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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.