I hope that everyone here makes use of a small missal when assisting at Mass. We read the Epistle and Gospel in English at each Sunday and holy day Mass, but there are other parts of the Mass which change from day to day, and ought to be understood in our own language. (If you don’t own a missal, we have some that you can make use of on the shelf underneath the bulletins and the collection envelopes.) The chant which comes between today’s Epistle and Gospel is what prompts me to mention this. It is a portion of Psalm number Ninety, and it contains the passage which the devil quoted to our Lord during the course of His temptation, narrated in today’s Gospel.
Very likely, it is this passage that inspired William Shakespeare to write that “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” And that itself is a worthwhile lesson to be learned from this Gospel—the mere fact that something is, or is not, found in the Bible is not enough to draw conclusions without carefully examining the context. Psalm Thirteen, for example, begins with the statement: “The fool has said in his heart «there is no God».” But one would be a fool indeed, to say that, “It says in the Bible «there is no God»,” as the context clearly demonstrates.
We also know that there are many truths about Jesus Christ that are not contained in the Bible, for Saint John tells us in his Gospel: “there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.” We are encouraged to read the Bible, but must do so with intellectual care, and with the guidance which the Church provides.
This Psalm—Psalm Ninety—is prayed frequently in the Catholic Church. If you have one of our leaflets with the prayers of Compline (the bed time Office), you will see that it is recited every Sunday of the year. In monasteries, it is recited each and every night. If you are one who prays the Office, you may have noted that in this morning’s Tract, the translation seems a little different. That is because the chants in the Roman Missal are taken from a very early Latin translation; one which predates that of Saint Jerome, called the Itala vetus. It seems to have a rather simple quality to it, rather than the more polished literary quality of later translations. And, it is, after all, the song of a man with simple trust in God.
The Psalm is first of all a Psalm of David, the simple shepherd boy who slew Goliath with his slingshot, and who reluctantly became king in Israel at the death of King Saul. David’s life reads like an adventure story—you can read it in the first three Books of Kings—he battled wild animals as a boy; then he took on the Philistine champion Goliath; he was threatened with death by King Saul, because the King was jealous of his popularity; he won many battles against the enemies of Israel, but was threatened by his own son and by others who fomented revolution in Israel. David expressed his emotions in this Psalm and in others. The need for protection from “the arrow that flies by day” and “the terror of the night” was very real in his mind—Psalm ninety is David’s prayer, asking for, and expressing his confidence in, the protection of divine providence.
The Psalm is not considered to be among those usually called the “Messianic Psalms,” the Psalms of David which referred to the future coming of the Savior. The devil tried to suggest that it was necessary for Jesus to prove that He was the Son of God, by throwing Himself off the highest point of the Temple, but Jesus refused. The angels that might “bear Him up, lest He dash His foot against a stone” were certainly not for purposes of showing off. He was capable of summoning “more than twelve legions of angels,” had he thought it prudent to escape those who came to crucify Him, but he refused to do so. To jump off the roof of a building is nothing more than a fool’s stunt, and Jesus was not about to give us the bad example of tempting God to deliver us from our own stupidity!
Rather than being “messianic,” the Psalm seems to be written for all of us who have to deal with the trials and tribulations of life in this world. We may not have to contend with “the asp and the viper ... the lion and the dragon” in the literal sense, but we all face any number of concerns with the world around us, many of them seemingly overwhelming. It is good to join King David in asking for, and expressing confidence in, the protection of divine providence, knowing that God “will cover us with His pinions,” and that we can “take refuge under the shadow of His wings.”
Yet, like all of our prayers for God’s assistance—no matter how confident we may be—we must remember that “God answers every prayer” in accordance with the measure of good it will bring us in eternity—the measure of eternal good it will bring to us as individuals, and to those who are affected by our lives. Perhaps that is why the Church juxtaposes this Psalm with Saint Paul’s writing to the Corinthians, this grocery list of very real difficulties we may expect in being the representatives of God: “in tribulation, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in prisons, in seditions, in labours, in watchings, in fastings, in chastity, in longsuffering.” To be sure, Paul also includes “much patience, knowledge, sweetness, the Holy Ghost, and charity unfeigned”—but life in this world will always be what we might colloquially call a “mixed bag,” or, as Paul says, “in evil report and in good report ... as having nothing but possessing all things.”
The Psalm is intended for all of those wise enough to “dwell in the shadow of the Almighty.” It is not a guarantee of a life without difficulties—King David had plenty of those—but it is a voice of confidence in God’s providence. To the faithful Catholic, it is the expression of the virtue of Hope—the trust in God that we will find eternal salvation if we but cooperate with His graces. Listen to the end of the Psalm—it is God speaking about us: