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Friday, 19 December 2014

Psalm 118 - Praising the God who Saves

This psalm is one of thanksgiving. It is last of the Hallel psalms and was probably the Psalm that Jesus and his disciples sang when they left the upper room after the first Lord’s Supper had taken place (Matt. 26:30).

So grateful does the author feel towards God that he calls on his people Israel (v. 2), the workers in the temple (v. 3) and all who fear God everywhere (v. 3) to praise him for his covenant faithfulness (or steadfast love). The psalmist’s expression is a reminder that we should not keep details of experienced divine help to ourselves. Instead we should let others know that the Lord has helped us, so that they can praise him with us (v. 15). After all, we are told to rejoice with those that rejoice (Rom. 12:15). It is not humility that causes us to be silent about God’s goodness.

The psalmist had been in a situation in which he was surrounded by powerful foreign opponents (v. 10). Further the leaders (the princes) of his own people had not helped him (v. 9). Yet he discovered that when all had abandoned him, and when he sensed that he was about to fall before his opponents (v. 13), the Lord at that moment was there to help him. At the fiercest moment of the onslaught (vv. 11-12), he experienced the Lord’s help and protection. Indeed so great was the Lord’s grace, there was no human experience that could compare with it (vv. 8-9).

The deliverance that God provided was not one that could be described as merely making it and no more. Instead it was complete and the psalmist’s opponents were routed (v. 12). He discovered that it was when he was weak in himself that he was strong in the Lord. Further he also discovered that experiencing the Lord’s strength and singing from the heart to him go together (v. 14). If we have no song, it may be that we are depending on our own strength and abilities, which is often done by Christians who should know better.

The psalmist resolved to go to the place of public worship (probably, the temple) and lead the other worshippers into it (vv. 17, 19-20). Although he had been through a very difficult experience he recognised that it was actually an expression of divine fatherly discipline (v. 18). This was an important ingredient in his gratitude. After all, resentment at his providence does not soften one’s heart in God’s presence.

When they reached the temple, they were reminded that the cornerstone of the temple had initially been rejected by the builders (v. 22). Yet the builders eventually discovered its suitability and were grateful to God for providing it. This verse is applied to Jesus several times in the New Testament (cf. Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7). Although he was rejected by the Jews, he has become cornerstone of the church (Eph. 2:20). If the psalmist could wonder what God did with a literal stone (v. 22), surely we should be full of wonder at what God has done with the spiritual Stone whom he has exalted to the highest place as head over all things for the benefit of his church. Because this is the case we can use the prayer in verse 25 (‘Save us, we pray, O Lord! Lord, we pray, give us success!’) in a far more extensive way that the psalmist did initially.

At the temple, the psalmist and his friends rejoiced to see the worship taking place led by the priest who would take the sacrifice they had purchased and offer it to God (vv. 26-27). They knew that this was God’s chosen way of doing things at that time. We have something far superior because we don’t come into God’s presence through a ritual. Instead we come in the name of Jesus. But as we do, we can sing verses 28 and 29 with New Testament understanding: ‘You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever!’

Martin Luther said of this psalm, ‘This is my Psalm, my chosen Psalm. I love them all; I love all holy Scripture, which is my consolation and my life. But this Psalm is nearest my heart, and I have a peculiar right to call it mine. It has saved me from many a pressing danger, from which nor emperor, nor kings, nor sages, nor saints, could have saved me. It is my friend; dearer to me than all the honours and power of the earth.’ Many others can say the same.

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