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Psalm 118:14-29

Singing in three voices

Psalm 118 has been popular for Christians since the composition of the New Testament. Several New Testament books quote from it, and Jesus uses the psalm several times himself (e.g. Mark 11:9–10; 12:10–11). Sections of it almost read like a playlist of praise and worship greatest hits.


For anyone who attended a youth worship service in the ‘90s and early-2000s, Psalm 118’s refrain will ever evoke the peppy praise chorus: “His love endures forever.” One of the struggles of reading this psalm, then, is to recognize how dramatic its refrain of praise is, and no less so when it’s read on Easter. God’s deliverance comes through pain and suffering, it’s not a simple cushy life. The resurrected Jesus bears the marks of his wounds.


How do w learn to hear Psalm 118’s dramatic praise? In part we have to learn to hear the web of meaning woven by the psalm and its New Testament echoes. We can perhaps find an orienting center in the web by asking: why do we remind each other that God’s love endures forever? Sometimes we just might sing those words as a pure expression of joy—an excess of celebration that delights in superlatives. Easter is a time for this kind of excess. God’s love endures forever.


Other times we might sing these words precisely because of how difficult it is to sense God’s love. Systemic injustice. Personal pain. Death. The love of God might seem so shrouded by difficulty that the only chance we have of believing in it is to reiterate that it endures forever. Even when all we know is darkness and pain, God’s love endures. Easter is a time for this kind of strained hope. God’s love endures forever.


Reading the psalm invites both voices of praise—pure celebration and strained hope. “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (v. 23). “The LORD has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death” (v. 18).


There is a third reason we might need to sing of the endurance of God’s love. Sometimes we need to hear of it because we have in fact been the antagonists of God’s love. We have hidden ourselves from God’s love—likely unknowingly. Easter is a time for unveiling God’s love in a world that pits itself against it. God’s love endures forever.


In Acts, Peter makes a small change in his quotation of Psalm 118:22, and in doing so he opens up this third mode of singing of God’s love. It’s a pointed improvisation: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11). It is part of Peter’s proclamation (and defense) of the Easter message to tell his hearers that it is they who rejected Jesus, the stone that has become the cornerstone, the very word of God’s love. As the psalm narrates how God’s chosen one undergoes persecution and then deliverance, can Christians hearing it in Easter forget Peter’s provocative interpolation?


The question becomes, can we hear Psalm 118 as a word of gospel? Perhaps if we can sing “His love endures forever” in three voices we could hear it as a word about Jesus’ resurrection. We sing the endurance of God’s love as pure celebration—God is simply good, and this is a word that ought continually be on our lips. We sing the endurance of God’s love as strained hope—God’s love become hidden, but we grasp at the memory of it. We sing the endurance of God’s love as a strange provocation—as Christ bursts from the tomb we find that we had not really known this mysterious love but had crucified it. The stone we had rejected has become the cornerstone.


God’s love endures forever. Sung in three voices together, we just might hear Psalm 118 as a dramatic word of praise. A song of resurrection.