Commentary on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
It is easy to see why Psalm 118 is the psalm selection for Easter for all three lectionary years.
The psalm is bursting with exuberance and joy, the language barely adequate to the task of conveying the wonder of what God has done. For the psalmist was as good as dead and now is alive. “I give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 118:1),” the psalmist declares. It is not surprising, then, that the New Testament writers heard the events of the passion and resurrection of Jesus captured in the language of this psalm. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes (vv. 22-23, cf. Matthew 21:42, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7).” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord (v. 26a, cf. Matthew 21:9, Luke 19:38).”
Today, however, this psalm becomes our own prayer of thanksgiving. For insofar as we are found in Christ, dying and rising with him, this psalm lends language and shape to our expressions of joy and gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. “I shall not die but I shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord (v. 12).” This psalm, then, not only provides an interpretive lens for Christ’s death and resurrection, it instructs us in how to respond appropriately to God’s mighty acts on our behalf.
Psalm 118 is an individual psalm of thanksgiving that gives praise to God for a specific act of redemption in the psalmist’s life. In this case, the psalmist speaks of nations that had surrounded him, pressing in on him like bees ready to attack or like a fire of thorns that encircles and traps its victim, leaving no escape. The political nature of the threat makes it likely that the psalmist is a king, perhaps King Hezekiah who surely felt such helplessness and distress as the army of Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem (2 Kings 18-19). In any case, the psalmist believed he was as good as dead. Yet the psalmist cried to Lord, and the Lord answered his prayer (v. 5).
The entire psalm hinges on this characteristic activity of God of hearing and answering the cries of his people, turning mourning into dancing, and the night into day. This is Israel’s most foundational experience of God. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and hearing their groaning, God brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 2:23b-24). The language of the psalm taps into this defining story of Israel’s life with God, extolling God’s power that can overcome even the most menacing and threatening forces of our world. “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation (v. 14, cf. Exodus 15:2a).”
It is not incidental that these verses fall at the center of the psalm. In fact, the entire psalm is structured in such a way as to draw attention to this defining relationship between Israel and God. Four times at the beginning of the psalm and one time at the end, the psalmist calls the community of faith to praise God for God’s steadfast love, his chesed. It is indeed God’s covenant loyalty, his unwavering commitment to his people and his world that compels God to act for the sake of his people, even at his own expense. Salvation, then, for the psalmist as for us, is not based on his own righteousness or sense of deserving, but rather is rooted in God’s self-giving, long-suffering, love. “The Lord has punished me severely,” the psalmist testifies, “but he did not give me over to death (v. 18).” Though things got bad, the psalmist knew that in the end, God’s steadfast love would win the day.
The remainder of the psalm (vv. 21-28) alternates between the voice of the psalmist and that of the community of faith as the king leads the people in giving thanks to God for restoring him. “I thank you, Lord, that you have answered me (v. 21) … this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes (v. 23).”
Just as the psalmist’s suffering is political in nature, so is the resulting praise. As Rolf Jacobson notes in his article, “The Costly Loss of Praise,”1 praise is not simply an act of piety, but a polemical and political assertion. Praise evokes a worldview, one in which God is an active agent in daily life. In other words, praise declares, in the face of alternative conceptions of reality, that the source of Israel’s salvation and the hope for the world is God and God alone.
In the context of Easter, praise is particularly crucial. For ours is a world which increasingly looks for salvation from evil in the building of walls, the carrying of weapons, and the hoarding of resources. It is ours, then, as the people of God to posit an alternative way forward rooted in the hope we have in Jesus Christ, to assert that we live in a world where a resurrection really did happen. That God really is on the move, redeeming and restoring the world to himself in Jesus Christ. That Christ really did inaugurate a kingdom that has taken root in our hearts and that compels us to new ways of being and behaving characterized by justice, righteousness, and shalom. Ours is the task of directing people’s attention once again to the God who loves us, whose steadfast love endures forever, who is at work in our lives and in our world making all things new, who alone is our hope and our salvation. So today, we join the psalmist in praise and declare, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever (v. 29).”
1 Rolf Jacobson, “The Costly Loss of Praise,” Theology Today, 57:3, Oct 2000:375-385.