The vine incarnates God's love for Israel. Cultivating the vine calls for human collaboration: the good works of justice and fidelity
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 10 April, in his 36th catechesis on the Psalms, the Holy Father commented on Psalm 79, which is a lament, a heartfelt plea to the Lord, invoked as "Shepherd", who is called to save his People, his flock, his vine. The Psalmist uses the imagery of a vine: planted by the Lord and cultivated by man, it flourishes and increases, producing plenty of good fruit. However, on account of human sin, God lets the walls protecting it be broken down and it is overrun by wild beasts, symbols of sin and evil; but God's holy people do not give up hope. They cry out to the Lord. In fact, they learn that it is not God who has abandoned his people, but his people who have turned away from him. Thus we all need to return to the Lord, who is ever ready to save us from sin and the evil it creates. Jesus Christ the Son of Man brings true freedom to his vine. At the end of his catechesis, after greeting the faithful in various languages, the Holy Father appealed to them to implore God for peace in the Holy Land. Here is a translation of the Holy Father's Italian catechesis on Psalm 79.
1. The Psalm we just heard is a song of lament, a plea from the entire people of Israel.
God is the shepherd of Israel
The first part makes use of a famous biblical symbol, the shepherd. The Lord is invoked as "the shepherd of Israel", who "leads Joseph like a flock" (Ps 79,2). From high above the Ark of the Covenant, enthroned among the cherubim, the Lord guides his flock, that is, his people, and protects them in danger.
He did this during the crossing of the desert. Now, however, he seems
absent, as though asleep or indifferent. He feeds the flock he must lead
and nourish (cf. Ps 22) only with the bread of tears (cf. Ps 79,6).
Enemies scoff at this humiliated, despised people; yet God does not seem
to be moved nor "to be stirred up" (v. 3), nor does he reveal his might,
arrayed to defend the victims of violence and oppression. The repetition
of the antiphonal invocation (cf. vv. 4.8), seeks virtually to rouse God
from his detached attitude, so that he will return to be the shepherd and
defender of his
Israel is the vine: God plants it but asks human cooperation to make it grow
2. In the second part of the prayer, full of tension and charged with trust, we find another symbol dear to the Bible: the vine. It is an image easy to understand because it belongs to the vision of the Promised Land and is a sign of fruitfulness and joy.
As the Prophet Isaiah teaches in one of his most exalted poetic passages (cf. Is 5,1-7), the vine is the incarnation of Israel. It illustrates two fundamental aspects: on the one hand, since it has been planted by God (cf. Is 5,2; Ps 79,9-10), it represents the gift, grace and love of God; on the other, it demands the labour of the farmer that enables it to produce grapes that yield wine, and thus symbolize the human response: personal effort and the fruit of good deeds.
Vine recalls the history of Israel, her growth and the tempest that struck her
3. Through the imagery of the vine, the psalm recalls the major milestones of Hebrew history: their roots, the experience of the Exodus from Egypt, their entry into the promised land. The vine attained its full level of extension, extending over the whole of Palestine and beyond, during Solomon's reign. Indeed, it reached out from the northern mountains of Lebanon with their cedars as far as the Mediterranean Sea, almost to the great River Euphrates (cf. w. 11-12).
But this splendid flourishing was shattered. The Psalm reminds us that a tempest struck God's vineyard: in other words, Israel suffered a harsh trial, a brutal invasion that devastated the Promised Land. As though he were an invader, God himself broke down the walls surrounding the vineyard, letting the plunderers break in who are represented by the wild boar, held by an ancient tradition to be a fierce and impure animal. Associated with the ferocity of the boar are all wild beasts, the symbol of an enemy horde that ravages everything (cf. w. 13-14).
Christ and the Church are the true vine, Christ is the Son of Man
4. The Psalmist then directs a pressing appeal to God to come back and defend the victims, to break his silence: "Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine" (v. 15). God will again be the defender of the vital stump of this vine, subjected to such a violent storm, and will scatter all those who have tried to tear it up or set fire to it (cf. vv. 16-17).
At this point, the Psalm opens to messianic hope. Indeed, in verse 18 the Psalmist prays: "Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!". Perhaps his first thought is of the Davidic king who, with the Lord's help, will lead the uprising for freedom. But confidence in the future Messiah is implicit, that "Son of Man" who would be sung by the Prophet Daniel (cf. 7,13-14), a title Jesus would choose as his favorite to define his work and messianic being. Indeed, the Fathers of the Church were unanimous in pointing out that the vine that the psalm describes is a prophetic prefiguration of Christ "the true vine" (Jn 15,1), and of his Church.
God is always ready to return to his people
5. Of course, if the face of the Lord is to shine once again, Israel must be converted through fidelity and prayer to God Our Saviour. This is what the Psalmist says, when he declares: "Then we will never withdraw from you" (Ps 79,19).
So Psalm 79 is a song that is strongly marked by suffering but also by indestructible trust. God is always ready to "return" to his people, but his people must also "return" to him in fidelity. If we turn away from sin, the Lord will be "converted" from his intention to punish: this is the Psalmist's conviction that finds an echo in our hearts and opens them to hope.
L'Osservatore Romano April 17, 2002