Psalm 118 is processional song aimed to aid the people of God in remembering deliverance from danger and giving thanks to God for covenant faithfulness. The psalm is divided into three major sections, each one leading the reader through a powerful experience that directs their attention to the psalmist’s conviction that salvation belongs to God alone and the proper response to this good news is collective praise all the way the way to the most central place in Israel’s life together, the altar in the rebuilt temple. As we prepare to reflect on this song near the end of ordinary time, specifically surrounding All Saints Day, this Psalm offers us a number of beautiful motifs for our life together.
The opening and closing verses call Israel to give thanks to God because of God’s covenant faithfulness. The Hebrew word used at the end of the refrain in verses 1-4 and 29 is hesed. The word is often translated as “steadfast” or “everlasting love.” However, it really means something more like God’s promise to fulfill the covenant toward Israel is completely trustworthy. The psalm is framed by a call for everyone to give thanks for God’s trustworthiness in fulfilling the covenant. In a number of churches, the tradition of All Saints Day is being recovered as a way of reminding ourselves of the grace that is the tradition of the faith in which we stand. Though the actual date of All Saints Day is November 1st and is usually celebrated the following Sunday, it is never a bad thing to reflect on those who have gone before us in the faith and their witness to the Good News of God. Interestingly, this Psalm begins and ends with a specific call for all Israel to say “The steadfast love of God endures forever.” Part of this what makes this psalm’s confession so beautiful is that it is a communal thanksgiving that has an individual narrative within it. For those of us living the faith today it is important to remember that one of the ways God grants us grace is through the faithful witness of those who have lived faithfully before and around us. When we are unable to see a way forward in faith, the community of faith will help us proclaim “The steadfast love of God endures forever” and by its witness will help us live into that reality until we are able to give witness ourselves to God’s deliverance. While All Saints Day is one specific day in which we remember those who have gone before us, in effect every time we gather and worship, we are collective giving voice to the ongoing witness that God’s covenant faithfulness is greater than we can sometimes see and that is our hope.
The second section, verses 5-18, is focused on a time when the psalmist was in deep distress, to the point of death, and how God delivered the psalmist. The psalmist recounts how nations surrounded them so greatly that they seemed like “bees, like fire blazing through thorns.”(v12) The psalmist says, “You pushed me hard to fall down, but the LORD helped me.”(v13 my translation). This verse highlights to conflict the psalmist felt. Some adversary was pushing against them so hard they almost fell down, the sense being that they would die. Yet, because the LORD was on the psalmist’s side, there was deliverance. Theses type of verses often make modern readers nervous. The idea that God picks sides or is actively involved in the death of a psalmist’s adversary makes some squeamish because that doesn’t mesh with a picture of a loving God, especially the one many confess is revealed in Jesus Christ. However, this section follows the pattern of the genre of thanksgiving in ancient Israel and, perhaps, should not surprise us. In the ancient world, the idea that God would fight for a particular people, especially on the side of those who were unjustly attacked was a common idea. This is called the divine warrior motif. The ancients certainly believed that God would defend the cause of the marginalized and those who were exploited. I wonder if some of our problem with this idea is because we read this psalm, and other texts like it, from a position of power and, thus have not experienced the deep suffering the psalmist is recounting. We do know what it is like to desperately need God to deliver us from enemies whose sole desire is to kill us. Instead, if the truth be told, we often are the ones who would be the oppressors rather than the oppressed. We would be the ones surrounding the psalmist rather than the ones being surrounded. Thus, an act of imagination would be for us to think about who might be praying these psalms against us. Who might see us at the “nations surrounding them like bees”? When we are confronted such a reading combined with the belief in a God who sides with the outcast, the oppressed, and the marginalized we are confronted with our need to change our oppressive ways. While we are always thankful for God’s deliverance in our life, we may also need to be thankful for the times in which the deliverance is from our sinful oppressive ways against others. When we read scripture from the margins, as some scholars call this act, may we have the courage to mend our ways and seek reconciliation with those who we’ve offended so that we may all join in the procession to the house of God together.
The final section returns to the theme of giving thanks because of God’s covenant faithfulness. True to the form of a thanksgiving psalm, this last section reminds the reader that this thanksgiving is not like the praise set before the difficult times. This praise set in situation of wonder and amazement at what God has done to deliver the psalmist and Israel as a whole. As the psalmist says, “look, the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” God has taken what no one else wanted and made something amazing. In the context of Second Temple Israel, this reference is most likely to the rebuilt temple and returning exiles. The psalmist affirms that God has not given up on the covenant, but has, in fact, taken what the nations thought was rejected and turned it into a thing life and salvation. Now, the people can join the festive procession and proclaim that “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD!” and “let us go to the horns of the altar!” Indeed, this psalmist sees in this procession of the returning exiles, led by their leader a glimpse of the vision of Isaiah, who said in the days to come, all people shall flock to God’s holy mountain. Of course, the New Testament writers in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, reinterpret this psalm for the community of faith to speak about the amazing thing God has done for all humanity in covenant faithfulness. Truly, they say, the steadfast love of God endures forever. Perhaps, as we end this ordinary time and look toward the season of Advent one of the things this Psalm can do for us is help us see the continuity of God’s work of deliverance. We can trust that God has been, continues to be, and will be faithful to work in covenantal ways. This good news gives us hope and reason to join alongside the psalmist and the long line of faithful witnesses who say, “the steadfast love of God endures forever!”  See for example, Michael Coogan, “Warrior, Divine” in New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 6. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press).  See for instance, Miguel A. De La Torre, Reading the Bible from the Margins, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003).