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Psalm 118 (119)

v105 - 112: Meditation on the word of God in the Law
This is my commandment, that you love each other (Jn 15, 12)

Your word is a lamp for my steps
and a light for my path.
I have sworn and have made up my mind
to obey your decrees.

Lord, I am deeply afflicted;
by your word give me life.
Accept, Lord, the homage of my lips
and teach me your decrees.

Though I carry my life in my hands,
I remember your law.
Though the wicked try to ensnare me,
I do not stray from your precepts.

Your will is my heritage for ever,
the joy of my heart.
I set myself to carry out your will
in fullness, for ever.

v145 - 152: Meditating the word of the Lord in the Law
“When anyone obeys what he has said, God’s love comes to perfection in him” (1 John 2, 5)

I call with all my heart; Lord, hear me,
I will keep your commands.
I call upon you, save me
and I will do your will.

I rise before dawn and cry for help,
I hope in your word.
My eyes watch through the night
to ponder your promise.

In your love hear my voice, O Lord;
give me life by your decrees.
Those who harm me unjustly draw near:
they are far from your law.

But you, O Lord, are close:
your commands are truth.
Long have I known that your will
is established for ever.

Catechesis by Pope St John Paul II on Psalm 118 (119), v 145 - 152
General Audience, Wednesday 14 November 2001 - also in French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

Lauds (Morning Prayer), Saturday Week 1 - Praise God for the gift of His Law

"1. What the liturgy of Lauds for Saturday of the first week offers us is a single strophe of Ps 118[119], (the verses 145-152), in the monumental prayer of 22 strophes or stanzas, that correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each strophe begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the order of the strophes follows that of the alphabet. The one we have proclaimed is the 19th strophe (verses 145-152) corresponding to the letter qoph.

This introductory preface is a great help for understanding the meaning of this hymn in honour of the divine law. It is similar to Eastern music, whose sonorous waves seem never ending, ascending to heaven in a repetition which involves the mind and senses, the spirit and body of the one who prays.

2. In a sequence that goes from "aleph to tav', from the first to the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, we would say from A to Z in our alphabets, the one who prays pours out his thanks for the Law of God, that he adopts as a lamp for his steps in the often dark path of life (cf. v. 105).

It is said that the great philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal recited this fullest of all the psalms every day, while the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, assassinated by the Nazis in 1945, made it become a living and timely prayer when he wrote: "Undoubtedly, Psalm 118 [119] is tedious on account of its length and monotony, but we must proceed very slowly and patiently word by word, phrase by phrase. Then we will discover that the apparent repetitions in reality are new aspects of one and the same reality: love for the Word of God. Since this love is never ending, so are the words that profess it. They can accompany us all our life, and in their simplicity they become the prayer of the youth, the mature man and the venerable old man" (Pray the Psalms with Christ, English translation of the Italian title, Pregare i Salmi con Cristo, Brescia, 1978, 3a edizione, p. 48).

3. The fact of repetition, in addition to helping the memory in the choral chant, is also a good way to foster inner attachment and confident abandonment into the arms of God, who is invoked and loved. Among the repetitions of the Psalm 118 [119], I want to point out an important one. Each of the 176 verses which make up this praise of the Torah, of the divine Law and Word, contains at least one of the eight words used to define the Torah itself: law, word, witness, judgment, saying, decree, precept, and order. We celebrate divine revelation this way because it is the revelation of the mystery of God and the moral guide of the life of the faithful.

In this way God and man are united in a dialogue composed of words and deeds, teaching and listening, truth and life.

4. Now we come to our strophe (cf. vv. 145-152) that is well suited to the spirit of morning Lauds. In fact the scene at the centre of this set of 8 verses is nocturnal, but open to the new day. After a long night of waiting and of prayerful vigil in the Temple, when the dawn appears on the horizon and the liturgy begins, the believer is certain that the Lord will hear the one who spent the night in prayer, hoping and meditating on the divine Word. Fortified by this awareness and facing the day that unfolds before him, he will no longer fear dangers. He knows that he will not be overcome by his persecutors who besiege him with treachery (cf. v. 150) because the Lord is with him.

5. The strophe expresses an intense prayer: "I call with all my heart, Lord; answer me.... I rise before the dawn and cry for help; I hope in your word ..." (vv.145.147). In the Book of Lamentations, we read this invitation: "Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands toward him" (Lam 2,19). St Ambrose repeated: "O man, know you not that every day you should offer God the first fruits of your heart and voice? Make haste at dawn to carry to the Church the first fruits of your devotion" (Exp. in ps. CXVIII; PL 15, 1476 A).

At the same time our strophe is also the exaltation of a certainty: we are not alone because God listens and intervenes. The one who prays, says: "Lord, you are near" (v. 151). The other psalms confirm it: "Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies!" (Ps 68,19); "The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit" (Ps 33,19)."

Catechesis by Pope St John Paul II on Ps 118 (119), 105-106, 109-112
General Audience, Wednesday 21 July 2004 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

1st Vespers (Evening Prayer) Sunday Week 2 - The promise to observe the commandments of God

"1. Let us now continue on our journey through the Psalms proposed by the Liturgy of Vespers. Today we come to the 14th of the 22 strophes that make up Psalm 119[118], a grandiose hymn to the Law of God and an expression of his will. The number of the strophes corresponds to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and suggests fullness; each one is composed of eight verses and of words that begin with the corresponding letter in alphabetical order.

In our case, the first words of the verses we have just heard begin with the Hebrew letter nun. This strophe is illuminated by the shining image in its first line: "Your word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path" (v. 105). Man ventures on life's often dark journey, but all of a sudden the darkness is dispelled by the splendour of the Word of God.

Psalm 19[18] compares the Law of God to the sun, when it says that "the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes" (19[18]: 9). Then in the Book of Proverbs it is reasserted that "the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light" (6: 23). Christ was also to present himself as a definitive revelation with exactly the same image: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (Jn 8: 12).

2. The Psalmist then continues his prayer, calling to mind the suffering and danger in the life he has to lead, in which he stands in need of enlightenment and support: "Lord, I am deeply afflicted: by your word give me life.... Though I carry my life in my hands, I remember your law" (Ps 119[118]: 107, 109).

A dark image pervades the strophe: "the wicked try to ensnare me" (v. 110), the person praying again intimates, making use of a hunting image well known to the Psalter. The faithful know that they are advancing on the highways of the world amid danger, anxiety and persecution; they know that trials are lying in wait. Christians, for their part, know that every day they must carry the Cross up the hill of their Calvary (cf. Lk 9: 23)

3. However, the just keep their fidelity intact: "I have sworn and have made up my mind to obey your decrees... I remember your law... I do not stray from your precepts" (Ps 119[118]: 106, 109, 110). A conscience at peace is the strength of believers; their constancy in obeying the divine commandments is the source of their serenity.

The final declaration is therefore consistent: "Your will is my heritage for ever, the joy of my heart" (v. 111) It is this that is the most precious reality, the "heritage", the "reward" (cf. v. 112) which the Psalmist cherishes with vigilant and ardent love: the teaching and commandments of the Lord. He wants to be totally faithful to the will of his God. On this path he will find peace of soul and will succeed in getting through the dark tangle of trials and reaching true joy.

4. In this regard, St Augustine's words are enlightening. He begins his commentary on Psalm 119[118] by developing the theme of the happiness that derives from observing the Law of the Lord. "From the very beginning, this very long Psalm invites us to happiness, which, as everyone knows, constitutes the hope of every man. Indeed, could there (was there or will there) ever be anyone who did not desire to be happy? And if this is so, what need is there to invite people to a goal that the human soul spontaneously strives for?... Might not the reason be that although we all aspire to happiness, most of us do not know how to attain it? Yes, this is precisely the lesson that is taught by the One who says: "Blessed are those who are undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord'. It seems to say: "I know what you desire; I know you are seeking happiness; if, then, you wish to be happy, be undefiled. All seek the former, whereas few trouble about the latter: however, without it, what all wish for cannot be attained. But where can anyone be undefiled, except in the way, which is none other than the Law of the Lord? Hence, it is those who are undefiled in the way, those who walk in the laws of the Lord who are happy! This exhortation is not superfluous but necessary to our spirit" (Esposizioni sui Salmi, III, Rome, 1976, p. 1113).

Let us make our own the conclusion of the great Bishop of Hippo who reaffirms the continual timeliness of the happiness promised to those who strive faithfully to do God's will."