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March 24, 2013
Psalm 118:1-2, 19–29 (Palm Sunday)

This psalm, chosen for the celebration of Palm Sunday each year, is appropriately a psalm of thanksgiving and celebration, befitting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It had strong connections with the Easter season in the early church and it was used in early Christian theology. It is also the psalm set for Easter Day each year.

The verses set for today come from the beginning and end of the psalm. In the latter verses the psalmist celebrates the victory that God has won. The threat to Israel behind this victory are set out in vv. 10–13, in which the psalmist portrays a situation of being surrounded by hostile nations, and of being pushed hard, facing defeat. The Lord, the psalmist proclaims, has come to the rescue.

The victory God has won is celebrated liturgically. Certainly vv. 19–20 indicate that a procession is in place, with the gathered crowd seeking entry through the ‘gates of righteousness’ to give thanks to the Lord (cf. Ps 24:7-10). This element of procession is continued in v. 27, suggesting a procession forward to the altar. This is, then, a triumphal entry into the temple in order to give thanks to God. The repeated refrain at the beginning and the end of the psalm (vv. 1, 29) also may be a liturgical element, indicating the people’s response.

The psalm alternates between the first person singular (an ‘I’ section, see vv. 17–24) and first person plural (a ‘we’ section, see vv. 24 and 25). Given that the psalm is celebrating a military victory, and deliverance from the surrounding nations, it seems most likely that the first person section involves the king, or another representative person speaking on behalf of the people, making this arguably one of the royal psalms in Israel, special psalms based around the role of the king in Israel and in Israel’s religion.

We can no longer discern which victory in particular is celebrated in the psalm, although many possibilities have been suggested, from as early as David, or possibly king Hezekiah when Jerusalem was saved from siege (701 BCE, see 2 Kgs 18-19), or even a post-exilic situation (like the rebuilding of the temple in 520-515 BCE, see Ezra 1-6), or possibly even a victory of the Maccabees (2nd cent. BCE, see 1 Maccabees). The psalm has been associated within Judaism with the feast of the Tabernacles or Booths. It certainly seems to be one that was open to being used in a variety of settings over the ages.

It is fitting, then, that it is taken up in the Christian context in both the great celebrations of Palm Sunday and Easter. Many elements of the psalm have been taken up in Christian interpretation and theology, some of which emerged within the church very early. Verses 19-20 and 26–27, with their references to ‘gates of righteousness’ and ‘gate of the Lord’, and to the one ‘who comes in the name of the Lord’ entering with ‘festal branches’, were taken up in the context of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem with palms, celebrated in the churches on Palm Sunday (see the Gospel for today, Luke 19:28-40, cf. Matt 21:8-9; Mark 11:8-9; John 12:12-13). Other verses were also applied to Jesus, especially vv. 22 and 23 (see Matt 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7, and suggested in Eph 2:20-21). The saying itself (‘The stone that the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone’), probably originally a proverb, was seen to be a particularly apt description of Jesus’ place and role from the frequency of the New Testament references. Rejected by his own community, Jesus was to become the foundation for the newly emerging Church. That great achievement by God is anticipated in the celebration of Palm Sunday.

This psalm, so long applied within the Christian tradition, is an excellent psalm of celebration and thanksgiving, and one which speaks richly within the Church as we move into Holy Week. Just as it called worshippers long ago to enter ‘the gate of the Lord’ (v. 20) and celebrate, so we are now called to come and give thanks for God’s saving action in Jesus ‘who comes in the name of the Lord’. At the same time, we are also acutely aware from the Old Testament reading for today of the cost of the victory of God which we celebrate today.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Psalm 118: 1-2 is a call to worship:

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’
Psalm 118 (vv. 19, 20, 27) provides acclamations well suited to Easter Day, but it also provides good responses for a Palm Sunday procession.
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.
The LORD is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
The words from verse 21 may be included in an acclamation following words of forgiveness.
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

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