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Psalm 124 [123]

Catechesis by Benedict XVI
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
Vespers (Evening Prayer), Monday Week 3

Our help is in the name of the Lord

1. We have before us Psalm 124, a song of thanksgiving intoned by the whole community in prayer, raising praise to God for the gift of liberation. The Psalmist opens by proclaiming the invitation: "This is Israel's song" (v1), thus encouraging all the people to raise lively and sincere thanks to God the Saviour. If the Lord had not taken the victims' side, with their limited strength they would have been powerless to free themselves; their adversaries, like monsters, would have torn and shattered them.

Although this Psalm has been thought to refer to some specific historical event, such as the end of the Babylonian exile, it is more likely that it was intended as a heartfelt hymn to thank the Lord for being saved from peril and a plea for liberation from all evil. In this regard it is a Psalm that is ever timely.

2. After the initial reference to certain "men" who rose up against the faithful and would have "swallowed them alive", the song has two passages. In the first, the raging waters, a biblical symbol of devastating chaos, evil and death, predominate: "Then would the waters have engulfed us, the torrent gone over us; over our head would have swept the raging waters" (v4-5). The person of prayer now has the feeling that he lies on a beach, miraculously saved from the pounding fury of the waves.

Human life is surrounded by the snares of evil lying in wait that not only attack the person's life but also aim at destroying all human values. We see how these dangers exist even now. However, the Lord rises - and we can be sure of this also today - to preserve the just and save him, as the Psalmist sings in Psalm 18: "From on high he reached down and seized me; he drew me forth from the mighty waters. He snatched me from my powerful foe, from my enemies... the Lord was my support. He brought me forth into freedom, he saved me because he loved me" (v17-20).

3. The second part of our thanksgiving hymn shifts from the marine image to a hunting scene, typical of many Psalms of supplication. Here, in fact, the Psalm evokes a wild beast clenching its prey between its teeth or the snare of fowlers that captures a bird. But the blessing this Psalm expresses enables us to understand that the destiny of the faithful, that was a destiny of death, has been radically changed by a saving intervention: "Blessed be the Lord who did not give us a prey to their teeth! Our life, like a bird, has escaped from the snare of the fowler. Indeed the snare has been broken and we have escaped" (v6-7).

Here, prayer becomes a sigh of relief that wells up from the depths of the soul: even when all human hopes are destroyed, the divine liberating power can appear. The Psalmist can thus conclude with a profession of faith, which has been part of the Christian liturgy for centuries, as an ideal premise for all our prayers: "Adiutorium nostrum in nomine Domini, qui fecit caelum et terram - Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (v8). In particular, the Almighty takes the side of the victims and the persecuted "who call out to him day and night" and he "will give them swift justice".

4. St Augustine comments clearly on this Psalm. He first observes that it is fittingly sung by the "members of Christ who have reached blessedness". In particular, "it has been sung by the holy martyrs who, upon leaving this world are with Christ in joy, ready to take up incorrupt again those same bodies that were previously corruptible. In life they suffered torments in the body, but in eternity these torments will be transformed into ornaments of justice".

However, in a second instance the Bishop of Hippo tells us that we too, not only the blessed in Heaven, can sing this Psalm with hope. He declares: "We too are enlivened by unfailing hope and will sing in exaltation. Indeed, the singers of this Psalm are not strangers to us... Therefore, let us all sing with one heart: both the saints who already possess the crown as well as ourselves, who with affection and hope unite ourselves to their crown. Together we desire the life that we do not have here below, but that we will never obtain if we have not first desired it".

St Augustine then returns to his former perspective and explains: "The saints think back to the sufferings they encountered, and from that place of bliss and peace where they are now, look at the path they trod to arrive there; and since it would have been difficult to attain deliverance had the hand of the Liberator not intervened to rescue them, they joyfully exclaim: "If the Lord had not been on our side'. This is how their song begins. So great is their joy that they never even speak of that from which they have escaped."

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday 22 June 2005 - © Copyright 2005 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana