Monday, September 06, 2021

Psalm 118

Psalm 118: His Steadfast Love Endures Forever

This post was written in the middle of blogging my way through the Gospel of John. Jesus referred to this Psalm in John 12:12–19, so I figured I should go deep on it. It was written long before I started the book of Psalms as a whole1, so this post might not be consistent with how I blogged about other Psalms. For example, I included verse numbers (which may or may not have ended up consistent with other posts about Psalms, but it made it easier to refer to bits and pieces of the text), and didn’t include links back to Bible Gateway for all of the verse references, though the link to the entire Psalm is above. (The link and all the quotations are from the NIV version.)

To me, the first verse of this Psalm (which is the same as the last verse) sums up its theme very well:

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
    his love endures forever!

The fact that the song starts and ends with these words is a pretty good indication that that’s what it’s about! So let’s go through the rest, as the anonymous author makes the case for why the LORD is good, and offers proof that His steadfast love endures forever…

2 Let Israel say:
    “His love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say:
    “His love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the LORD say:
    “His love endures forever.”

I read this as a poetic way of saying, “let everyone say/acknowledge that God’s steadfast love endures forever.” It’s not a point that should be up for debate; everyone should acknowledge it.

5 When hard pressed, I cried to the LORD;
    he brought me into a spacious place.
6 The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?
7 The LORD is with me; he is my helper.
    I look in triumph on my enemies.

8 It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in humans.
9 It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in princes.
10 All the nations surrounded me,
    but in the name of the LORD I cut them down.
11 They surrounded me on every side,
    but in the name of the LORD I cut them down.
12 They swarmed around me like bees,
    but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns;
    in the name of the LORD I cut them down.
13 I was pushed back and about to fall,
    but the LORD helped me.
14 The LORD is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.

And here’s some “proof” that the LORD is good: When we call on Him in our distress He answers. In fact, the author states, with the LORD on our side there’s no need to fear! Trusting and taking refuge in the LORD is better than trusting or taking refuge in men, even powerful men—even princes! The author talks about the LORD setting him free, and asking rhetorically “what can mere mortals do to me?”—does that mean that things will always go well, and the LORD will always remove obstacles from our paths? No. In fact, even the author himself started this song with, “When hard pressed I cried to the LORD”—the LORD let him get “hard pressed” in the first place! But there are two things to remember on this point:

  1. It’s a poem. I feel like I’ll be saying this a lot in the Psalms, but things sometimes get stated in stark terms in poetry, whereas the reality can be more nuanced. (That doesn’t mean the poem is “wrong,” poetry should be read as poetry. Don’t read a Psalm the same way you read the book of Romans!)
  2. While the question “What can mere mortals do to me?” is rhetorical, it’s worth thinking about it non-rhetorically: What can other people do to me? The answer is “quite a lot,” there are many evil and nasty things people could to do me, but nothing outside of the control of the LORD. Even if people do a lot of terrible things to me, I’ll trust in Him.

Some of this sounds to me like the author giving a specific example of the LORD helping him—and it also leads me to believe that the author was a king of Israel/Judah. But this is a song, that would have been sung by the people of Israel (and is still being read and studied thousands of years later by modern Christians), so I think it’s also fair to read this in a metaphorical way, because it often feels like we have enemies surrounding us on all sides. (Like bees, I guess.) However, the question is what it would mean to “cut them off,” but it’s probably best not to get too literal with that; instead of “cut them off,” think of it as “in the name of the LORD I triumphed,” or something along those lines.

15 Shouts of joy and victory
    resound in the tents of the righteous:
    “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!
16 The LORD’s right hand is lifted high;
    the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!”
17 I will not die but live,
    and will proclaim what the LORD has done.
18 The LORD has chastened me severely,
    but he has not given me over to death.
19 Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD
    through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation.

Given how good the LORD has been to the Psalmist, it’s appropriate that he worship Him, recognizing that the LORD is his strength and singing glad songs praising His name. And given how good the LORD is to us, it’s appropriate that we do the same!

Once again, let’s be careful how literally we read the words “I will not die but live”! After all, the Psalmist who wrote these words did die, thousands of years ago. Many years might have passed between the time these words were written and the time that this person finally died, but no matter how long a period of time that was, it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to how many years since that person’s death it’s been! But the Psalmist is not trying to claim that he’ll never die; he’s trying to say that even though the LORD “chastened” him, “severely,” the LORD did not chasten him to death. Whatever the Psalmist had done that was deserving of discipline, he came out of the discipline “recount[ing] the deeds of the LORD,” and will use the rest of his time on Earth doing the same.

When mention is made of entering into gates, I definitely am thinking of the temple: this is worship of the LORD, not just in informal ways but also corporately. He doesn’t just want to thank the LORD for what He has done, he wants to thank the LORD publicly, with the rest of the congregation.

22 The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
23 the LORD has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The LORD has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.

In the ESV Study Bible notes2 they talk about the word cornerstone: “The cornerstone is probably the large stone at the corner of the building’s foundation, though some think it is the keystone or capstone of an arch (but the very similar expression in Isa. 28:16 makes the foundation interpretation more likely).” So regardless of the specific meaning of the word “cornerstone” here, the Psalmist is talking about something that was initially rejected as being useless, but later became very important. When this song was written, “the stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone” was just poetic language, but the verse is quoted in the New Testament as being a prophecy about Jesus: rejected by the Jews of his day, and yet he became the salvation for all mankind.

25 LORD, save us!
    LORD, grant us success!

Although the LORD has already proven faithful, has already saved the Psalmist, the Psalmist still prays to Him for further deliverance. Never, ever believe that we have to stand on our own two feet, or that “the LORD helps those who help themselves,” or whatever other clich├ęs you have about being self-sufficient. The Bible will have none of it. We are supposed to depend on the LORD, and never stop depending on Him.

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
    From the house of the LORD we bless you.
27 The LORD is God,
    and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.

Verse 26 was quoted thousands of years later, when Jesus entered Jerusalem in what we call the “triumphal entry.” The Psalmist has been focused on praising the name of the LORD, but here pauses to contemplate the blessings on ones who are sent in His name. In the rest of the Old Testament there are lots of occasions in which the LORD’s prophets might not have felt blessed, as they were punished for delivering messages the people didn’t want to hear, but the reality is that His blessing was always upon them. I don’t know what joining the festal procession up to the horns of the altar means; it sounds like a reference to a religious practice of some kind.

28 You are my God, and I will praise you;
    you are my God, and I will exalt you.

29 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.

And again we come back to the main theme: The LORD is worthy of praise, and His love endures forever.

  1. At the time I wrote this I assumed I would get into Psalms eventually, but I hadn’t yet started. There may very well have been a period of years in which this post was up but there were no other posts about Psalms—or maybe this blog never got as far as the book of Psalms before I was called to Heaven (or stopped blogging for some other reason). ↩︎

  2. Just because I’m reading from the NIV, doesn’t mean the ESV Study Bible still can’t be helpful… ↩︎

No comments: