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Palms A Psalm

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Phil Antilla

Most will be familiar with this week’s Psalm because of its role in the Palm Sunday narrative. The Gospel of Luke tells us that as Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem he is triumphantly venerated as crowds chant “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). This chorus is rooted in Psalm 118 (v.26), a text that any good Jew would have grown up with. The Psalm rejoices in the LORD’s enduring triumph – that the rejected stone has become the “cornerstone” (v.22). This is a marvelous work, and by the Lord’s doing it shall invoke the long-awaited day of salvation (vv.23-24).

Modern Palm Sunday worship services have desensitized us from the significance of this text because for a first-century Jewish community this seismic claim was reserved for the one long awaited savior of Israel. For generations, Psalm 118 provided the Jewish people with a heartfelt prayer, “Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (vv.25-26)

Regarding authorship, we know that not every psalm was written by King David. While some do claim his name, others have been attributed to a host of different authors. While this specific text lacks attribution to David, there are many reasons to believe he is the source of its authorship, or at the very least, its spirit. The psalm is a triumphant litany of God’s marvelous work, woven between individual and communal praise.

Ezra 3:10-11 tells us that this psalm may have been associated with the rising of the second temple, and with its vivid language of arriving at the “gates of righteousness” and “binding the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” it is easy to imagine the song accompanied by drum roll and trumpet fanfare.

Perhaps the most interesting detail about this psalm is the role it played in communal worship. Psalm 118 is the last of six psalms that make up the Hallel, a word-for-word recitation, or singing of Psalm 113-118. Traditionally used in conjunction with three large pilgrim festivals (Pesach or Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot). For our purposes, the Hallel plays a particularly important role in the Passover liturgy. During a first-century Passover meal, Psalms 113-114 would have been sung before the final meal blessing and Psalms 115-118 were sung after the final blessing.

The role of Psalm 118 in the Passover Hallel should not be overlooked by the preacher.

Matthew 26:17-29 describes the final Passover meal between Jesus and his disciples. We know this text as the institution of the Lord’s supper. But let’s not forget that it was first a Passover meal, and as such, it would have been accompanied by Hallel psalms, including Psalm 118.

After the “conclusion” of the Eucharist narrative, v. 30 tells us that “when they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” I can assure you that this “hymn” was not a Gaither tune. With confidence, we can assume that it was Psalm 118.

This means that while the disciples may have been offering a robust chorus of “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”, Jesus may have been hearing a few other lines:

“All nations surrounded me…

They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side…

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

This is precisely the story that is both told and forgotten on Palm Sunday.

How often do we sing our holiness hymns only to quickly turn away?

In what ways do we shout “Hosanna” one day, and then “crucify him” the next?

As our congregations move into Holy Week, Psalm 118 can serve as something of a liturgical bridge – connecting our lenten devotion with much needed Holy Week confessions.

We should remember that this text would have been firmly in the mind of Christ at both the start and the end of this Holy Week.

So how might we use this text to do the same? To both center our Palm Sunday praise in the hope of God’s redemptive work, while also affirming the role that we play, both then and now, in the ongoing denial of Christ.

Pastor, Ashland First UMC

Phil Antilla

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