< April 08, 2012 >

Commentary on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

 

Given that the occasion of this Sunday is so prominent (as it should be), we will inevitably end up interpreting this Psalm through the lens of Easter resurrection.

Therefore, I am going to do so unapologetically right from the start. What role might this Psalm play in your Easter sermon? Here are a few possibilities:

First, rearrange the Psalm as a litany with you, the preacher, reading the leader parts.

ALL (refrain):
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice
and be glad in it.

Leader:
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say, "His steadfast love endures forever."

The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.

Congregation:
There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
"The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;  
the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.

ALL (refrain):
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice
and be glad in it.

Leader:
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me severely,
but he did not give me over to death.

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.

Congregation:
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.

Leader:
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.

ALL (refrain):
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice
and be glad in it.

Congregation:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.

ALL:
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice
and be glad in it.

How is it for you to be the one testifying to what the Lord has done for you? How is it for you to have the congregation confirming that experience? I hope it is not too foreign since this is one thing preachers do; that is, as Tom Long reminds us, preachers are those who witness something and then bear witness to what they have seen and experienced.1 Preaching as witness bearing is testimonial in nature. Anna Carter Florence reclaims testimony as a pulpit practice in her book, Preaching as Testimony.

When testifying one first narrates what one has seen and heard [e.g., "the Lord did not give me over to death" verse 18] and then declares what one believes about what has been seen and heard [e.g., "The Lord has become my salvation," verse 14, and "I shall not die, but I shall live," verse 17].2 This Psalm is a leader's testimony to the people.3 (Goldingay, 355 and 360). This Psalm is your testimony, preacher. Preach it!

Of course, the trajectory of the Psalm does not end there. This is not to be a self-serving Psalm for preaching is not a self-serving endeavor. Instead, this individual song of praise becomes a communal song of praise as it moves others to testify to what God has done in their lives. The celebrant could be any one of us who has born witness to God's mighty act of delivering us from bondage when we cannot free ourselves.

How might you shape this sermon so that your testimony urges the people's testimony? You might imagine how this Psalm picks up where the shorter ending of the Gospel of Mark leaves off; that is, you break the silence of the women who first witnessed the empty tomb by proclaiming, "He is risen!" In doing so you encourage others do the same. Let the "Alleluias" return.

Finally, it is worth focusing a bit on verse 22 ("The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes."). Architecturally, the cornerstone is key; it is key for the stability of the structure and, additionally, as a kind of capstone that points to the architectural plan's perfect execution.4

The Psalm suggests that what has become the cornerstone was once a stone that the builders rejected. For whatever reason, it was once of no use but now, unexpectedly, has become the chief cornerstone. It is possible that the Psalmist has moved from a place of rejection to restoration and is now celebrating God's role in this. Could it be that when we testify as the Psalmist did we, too, are rejoicing at the unexpectedness of now being the one to testify!

Talk about unexpected . . . whoever imagined a baby from Bethlehem would grow up, die an untimely death and rise from his own tomb! Because the leap has already been made from cornerstone as inanimate object to cornerstone as metaphor for a person, it is no surprise that the leap is made in the New Testament to identify Jesus as the cornerstone, the chief cornerstone even. [Note that this Psalm (this verse) is one of the most often quoted in the New Testament. (See, for example, Matthew 21:41, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:6-7, Ephesians 2:20.)]

Preacher, you might consider highlighting this unexpectedness as you testify to what the Lord has done in your life with the hope that others will do the same. The essence of this sermon might be that one "cannot encounter God and not talk about it."5 The news that God has defeated death must be proclaimed on this day that the Lord has made. Rejoice! Alleluia! 


1Thomas G. Long. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 45-51.
2Anna Carter Florence. Preaching as Testimony. Louisville: WJKP, 2007, xiii.
3John Goldingay. Psalms: Volume 3: Psalms 90 -- 150. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2008, 355 and 360.
4Geoffrey, W. Grogan. Psalms. The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, 194.
5Florence, 106.