The “Great Hallel” and Salvation History

Psalm 136 unfolds in the form of a litany, marked by the antiphonal refrain: “for His steadfast love endures for ever.” The many wonders God has worked in human history are enumerated all along the composition.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, today I would like to meditate with you on a Psalm that sums up the entire history of salvation recorded in the Old Testament. It is a great hymn of praise that celebrates the Lord in the multiple, repeated expressions of His goodness throughout human history: it is Psalm 136, or 135 according to the Greco-Latin tradition.

A solemn prayer of thanksgiving, known as the Great Hallel, this Psalm is traditionally sung at the end of the Jewish Passover meal and was probably also prayed by Jesus at the Last Supper celebrated with His disciples. In fact, the annotation of the Evangelists, “and when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (cf. Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26), would seem to allude to it.

The horizon of praise thus appears to illumine the difficult path to Golgotha. The whole of Psalm 136 unfolds in the form of a litany, marked by the antiphonal refrain: “for His steadfast love endures for ever”. The many wonders God has worked in human history, and His continuous intervention on behalf of His people are enumerated all along the composition. […]

God’s first manifestations in history

After a triple invitation to give thanks to God as sovereign (cf. v.1-3), the Lord is celebrated as the One who works “great wonders” (v.4), the first of which is the Creation: the heavens, the earth, the heavenly bodies (cf. v.5-9). The created world is not merely a scenario into which God’s saving action is inserted, rather it is the very beginning of that marvellous action. […]

Nothing is said here of the creation of human beings but they are ever present; the sun and the moon are for them, so as to structure human time, setting it in relation to the Creator, especially by denoting the liturgical seasons.

And it is precisely the Feast of the Passover that is immediately evoked, when, passing to God’s manifestation of Himself in history, the great event of the exodus, freedom from slavery in Egypt begins, whose most significant elements are outlined: The liberation from Egypt begins with the plague of killing the Egyptian firstborn, the exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the journey through the desert to the entry into the Promised Land (cf. v.10-20).

This is the very first moment of Israel’s history; God intervened powerfully to lead His people to freedom; through Moses, His envoy, He asserted Himself before Pharaoh, revealing Himself in His full grandeur and at last broke down the resistance of the Egyptians with the terrible plague of the death of the firstborn. Israel could thus leave the country of slavery taking with it the gold of its oppressors (cf. Ex 12:35-36) and “boldly” (Ex 14:8), in the exulting sign of victory. At the Red Sea, too, the Lord acted with merciful power. […]

The might of the Lord overcame the danger of the forces of nature and of these soldiers deployed in battle array by men: the sea, which seemed to bar the way of the People of God, let Israel cross on dry ground and then swept over the Egyptians, submerging them. Thus the full salvific force of the Lord’s “mighty hand, and an outstretched arm” (cf. Dt 5:15; 7:19; 26:8) was demonstrated: the unjust oppressor was vanquished, engulfed by the waters, while the people of God “passed through the midst,” continuing on their way to freedom.

The fulfilment of the promise

Our Psalm now refers to this journey, recalling in one short phrase Israel’s long pilgrimage toward the Promised Land: He “led His people through the wilderness, for His steadfast love endures for ever” (v.16). These few words refer to a 40-year experience, a crucial period for Israel which in letting itself be guided by the Lord learned to live in faith, obedience and docility to God’s Law. These were difficult years, marked by hardship in the desert, but also happy years, trusting in the Lord with filial trust. […]

So as the “great wonders” that our Psalm lists unfold, we reach the moment of the conclusive gift, the fulfilment of the divine promise made to the Fathers: “gave their land as a heritage, for His steadfast love endures for ever; a heritage to Israel His servant, for His steadfast love endures for ever” (v.21-22). […]

God in our history

We can of course say: this liberation from Egypt, the time in the desert, the entry into the Holy Land and all the other subsequent problems are very remote from us; they are not part of our own history. Yet we must be attentive to the fundamental structure of this prayer. The basic structure is that Israel remembers the Lord’s goodness. In this history dark valleys, arduous journeys and death succeed one another, Israel recalls that God was good and can survive in this dark valley, in this valley of death, because it remembers.

It remembers the Lord’s goodness and His power; His mercy is effective for ever. And this is also important for us: to remember the Lord’s goodness. Memory strongly sustains hope. Memory tells us: God exists, God is good, His mercy endures for ever. So it is that memory unfolds, even in the darkest day or time, showing the way towards the future. It represents “great lights” and is our guiding star.

We too have memories of goodness, of God’s merciful love that endures for ever. Israel’s history is a former memory for us, too, of how God revealed Himself, how He created a people of His own. Then God became man, one of us: He lived with us, He suffered with us, He died for us. He stays with us in the Sacrament and in the Word. It is a history, a memory of God’s goodness that assures us of His goodness: His love endures for ever. And then, in these two thousand years of the Church’s history there is always, again and again, the Lord’s goodness. After the dark period of the Nazi and Communist persecution, God set us free, He showed that He is good, that He is powerful, that His mercy endures for ever.

And, as in our common, collective history, this memory of God’s goodness is present; it helps us and becomes for us a star of hope so that each one also has his or her personal story of salvation. We must truly treasure this story, and in order to trust, we must keep ever present in our mind the memory of the great things He has also worked in my life: His mercy endures for ever. And if today I am immersed in the dark night, tomorrow He sets me free, for His mercy is eternal. 

Excerpts from: BENEDICT XVI.
General Audience, 19/10/2011



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