds strength in the Lord's Word: "Then shall I have an answer for those who taunt me, for I trust in thy word" (Verse 42), he resolutely affirms; and even before the agonizing prospect of death, the Lord's commands are his point of reference and his hope for victory: "They have almost made an end of me on earth; but I have not forsaken thy precepts" (Verse 87). 

The divine law -- the object of the Psalmist's ardent love and that of every believer -- is a fount of life. The desire to understand it, to observe it, to orient one's whole being toward it is the defining characteristic of the just man who is faithful to the Lord, who "meditates on it day and night" as Psalm 1 states (Verse 2); it is a law -- God's Law -- which is to be held "upon the heart," as the well known text of the Shema in Deuteronomy states:

"Hear, O Israel … these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (6:4, 6-7).

As the center of life, God's Law asks for the heart's listening -- a listening carried out in an obedience that is not servile but filial, trusting and mindful. Hearing the Word is a personal encounter with the Lord of life, an encounter that must be translated into concrete choices and become a path and a sequela. When asked what must be done to have eternal life, Jesus points to the path of the observance of the Law, but He does so by indicating how it is to be brought to completion: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Mark 10:21). The fulfillment of the Law is to follow Jesus, to take the path of Jesus, in company with Jesus. 

Psalm 119 leads us therefore to an encounter with the Lord, and it orients us toward the Gospel. In it, there is a particular verse which I would now like to pause to consider: It is verse 57: "The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep thy words." In other psalms also, the one praying affirms that the Lord is his "portion," his inheritance: "The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup" (Verse 5a), Psalm 16 states; "God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever" (Verse 26), proclaims the faithful one in Psalm 73; and again, in Psalm 142 the psalmist cries to the Lord: "Thou art my refuge, my portion in the land of the living" (Verse 5b).

The word "portion" evokes the event of the apportionment of the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel, when the Levites were assigned no portion of the territory, because their "portion" was the Lord Himself. Two texts from the Pentateuch are explicit in this regard, and employ the word in question: "The Lord said to Aaron: 'You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them; I am your portion and inheritance among the people of Israel" declares the Book of Numbers (18:20), and Deuteronomy reasserts: "Therefore Levi has no portion of inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him" (Deuteronomy 10:9; cf. Deuteronomy 18:2; Joshua 13:33; Ezekiel 44:28).

The priests, who belonged to the tribe of Levi, could not be proprietors of land in the Land that God was giving as an inheritance to His people, thus bringing to fulfillment the promise made to Abram (cf. Genesis 12: 1-7). The possession of land, a fundamental element of stability and of the possibility of survival, was a sign of blessing, since it implied the possibility of building a home, of raising children, of cultivating the land and of living from the fruits of the earth. The Levites, as mediators of the sacred and divine benediction, cannot possess -- as the other Israelites -- this exterior sign of blessing and this source of sustenance. Wholly given to the Lord, they must live from Him alone, abandoned to His provident love and to the generosity of the brethren, without having an inheritance -- since God is their portion of the inheritance, God is their land, who makes them live in fullness.

And now, the one praying Psalm 119 applies this reality to himself: "The Lord is my portion." His love for God and for His Word leads him to the radical choice of having the Lord as his only good and also of keeping His words as a precious gift, more highly valued than every inheritance, than every earthly possession. Our verse, in fact, has the possibility of a double translation and may be rendered also in this manner: "My portion, O Lord, I said, is to keep thy words." The two translations do not contradict one another but indeed complete one another: The psalmist is affirming that his portion is the Lord, but also that keeping the divine words is his inheritance, as he will go on to say in Verse 111: "Thy testimonies are my heritage forever; yea, they are the joy of my heart." This is the psalmist's happiness: To him, as to the Levites, the Word of God was given as his portion of the inheritance.

Beloved brothers and sisters, these verses are of great importance also today for us all. First and foremost for priests, who are called to live only from the Lord and from His Word, without other securities, having Him as their only good and only source of true life. In this light we can understand the free choice of celibacy for the Kingdom of heaven, which should be rediscovered in its beauty and strength. 

But these verses are also important for all the faithful, the People of God who belong to Him alone, "a kingdom of priests" for the Lord (cf. 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10), who are called to the radicality of the Gospel, to be witnesses to the life brought by Christ, the new and definitive "High Priest" who offered Himself in sacrifice for the salvation of the world (cf. Hebrews 2:17; 4:14-16; 5:5-10; 9:11ff). The Lord and His Word: these are the "land" we live in, in communion and in joy.

Let us therefore allow the Lord to place within our hearts this love for His Word, and may He grant us always to have Him and His will as the center of our lives. Let us ask that our prayer and our entire lives be enlightened by God’s Word, that it be a lamp for our feet and a light to our path, as Psalm 119 states (cf. Verse 105), so that our way may be secure, in the land of men. And may Mary, who welcomed and gave birth to the Word, be for us a guide and comfort, the star who points out the way of happiness.

Then we, too, in our prayer -- like the author of Psalm 16 -- shall rejoice in the Lord’s unexpected gifts and in the unmerited inheritance that falls to us:

"The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup ...

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; 

yea, I have a goodly heritage" (Psalm 16:5-6).

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catechesis on Christian prayer, we now turn to Psalm 119, a solemn celebration of the Torah, the Law of the Lord. In twenty-two stanzas, each beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Psalmist proclaims his love for God's Law, which brings light, life and salvation. His song voices the range of sentiments which fill the hearts of those who pray: praise, thanksgiving, trust, supplication and lament, all within the context of a heartfelt openness to the Lord's word. In praying this Psalm, Christians see in the Blessed Virgin Mary the model of this loving docility to God's will, and in Jesus the fulfilment of the Law. A striking example of the Psalmist's devotion is seen in his words: "The Lord is my portion" (v. 57). We can apply these words in a special way to priests, whose lives of celibacy testify to their call to complete devotion to the Lord and his Kingdom. But they can also be applied to all the faithful, who share in Christ's royal priesthood and are called daily to bear witness to the Gospel. May the Lord grant us a deeper love for him, so that, like the Psalmist, we may always make his word "a lamp to our feet and a light to our path".

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I welcome the priest jubilarians from England and Wales and I assure them of my prayers for the spiritual fruitfulness of their ministry. I also greet the Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres taking part in a programme of spiritual renewal. I also greet the members of American Society of the Italian Legion of Merit, and I thank the members of the brass ensemble from Malta for their musical offering. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims present, especially those from England, Denmark, the Philippines, Canada and the United States, I invoke God's blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2011 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[He added this appeal in Italian:]

At this time various parts of the world, from Latin America -- especially Central America -- to South-East Asia, have been struck by storms, flooding and landslides that have lead to many deaths, missing persons and homeless. Once more, I desire to express my closeness to all those who are suffering through these natural disasters, and I invite everyone to pray for the victims and their families and to remain united with them, so that institutions, and men and women of good will, might collaborate with a generous spirit in helping the thousands of persons tried by these calamities.

[And he concluded with these greetings:]

Lastly, my thoughts go to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. Dear young people, plan for the future in complete fidelity to the Gospel, and grow according to the teaching and example of Jesus. You, dear sick, offer your suffering to the Lord, so that thanks also to your participation in His sufferings, He may extend His saving action in the world. In the path you have begun, may you, dear newlyweds, be guided by a joyous faith to always serve life, which is God's gift.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]