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1. In the different Canticles that it combines with the Psalms, the Liturgy of the Hours also presents us a hymn of thanksgiving entitled: "The song of Hezekiah, king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his illness" (Isaiah 38:9). It is found in a section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, of a historical-narrative nature (see Isaiah 36-39), whose data stress, with some variations, those presented in the Second Book of Kings (see Chapters 18-20).
Following the liturgy of lauds, today we have heard and transformed into prayer two great stanzas of that canticle that describe the two movements characteristic of thanksgiving prayers: on one hand, the nightmare of suffering is evoked of which the Lord has delivered his faithful and, on the other, there is joyful singing in gratitude for the recovery of life and salvation.
King Hezekiah, a just sovereign and friend of the prophet Isaiah, was struck by a serious illness, which the prophet Isaiah said was mortal (see Isaiah 38:1). "Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord: O Lord, remember how faithfully and wholeheartedly I conducted myself in your presence, doing what was pleasing to you!´ And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: ´Go, tell Hezekiah: Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you ... I will add fifteen years to your life´" (Isaiah 38:2-5).
2. At this point, the canticle of thanksgiving springs from the king´s heart. As I said earlier, he first turns to the past. According to Israel´s ancient conception, death introduced one to a subterranean horizon, known in Hebrew as Sheol, where light was extinguished; life was attenuated, becoming almost spectral; time ceased, hope was extinguished, and above all, one no longer had the possibility of invoking and finding God in worship.
This is why Hezekiah recalled first of all the words full of bitterness pronounced when his life was slipping toward the frontier of death: "I shall see the Lord no more in the land of the living" (verse 11). The Psalmist also prayed like this in the day of illness: "For who among the dead remembers you? Who praises you in Sheol?" (Psalm 6:6). Instead, freed from the danger of death, Hezekiah could confirm with force and joy: "The living, the living give you thanks, as I do today" (Isaiah 38:19).
3. Precisely on this subject the canticle of Hezekiah acquires a new tone, if read in the light of Easter. Already in the Old Testament great flashes of light were reflected in the Psalms, when the man of prayer proclaimed his certainty that "you will not abandon me to Sheol, nor let your faithful servant see the pit. You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever" (Psalm 15:10-11; see Psalm 48 and 72). For his part, the author of the Book of Wisdom, no longer hesitates to affirm that the hope of the righteous is "full of immortality" (Wisdom 3:4), because he is convinced that the experience of communion with God lived during the earthly life will not be broken. We will remain always beyond death, sustained and protected by the eternal and infinite God, because "the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them" (Wisdom 3:1).
In particular, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, a seed of eternity was planted and made to sprout in our mortal perishability, which is why we can repeat the words of the Apostle, based on the Old Testament: "And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: ´Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, o death, is thy victory? Where, o death, is your sting?´" (1 Corinthians 15:54-55; see Isaiah 25:8; Hosea 13:14).
4. However, the song of King Hezekiah also invites us to reflect on the frailty of the creature. The images are thought-provoking. Human life is described with the nomadic symbol of the tent: We are always pilgrims and guests on earth. It refers also to images of cloth, which is woven and can remain incomplete when the thread is cut and the work is interrupted (see Isaiah 38: 12). The Psalmist feels the same sensation: "You have given my days a very short span; my life is as nothing before you. All mortals are but a breath. Mere phantoms, we go our way; mere vapor, our restless pursuits" (Psalm 38:6-7). We must recover an awareness of our limitations, know that "Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; Most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone," as the Psalmist says again (Psalm 89:10).
5. Therefore, in the day of sickness and suffering it is right to raise one´s lament to God, as Hezekiah teaches us, using poetic images, he describes his weeping as the chirping of a swallow and the moaning of a dove (see Isaiah 38:14). And, even if he hesitates to admit that he feels God as an adversary, almost like a lion that breaks all his bones (see verse 13), he does not cease to invoke him: "O Lord, I am in straits; be my surety!" (verse 14).
The Lord is not indifferent to the tears of the one who suffers, and he responds, consoles and saves, although not always in ways that coincide with our expectations. It is what Hezekiah confesses at the end, encouraging all to hope, to pray and to have confidence, in the certainty that God will not abandon his creatures: "The Lord is our savior; we shall sing to stringed instruments / In the house of the Lord all the days of our life" (verse 20).
6. The medieval Latin tradition conserves a spiritual commentary on this canticle of King Hezekiah written by Bernardo di Chiaravalle, one of the most representative mystics of Western monasticism. It is the third of various Sermons, in which Bernardo, applying to the life of each one the drama lived by the sovereign of Judah and, internalizing the content, writes among other things: "I will bless the Lord at all times, namely from morning until evening, as I have learned to do, and not like those who only praise you when you do good to them, nor like those who believe for a certain time, but in the hour of temptation give way; but as the saints, I will say: If we received good from God´s hand, should we not also accept evil? Thus both these moments of the day will be a time of service to God, because at night there will be weeping, and in the morning, joy. I will submerge myself in suffering at night so that I can then enjoy the happiness of the morning" (Scriptorium Claravallense, Sermo III, No. 6, Milan 2000, pp. 59-60).
Thus, the king´s supplication is read by St. Bernardo as a representation of the praying song of the Christian, which must resound with the same constancy and serenity in the darkness of the night and of trial as in the light of day and of joy.
[Translation by ZENIT]
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[At the end of the audience, the Pope read the following summary in English.]
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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Canticle of Hezekiah, a King of ancient Israel, is presented in two distinct parts. The first part speaks of the terrible prospects of suffering and death which assail the Lord´s servant. The second part is a joyful hymn of thanksgiving for the new life and salvation which God has given.
This Canticle invites us to reflect on our fragile condition as creatures. In times of sickness and suffering it is proper to raise cries of lament to the Lord, for he hears us and is not indifferent to our tears. In good times too, we are to place our trust in the Lord and sing his praise with a grateful heart. Hezekiah´s hymn thus becomes a model for Christian prayer: whether in the darkness of anguish and suffering, or in the bright light of joy and salvation, Christians should raise their voices to God and invoke the Holy One who is their Creator and Saviour.
I gladly offer warm greetings to the English-speaking visitors present today. I express my encouragement to the groups of priests and religious who are following courses of continuing education. Upon all of you, especially the pilgrims from Denmark, Norway, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kuwait, Japan and the United States of America, I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
[text distributed by Vatican Press Office]