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Commentary on Psalm 143(144):1-8

"Lord, What Is Man That You Care for Him?"

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 14, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave during today's general audience. He dedicated his address to comment on Psalm 143(144):1-8.

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1. Our journey through the Psalter used by the Liturgy of Vespers now brings us to a royal hymn, Psalm 143(144), of which the first part was proclaimed: In fact, the liturgy proposes this hymn dividing it in two sections.

The first part (cf. verses 1 to 8) reveals clearly the literary characteristic of this composition: The psalmist uses quotations from other texts of the Psalms, articulated in a new hymn and prayer.

Given that the psalm belongs to a later period, it is easy to imagine that the king who is exalted no longer has the features of the Davidic sovereign, since Jewish royalty ended with the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C., but rather those of the luminous and glorious figure of the Messiah, whose victory is no longer a martial-political event, but an intervention of liberation against evil. The "messiah," Greek word that indicated the "anointed one," is replaced by the "Messiah" par excellence, who in Christian literature has the face of Jesus Christ, "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1).

2. The hymn begins with a blessing, that is, with an exclamation of praise addressed to the Lord, celebrated with a little litany of salvific titles: He is the sure and stable rock, he is loving grace, he is the protected fortress, the refuge of defense, liberation, the shield that forestalls every evil assault (cf. Psalm 143[144]:1-2). Also appearing is the martial image of God who trains his faithful in the struggle so that he will be able to face the hostilities of the environment, the dark powers of the world.

Despite his royal dignity, before the Almighty Lord, the psalmist feels weak and fragile. Then he expresses a profession of humility that is formulated, as he already said, with the words of Psalms 8 and 38. He feels like "a breath," like "a passing shadow," inconsistent, submerged in the flux of time that passes, marked by the limitation proper to the creature (cf. Psalm 143[114]:4).

3. The question then arises: Why is God concerned about this very miserable and decrepit creature? To this question (cf. verse 3) the grandiose divine apparition responds, the so-called theophany that is accompanied by a procession of cosmic elements and historical events, oriented to celebrate the transcendence of the supreme King of being, of the universe and of history.

Thus, mention is made of mountains that spew forth smoke with volcanic eruptions (cf. verse 5), of flashes of lightning that seem like arrows flung against evildoers (cf. verse 6), of "many" oceanic "waters," symbol of the chaos from which the king is saved by the power of the same divine hand (cf. verse 7). In the background are the foreign foes who "speak untruth" and whose "[right hands are raised in lying oaths]" (cf. verses 7-8), a concrete representation, according to the Semitic style, of idolatry, moral perversion, of the evil that is truly opposed to God and to his faithful.

4. In our meditation, we now pause for a moment on the profession of humility expressed by the psalmist and we will make use of Origen's words, whose commentary on our text has come to us through St. Jerome's Latin version. "The psalmist speaks of the fragility of the body and of the human condition," as in virtue of the human condition, man is nothing. "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity," says Ecclesiastes. The question again arises of wonder and thanksgiving: "'Lord, what is man that you care for him? It is a great happiness for man to know his own Creator. In this we are distinguished from beasts and other animals, as we know we have a Creator, while they do not know it."

It is worthwhile to meditate for a moment on these words of Origen, who sees the fundamental difference between man and the rest of animals in the fact that man is able to know God, his Creator, in the fact that man is capable of truth, of a knowledge that becomes a relationship, a friendship. In our time, it is important that we not forget God, along with the other knowledge that we have acquired in the meantime, which is so much! Such knowledge becomes problematic -- what is more, dangerous -- if the fundamental knowledge is lacking that gives meaning and orientation to everything, if knowledge of God the Creator is lacking.

Let us return to Origen. He says: "You will not be able to save this misery, which is man, if you yourself do not carry him on your shoulders. 'Bow thy heavens, O Lord, and come down.' Your abandoned sheep will not be able to cure itself if you do not carry it on your shoulders. These words are addressed to the Son: 'Bow thy heavens, O Lord, and come down.' You have come down, ...

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