Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 27, 2016

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Commentary

Many times I have questioned the lectionary’s choices for specific Sundays or seasons, but not this Easter Sunday. With good reason, Psalm 118 is the Easter Sunday selection from the Psalms for all three years of the lectionary cycle. Even a cursory reading reveals numerous connections with Jesus’ last days and with the first day of the rest of his life. It fairly drips with Messianic allusions. Verse 6, for example, sounds a lot like Jesus’ bold words and brave actions in the face of his accusers and executioners. We can read verses 10-12 as a parallel to the way Psalm 22:16-21 describes the enemies of Jesus swarming around him. And once we begin to read the Psalm with Messianic glasses, who can fail to see verses 17 and 18 as a prophecy of his resurrection after severe God-imposed suffering.

Other verses in Psalm 118 are even more obviously related to Jesus. Verses 26-27 are shouted by the crowds on Palm Sunday in all four Gospels. Clearly, the common people thought of this Psalm as Messianic, and they identified Jesus as the Messiah who had now come “in the name of the Lord.” Even more significantly, Jesus used verse 22 in all three synoptic Gospels when the hostile Jewish leaders objected to his parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (Mt. 21:42, Mk. 12:10, Lk. 20:17). Jesus was bluntly saying that he was the rejected Son in the parable and the rejected Stone of Psalm 118:22. That is surely how the early church understood him. Acts 4:10-12 applies Psalm 118:22 to Jesus’ death and resurrection. And Peter uses that verse in his famous riff on stones in I Peter 2:4-8.

The connection between Psalm 118 and Jesus becomes almost spine-tingling when we learn that it is the last in a series of Psalm known as the Egyptian Hallel (Psalm 113-118). In post-Exilic Israel, these Psalm were sung in a liturgy of thanksgiving for national deliverance at the great religious festivals (Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, Dedication, and New Moon). Particularly, at the Passover Psalm 113 and 114 were sung before the meal and Psalm 115-118 were sung after. So it is probable that Psalm 118 is the “hymn” that Jesus and his disciples sang at the conclusion of the Passover at which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. (Matthew 26:30) If that is true, we can conclude that, as Jesus went out to suffer and die, he sang about his coming victory over his enemies, including the last enemy, death. By singing this Psalm, Jesus was expressing his faith that in what was about to happen, “the Lord’s right hand [would do] mighty things.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself here by moving so quickly to Jesus. By moving too quickly from the Old Testament to the New, we might miss something significant. That is the case here. Over the course of history, this Psalm has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways, but most of them can be distilled to the three summarized in the footnotes of the NIV Study Bible. First, the speaker in the Psalm is a Davidic king leading the nation in a liturgy of thanksgiving and victory after a hard fought battle with a confederacy of nations. Second, the speaker is a Levitical figure (perhaps at the Feast of Tabernacles) leading Israel in a celebration of her deliverance from Egypt and her victory over the Canaanites. Third, the speaker is a Levitical leader of a liturgy in which post-Exilic Israel celebrates deliverance from their enemies, either at the dedication of the Second Temple or at the dedication of the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem.

If we adopt #1, we have a victorious King offering a song of thanksgiving for victory in battle. If we adopt #2 or #3, we have a Priest offering a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from Egypt or Babylon. In either case, it is both ironic and prophetic that Jesus should sing this song of victory before his defeat by his enemies. Psalm 118 gave our Victorious King and Sympathetic High Priest the words that would summarize what was about to happen. No wonder the early church saw this Psalm as a powerful prophecy that helped unlock the mystery of what had actually happened in the death and resurrection of the One who came in the name of the Lord.

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself, and thus probably missing something important in the Psalm. It is fascinating to follow the action in the Psalm as the speaker moves from that moment when his solitary life was almost over to that moment when he stands together with the congregation singing God’s praise. In verse 13 the Psalmist recalls when he almost fell in battle, but the Lord helped him. That theme of the Lord’s help at death’s door is the central theme of his song of thanksgiving. Verses 14-16 focus particularly on God’s right hand, a familiar biblical symbol for God’s saving involvement in human affairs. By his right hand, God has “become my salvation.” In verses 17 and 18, the Psalmist measures the depth of his salvation; “I will not die, but live.” Yes, he realizes that the Lord has been involved in his encounter with death; “the Lord has chastened me severely….” (Cf. Hebrews 12:5 and 6 for a New Testament echo of that idea.) But though the Psalmist faced death, the Lord “has not given me over to death.” We see the deepest meaning of those words in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Then in verse 19, the now-delivered speaker approaches the gate of the Temple requesting permission to offer his thanks in the sanctuary. “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” Is verse 20 the response of the priestly gatekeepers? “This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.” The speaker is righteousness, not because he has perfectly kept God’s law, but because he has come into God’s presence “in the name of the Lord.” His righteousness comes through his trust in the Lord, rather than in human allies (verses 8 and 9). Once inside the gates, the Speaker at last addresses God directly. “I will give you thanks, for you have answered me; you have become my salvation.” (Verse 21)

Now the Speaker is joined by a chorus of worshipers who don’t simply repeat the words of the One who has been saved by God, but also give the deeper meaning of that salvation with this marvelous verse about stones. “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” The word translated “capstone” has three possible meanings: a capstone over a door (a large stone used as a lintel), or a cornerstone (a large stone used to anchor and align the corner of a wall), or a key stone (a large stone that completes and holds together an arch). However we understand it, this stone rejected by the expert builders has become the key to the entire building, whether we understand that edifice as the Temple, the Church (Ephesians 2), or the New Creation.

The Psalmist’s point is that God has done this miraculous thing. Human beings rejected this Stone and tried to kill him, but God by his mighty right hand has raised him up from the dust of death and made him the center of God’s great saving work. “The marvelous thing is that one whom our human instincts and wisdom reject, God has nonetheless, in spite of us and for our salvation, made the chief cornerstone.” (James Luther Mays) And that is the reason for the joy of God’s people in Psalm 118 and on this Easter Sunday. The NIV translates verse 24, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Perhaps an alternative translation captures the meaning of the Psalm better. “This is the day the Lord has done it; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” On this day, the Lord has done this marvelous thing. On this day called Easter, God has completed his work, becoming our salvation by raising Jesus from the dead and making him the center of all God’s saving action.

There are multiple preaching themes in this rich Psalm. We could focus on verse 14, noting how the emphasis shifts from the first clause to the second. “The Lord is my strength and my song….” That’s who God is and always has been. That is the character of God; those are his attributes, if you will. But now God has done something new in history; he has become my salvation by revealing his mighty right hand and reaching down into history for me and my salvation. This line of preaching would emphasize that verse 14 is a direct quotation of the Song of the Sea that Moses and the Israelites sang on the banks of the Red Sea. On this Easter Sunday, we celebrate how the great “I am what I am” became active in human history for our salvation.

Or we could focus a bit more closely on that concept of God’s right hand, or as the Psalmist puts it, “Yah’s right hand.” Six times he uses that abbreviation of the name Yahweh. In other words, it is the covenant God who has done this marvelous thing. So often God’s people think that their God has forsaken them, but the use of this name for God is a reminder that God always keeps covenant. Indeed, the opening words of the Psalm call on Israel to give thanks to God, because “his love endures forever.” The word there in the Hebrew is chesed, which refers specifically to God’s covenant keeping love. A sermon focusing on this theme would highlight God’s faithfulness to his covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Or we could zero in on the Psalmist’s confidence that “I will not die, but live.” Obviously this has a direct connection to Jesus’ death and resurrection. But it also has deep resonance with the history of Israel. God gave them over to the nations, where they thought they would die and cease to exist as a people. But they did not die, because God gave them new life. Further, this theme echoes Jesus’ famous words to Martha in John 11:25, 26. “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” These are the words of Jesus and of all who follow him: “I will not die, but live.”

Or, finally, we could emphasize verse 22 as Jesus did. If we preach on Jesus as the capstone, the cornerstone, the keystone, we will be able to highlight God’s project of re-building a creation ruined by sin. The salvation accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection involved not only the reconciliation of individual sinners to God and their ultimate resurrection from the dead, but also the regeneration of the cosmos. Easter, then, is the beginning of what Peter called “the restoration of everything.” (Acts 3:21) Or, to put it differently, Easter is Apocalypse Now, the beginning of the end of everything, ala I Corinthians 15:20-28. Have yourself a cosmic Easter!

Whichever tack you take, be sure that you don’t get so lost in the heavy doctrine that you forget how Psalm 118 begins and ends. “”Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” This is a worship Psalm, a call to the people of God to “rejoice and be glad” on this day of days.

Illustration Idea

I just finished reading Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eloquent, but bitter memoir about his experience as a black man in America. Praised for its diamond-like clarity about the destructive effects of racism, Coates’ book was hard for me to read. That was partly because of his wholesale condemnation of “those who think they are white,” but also because he sees no hope for a better future. Having rejected the Christian faith that gives hope to so many people (red and yellow, black and white), Coates doesn’t see any real possibility of change. Many people feel that way not only about the racial problems that divide America, but also about income inequality and political gridlock and global warming and religious wars and God knows what else. With its multi-faceted explanation of what the mighty right hand of God has done in history by raising Jesus from the dead, Psalm 118 proclaims that there is hope and joy for all who “come in the name of the Lord.”


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