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Commentary on Psalm 120
By Pope Benedict XVI

1. As I already announced last Wednesday, I have decided to resume in the catecheses the commentary on the Psalms and canticles that are part of vespers, using the texts prepared by my predecessor John Paul II.

Psalm 120(121), on which we meditate today, is part of the collection of "songs of ascension," that is, of the pilgrimage toward the encounter with the Lord in the temple of Zion. It is a Psalm of trust because in it the Hebrew verb "shamar" -- to keep, to guard -- resounds six times. God, whose name is repeatedly invoked, emerges as the "keeper" always awake, careful and solicitous, the "sentinel" who watches over his people to protect them from every risk and danger.

The song opens with the gaze of the one praying directed on high, "toward the mountains," namely, toward the hills where Jerusalem rises: from on high comes help, because the Lord dwells on high in his holy temple (see verses 1-2). However, the "hills" can also refer to the places where idolatrous shrines rise, the so-called high places, frequently condemned in the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 3:2; 2 Kings 18:4). In this case there is a contrast: While the pilgrim journeys toward Zion, his eyes fall on the pagan temples, which constitute a great temptation for him. But his faith is firm and he has a certainty: "My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth" (Psalm 120[121]:2).

2. This trust is illustrated in the Psalm with the images of the keeper and sentinel, who watch and protect. There is also an allusion to the foot that does not hesitate (see verse 3) on the path of life and perhaps of the shepherd who in his nocturnal rest watches over his flock without slumbering or sleeping (see verse 4). The Divine Shepherd does not rest in watching over his people.

Another symbol follows later, that of "shade," which implies the resumption of the journey during a sunny day (see verse 5). It brings to mind the historical march in the Sinai desert, when the Lord went before Israel "in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way" (Exodus 13:21). In the Psalter, one frequently prays thus: "hide me in the shadow of your wings" (Psalm 16[17]:8; see Psalm 90[91]:1).

3. After the vigil and shade, there is the third symbol, that of the Lord who is at the "right hand" of his faithful one (see Psalm 120[121]:5). This is the position of the defender, both military as well as in a trial: It is the certainty of not being abandoned in the time of trial, of the assault of evil, of persecution. At this point, the Psalmist takes up again the idea of the journey during a hot day in which God protects us from the burning sun.

But night follows day. In antiquity it was thought that moons rays were also harmful, the cause of fever, of blindness, or even of madness; that is why the Lord protects us also at night (see verse 6).

The Psalm comes to an end with a brief statement of trust: God will protect us with love in every instant, keeping our life from all evil (see verse 7). All our activity, summarized in the two extreme verbs of "going out" and "coming in," is always under the Lord's vigilant gaze, every act of ours and all our time, "both now and forever" (verse 8).

4. We now wish to comment on this last statement of trust with a spiritual testimony of the ancient Christian tradition. In fact, in the Epistles of Barsanuphius of Gaza (who died around the middle of the sixth century) -- a very famous ascetic, questioned by monks, ecclesiastics and lay people because of the wisdom of his discernment -- the verse of the Psalm is recalled several times: "The Lord will keep you from all evil, he will keep your life." In this way, he wished to comfort all those who manifested their toils, the trials of life, the dangers, and the misfortunes.

On one occasion, when Barsanuphius was asked by a monk to pray for him and his companions, he answered including in his good wishes the quotation of this verse: "My beloved children, I embrace you in the Lord, imploring him to keep you from all evil and to give you endurance like Job, grace like Joseph, meekness like Moses and courage in combats like Joshua, the son of Nun, mastery of your thoughts like the Judges, the subjection of enemies as to kings David and Solomon, fruitfulness of the earth as to the Israelites. May he grant you the remission of your sins with healing of the body like the paralytic. May he rescue you from the waves like Peter, and snatch you from tribulation like Paul and the other apostles. May he keep you from all evil, as his true children and grant you, in his name, what your heart requests, for the benefit of the soul and body. Amen" (Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, Epistles, 194: "Collana de Testi Patristici" [Collection of Patristic Texts], XCIII, Rome, 1991, pp. 235-236).

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August 28, 2014

Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

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