Commentary on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Sometimes a single refrain, a word of hope, a comment of concern can be enough to help someone weather a personal storm or lift one’s spirits while the storm still rages. The Psalm writer is evoking images of a God who is more than an unmoved mover. God is more than a life insurance company writing policies that will preserve us no matter what befalls us. God is more than a dispenser providing that which we want when we most want it.
Sometimes it seems our perception of God and how God may intersect our own life experience is too small, too confined, and too limited. The Psalmist invites the hearer, the reader, the singer to imagine again and reflect anew on the living God. We are assured that God is good. In verse 14 we learn that the LORD is a personal and communal strength, defense, and salvation. If the Psalm were to be sung or recited in a gathering of people, the words, “The LORD is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation,” carry with them both a personal and communal affirmation at the same time.
The Psalm begins with a simple affirmation that invites an individual and corporate response: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” God’s love endures forever. God’s love is greater than any human experience of love and it will not falter with time or circumstances. This is an assurance that can evoke praise and thanksgiving for a gift that won’t tarnish or fail with age or time. It is by its very nature timeless, and the Psalmist declaration serves as something of an invitation into relationship with this timeless reality.
The writer invites those who sing the sonnets of this Psalm’s poetry to move with them in thinking about the many ways in which God’s love endures forever. God’s love is shown through strength, defense, salvation, life giving, chastening, mighty acts, and opening gates of righteousness. It is a litany of the activity of God for the people of God. What is the response that one can offer for all that God has done, is doing, and will do? It is thanksgiving. The Psalm is more than a private assurance, it is a corporate one that invites a corporate response by the people of God.
For Christians, verses 14-19 invite reflection about the activity of God through a carpenter’s son one thousand years after the Psalm was written. Since the Psalms were to be sung or recited corporately, one might say that the request, “Open for me…” could also mean, “Open for us…” the gates of righteousness. This notion was not lost on the New Testament writers. Matthew recounts Jesus as saying, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Reading the Psalms through Christian eyes suggests a particular way of reading and hearing the Psalms. They reverberate with the original intent and then expand it to mean Christ as the one who brings about salvation and a shared hope for eternal existence in the presence of God.
Thinking about the Psalm as it was originally intended and in what contexts it was used is nearly impossible to reconstruct since we are separated by more than 3,000 years of time and a vast array of cultural differences, cultural epistemologies, historical interpretations of the text, and the precise contexts in which the Psalm was recited or sung. However, even with these sedimentary accretions we may still be able to catch glimpses of the Psalmist’s art, theological convictions, and hoped for responses. Reading the text today in English will likely miss some of the subtleties, yet the lyrical art still breathes with intensity and truth.
The assurances that come through experience with rumination on God’s law and within a communal relationship with God bring forth a spirit of thanksgiving. God answers our questions, our hopes, our desires, our wonderings, our fears, and so on. The answers may not be the ones we want, yet they are there, nonetheless. A living relationship with God invites people to ponder the infinite and to reflect on the activity of one who is greater than any mind can comprehend. Yet, this infinite one invites us to a relationship, between the creator and us, the created beings.
The gates of righteousness are an opening through which people are invited to travel toward a place of goodness and life flourishing. Those who are counted as righteous, who are on a path toward righteousness, or who are made righteous by the activity of God, may find a gateway to discover contentment and wellbeing. I think the poetry evokes not a physical gateway as much as a spiritual one. It also suggests that what is impossible for people to accomplish, God can make possible. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). What did the Psalmist mean here? Perhaps it suggests a capacity to see what might be possible for a stone or a person that experts would regard as unworthy. God takes that which is rejected and makes it the cornerstone, a key piece for any construction project to make the foundation and building secure.
This text became an important one for the New Testament writers and they tied the imagery of the rejected cornerstone to Jesus Christ himself. In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12, verse 10-11 (NIV), Jesus teaches the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders about his identity, “Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” The people of Jesus’ time had difficulty accepting that the Messiah could be a carpenter’s son from a backroad village of Nazareth. First Peter, chapter 2, verse 1, aligns with Isaiah as support, Jesus as a stone that causes rejection or stumbling, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”
It is relatively certain that the Psalm writer had no idea that what he wrote would inspire other associations 1,000 years later by Jesus, Peter, and the Gospel writers. Yet, his theology suggests an understanding of God as someone who can take the rejected and turn it into something that becomes important and vital. That which people would regard as worthless is regarded differently by the creator God who made the stones, and the created world, in the first place. The Psalmist is welcoming new horizons for thinking about the God who was, is, and is to come. There is a thickness to his words that transcend time and space. They serve as invitations to know and receive blessings from the one who is able to do so much more than they can imagine or hope to be accomplished.
The poetic stanzas of Psalm 118 breath with an intensity of experience, with a God who becomes known through thanksgiving and praise, a God who draws near as we draw near through ruminating on the law of God as a roadmap for living. The idea that God is involved with the living beings of earth brings people to see something that may have been thought of as impossible or only associated with those that are worthy enough. Perhaps the Psalmist was thinking of an eternal day on which God’s activity is always present when he wrote, “the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.” The activity of an eternal God is something that happens every day and throughout each day.
When I was in art school, I was taught that drawing and painting require an intensity of looking and observation about what you see and what you think you see. The activity of drawing slowly develops the eye/hand coordination to discern the contour of something with greater clarity. It has the capacity to help art students see the bumps and textures of a surface that at first glance looked smooth. Slowing down your gaze can help you discern what you thought you saw, to reveal what the actual contours of the object are.
The eyes of faith need training and practice as well. With reflection on words, the contours of faith and theology begin to become clearer. The one who seeks to know God can begin to discern something of the contours of God’s intentions for the world and the Psalm writer’s words serve as reminders and an invitation to look again and again to see that which may not be easily discernible. Heightening awareness of something through sustained and slow attention, like slow drawing methods, can steepen one’s faith and fidelity to the God who made and sustains all that is, was, and ever shall be.