It is said that Psalm 118 was Luther’s favourite. He said of it, “This Psalm has been of special service to me. It has helped me out of many great troubles, when neither Emperor nor kings nor wise men nor saints could help.”1
The more I have read and reflected on this psalm, the more I have come to appreciate Luther’s partiality. This psalm is full of hope, because it is full of promise—all because it is full of Christ.
The psalm is clearly a command to a congregation to praise the Lord, to give Him thanks for His steadfast love. But the psalm is a bit of a challenge when it comes to identifying who is speaking, as well as when it was written.
After the initial call to worship, we read the personal testimony of an “I” (vv. 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13) and how the Lord delivered this person from some “distress.” The distress was pretty intense, for we are told that “all the nations surrounded” him (v. 10).
“I” was apparently quite powerful, for he declares that “I will destroy them” (v. 11). Whoever “I” was, he had a measure of righteous authority, for he demanded admittance into the gates (probably to the temple). We read this in vv. 19–20. One gets the idea that “I” is royal, perhaps a king.
From v. 21, the metaphor changes a bit and the focus becomes a stone that has become the “chief cornerstone.” The Lord did a great work by taking that which was rejected and actually giving it prominence. Is this stone the “I” of the psalm?
Whoever, or whatever, it is, it was cause for a special day to be declared, a day on which all who shared in the victory were to “rejoice and be glad” on that day.
The psalm closes with a plea for further deliverance. Yes, the cornerstone is in place, and the rejoicing is taking place, but there is a cry of “hosanna” for further victory, for further “prosperity” (v. 25). This victory is in some way connected with an individual who will “come in the name of the LORD” (v. 26) calling forth full and committed sacrifices on the part of the people (vv. 27–29).
I suggest that the ultimate author and subject of this psalm is none other than Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ!
But first, let’s examine the psalm and see where it leads us.
A Call to Celebration
The psalm opens (vv. 1–4) with a call to celebration: “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. Let Israel now say, ‘His mercy endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron now say, ‘His mercy endures forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD now say, ‘His mercy endures forever’” (Psalm 118:1–4).
“In this, the last of the Hallel Psalms, the spirit of jubilant thanksgiving finds fullest utterance.”2 It is reminiscent of Psalm 136: “His mercy endures forever.” And yet it seems as if it is a continuation of Psalm 117. Note particularly in that psalm, “For His merciful kindness is great toward us” (v. 2). This is what is being celebrated in this psalm as well.
God’s covenantal love, God’s lovingkindness, mercy and grace are unending because God’s covenantal faithfulness to His people is unending. This is why we can celebrate at all times—because at all times God is faithful to His everlasting covenant. Great is his faithfulness, indeed.
The call to celebration is a comprehensively congregational call to worshipful, festal celebration. The call is to all of God’s people: “Israel,” “the house of Aaron,” “those who fear the LORD.”
This was a most fitting psalm with which to close the Egyptian Hallel, having reviewed God’s covenantal faithfulness. It is likely the hymn that Jesus and His disciples dang after the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30).
This was also a most fitting psalm for the Feast of Tabernacles as the nation reflected (while camping in booths) on God’s faithfulness to them over the centuries.
We should do this regularly as well. As we gather for our weekly “festal assembly,” we have even more cause to praise the Lord for His covenantal love (Hebrews 12:22–24; see 13:20–21).
The Cause of Celebration
In vv. 5–14, we find the cause of celebration:
I called on the LORD in distress; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place. The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is for me among those who help me; therefore I shall see my desire on those who hate me. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes. All nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I will destroy them. They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me; but in the name of the LORD I will destroy them. They surrounded me like bees; they were quenched like a fire of thorns; for in the name of the LORD I will destroy them. You pushed me violently, that I might fall, but the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation.
For many reasons, I agree with commentators who assign this psalm to the days of Nehemiah, with particular reference to the celebration recorded in Nehemiah 12.
The word “distress” aptly describes the situation facing Israel after a hundred years of the city lying in ruins with the walls completely dismantled (see Nehemiah 1:3; 2:17; 9:37).
The mention of being surrounded by nations also aptly describes things in Nehemiah’s day (Nehemiah 2:19; 4:2; 4:7; 6:1).
The testimony concerning not being cowered by enemies is also very fitting for the situation faced by Nehemiah and his people. At one point, the Israelites under Nehemiah laboured with trowels while having swords strapped to their sides. In the face of taunting they persevered. Nehemiah often reminded the people that the Lord was on their side.
Verse 14 is a fitting description of how the people must have felt when the final stone was put in place on the wall after a mere 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15). This was a remarkable feat in anyone’s estimation. The enemy’s attempts to thwart the work of God were indeed “destroyed.”
“I” and “my” are clearly the use of a personal pronoun representative of the united nation. We are told in the book of Nehemiah that “the people had a mind to work” (4:6). Therefore, “I” speaks of the nation as a whole. It is a royal we.
I find it very helpful to consider that this sense of corporate togetherness is also evident when addressing the enemy. As Kirkpatrick notes with reference to v. 13, “The community as an individual addresses its enemies as an individual.”3
As those in Jerusalem, both during and after its rebuilding, contemplated all that God had done, it is easy to imagine them singing this psalm. They had witnessed God doing something marvellous before their eyes (v. 23) and they celebrated with thanksgiving for His covenantal and loving and gracious faithfulness to them.
God’s people can be, should be and must be confident that, in the face of adversaries, the Lord will do what He has promised.
Let’s note a few observations from these verses.
First, we must not be cowered by opposition. We must not allow threats to thwart our obedience to the Lord’s task; rather, our theology must thwart the threats.
Second, we must be united in our perseverance and we will then be united in our praise.
Third, Hebrews 13:6, quoting v. 6, makes it very clear that this psalm is for us. We are the “I.” We need to contemplate and believe this. We must be persuaded that, in the name of the LORD, the church can conquer the nations with the gospel. Let us “trust in the LORD,” being confident that He will overcome.
We need to stop being persuaded that “confidence in man” can trump the Lord and His purposes, His plan and His power (v. 8). The Israelites faced a tough economy as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but they got the job done. The Jews were disenfranchised, but God would enfranchise them!
Celebration is costly. Such confidence arises from faithful obedience in the midst of difficulties. And such confident and constructive commitment will be rewarded, resulting in much celebration. So, if we want to celebrate, let us dedicate ourselves to faithfully (confidently) do the task at hand. Let us rise up and build (Nehemiah 2:18), knowing that the Lord is with us.
Chastening and Celebration
Third, in vv. 15–20, we read of chastening and celebration.
The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; the right hand of the LORD does valiantly. The right hand of the LORD is exalted; the right hand of the LORD does valiantly. I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD. The LORD has chastened me severely, but He has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, and I will praise the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD, through which the righteous shall enter.
In this stanza, the central theme seems to be the experience of rejoicing in the Lord as consequence of His chastening of them (v. 18). Again, this was very much the situation in Nehemiah’s day. He acknowledges this in chapter 1, as do the priests in chapter 9.
These verses exemplify what another psalmist wrote: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). They display the truth that those who will be brought high must first be brought low. In the words of the New Testament, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10).
Notice how confidence rises from the constructive process of chastening. The psalmist recognises in vv. 17–18 that his future is bright. He realises that the God’s people are to be good stewards of the lessons learned through chastening. They are to serve the Lord. God preserves us in the midst of chastening so that we will fulfil His glorious purposes.
He speaks in vv. 19–20 of “the gates of righteousness” and “the gate of the LORD, through which the righteous shall enter.” This may be a reference to the gates to the temple, but if the psalm was indeed written in the time of Nehemiah, it is quite likely that the reference is to the gates of the city, which he rebuilt. Regardless, the point is that the writer is confident that God will accept his worship. The chastening has changed him into an acceptable worshipper.
So it ought to be with us. The purpose of chastening is that we will be purified and that we will come out the other end as more faithful worshippers.
At the same time, we must not miss the hint here to the entrance of a king. This will become more significant a little later.
The Cornerstone of Celebration
In vv. 21–24 we find the cornerstone of celebration: “I will praise You, for You have answered me, and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:21–24).
These words are immediately familiar to us. They are quoted several times in the New Testament, always applied to Christ (see Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:7). In fact, they are applied to Him by Him.
But before unpacking that glorious truth and applying it, we need to observe the laws of biblical hermeneutics. The most basic rules of Bible interpretation are, what does this mean? and what did it mean to its original audience?
It is unlikely that the original writer and audience were thinking Messiah when he wrote and they read these words. The “cornerstone” was a work of masonry, which formed the foundation of a building. Without it, the building might come toppling down. Therefore, the cornerstone needed to be skilfully hewn and laid. If indeed this was written with a Nehemiaic frame of reference, then it would be most fitting. The enemies did not think that anything good could or would arise from this small group of people among a destroyed city lying in rubble. Yet God did something great in the face of this rejection.
It is in this context in which the metaphor would have most likely been understood by the original audience. In other words, Israel, though rejected by her enemies, was deemed to be of pivotal importance by God. Though her enemies easily dissed and dismissed Israel, God honoured her. “They ‘rejected it.’ … They intentionally passed it by as being of little or no use in their over-all plans.”4 But, in the end, God’s vindication of them and of their work was “marvellous in their eyes.” Though God used means, clearly “this was the LORD’s doing.” “The new day that has dawned on Israel’s horizon is of the Lord’s making.”5 Yet, as Kidner comments, “The battle was single-handed; the victory is shared.”6
Verse 24 records the only reasonable response: “This is the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
God has wrought this wonderful work. And so “this … day”—that is, the day which God had miraculously brought to pass (the resurrection of the city)—called for one response: “We will rejoice and be glad in it.” And, of course, this psalm highlights such celebration.
In Nehemiah 12, we read of the celebration that was indeed joyous and loud, and it was a day filled with sacrificial offerings and feasting. Everything about that day fits with this psalm.
Jesus, the Chief Cornerstone
But what about Jesus’ self-identification as the cornerstone? The apostles Peter and John and Paul refer to this designation when speaking of Jesus. The reason for the identification is clear, if not simple. Leupold explains, “What is relatively true of Israel is found to be completely true of the Messiah of God.”7 In other words, “Israel is a type of Christ. What the nation ought to have been, Christ was.”8
The Lord Jesus Christ is the antitype of all of the Old Testament types. Israel was declared to be the vine of God (Isaiah 5), yet Jesus said that He is the true Vine (John 15). The tabernacle, and later the temple, was the dwelling place of God, yet Jesus claimed to be the true Temple (John 2:19–22). Israel was tempted and failed in the wilderness; Jesus was tempted and succeeded in the wilderness. God called Israel, designated His son (Exodus 4:22) out of Egypt; but later He brought His only begotten Son out of Egypt (Matthew 2:15; cf. Hosea 11:1). Therefore, for Jesus to identify Himself as the chief Cornerstone was in keeping with His fulfilment of all that Israel was supposed to be.
Kidner very helpfully points us to this truth when he writes, “We become aware of a single worshipper at its centre, whose progress to the Temple to offer thanks celebrates no purely private deliverance … but a victory and vindication worthy of a king…. This is no ordinary individual. He will soon be speaking as a king and receiving a king’s welcome.”9
Like Israel, Jesus was rejected, both by His own nation and by all the nations. Like Israel, Jesus was mocked concerning His claims of greatness. Like Israel, no one expected Him to rise from the dead. And yet He did! And it is marvellous in our eyes!
And, by the way, we too have a designated “day” that “the LORD has made’ in which we are to be committed to “rejoice and be glad in.” We call it the Lord’s Day; we call it Sunday, the first day of the week.
The Commitment arising from Celebration
In vv. 25–28 we see a commitment arising from celebration. These verses speak of confidence attending the celebration:
Save now, I pray, O LORD; O LORD, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We have blessed you from the house of the LORD. God is the LORD, and He has given us light; bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will praise You; You are my God, I will exalt You.
It does seem in this passage that the one to whom hosannas are being sung is of kingly character (vv. 25–26). Jesus, of course, saw Himself as the fulfilment of these words (see Matthew 21:9 with Matthew 23:39). This King is also God.
When Jesus came in judgment upon Jerusalem (note the irony), gospel prosperity was unleashed. It has gone into all the world. For two centuries, Jesus Christ, the King of kings, has been saving His people. He will continue to do so. We must continue to sing this psalm!
Guard the Sacrifice
But in addition to our confident crying out for greater things, the writer also mentions the deep commitment on the part of the people.
The words “bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar” has caused much consternation to commentators. After all, there is no indication in Scripture that such a thing happened. So what does this refer to?
Well, I can only guess, but I think that the picture is that of bringing the sacrifices to the temple and then hitching them to the horns of the altar until such time they are actually sacrificed. The principle being highlighted is that of commitment on the part of those who are joining in the celebration (see Nehemiah 12:42ff).
There are some important takeaways here for us.
God, who has given to us the light of life (v. 27), is worthy to be both praised and served—sacrificially. At different times, we can celebrate the truth that God “has once more banished the darkness of the night of calamity and shewn us the light of His favour.”10 The weeping will be followed by joy.
The deliverance for which we need to be praying and that we need to be pursuing (v. 25) is the deliverance from sin. In other words, gospel progress is the prosperity that we need to be pursuing. And though it may seem improbable, and to some impossible, nevertheless “it is the LORD’s doing” and it will be done!
We need to not only make a commitment toward such prosperity, but we need to keep our commitment. We need to bind it to the horns of the altar lest it escapes. Having made a commitment, we must guard it. Have you committed to giving a regular amount to the missions endeavour of your church? Don’t let the commitment escape when tough times come. Whatever commitments you have made before the Lord, be sure that the temptation will soon come to forsake that commitment. Don’t allow that to happen. Bind it to the horns of the altar.
Regardless of your circumstances, be confident in what the Lord can do in the light of what He has done. This will empower you to exult Him even in the face of those who are enemies of the gospel.
The Conclusion of Celebration
As the celebration began with thanksgiving to the covenant-keeping God, so it ends: “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever” (v. 29). Thanksgiving is to be never-ending.
We must keep this truth front and centre in our hearts and minds, as on our tongues. We must sing about His faithfulness and speak about His faithfulness and serve because of His covenantal faithfulness. We have every reason to believe that there is more happening than meets the eye.
Consider that this song was likely sung on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. As the disciples joyfully sang this song, leaving the upper room, they were unaware of what was about to happen. Jesus was soon to be literally rejected, yet three days later He would be made the cornerstone. Though for three or four long and hopeless days, all looked lost—and this song was utterly forgotten—yet God was working His plan. At the resurrection, on that first day of the week, as the disciples gathered, an unexpected Guest arrived. It was Jesus!
If you were to ask the disciples how they responded at that time, they would have perhaps spoken the words of this psalm: “It was marvellous in our eyes, and we rejoiced and were glad.” Some two thousand years later, we celebrate the same truth.
Let us rejoice and be glad as we continue to pray, “Save now, [we] pray, O LORD.” We can do so with confidence, knowing that His mercy—His steadfast love—endures forever.
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 694. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 692. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 696. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 818. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 818. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 414. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 812. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 819. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 412–13. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 699. ↩