If ever there was a Psalm for Holy Week, boy howdy is this it!
Like most of the psalms, Psalm 118 was composed anonymously and has traditionally been ascribed to David. Labeled a “Psalm of Victory,” it is deeply rooted in Jewish religious and sacrificial traditions, ones formed centuries before the coming of the Messiah.
Psalm 118 comprises the final chapter in the “Egyptian Hallel” a prayer of praise formed by reciting Psalms 113-118. For millennia the Hallel has been chanted, sung, or recited on Jewish holy days to express thanksgiving for Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt and establishment in the Promised Land.
Long before the time of Christ, observant Jews chanted Hallel while celebrating the three pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem: the Feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. On each festal day that Hallel was recited, Psalm 118 was recited once in its entirety, and the final ten verses were recited twice.
It went something like this: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’”
The Hebrew word hasdow, translated here and elsewhere in the NRSV as “steadfast love,” is essentially a one-word shortcut for ‘the chesed of God.” Chesed celebrates God’s covenant-keeping loyalty, and is sometimes also rendered as “lovingkindness” or “mercy.”
The language of chesed is invoked consistently throughout the Old Testament during high religious ceremonies to describe the salvific activity of God. These include King David’s relocation of the Ark to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 16), King Solomon’s installation of the Ark in the Temple (2 Chronicles 5-7); and Ezra’s description of founding of the Second Temple (Ezra 3).
Interestingly, the text of Psalm 118:1-2 (as enacted by the exclaiming crowds on Palm Sunday) also seems to fulfill a plain-text reading of Jeremiah 33:10-11:
“In the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem…there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness…the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: “Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love (hasdow) endures forever!”
By the first century, the people of Israel had endured much at the hands of their oppressors. They sought relief from the religious legalism of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They longed for rescue from the social, political, and economic brutality of the Roman Empire.
And so God’s beloved people, once more in captivity and desperate for a Deliverer, sang their ancient, sacred songs of God’s deliverance!
And then a week later they murdered him.
It’s enough to break your heart.
“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.”
Jerusalem was a walled city in both David’s and Christ’s day. Gates were hugely important in the Ancient Near East, and represented access to social, political, and economic security. Tellingly, the Temple wall contained nine gates all by itself! Here, passing through the “gate of the LORD” refers to entering into the very presence of God, symbolically represented by Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple.
“I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
This masonry-inspired word picture describes a king once rejected his people, then later hailed as an unlikely, victorious deliverer. Probably first applied to David, it is also directly referenced by Jesus -himself probably a stonemason like his earthly father- in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 12, Luke 20).
“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Among the most famous passages in the entire Psalter, these simple verses of praise have inspired everything from Elizabethan coinage to the lyrics of Hava Nagila (as well as many interminable Sunday School sing-alongs). And…now they’re stuck in your head. Ha!
“Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!”
Verse 25 comprises a portion of the longer Tachanun, a twice-daily prayer of physical supplication recited by observant Jews on Mondays and Thursdays.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
While praying the Tachanun, supplicants bend over and rest their faces on their left hand (which in turn rests on the ground). For first-century Jews, this posture powerfully evoked the presentation of animal sacrifices in the Temple, which were ceremonially laid on their left side to be slaughtered.
In other words: to the careful reader, it’s becoming clear that (unlike David, Solomon, and Ezra) Christ has not come to celebrate a festal sacrifice; Christ has come to be the festal sacrifice.
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
While priests and Levites recited Hallel in the regular course of their duties, it was also ritually chanted in the build-up to Passover as the paschal lambs were being slaughtered. One way of translating Verse 27 (whose Hebrew meaning is unclear) is, “March with palm branches all the way to the altar”; another way reads, “Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the altar.”
In other words: for all its superficial, happy-go-lucky, Palm Sunday overtones, Psalm 118 is literally a song about taking a sacrifice to be slaughtered during the week of Passover.
As a well-educated Jewish rabbi, Jesus can hardly have missed the irony.
“You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
When praying the Hallel on the evening of Passover, only the first one or two psalms are chanted before the meal. The remaining psalms would be sung following the Birkat Hamazon, or “Grace After the Meal.”
Which means that these last few lines of Psalm 118 almost certainly comprised the hymn that Jesus and his remaining disciples sang after the Last Supper, prior to ascending the Mount of Olives. In doing so, they proclaimed that the lamb had been sacrificed, the end of Passover was near, and the Angel of Death was coming.
And yet they repeated: “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
These are the words of the LORD. Thanks be to God!