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Psalm 118 Biblical Commentary:
This is a Hallel (praise) Psalm––one of six Egyptian Hallel Psalms that were recited during the Passover and other major Jewish festivals. Worshipers recited Psalms 113-114 at the beginning of the service and Psalms 115-118 at the end (one source says 113-116 before and 117-118 after). The Egyptian Hallel Psalms commemorated the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery.
The Great Hallel Psalms (120-136) offer praises of a more general nature.
Our word hallelujah comes from the Hebrew words hallel (praise) and yah (Yahweh or God or the Lord), so it means “praise the Lord.”
This psalm begins with a call to worship––”Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good.” In the second verse, it continues, “Let all Israel say that his loving kindness endures forever.” These verses indicate that this is a call to corporate thanksgiving (thanksgiving by the worshiping community rather than just the individual). This understanding is reinforced by verses 10-13, which speak of a great battle or battles in which Yahweh gave Israel the victory over many nations.
PSALM 118:1-2. GIVE THANKS TO YAHWEH, FOR HE IS GOOD
1 Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good,
for his loving kindness endures forever.
2 Let Israel now say
that his loving kindness endures forever.
“Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good,” (Hebrew: tob) (v. 1a). The word tob means good, proper, or as it should be. Yahweh is all those things.
“for his loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed) endures forever” (v. 1b). The word hesed means loving, kind, and merciful. One of the chief characteristics of God is that his love endures. He established a covenant with Abram and Abram’s descendants, and remained Israel’s covenant God through thick and thin. When they sinned he punished them, not to destroy them but to redeem them. His love never faltered.
“Let Israel now say
that his loving kindness endures forever” (v. 2). The psalmist calls Israel to speak the truth about Yahweh. He is a loving and kind God, and his love has survived their frequent unfaithfulness. The psalmist is calling Israel to acknowledge the blessings that they have received at his hand.
This is the only mention of Israel in this psalm, but it does two important things: (1) It identifies Israel as the recipient of the salvation mentioned in verses 10-13. (2) It also confirms that this psalm is calling Israel to give thanks for the salvation which they received.
PSALM 118:3-13. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
3 Let the house of Aaron now say
that his loving kindness endures forever.
4 Now let those who fear Yahweh say
that his loving kindness endures forever.
5 Out of my distress, I called on Yah.
Yah answered me with freedom.
6 Yahweh is on my side. I will not be afraid.
What can man do to me?
7 Yahweh is on my side among those who help me.
Therefore I will look in triumph at those who hate me.
8 It is better to take refuge in Yahweh,
than to put confidence in man.
9 It is better to take refuge in Yahweh,
than to put confidence in princes.
10 All the nations surrounded me,
but in the name of Yahweh, I cut them off.
11 They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me.
In the name of Yahweh I indeed cut them off.
12 They surrounded me like bees.
They are quenched like the burning thorns.
In the name of Yahweh I cut them off.
13 You pushed me back hard, to make me fall,
but Yahweh helped me.
These verses paint a picture of the adversities that Israel faced. They are essential to understanding this psalm, because they tell of the potential disaster from which Yahweh saved them. If there had been no danger, Yahweh would not have saved Israel––and Israel would have no reason to give thanks.
PSALM 118:14-18. YAH HAS BECOME MY SALVATION
14 Yah is my strength and song.
He has become my salvation.
15 The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous.
“The right hand of Yahweh does valiantly.
16 The right hand of Yahweh is exalted!
The right hand of Yahweh does valiantly!”
17 I will not die, but live,
and declare Yah’s works.
18 Yah has punished me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.
“Yah (Hebrew: yah) is my strength and song.
He has become my salvation” (Hebrew: yesuah) (v. 14). This verse quotes Exodus 15:2, which is part of a song that Moses and Israel sang when Yahweh saved Israel from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. People love to use joyful music to express their gratitude for being saved.
The Hebrew word yah is an abbreviated form of Yahweh (the name of God, often translated “the Lord.”) It is found twice in Exodus (15:2; 17:16), once in Isaiah (38:11), and a number of times in the Psalms.
The word yesuah means salvation or deliverance from distress or danger. Verses 10-13 (above) give some idea of the kinds of dangers that Israel faced.
“The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous” (Hebrew: saddiyq ) (v. 15a). A saddiyq (righteous one) is a person who lives in accord with God’s law and God’s will.
This verse pictures a celebration in the tents of the righteous, whom God has saved.
“‘The right hand of Yahweh does valiantly! (Hebrew: hayil)
The right hand of Yahweh is exalted!
The right hand of Yahweh does valiantly!'” (vv. 15b-16). These verses tell us what those who have been saved are saying (or, more likely, singing).
For most people, the right hand is the dominant hand––the strong hand––the hand that wields a sword. The right hand is a symbol of power and authority (Exodus 15:6, 12; Nehemiah 4:23; Psalm 18:35; 20:6; 21:8; etc.).
The word hayil (valiantly) is often used in a military context. Verses 10-13 (above) show that this occasion for thanksgiving was, indeed, a military one.
“I will not die, but live,
and declare Yah’s works.
Yah has punished me severely,
but he has not given me over to death” (vv. 17-18). These people have faced death and have been surprised to survive. Again, verses 10-13 (above) give a picture of the crisis and the resolution. The crisis resulted from Yahweh’s judgment. The resolution resulted from Yahweh’s mercy.
PSALM 118:19-21. OPEN TO ME THE GATES OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness.
I will enter into them.
I will give thanks to Yah.
20 This is the gate of Yahweh;
the righteous will enter into it.
21 I will give thanks to you, for you have answered me,
and have become my salvation.
“Open to me the gates of righteousness (Hebrew: sedeq).
I will enter into them.
I will give thanks to Yah” (v. 19). The word sedeq (righteousness) has to do with meeting high ethical standards. In Israel, that would have meant adherence to Torah law.
- Psalm 15 defines righteousness as doing what is right––speaking truth––abstaining from slander and evil––despising those who are vile––honoring those who are faithful to Yahweh––keeping oaths even when that is difficult––refusing to lend money at interest or to take a bribe against the innocent.
- Psalm 24 defines righteousnessas the person “who has clean hands and a pure heart; who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully” (24:4).
“The gates of righteousness” would have been the gates of the temple, where the righteous God dwelled. Only the righteous were fit to enter the gates of righteousness.
The psalmist counts himself as righteous He says that he will enter these gates of righteousness so that he might give thanks to Yahweh.
“This is the gate of Yahweh;
the righteous will enter into it” (v. 20).
“The gate of Yahweh” acknowledges that the temple gates ushered the faithful into the presence of God.
Yahweh’s dwelling place in the temple was the Holy of Holies (also known as the Most Holy Place). There Yahweh sat on the Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant. Access to that chamber was restricted to the High Priest, and to him only once a year on the Day of Atonement. However, others could access other parts of the temple––and come near to the presence of God.
“I will give thanks to you, for you have answered me,
and have become my salvation” (v. 21). This sounds as if Yahweh has answered the psalmist’s personal prayer for salvation, and that is probably true.
But, as noted in THE CONTEXT (above), the psalmist is calling Israel to acknowledge God’s blessings and to give him thanks.
PSALM 118:22-24. THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED
22 The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.
23 This is Yahweh’s doing.
It is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that Yahweh has made.
We will rejoice and be glad in it!
“The stone which the builders rejected
has become the head of the corner.
This is Yahweh’s doing.
It is marvelous in our eyes” (vv. 22-23). Jesus gave the Parable of the Vineyard and the Rebellious Tenants to the chief priests and elders (Matthew 21:33-40). In that parable, the master planted a vineyard, leased it to tenants, and sent servants to collect his portion of the fruit. Finally, the master sent his Son, and the tenants killed him. Jesus asked what the master would do to those tenants, and the chief priests and elders replied, “He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will lease out the vineyard to other farmers, who will give him the fruit in its season” (Matthew 21:41). Jesus then said:
“The stone which the builders rejected,
the same was made the head of the corner.
This was from the Lord.
It is marvelous in our eyes?” (Matthew 21:42).
In that verse, Jesus is the rejected stone which was made the cornerstone. The builders were the religious leaders such as the chief priests, elders, scribes, and Pharisees. Jesus’ parable pronounced judgment on these religious leaders for failing to acknowledge the Messiah.
When the psalmist wrote this verse, he had in mind little Israel as the stone that the builders (the ruling nations of that day) rejected, because Israel was small and apparently helpless. But because of Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh, Israel was small and mighty, a fact reflected by the victory outlined in verses 10-13).
“This is the day that Yahweh has made.
We will rejoice and be glad in it!” (v. 24). This is part of Israel’s song of rejoicing.
This verse is often quoted today as recognition that the Lord has given us the day, and we should rejoice in it. That is a sound program for maintaining a healthy and happy life. Every day presents us with some joy and some sorrow. If we will focus on the good instead of the bad, we will be able to go through each day with strong hearts. An old gospel song says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God has done.” Those who follow that program will find strength for their journey.
PSALM 118:25-27. SAVE US NOW, WE BEG YOU
25 Save us now, we beg you, Yahweh!
Yahweh, we beg you, send prosperity now.
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of Yahweh!
We have blessed you out of the house of Yahweh.
27 Yahweh is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the sacrifice with cords, even to the horns of the altar.
“Save us now, we beg you, Yahweh!
Yahweh, we beg you, send prosperity (Hebrew: salah) now” (v. 25). The word salah has many meanings. The ones that apply in this verse are prosperity, success, or victory.
In verse 21 the psalmist (and the people) acknowledged the salvation which Yahweh had given them. However, they continue to pray for salvation and prosperity (or success or victory).
It might seem odd that, having received salvation (v. 21), they now pray again for salvation. But the need for salvation is ongoing. The fact that God saved me yesterday does not mean that I won’t need his salvation today.
Today’s threat might be the same as yesterday’s, or it might be different. Sometimes our need for salvation from a certain quarter can be lifelong. If you don’t believe that, just ask a recovering alcoholic or drug addict. They know that the threat of addiction is ongoing.
But the tempter’s ability to spin new temptations knows no limits. Neither do moth or rust or thieves (Matthew 6:20) or natural disasters or wars or a host of other adversities that threaten to undo us. Our need for salvation never diminishes.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of Yahweh!” (v. 26a). To come in the name of the Lord means identifying oneself with the Lord in such a way that one’s identity is tied together with the Lord’s identity. Calling on the name of the Lord requires allegiance––commitment––faith.
“We have blessed you out of the house of Yahweh” (v. 26b). These appear to be the words of a priest who is prepared to confer a blessing on the worshiper or the congregation.
“Yahweh is God” (Hebrew: ‘el) (v. 27a). Yahweh is the name of the God of Israel. In the Hebrew, it is spelled YHWH. In English translations, YHWH usually is translated “the Lord.”
The word ‘el means god. The Hebrew Scriptures use it occasionally for other gods, but most often for the God of Israel. ‘el can also mean mighty.
In this verse, the psalmist uses ‘el to mean that Yahweh is God or that Yahweh is mighty. Both meanings make sense. The psalmist surely understood the two possibilities, and may have used ‘el deliberately to convey both meanings.
“and he has given us light” (v. 27b). The psalmist intends light to mean spiritual rather than physical light. Those who have walked in spiritual darkness know that it is even more dangerous than physical darkness. Whether physical or spiritual, light is a blessing.
“Bind the sacrifice (Hebrew: hag) with cords” (v. 27c). This is a difficult verse. The word hag means feast or festival. Perhaps the psalmist intends it to mean the sacrifice which would be offered at a festival.
“with cords, even to the horns of the altar” (v. 27d). The horns of the altar were projections at the four corners of the altar. Ordinarily they were smeared with the blood of the sacrifice, but the psalmist seems to say that the priest should use cords to bind the sacrifice to the horns of the altar. We have nothing in the Old Testament to corroborate that priests did that.
PSALM 118:28-29. I WILL GIVE THANKS TO MY GOD
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you.
You are my God, I will exalt you.
29 Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good,
for his loving kindness endures forever.
“You are my God, and I will give thanks to you.
You are my God, I will exalt you” (v. 28). To be able to say, “You are my God,” is a life changing affirmation. The person who goes through life knowing that he/she belongs to God can walk confidently through life’s ups and downs.
Yahweh’s relationship with Israel began with his covenant with Abram, which took place long before Israel became a nation (Genesis 12:1-3). Yahweh renewed that covenant with Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 2:24; Leviticus 26:42); Moses (Exodus 6:4-5; 19:5; 24:7-8; 25:21); David (2 Samuel 7:16; Psalm 89:2-4; 105:8-11); and Israel (Jeremiah 31:3-4, 31-37).
At the burning bush, God told Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). He promised, “I will remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham” (Leviticus 26:42).
Yahweh told Israel, “I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10) and “you are my people” (Isaiah 51:16; Hosea 2:23). He said, “They, the house of Israel, are my people…the sheep of my pasture” (Ezekiel 34:30-31).
The natural response to these kinds of promises is to give thanks and to exalt the benefactor.
“Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good (Hebrew: tob),
for his loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed) endures forever” (v. 29). This verse repeats the entreaty of verse 1. See the comments on that verse (above).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allen, Leslie C., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Waco: Word Books, 1983)
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan