Commentary on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Psalm 118 is called a “song of victory” in the New Revised Standard Version, and it invites Israel (and all who read/pray/hear it) to join its voices to that of the psalm, and to say — to announce, sing, proclaim — “The Lord’s steadfast love endures forever.”
This call to praise of God begins with Israel, “let Israel say,” but continues in verses 3 and 4 to locate that call in the worship leadership of the priestly “house of Aaron,” and is extended beyond Israel to include “those who fear the Lord” (it is a bit strange that the Revised Common Lectionary cuts verses 3-4 from the reading; I would suggest including them).
This psalm is a radically inclusive invitation to all the peoples of the earth to join in the praise of the Lord.
Psalm 118, and the portion of it which is our reading for Easter morning, has three familiar sing-song verses:
Verse 1: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever! (a common paean of praise in the Psalms)
Verse 22: The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone. (quoted in Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11; and 1 Peter 2:7)
Verse 24: This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Strung together, these three familiar verses set the tone for Easter morning. God’s steadfast love endures forever, even in and through death, bringing new life. Christ, the stone that has been rejected, becomes the foundation of a new reality. And this, even this, precisely this, is the day which the Lord has made; new creation, new life, new hope.
There are two other verses which highlight how fitting Psalm 118 is for Easter Sunday, verses 15 and 16. Here again is an invitation of sorts, in the description of the “glad songs of victory” which the people are lifting up (presumably fleshing out the call to praise “O give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good….”):
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.”
In the Psalms, the power of God’s right hand is at first associated specifically with God’s saving acts in history, and then comes to stand as symbolic language for God’s protection and comfort of the troubled in general.
In Psalm 118:15 and 16, the “right hand of the Lord” occurs three times, and is “exalted,” for having done “valiantly.” This language derives from the exodus event. One of the earliest examples of this phrasing comes from Exodus 15:6, the Song of the Sea:
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power —
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
That this phrase is explicitly tied to the exodus event in Psalm 118 is supported by 118:14 as well,
The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
So, in certain psalms the “right hand” of God is connected invariably to the power of the exodus event specifically (Psalms 74:11–13, 77:12-21), and similarly to God’s work in settling the people of Israel in the Promised Land during the “conquest” (Psalms 78:54; 80:16, 18).1
In other psalms this phrase takes on a more general sense of comfort and care that is found in God’s right hand. For example, Psalm 63:5-8,
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
And, again, Psalm 139:10
Even there (at the farthest, unknown limits of the sea, verse 9) your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Borrowing this exodus language explicitly, the Jeremiah promised a new “exodus,” in the return from Exile:
Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them” (Jeremiah 23:7-8).
Much as in the Psalms, Jeremiah uses what God has done in the past to imagine and make sense of what God is or will do. And so, too, for those proclaim Christ’s death, each Easter, until he shall come again
The true and final “new exodus” of the Resurrection is effected by God’s “right hand.”
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is indeed marvelous in our sight.
This is the new day that the Lord has made, a day of unparalleled rejoicing and gladness.
1. See also Psalm 44:4: “For not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory; but your right hand, and your arm, and the light of your countenance, for you delighted in them.”