'Sing to the Lord a new song!'

Amid any personal or even worldwide problems, faith in God gives the believer hope for the future and confidence to persevere

At the General Audience in St Pe­ter's Square on Wednesday, 2 April, the Holy Father commented on the Canticle found in the 42nd chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Composed at the time of Israel's return from the Exile, the hymn invites all creation to sing the triumph of God's justice and sav­ing power. The following is a transla­tion of the Holy Father's 70th catech­esis in the series on the Psalms and Canticles, which was given in Italian
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1. In the Book that bears the Prophet Isaiah's name, scholars have identified various voices all of which are placed under the patronage of this great prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C. This is the case with the vigorous hymn of joy and victory that has just been proclaimed as part of the Liturgy of Lauds of the Fourth Week. Exegetes refer to it as the so-called "Second Isa­iah", a prophet who lived in the sixth century B.C., at the time of the return of the Hebrews from the Babylonian Exile. The hymn begins with an appeal to "sing to the Lord a new song" (cf. Is 42:10), as in other Psalms (cf. 95[96]:1 and 97[98]:1).

The "newness" of the song that the Prophet invites the Hebrews to sing cer­tainly refers to the unfolding horizon of freedom, a radical turning-point in the history of a people which experienced oppression and exile in a foreign land (cf. Ps 136[137]).

Sing a 'new song' to the Lord

2. In the Bible, "newness" often has the flavour of a perfect and definitive reality. It is almost the  sign of the be­ginning of an era of saving fullness that seals humanity's tormented history. The Canticle of Isaiah has this exalted tone that is well suited to Christian prayer.

The whole world, including the earth, sea, coastlands, deserts and cities, is in­vited to sing to the Lord a "new song" (cf. Is 42:10-12). All space is involved, even its furthest horizons that also con­tain the unknown, and its vertical di­mension, which rises from the desert plain, the dwelling place of the nomadic tribes of Kedar (cf. Is 21:16-17), and soars to the mountains. High up, in the territory of the Edomites, we can locate the city of Sela which many people have identified with Petra, a city placed between the rocky peaks.

All the Earth's inhabitants are invited to become like an immense choir to ac­claim the Lord with exultation and to give him glory.

'The last word rests with God'

3. After the solemn invitation to sing (cf. vv. 10-12), the Prophet brings the Lord onto the scene, represented as the God of the Exodus, who has set his peo­ple free from slavery in Egypt: "The Lord goes forth like a mighty man, like a warrior" (v. 13). He sows terror among his foes, who oppress others and commit injustice.

The Canticle of' Moses also portrays the Lord during the Red Sea crossing as a "man of war",  ready to stretch out his right hand and destroy the enemy (cf. Ex 15:3-8). With the return of the He­brews from the deportation to Babylon, a new exodus is about to take place, and the faithful must be assured that history is not at the mercy of destiny, chaos or oppressive powers: the last word rests with God who is just and strong. The Psalmist had already sung: "Grant us help against the foe, for vain is the help of man!" (Ps 59[60]:13).

The Lord makes a new world dawn

4. Having entered on the scene, the Lord speaks and his vehement words (cf. Is 42:14-16) combine judgement and salvation. He begins by recalling that "for a long time" he has "held [his] peace": in other words, he has not inter­vened. The divine silence is often a cause of perplexity to the just, and even scandalous, as Job's long lamentation attests (cf. Jb 3:1-26). However, it is not a silence that suggests absence as if his­tory had been left in the hands of the perverse, or the Lord were indifferent and impassive. In fact, that silence gives vent to a reaction similar to a woman in labour who gasps and pants and screams with pain. It is the divine judgement on evil, presented with im­ages of aridity, destruction, desert (cf. v. 15), which has a living and fruitful re­sult as its goal.

In fact, the Lord brings forth a new world, an age of freedom and salvation. The eyes of the blind will be opened so that they may enjoy the brilliant light. The path will be levelled and hope will blossom (cf. v. 16), making it possible to continue to trust in God and in his fu­ture of peace and happiness.

5. Every day the believer must be able to discern the signs of divine action even when they are hidden by the ap­parently monotonous, aimless flow of time. As a highly-esteemed modern Christian author has written: "The earth is pervaded by a cosmic ecstasy: in it is an eternal reality and presence which, however, usually sleeps under the veil of habit. Eternal reality must now be re­vealed, as in an epiphany of God, through all that exists" (R. Guardini, Sapienza dei Salmi, Brescia, 1976, p. 52).

Discovering this divine presence, with the eyes of faith, in space and time but also within ourselves, is a source of hope and confidence, even when our hearts are agitated and shaken "as the trees of the forest shake before the wind" (Is 7:2). Indeed, the Lord enters the scene to govern and to judge "the world with righteousness, and the peo­ples with his truth" (Ps 95[96]:13).

L'Osservatore Romano April 9, 2003
Reprinted with permission.