Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 5, 2015
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Commentary
Comments and Observations
Since this is the psalm the Lectionary appoints for Easter, it’s very tempting to view it simply through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. After all, it’s not hard to imagine Jesus saying, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done for me. The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death” (17-18).
It may also be tempting to view Psalm 118 through the first Easter’s lens because it’s, candidly, not a particularly easy psalm to preach on all by itself, particularly on Easter. After all, it contains imagery, such as apparent temple liturgy language, that’s both unfamiliar and challenging to apply to a modern walk of faith.
What’s more, Psalm 118 contains a lot of apparently disjointed verses that lend themselves more easily to focus on a single verse rather than a psalm-wide theme. On top of that, it’s not easy to know whether this is a song of thanksgiving of an Israelite king celebrating a victory, Israel celebrating God’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, post-exile Jews celebrating their return from exile or something else.
Yet with the Holy Spirit’s guidance and some careful thought and work, Psalm 118 can be a fertile text for preaching and teaching all by itself. It’s certainly the kind of psalm to which those who have known both duress and God’s gracious deliverance from it are attracted. Martin Luther who was persecuted for his understanding of the Christian faith, for example, referred to it as “his own beloved psalm” and interpreted it as speaking directly to his situation.
Of course, Luther’s claiming of Psalm 118 as his own makes us nervous. After all, the psalmist leaves both her identity and the crisis from which God rescues her unidentified. As James L. Mays notes, the poet doesn’t write this psalm to answer “specific historic questions.” Instead she concentrates on God’s mighty work to rescue her. The psalmist sees her identity centrally as one who “comes in the name of the Lord.” (26) This makes this psalm one to which all of God’s sons and daughters can relate.
The psalmist both begins and ends 118 with his call to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” In fact, he makes giving thanks to God a central theme of Psalm 118. In verse 19 he announces, “I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” And in verse 21 the psalmist insists, “I will give you thanks, for you answered me.” That thanksgiving also has a communal aspect. In verses 2-4 the poet calls Israel three times to join him in saying, “God’s love endures forever.” After all, in contrast to human love that is naturally feeble and conditional, God’s love endures.
The psalmist also adds a communal element to the call to thanks in verse 23 when she shifts the narrative voice of the psalm from the first person singular to the first person plural, calling, in verse 25, for example, “O Lord, save us; O Lord, grant us success” [italics added]. So while the psalmist is speaking of and thanking God for God’s liberation of her from some sort of danger, she also calls the worshiping community to join her in such worship and thanksgiving.
Certainly God has given both the psalmist and the community many reasons to give thanks to God. After all, God is “good.” God’s “love endures forever.” God is the psalmist’s “strength and song.” What’s more, echoing Exodus 15’s song of victory on the Red Sea’s far shore, the psalmist asserts God has become his “salvation.” God has “answered” the psalmist. The psalmist also speaks of God’s “right hand” three times, describing it as having done “mighty things” and being “lifted high.” Reference to God’s “right hand” seems to be another way of saying that God has graciously and personally intervened in the life of the psalmist.
God has brought the psalmist to a place where she can express deep confidence in God’s goodness. Prophets such as Amos, Ezekiel and Hosea had announced that Israel’s sin would result in her death as part of God’s judgment. Yet the psalmist says God did not abandon her (and, by implication, Israel) to death. While death is part of life on this side of the new creation’s curtain, death does not have the last word for the psalmist, Israel or those whom God has made “righteous.”
This, of course, takes on new meaning in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Through it God has transformed the death of God’s sons and daughters into a transition into God’s eternal presence where we await our own resurrection at Christ’s return. Even though we die, we will, by God’s amazing grace, live.
Among perhaps the most difficult imagery of Psalm 118 is that of verses 19-21. It appears to be temple imagery, signaling, perhaps, that it’s part of some kind of thanksgiving liturgy for use in the temple. The psalmist asks that the temple’s “gates” be opened so that he may give thanks to the Lord. After all, he wants to be able to give thanks, perhaps in some kind of worship service, for answering him and becoming his salvation. Even the language of “the stone that the builders rejected” becoming “the capstone,” that Jesus, Paul and Peter take to refer to Jesus, may be temple imagery.
To close the section on which the Lectionary specifically focuses, the psalmist calls the worshiping community to join him in rejoicing and being glad in the day that the Lord has made. Since the psalmist doesn’t specify to what day he refers, it’s a wonderful summary of God’s children’s approach to each and every day God graciously gives us. We can rejoice, because God has made this day.
Psalm 118 offers preachers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to invite hearers to consider what God has done. However, it also presents a challenge to those whom God has helped to talk about their experiences of God’s work. After all, the psalmist isn’t just thankful to God for being his strength and song. He also finds ways to talk about that goodness in Psalm 118. While even Christians are naturally reticent about talking about what God has done for them, this psalmist reminds us that we shouldn’t encounter and experience God’s mercy and then refuse to talk about it.
In verse 17 the psalmist voices her hope when she says, “I will not die but live.”
Joy Hollyday tells the story a visiting schoolteacher who worked in a hospital. The teacher of a little boy who was in the hospital asked her to visit him in the hospital in order to help him with his homework. The classroom teacher told the visiting teacher, “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in this young man’s class, and I hope you will help him.”
When the visiting teacher arrived at the hospital, she was saddened to learn that the child was in the hospital’s burn unit in very serious condition and in horrible pain. She was also embarrassed when she walked in the room and saw how miserable he was. Yet she decided to press on and stumble through the lesson, ashamed of herself for putting him through such an apparently senseless exercise.
The next morning, the nurse in the burn unit asked the visiting teacher, “What did you do to that boy yesterday?” Before the teacher could get out her apology, the nurse said, “We had given up on him, but ever since you visited him, he seems to be fighting back, responding to treatment.”
The boy himself later explained that he had given up hope, but it all changed when he had come to the realization that they wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy.
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