From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 118 is the last psalm of the Egyptian Hallel, (Psalms 113–118), the six psalms that the Jews used especially during the Passover feast as they remembered their deliverance from Egypt. Of these six, only Psalm 114 makes an explicit reference to Egypt, but all of the psalms are appropriate for leading Israel to reflect on God’s rescue of his people from the house of bondage. Psalm 113:7, for example, applies to the exodus, as well as to many other times in Israel’s history: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”
Psalm 118 concludes the Egyptian Hallel with words full of praise and celebration for God’s blessing upon his people. It is above all a psalm of thanksgiving, beginning and ending with the words, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (v. 29)
These opening and closing words of Psalm 118 were first used by David as part of his celebration of the ark of the covenant’s safely arriving in Jerusalem. The last verses of David’s song are clearly an influence on Psalm 118: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! Say also: ‘Save us, O God of our salvation, and gather and deliver us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name, and glory in your praise.’ Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!” (1 Chronicles 16:34-36)
These words of thanks become a regular form of praise for the people of God. The people used these words to worship when the ark was carried into the new temple, (2 Chronicles 5:13), and when Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, (2 Chronicles 7:3). They are also used in Psalms 106 and 107, and they become a refrain in Psalm 136. When the temple was rebuilt in the days of Ezra, we read: “And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David, King of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel,’” (Ezra 3:10-11a). Clearly, these words of praise are used at some of Israel’s most solemn occasions, especially in relation to God’s dwelling among them in his holy temple. The God who dwells with them is good and loving, the deliverer of his people.
This psalm of praise seems set on the lips of the king. It is primarily written in the first person and expresses the view of the leader and representative of the people. This king seems to sing two songs or two stanzas in this psalm between the opening, (vv. 1-4), and closing, (vv. 28-29), commands to praise. The first is a song of salvation, (vv. 5-18). The need for salvation is presented clearly: “Out of my distress I called on the Lord. All nations surrounded me. They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side. They surrounded me like bees. The Lord has disciplined me severely,” (vv. 5a, 10a, 11a, 12a, 18a). While the anguish is very real, in this psalm it is always immediately answered by a testimony to the deliverance that the Lord brought: “The Lord answered me and set me free in the name of the Lord I cut them off! They went out like a fire among thorns. The Lord has not given me over to death,” (vv. 5b, 10b, 12b, 18b). Here is a king who has experienced victory over the nations as God had given Israel victory over Egypt at the time of the Passover.
The king’s confidence in God’s salvation is strong: “The Lord is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. Glad songs of salvation are in the tents of the righteous: ‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,’” (vv. 7-8, 15). He sums up this song for us in verse 14: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.”
We have not paused much in our study to comment on the ways the psalms have been used in the history of the church. Over and over, great figures of the church have found help, hope, and direction from the psalms. We should recall that Psalm 118:17 was the verse that Martin Luther took as a motto for his life: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” It comforted him when his life was threatened and it reminded him of his calling to preach the gospel faithfully.
The second song of this psalm is a song of service, (vv. 19-27). This song speaks of a procession into the holy city and into the temple to worship God: “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord,” (v. 19). The king comes to worship: “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation,” (v. 21). After victory comes thanksgiving.
In the midst of the song of service comes a surprising statement: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes,” (vv. 22-23). The king rejoices in the wonderful thing the Lord has done: He has taken what was despised and apparently worthless and made it the culmination of his accomplishment. But why does the psalmist use the image of a stone rejected by builders? Does he have Israel in mind – the people despised by the Egyptians, those great builders, but delivered by God and led into the Land of Promise? Is this statement drawn from some experience of the psalmist? Or was this expression just proverbial in Israel? In any case, it is a testimony to the unexpected work of God in exalting the lowly, (remember Psalm 113:7).
Whatever the precise Old Testament reference of this statement, Jesus takes it as applying to himself. Jesus told a parable toward the end of his preaching ministry to the leaders of the people about the tenants of a vineyard who refuse to pay rent and at last kill the son of the owner. The leaders recognize that the owner will come and punish the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Then Jesus cites Psalm 118:22-23 and adds, “Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him,” (Matthew 21:43-44).
The apostle Peter twice follows the lead of Jesus in seeing him as the stone exalted by God. After quoting Psalm 118:22, Peter said to the rulers of the people, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved,” (Acts 4:11-12; see also 1 Peter 2:7). Psalm 118:22 is a remarkable summary of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We find another part of this psalm extensively quoted in the New Testament. When Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph before his crucifixion. He was hailed as a king. The people shouted, “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Both of these acclamations were inspired by Psalm 118:25-26: “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna” is derived from the Hebrew for “save us.” Psalm 118 as a prophecy of the coming messiah.
The song of service concludes with a strong confession of faith and with a sacrifice offered on the altar of God, (v. 27). The confession is full of confidence: “The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.” The people joyfully offer to God the sacrifice for their sins, assured of his care and forgiveness.
At the end of their last Passover and their first Lord’s Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang together. We read: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives,” (Matthew 26:30). Since Psalm 118 was the last of the Passover psalms, we can be quite sure that the song Jesus and the disciples sang was Psalm 118. Jesus once again identifies with this psalm. He is the Passover; he is the king; he is the salvation from the house of bondage; he is the sacrifice on the altar. All the great themes of the Old Testament and of this psalm come together in Jesus.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What is the Egyptian Hallel? What does it have to do with the ark of the covenant?
- Why is this psalm primarily written from a first-person perspective? What historical uses have been made of the psalms to offer hope and direction? Are there any historical figures, leaders, or contemporary authors that you can think of who have relied upon the psalms in their lives or ministry?
- What reference about a stone or cornerstone does Jesus take as applying to himself? What makes it likely that Jesus and the disciples sang Psalm 118 during the Last Supper?