Psalm 118

April 13, 2014





Rev. Anneke Oppewal

Psalm 118



“Psalm 118”



We don’t know when exactly the psalms were written, or by whom. Although the scriptures attribute them to King David, it it is highly likely that other poets also contributed to the large body of poetry that is part of our scriptures today.


Poetry was a popular pastime at the courts of oriental kings, and often a group activity.  A king who could surround himself with poets, and had the time and ability to contribute, showed that he was on top of the world. It showed that his Kingdom was secure and that he had nothing much else to worry about than to promote the arts, and show that he could not only hold his own on the battlefield, but also where it came to more delicate human pursuits like the arts.


Poetry, art and beautiful architecture have often, in the history of humanity, been an indication of prosperity and stability.


And so are the psalms. But, between the lines, we also encounter proof that although prosperity and stability may have been achieved, it was not self-evident and there were still fresh memories of different times. There was an awareness that peace and abundance of resources could not be taken for granted.


In Psalm 118 we see evidence of this. On the one hand, there is praise for all the good things God has done; on the other, there is reference to enemies, threat and suffering.


The psalm may initially have been composed to be sung at festivals, to the King as he processed through the city. To celebrate victories, the relative peace and prosperity of the times, and to praise God and honour their King.


“Hosanna, save us, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” would, in that context, have been something like singing “God save the Queen”. Not so much an expression of a need for salvation, as of praise and honour to the King and the God who had provided blessing in the past as well as in the present, and were expected to continue to do so in the future. Shouting “God’s steadfast love endures forever” and repeating it over and over again, would, in the context of a dancing, singing and celebrating crowd, have been interpreted as a cry of triumph, of confidence, of faith and trust.


Later, however, in periods less prosperous and peaceful, the reciting of the psalm would have changed its character. Instead of recent victories and present prosperity, people would have started to recite the psalm to commemorate more distant events, to bolster their confidence at times when it was tested and fading. They would have drawn on the myths and traditions about Israel’s history, the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for instance, and the stories about slavery and liberation from Egypt, the tales about the conquest of the land of Canaan, and later, stories about what had befallen their people over the ages and God’s continued love and support over that time.


By the time of the prophets, and after the people had been taken into exile, the role of the psalms changed again. While looking back to what by then had become a remote past of glory and triumph, Psalm 118, and others, became a song of hope and resistance in time of suppression and despair. Expressing faith and trust that, even though they might be in a tight spot at the time, God would come to their rescue once again and save them from their enemies; that if they put their trust in God, God would be with them and the good times would return for them; that God’s steadfast love endured forever; and that no matter how bleak the present looked, God’s promise would hold for the future and change their fortunes once again.


As exile changed into occupation by one foreign power after another, they became, over time, songs of hope that longed for another King, a Messiah, that would come and save the people and restore to them the freedom, peace and prosperity they had known in the past, and especially under the reign of David and Solomon.


By the time of Jesus, Psalm 118 was well-established and understood as a messianic psalm, understood to be pointing forward more than backward when it talked about God’s enduring love and salvation. It had become one of the psalms that expressed the hope of the people of Israel that God would send them a King who would restore the Kingdom of David to its former glory and save its people from the brutal oppression of the Roman forces that occupied their lands.


It was evident that a lot would need to happen to make that possible. The Romans at the time were a super-power with no signs of diminishing. They were a power the people of Israel were in no position to oppose. What revolts there had been had either petered out because of internal division, or been quashed with an excessive display of force and cruelty by the Romans.


Traditionally at Passover, Jews from all over the Mediterranean would pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to celebrate the liberation from an Egyptian oppressor many centuries ago. It was a time of high tension, with Jerusalem prone to outbreaks of rioting and rebellion. For that reason, every year the Romans processed into the city with reinforcements, with much display of pomp and power. Just to let the people know that although they were allowed to celebrate liberation as a distant myth of origin, pursuing liberation for the present time was not a realistic possibility they could consider.


It may well have been, as some scholars believe, that while Jesus was coming in through a smaller gate on one side of the city, the Roman cavalry was marching in through another gate, with all the ceremonial circumstance they could muster.


This would, at the time, have given the procession around Jesus an unmistakable political edge.


To Jews familiar with the scriptures, it would have been an invitation to open rebellion. They would have seen Jesus entering the city in a way that had been written about in scripture passages, which described the way the Messiah would enter Jerusalem. Riding a donkey, gathering people around him from amongst all the nations, and leading them up to the Temple mountain, they shouted words from Psalm 118:


“This is the day the Lord has made! Hosanna, save us, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”


Words of hope, of possibility, of dreams waiting to come true. Could this be the King that has come to save them? To restore Israel? To bring down the oppressor?


It was clear what the actions of Jesus related to:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” says Zechariah 9.


They would all have known that this is followed by words less well-known to us:

“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim

and the war horse from Jerusalem;

and the battle bow shall be cut off,

and he shall command peace to the nations;

his dominion shall be from sea to sea,

and from the River to the ends of the earth.”


Quoting innocent bits of Psalm 118 like “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, they would have reminded each other of other, more politically charged parts of the psalm that speak about triumph in battle and the righteous celebrating their victory in the tents of righteousness.


How would Jesus have heard these words? Did he consciously stage his entry into the city in this way? Or was it something that overtook him and got out of hand as the enthusiasm of his followers surged around him? Was this a deliberate political statement of one who believed he was the promised Messiah, on a mission to bring salvation to his people, or did he realise that if there was to be any salvation, it surely could not be what the crowds were hoping for? Was there a flutter of hope in his heart that maybe, somehow, against all odds, God would intervene and establish his Kingdom on Earth? Or did he realise that he was destined to be a very different Messiah to the one the people of Israel had come to expect?


We don’t know. What we do know is that the Early Christian community looked back on this event and started celebrating it, as the point where the Easter story began.  They reinterpreted the ancient texts that reverberated around Jesus’ actions on that day, in the different light of what was to follow.


After the Crucifixion, the words “The Lord punished me severely, but did not give me over to death” suddenly had a very different ring to them.


“All nations surrounded me;

in the name of the LORD I cut them off!

11           They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;

in the name of the LORD I cut them off!

12           They surrounded me like bees;

they blazed like a fire of thorns;

in the name of the LORD I cut them off!

13           I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,

but the LORD helped me.

14           The LORD is my strength and my might;

he has become my salvation.”


These words sounded different in the time after the resurrection of Jesus, with the lives of his disciples under more threat than before.


Daring to say “His steadfast love endures forever.”

3             Let the house of Aaron say,

“His steadfast love endures forever.”

4             Let those who fear the LORD say,

“His steadfast love endures forever” took on a completely different dimension for those living after Easter, compared to how it had been interpreted before.


And whenever they heard the words,

“ 22        The stone that the builders rejected

has become the chief cornerstone.

23           This is the LORD’S doing;

it is marvelous in our eyes.”


They knew who they were referring to! And they sung the psalm celebrating his victory, the glorious present, and the defeat of death itself.


By the end of the first century, in early Christian communities, Psalm 118 became a battle cry, a song of triumph, a statement of faith in the God whose “love endures forever”.  From the earliest times it was sung at Easter celebrations and especially on Palm Sunday to celebrate Jesus’, God’s triumph over the forces of death.


Palm Sunday became a day of celebratory processions where images of the King, of Jesus, were carried around and the words of Psalm 118 were recited to testify to the Easter victory that the Holy week and Good Friday commemorations were leading up to. It became a Sunday of witness to the superior power of the Christian God and a protest against any oppressor who might think themselves inviolable and unaccountable to the Christian God.


This still happens today, with the protest staged in the city against the government’s asylum seeker policies an example. In places all around the world, Easter processions are mounted on this day and on Good Friday with enactments of the events that took place in Holy Week.


Unfortunately, especially in Europe, this led, from the beginning, to widespread violence to people of other faiths. With terrible atrocities targeting Jewish and Muslim communities instilling a fear that still affects many today. In interfaith discussions, I discovered that a Palm Sunday procession, no matter how noble the cause it may be protesting, still evokes terrible memories and fear in Jewish and Muslim people for what a Christian mob can do on a day like that.


Which brings us to the question of how we, at this time, can meaningfully celebrate this Sunday.


I have to confess that I am hesitant when it comes to the organising of, and participating in, Palm Sunday and Good Friday processions.  That may be because I am too conscious of the terrible history of such processions in Europe and other places in the world, further influenced by my experiences in interfaith discussions with people of other faiths. Our gatherings on that day terrify them!


I am sure that, apart from that, there is probably also a white middle-class liberal Christian resistance against such militant public expressions of faith that may, or may not, be justified.


It is probably also because I was raised in a tradition where Palm Sunday inaugurated a week of heart-felt introversion and penitence leading up to Easter, and the exuberance of processions and enactments grate with what I have been brought up to believe Palm Sunday is really about.


Whatever it may be, thinking about that king on a donkey, riding to his death in trust and quiet surrender, tends to evoke sadness in me, rather than militance. It makes me ponder the fickleness and cruelty of people; enthusiastic and supportive one moment, letting you down and leaving you to die the next.


It makes me wonder what Jesus would have been feeling and how much he realised at that moment what kind of bitter violence and godforsaken-ness was awaiting him. And how strong his trust and faith was at that moment, in the middle of the shouting and praising, that God’s steadfast love would hold him and save him, that he was indeed entering through the gate of righteousness into a place where God would not let him die, but would give him life to recount the deeds of the Lord.


It makes me think of asylum seekers and others, who find themselves, at this time, in a similar position to Jesus; at the mercy of powers beyond their control, with suffering and death casting a terrible shadow over their existence. People who need protection and support from people like us, who are in a position to give it and make a difference to their future.


It comforts me to know that Jesus may have faced the future with as much confusion, trepidation and wavering faith as I sometimes do. It comforts me even more to know that, in the end, after all the shouting was done, the “hosanna”s as well as the “crucify him”s had died down, God’s steadfast love did take the stone the builders rejected and made it into the cornerstone of salvation.


If that is true for Jesus, there is hope for me. For us. That whatever the future holds, God’s steadfast love will hold us and keep us.