Psalm 118 is perhaps the consummate psalm for Palm Sunday and as we enter Holy Week. Throughout the Gospel According to Matthew, the gospel writer has lifted up how Jesus was the fulfillment of all God’s promises in the Jewish scriptures. For example within the text, Matthew recounts five major lessons of Jesus’ teachings; much as there are five Books of Moses. When Jesus delivers his first recorded teaching in Matthew, Jesus gives his commands called the Beatitudes from a mountaintop; much like Moses was given the Decalogue on a mountain. Fourteen prophesies are explicitly connected to the actions of Jesus; fourteen being the traditional number of generations between Abraham and the establishment of the Davidic Dynasty, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to Jesus’ birth. It isn’t much different with Psalm 118. As with many, this psalm reflects aspects of the life and death of Jesus.
Psalm 118 is often recited as part of the Hallel, a Jewish prayer consisting of a verbatim recitation of Psalms 113 through 118. The Hallel is used for praise and thanksgiving on holidays such as the Passover, when the Jews recall the Angel of death passed over Jewish homes in Moses’ time leading to their freedom from Egyptian slavery. As Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, he deliberately enters “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This fulfills the apocalyptic prophesy of Zechariah 9 regarding the coming ruler of God’s people and the judgement of Israel’s enemies.
To an oppressed people under Rome’s authority, Jesus was considered by many a messianic figure in the political sense. They quote Psalm 118 (verses 25-26), “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Many likely expect Jesus to precipitate their freedom as Moses did long ago and reinitiate a Davidic kingship. In celebration, they will “Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” – the way to the Temple where Jesus will come into his final conflict with his adversaries.
Yet, Jesus hasn’t come to be king in that sense. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” (v. 8-9). Like the ritual sacrifices in the Temple, Jesus will become a bloody, final sacrifice for our sake. Throughout the week, Jesus will remain in conflict until he is finally betrayed. He will be surrounded by adversaries like bees, pushed hard, and find himself crowned with thorns (v. 12). He will die on a cross like a rebel, falsely accused of proclaiming himself king. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The Temple will be destroyed in 70 CE, but the church, Christ’s body, will rise in its stead.
Thanks to God’s steadfast love, we will never be rejected. Through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, we have access to our Father in Heaven and forgiveness for our rebellion in sin. With Jesus, our lips and hearts can pray with confidence, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” Through the events of this upcoming week, we become conquerors with Christ (see Romans 8). We can rightly sing a song of victory – the victory of Jesus for our sake.
Christ’s peace be with you as we enter Holy Week together, Pastor Lou
Please enjoy a musical meditation on Psalm 118 from the Ecumenical Community of Taizé…
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.