Psalm 118 is one of the Hallel Psalms—six psalms (113 to 118) which are sung or recited on high festival days, such as Passover (Pesach), the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Festival of Booths (Sukkot), as well as Hanukkah and the beginning of each new month. This final Hallel Psalm, like the other five, is intended to be an uplifting, celebratory song, suitable for the congregation to hear and to sing as a way to inspire and rejoice.
It is no surprise that this psalm is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Easter Sunday (Ps 118:1–2, 14–24), for this is a day which celebrates with joy the raising of Jesus from the dead (Matt 28:1–10). This psalm is very suited to the celebrations that take place in churches on this high holy day.
The psalm begins with a call to “give thanks” and an affirmation of the “steadfast love” of the Lord (vv.1-2). The next two verses, following the same pattern are omitted by the lectionary. However, I am thinking that the pattern of the first four verses, calling people to join in the affirmation, “his steadfast love endures forever”, could well be extended from “Israel … the house of Aaron … those who fear the Lord”, to include “let those who know the risen Lord Jesus say, “his steadfast love endures forever”.
God’s steadfast love is a recurrent theme throughout Hebrew Scripture, which often sings praises for “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9).
Affirmations of “[God’s] steadfast love” (v.2) are found in psalms (Ps 5:7; 6:4; 13:5; 17:7; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6–7; 25:10; 26:3; and another 100 times) and various narratives (Gen 24:12–14, 27; 32:10; 39:21; Exod 15:13; 20:6; 34:6–7; Num 4:18–19; Deut 5:10; 2 Sam 2:6; 7:15; 15:20; 22:51; 1 Ki 3:6; 8:23; 1 Chron 16:34, 41; 17:13; 2 Chron 1:8; 5:13; 6:14; 6:42; 7:3, 6; Ezra 3:11; 7:28; 9:9; Neh 1:5; 9:17, 32; 13:22).
Many prophets speak about God’s “steadfast love” (Isa 16:5; 54:10; 55:3; 63:7; Jer 9:24; 16:5; 32:18; 33:11; Lam 3:22, 33; Dan 9:4; Hos 2:19; 6:6; 10:12; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Micah 7:18), and Job also refers to it (Job 10:12).
The pervasive presence of this theme indicates just how central it was to ancient Israelite thought and how integral it was to how God was understood. The idea carries on into New Testament writings through the love that God expresses in Jesus (John 15:9; Rom 8:39; Eph 2:4–7; 1 John 3:1; 4:9) and is manifest through the Spirit (Rom 5:5; Gal 5:22).
However, we should never imagine that the God of love is simply “a New Testament idea”, in contrast to a perceived (completely inaccurate) view of “the God of wrath” in the Old Testament. The idea of divine love is shared in equal measure amongst both testaments. (So, too, we find the idea of divine judgement in both testaments—but that is another story!)
In the selection of verses offered by the lectionary (vv.1–2, 14–24), we encounter some other well-known concepts. The reference to “the chief cornerstone” (v.22) appears also in an oracle of Isaiah, “see, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (Isa 28:16), which continues, “I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet” (Isa 28:17).
It is found also in Zechariah’s strident oracle against the shepherds, of whom the prophet says, “of them shall come the cornerstone, out of them the tent peg, out of them the battle bow, out of them every commander. Together they shall be like warriors in battle, trampling the foe in the mud of the streets; they shall fight, for the Lord is with them, and they shall put to shame the riders on horses” (Zech 10:4–5). Clearly, the “cornerstone” (along with “the tent peg” and “the battle bow”) offers a somewhat cryptic reference to an anticipated future leader in Israel.
The “cornerstone” has then been picked up in the New Testament, where it is interpreted as referring to Jesus; in a speech attributed to Peter when he and John were before the Council in Jerusalem because of a “good deed done to someone who was sick” (Acts 4:9), namely, the healing of a man lame from birth (Acts 3:1–10). “This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead”, Peter is reported as saying; “this Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11). This is a critical theological statement placed on the lips of Peter.
In like manner—although less directly, in a more allusive fashion—Jesus equates himself with this “cornerstone” when draws to a close his parable about the vineyard and the tenants who killed all who were sent to them by the master, culminating in the master’s son; at that point in the parable, Jesus curtly concludes, “have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:10–11; Matt 21:42; Luke 20:17). In this citation of the psalm, Jesus has extended to include the following verse, about “the Lord’s doing”, which is a cause for amazement.
We hear that affirmation on Easter Sunday, in the psalm: “this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes” (Ps 118:23). When included in a Christian liturgy, these words seem very readily to reflect the experience of the first Easter—a marvellous deed, indeed.
The psalm then continues in an upbeat manner, with “this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24), echoing once more an oracle of Isaiah, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us; this is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa 25:9). That oracle includes three elements included in this section of the psalm: joy, at the chosen time, with knowledge of salvation.
The linking of “be glad” with “rejoice” is also common throughout Hebrew Scriptures (1 Chron 16:31; Ps 14:7; 32:11; 40:16; 48:11; 53:6; 70:4; 90:14; 96:11; 97:1; 149:2; Prov 23:24–25; 24:17; Isa 35:1; 65:18; 66:10; Lam 4:21; Joel 2:21, 23; Zech 10:7). The people of Israel were called to joyous praise quite often.
The celebration of the means of salvation is certainly a theme that is relevant to Easter Sunday, when this psalm is offered in the lectionary. It is worth singing and celebrating on this day!
On Hallel psalms, see