Palm Sunday: Psalm 118

The last of the Passover Psalms, Psalm 118, is the one which the crowd that lined the streets of Jerusalem shouted to welcome Jesus (Matthew 21:9): “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” They blessed the one who came to declare the name of the Lord, the one who came in the service of Yahweh, and they cried for salvation (“Hosanna” means “save us”).

The Text

Psalm 118 is a thanksgiving song offered by one who had come to the temple to sacrifice a thank offering for his salvation. The text begins and ends with the great liturgical refrain of Israel’s temple worship:  “Give thanks toYahweh, for he is good; his love endures forever.” But the substance is an individual thanksgiving (“I”) whose refrain is the Lord has “become my salvation” (14, 21). Once lost in lament and hopelessness, God became his strength and refuge–the Lord became his song!

To see the meaning of this Psalm it is important to follow the flow of the song. Beginning and ending with a call to hanksgiving, the middle of the Psalm is the individual’s thanksgiving followed by the community’s affirmation.

     Liturgical Refrain (1)
               Communal Praise (2-4)
                         Individual Thanksgiving Song (5-21)
                                   Lament and Triumph (5-7)
                                  The Lord is My Strength (8-14)
                                  I Will Give Thanks (15-21)
                         Communal Response to Thanksgiving (22-27)
                Individual Praise (28)
     Liturgical Refrain (29)

As the worshipper entered the gates, Israel’s chorus declared: “His love endures forever.” And the worshipper sings his song. It is a story of lament and deliverance.  He sang of his anguish and seeming defeat; he thought he was going to die and he was ready to give up. Surrounded by enemies he discovered he could trust no one. He felt abandoned and chastened; lost and disciplined. He sensed failure and experienced hopelessness.

But the Lord was with him. He disciplined him but at the same time helped him. The right hand of Yahweh redeemed him from the pit; he lived and did not die. It is better to trust in the Lord because ultimately people and princes will disappoint. God alone is his salvation.

The community resounded with shouts of joy and victory. They welcomed the delivered one into their midst. They recognized that the rejected one–lost in abandonment and pain–is actually the chosen one, chosen by God. This one, though once lost in anguish, has now come to declare the praise of the Lord. Blessed is anyone who comes to exalt the name of Yahweh! The community joined the procession to the altar to give thanks with this worshipper and to offer their own prayer to the Redeemer of Israel:  “Yahweh, hosanna,” that is, “Lord, save us!”

Together they, the community and the worshipper, declare: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  Together they recognize that God has made a new day today, a day of salvation, deliverance and redemption. Today is the day of salvation. It is a time to rejoice and shout for joy. The worshipper who has come to the altar with his thanksgiving sacrifice testifies: “You are my God, and I will exalt you.”

The Worshipping Assembly

This Psalm is not simply about a particular individual in the past who sang his own thanksgiving song in the temple. Nor is it simply Messianic as if it was only and wholly about Jesus. It is about the God who continues to act in the lives of his people to save them from their troubles.

This worshipper’s thanksgiving song has become part of the communal praise book. Now it has become the community’s song. It is a scenario that can be replayed and renewed within the community. Others can take these words and sing them as their song of thanksgiving. Further, individuals even now still experience the redemptive hand of God in their lives.

Worshippers can re-enact this moment with their own songs. The public assembly of God’s people should be a place where people can bring their songs. They enter the gates to declare the mighty acts of God in their own lives, to declare how God has delivered them from their various pits to again join in the assembly’s chorus: “His love endures forever.” And the assembly hears the new songs with thanksgiving, praise and a renewed cry of “Hosanna” for the community.

Perhaps this is what Paul was talking about when he suggested that if anyone has a “psalm,” let them sing it (1 Corinthians 14:26). Let us hear the individual thanksgiving songs and let the congregation say “Amen!”  This, indeed, is to my mind what Jesus of Nazreth himself sings in the congregation: “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises” (Hebrews 2:12).

And the songs continue. Anyone who has ever heard Dennis Jernigan‘s testimony sings “I Will Thank You” with renewed energy and gratitude. We need to hear the songs that we might join the anathem of praise and rejoice in the day of salvation, and–moreover–that we might renew our own cry of “Hosanna” in the midst of God’s people.

My Experience

For me assembly is communal lament and thanksgiving. I come to hear again the chorus of God’s love for his people. I come to hear again the stories of redemption through Jesus. And I come to hear the ongoing work of God among us–to hear the stories of praise and thanksgiving.  I come to hope again, to see again. I come for renewal.

And I also bring my story to the table. I bring my lament and deliverance. Nobody in their right mind would want to hear me sing it, but my heart remembers it and I speak it.  I do sing it with the congregation as we raise our voices together in song.

With the church I sing my lament. I remember my past losses, my lament. I bring my failures, my sense of abandonment and my sin to the assembly and hear again the love of God for me. I sense the “new song” in my heart every time I join with the chorus of praise and my heart is renewed with hope, joy and salvation.

That, my friends, is why I “go to church.”  I go to hear the stories of God’s saving acts among his people as well as to hear the story of God’s redemptive work through Jesus. I go to hope again. I go to declare again. I go to experience again the thanksgiving song and to forget–if only for a moment, an eschatological moment–the dark nights of my soul.

One day–when the eschatological moment finds its fulfillment in the new heaven and new earth–there will be no more night and all will be made new. There the mighty chorus of all God’s people will sing “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!”

Come, Lord Jesus.

3 Responses to “Palm Sunday: Psalm 118”

  1.   randall Says:

    “the rejected one–lost in abandonment and pain–is actually the chosen one, chosen by God. This one, though once lost in anguish, has now come to declare the praise of the Lord.” — I’ll bet that resonates with a whole bunch of us.

    I can also identify with your explanation for going to church.


  2.   Warren Baldwin Says:

    This was a good article to read having just finished your “Stone-Campbell Sacramental Theology” in RQ. We used to be taught that God was the audience of our worship. And it a sense he may be. But that image alone misses that God is also an active participant with us – reminding us of his care, renewing us with his hope and refreshing us with his presence.

  3.   rich constant Says:

    well john mark
    thanks for that
    i don’t even like to speak or bring up in my mind the displeasing nature of my own pit it still makes me shudder in my abandenment of all that was good to me.
    how i am still living i will blame my mother’s prayers being herd…

    any way as paul says we press on for the prise the upward call of God in christ…?HOSANNA



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