Psalm 118
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
In this, the last of the Hallel Psalms, the spirit of jubilant thanksgiving finds fullest utterance. The speaker is Israel, or a representative of Israel, who speaks in the name of the nation (Psalm 118:10 ff.). As of old upon the shores of the Red Sea the people gave thanks as one man for their miraculous deliverance, so now they give thanks once more. As upon that occasion the dominant motive of their song was the realisation that to Jehovah alone they owed their deliverance, so now it is again (Psalm 118:14; Psalm 118:23). Now as of old they feel that this deliverance is nothing less than a miracle; and the conviction has given them a fresh sense of the solidarity and continuity of their national life, and of the greatness of Israel’s destiny in the counsels of Jehovah (Psalm 118:17; Psalm 118:22).

All Israel, priests and people alike, are bidden to join in praising Jehovah for His lovingkindness (Psalm 118:1-4). It is He alone Who is the Deliverer and Strength of His people (Psalm 118:5-9). The nations round about have plotted to destroy Israel, but in vain; once more as of old Jehovah has proved Himself their Saviour (Psalm 118:10-14), and glad thanksgivings celebrate the renewal of the national life (Psalm 118:15-18). The solemn procession of worshippers approaches the Temple gates proclaiming the greatness of the miracle which Jehovah has wrought for them (Psalm 118:19-24). With Hosannas and benedictions and thanksgivings the service is consummated in the Temple courts (Psalm 118:25-29).

The Psalm was evidently intended to be sung by the procession of worshippers on their way to the Temple upon some special occasion of national rejoicing. Doubtless it was sung antiphonally, in the manner described in Ezra 3:11, choir answering choir: but the precise distribution of the parts between the different choirs or voices cannot be determined with certainty. Psalm 118:1-4 however may have been sung as the procession started, the first line of each verse by the leader or a part of the choir, the refrain by the full chorus, and Psalm 118:5-18 on the way to the Temple in a similar manner, the refrains at any rate being taken up by the full chorus. Psalm 118:19 is obviously the challenge of the procession as it approaches the Temple, and Psalm 118:20 the response of the priests from within. Psalm 118:21-25 may have been sung as the procession entered the Temple courts; Psalm 118:26 is the blessing with which the priests greet it; and Psalm 118:27-29 may perhaps best be assigned to the procession and its leader.

It is generally agreed that the Psalm belongs to the post-exilic period, and that it must have been composed for some special and notable occasion. This occasion cannot have been the Feast of Tabernacles in the first year of the Return (Ezra 3:1-4) or the laying of the foundation stone of the Temple in the following year (Ezra 3:8 ff.); for Psalm 118:19-20 presume the existence of the Temple. Rather we might think of the Dedication of the Temple in b.c. 516, or the Passover which followed it (Ezra 6:15 ff.). But the most probable view is that which connects the Psalm with the great celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles recorded in Nehemiah 8. In spite of the sneers of Sanballat and Tobiah, and the active hostility of the neighbouring tribes, the repair of the walls of Jerusalem had been successfully completed. The work was finished on the 25th day of the month Elul in the 21st year of Artaxerxes (b.c. 444). Nehemiah concludes his narrative with the words; “And it came to pass, when all our enemies heard thereof, that all the nations that were about us feared, and were much cast down in their own eyes; and they perceived that this work was wrought of our God” (Nehemiah 6:16). In the following month (Tisri) the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated with exceptional rejoicings. “There was exceeding great gladness” (Nehemiah 8:14-18). The triumphant joyousness of the Psalm, its thanksgivings for recent deliverance from the hostility of surrounding enemies, its vivid consciousness that this deliverance is due to Jehovah’s help alone, correspond strikingly to the circumstances and feelings of that time, as they are delineated in the Book of Nehemiah.

The very words of Psalm 118:25 of the Psalm occur in the prayer of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:11) and nowhere else, and several other striking resemblances of thought and language between the Psalm and the Book of Nehemiah will be noticed. The metaphor from building (Psalm 118:22) would naturally have been suggested by the recent building of the walls. And lastly, the connexion of the Psalm with the Feast of Tabernacles is corroborated by the historical use of the Psalm at that Festival. “In the time of the Second Temple Psalm 118:25 formed the festal cry with which the altar of burnt offering was compassed in solemn procession, once on each of the first six days of the Feast of Tabernacles, and seven times on the seventh day. This seventh day was called ‘the Great Hosanna’ (Hosanna Rabba); and not only the prayers of the Feast of Tabernacles, but even the branches of willow and myrtle bound up with the palm-branch (Lulab) were called Hosannas” (Delitzsch). Baethgen does not speak too strongly when he says, “I believe it may be said with confidence that Psalms 118 was sung for the first time at the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the year b.c. 444.”

Cheyne thinks that “the exuberant spirit of independence and martial ardour in the Psalm” points to the purification and reconsecration of the Temple by Judas the Maccabee in b.c. 165 (1Ma 4:37-59; 2Ma 10:1-7). Venema, followed by Rosenmüller, assigns it to the time when Simon drove the Syrians out of the Acra, and celebrated the triumph with signal rejoicings (1Ma 13:51; 1Ma 14:4 ff.). But the Psalm breathes a freer spirit than might have been expected at the time when the Temple was still dominated by the Syrian garrison in the Acra; and the profession of Psalm 118:8-9 is hardly consistent with the eagerness of the Jews for alliance with Rome and Sparta.

The Psalm was Luther’s favourite Psalm. “Though the whole Psalter,” he wrote, “and all Holy Scripture is dear to me, as my only comfort in life, 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” (Tholuck).

It is appointed as one of the Proper Psalms for Easter Day, partly doubtless because it formed part of the Hallel sung at the Passover, but still more because of the reference of Psalm 118:22 to Christ, and the obvious appropriateness of much of its language, especially Psalm 118:23-24, to the triumph of the Resurrection.

O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever.
1. As Psalm 106:1 (see notes); Psalm 107:1; Ezra 3:11.

because his mercy &c.] For his lovingkindness &c.

2 ff. For the threefold division ‘Israel,’ ‘house of Aaron,’ ‘fearers of Jehovah,’ cp. Psalm 115:9-13, and notes there.

Israel] The LXX as in Psalm 115:9 reads the house of Israel, and adds after say, in Psalm 118:2-4, that he is good. Hence P.B.V. with the Vulg. in Psalm 118:2, ‘Let Israel now confess, that he is gracious.’

1–4. An introductory call to all Israel to join in praising Jehovah for His unfailing goodness.

Let Israel now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let them now that fear the LORD say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
I called upon the LORD in distress: the LORD answered me, and set me in a large place.
5. Out of the straitness in which I was I called upon Jah:

Jah answered me (and set me) in a wide place.

Israel had been hemmed in and harassed by enemies (Nehemiah 4:7 ff.): they prayed (Nehemiah 4:9), and were set free to move and act without let or hindrance. Cp. Psalm 18:19; Psalm 31:8. The name Jah is perhaps chosen here and in Psalm 118:14; Psalm 118:17-19, in order to recall the memories of the Exodus. See Psalm 118:14[76].

[76] The A.V. and R.V. follow the Eastern or Babylonian reading in repeating Jah in the second line. The Massora, according to the Western or Palestinian recension, makes the syllable jah simply the termination of the preceding word.

5–9. Israel speaks as one man; acknowledging that it is Jehovah Who has delivered them. With Him as their ally they have nothing to fear.

The LORD is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?
6. From Psalm 56:9; Psalm 56:11. Cited in Hebrews 13:6.

The LORD taketh my part with them that help me: therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me.
7. Jehovah is on my side as my helper] Cp. Psalm 54:4. The expression is an idiomatic one. It denotes not merely among my helpers, as one among many, but ‘in the character or capacity of my helpers,’ ‘as a host of helpers.’ “He sums up in Himself the qualities of a class, viz. the class of helpers” (Cheyne).

therefore shall I see &c.] Or, do I see, a general truth. Cp. Psalm 54:7 b, and note; Psalm 59:10; Psalm 92:11.

It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man.
8, 9. It is good to take refuge in Jehovah, and not to put trust in man … in princes] Cp. Psalm 146:3; Psalm 116:11; Psalms 62; and for the construction, see note on Psalm 52:3. Artaxerxes had given Nehemiah letters to the Persian governors, and an escort of cavalry (Nehemiah 2:7-9), but these did not prevent the hostility of Tobiah and Sanballat. Repeatedly Nehemiah ascribes the frustration of their plots to the direct interposition of God.

It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes.
All nations compassed me about: but in the name of the LORD will I destroy them.
10. All nations &c.] Comp. “all the nations that were about us,” Nehemiah 6:16. Arabians, Ammonites, and Philistines of Ashdod, are specially mentioned in Nehemiah 4:7 f. Cp. also Ezra 4:7-23, referring probably to an earlier period in the reign of Artaxerxes.

but in the name &c.] In the name of Jehovah, trusting that He would prove Himself all that He has promised, I did cut them off. The exact meaning of the verb is uncertain. The tense is a ‘graphic imperfect.’ From Psalm 118:5; Psalm 118:13 it is clear that the crisis was past and the victory won.

10–14. It was in the strength of Jehovah that Israel was enabled to repel the persistent attacks of its enemies.

They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the LORD I will destroy them.
They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the LORD I will destroy them.
12. like bees] Cp. Deuteronomy 1:44.

they were extinguished as a fire of thorns] The sudden collapse of their rage is compared to a fire of thorns which blazes up fiercely and then rapidly dies down. But the form of the preceding verses and the following line lead us to expect a climax in the description of their hostility rather than a description of their extinction, and the LXX may have preserved the true text:

They came about me like bees about wax;

They blazed like a fire among thorns;

In the name of Jehovah, I cut them off.

The corruption of the Massoretic text is most ingeniously explained by Baethgen. The Targ. ‘burning like a fire among thorns,’ seems to preserve a reminiscence of this reading. Aq. Symm. Jer. Syr. follow the Mass. text.

Thou hast thrust sore at me that I might fall: but the LORD helped me.
13. Thou didst thrust sore at me] The community as an individual addresses its enemies as an individual. Israel and the foe are as it were two warriors matched in single combat. Cp. Micah 7:8.

The LORD is my strength and song, and is become my salvation.
14. The words, taken from the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:2; cp. Isaiah 12:2) recall the memory of Israel’s greatest deliverance, and imply that He Who brought them out of Egypt is still their Deliverer.

The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly.
15. tabernacles] Tents, i.e. dwellings (Psalm 91:10), unless the reference be to the tents of pilgrims to the feast pitched outside Jerusalem. The rendering ‘tabernacles’ might seem to connect the Psalm with the Feast of Tabernacles, but the word for the ‘booths’ used on that occasion is a different one. The righteous are Israel, regarded in the light of their calling, and contrasted with ‘the wicked,’ the heathen who sought to frustrate God’s purpose by destroying them. Cp. Psalm 33:1; Habakkuk 1:13. Psalm 118:15 b, Psalm 118:16 are the joyous shout of the righteous, and are based on Exodus 15:6; Exodus 15:12.

15–18. The rejoicings of the festival in gratitude to Jehovah for preserving the nation’s life.

The right hand of the LORD is exalted: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly.
I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD.
17, 18. Israel is the speaker. In its renewed national life it recognises the gift of Jehovah which is to be employed in praising Him (Isaiah 43:21). Its sufferings have been for chastening; God cannot permit His people to perish (Jeremiah 30:11 = Jeremiah 46:28; Habakkuk 1:12). The Lord = Jah in these verses.

The LORD hath chastened me sore: but he hath not given me over unto death.
Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the LORD:
19. The language is robbed of its proper force if it is regarded merely as a general expression of a desire to worship in the Temple, and not rather as a call to the priests within to open the gates for the approaching procession. Cp. Psalm 24:7 ff. The gates of the Temple are called “gates of righteousness” because it is the abode of the righteous God (cp. Jeremiah 31:23), from whence (cp. Psalm 20:2) He manifests His righteousness in the salvation of His people. See note on Psalm 65:5.

I will go &c.] I will enter into them, I will give thanks to Jah.

19–24. The procession has reached the Temple gates, and seeks to enter (19). A voice from within reminds them of the condition of entry (20); and passing into the Temple courts the grateful people renew their praises for the miracle of deliverance which has been wrought for them (21–24).

This gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter.
20. This is the gate that belongs to Jehovah;

The righteous may enter into it.

The emphasis is on righteous. Those who would enter must be righteous like Him Who dwells there. Cp. Psalm 15:1 ff.; Psalm 24:3 ff.; Isaiah 26:2.

I will praise thee: for thou hast heard me, and art become my salvation.
21. I will give thanks unto thee, for thou hast answered me (R.V.).

and art become my salvation] Another allusion to Exodus 15:2.

The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.
22. The stone which the builders rejected

Is become the head of the corner.

A metaphor from building. The ‘corner-stone’ bonding the walls together was a most important part of the structure. A large and strong stone was needed for the purpose. It is mentioned along with the foundation (Jeremiah 51:26; Job 38:6) of which it formed part (Isaiah 28:16); and so possibly the meaning here is ‘the chief cornerstone’ of the foundation. But ‘the head of the corner’ is more naturally explained to be the top-stone (Zechariah 4:7), not only bonding the walls together, but completing the building. Israel is the ‘head corner-stone.’ The powers of the world flung it aside as useless, but God destined it for the most honourable and important place in the building of His kingdom in the world. The words express Israel’s consciousness of its mission and destiny in the purpose of God. The perfect “is become” is a perfect of certainty. With the eye of faith the Psalmist sees the Divine purpose already realised.

Our Lord applies the passage to Himself in His solemn warning to the Pharisees of the consequences of rejecting Him (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17). St Peter also quotes it (Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7). Comp. also Ephesians 2:20. The principle underlying this use of the words originally spoken of Israel is that Christ was the true representative of Israel, Who undertook and fulfilled the mission in which Israel had failed.

This is the LORD'S doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.
23. This &c.] Lit. From Jehovah has this come to pass. The order of the words emphasises From Jehovah. Cp. Nehemiah 6:16, “They perceived that it was from our God that this work was wrought.”

marvellous] Nothing less than a miracle, visibly attesting the providential care of Jehovah for His people. See note on Psalm 71:17. The same word is used in Jeremiah 32:17; Jeremiah 32:27 with reference to the promised restoration of Israel from captivity. “There is nothing too hard (lit. wonderful) for thee.”

This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.
24. To Jehovah alone we owe this day of national rejoicing. Cp. Isaiah 25:9. “There was exceeding great gladness” is the description of the festival in Nehemiah 8:17.

in it] Or, in Him. Cp. Psalm 32:11.

Save now, I beseech thee, O LORD: O LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity.
25. We beseech thee, Jehovah, save, we beseech thee!

We beseech thee, Jehovah, prosper (us), we beseech thee!

A prayer that Jehovah will continue and carry forward the work which He has begun. Cp. Jeremiah 31:7. For the form of entreaty cp. Psalm 116:4; Psalm 116:16. Now of A.V. is a particle of supplication, not of time.

send now prosperity] The very words of Nehemiah’s prayer (Nehemiah 1:11), “O Lord, I beseech thee … prosper now thy servant.”

25–29. Vows and prayers, blessings and praises.

Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD: we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD.
26. The priests in the Temple bless the entering procession. Blessed in the name of Jehovah be he that entereth! The accentuation rightly connects in the name of Jehovah with blessed. Cp. Psalm 129:8; Deuteronomy 21:5; 2 Samuel 6:18.

With these words and with the Hosanna[77] (‘save now’) of the preceding verse, the multitudes greeted Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9). The Psalm may already have received a Messianic interpretation. Hosanna was a “God save the king” (Psalm 20:9); and “he that cometh” was a title of the Messiah (Matthew 11:3). The disciples, expanding the original, shouted “Blessed is the king that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38; cp. Mark 11:10).

[77] Hosanna (ὡσαννά) represents a contracted form הוֹשַׁע־נָּא (cp. Psalm 86:2), hôshă‘-nnâ, which was substituted for the fuller form הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא hôshî‘âh nnâ used in the Psalm. See Dalman, Gramm. des Jüd. Pal. Aram. p. 198.

God is the LORD, which hath shewed us light: bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.
27. Jehovah is God, and hath given us light] He has proved Himself to be El, the God of might, as of old at the Exodus (Exodus 15:2): He has once more banished the darkness of the night of calamity and shewn us the light of His favour. There may be an allusion to the pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21; cp. Nehemiah 9:12; Nehemiah 9:19); and to the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:25).

bind &c.] Evidently an exhortation to some act of thanksgiving for God’s mercy. But the meaning is uncertain. It is doubtful whether chag, properly a pilgrimage festival, can mean a festival sacrifice: the horns were the most sacred part of the altar, on which the blood of the sin-offering was sprinkled (Leviticus 4:7; 1 Kings 1:50), and it seems improbable that the victims would ever have been bound to them: the preposition ‘ad, ‘up to,’ can hardly be used with the verb bind in the simple sense of ‘to.’ Various explanations have been proposed. (1) ‘Bind the victim with cords (and lead it) up to the horns of the altar,’ or, ‘till it is sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the horns of the altar’: or, ‘so as to fill all the space right up to the altar,’ with reference to the number of beasts to be sacrificed. But these explanations, beside giving a doubtful meaning to chag, require much to be read into the sentence. (2) The LXX (συστήσασθε ἑορτὴν ἐν τοῖς πυκάζουσιν), Symm. (συνδήσατε ἐν πανηγύρει πυκάσματα) and Jerome (frequentate sollemnitatem in fronduosis) explain the word rendered ‘cords’ above to mean ‘thick boughs’ (cp. Ezekiel 19:11, and the use of the cognate adj. in Leviticus 23:40, ‘boughs of thick trees’) with reference either to the boughs of which the booths were made, or to the bundles of branches, known in later times as Lulab, which the worshippers at the Feast of Tabernacles carried. Hence Cheyne, ‘Bind the procession with branches, (step on) to the altar-horns’: Baethgen, ‘Link the dance with boughs, up to the altar-horns.’ It is supposed that one of the ceremonies of the festival was a procession or sacred dance round the altar, in which the worshippers carried the Lulab, and waved them so as to touch the horns of the altar. These interpretations are equally questionable, and it is possible that the text is corrupt.

Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee.
28. I will praise thee] Rather, I will give thanks unto thee, as in Psalm 118:29. The verse is another echo of Exodus 15:2.

thou art my God] So the LXX. The Heb. text has, O my God. The word for ‘God’ in the preceding line is El, here it is Elôhîm. At the end of the verse the LXX repeats Psalm 118:21.

O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.
29. The Psalm concludes with the chorus of praise with which it began.

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