In its position as the last of the ‘Messianic Psalms’, and also the last of the six ‘Hallel Psalms’, Psalms 113 to 118, Psalm 118 demands our particular interest. The Messianic references in the psalm are clear, especially in verses 22 and 26 where the Millennial glory of the Lord Jesus is in prospect. Many of the earlier psalms portray the deepest sufferings and anguish of Christ, but this, the last of them, ends the series as it began; ‘Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion’, Ps. 2. 6. Christ, therefore, is seen as enthroned both at the beginning and the end of the ‘Messianic Psalms’.
Throughout the Book of Psalms there are songs whose individual themes contribute to a wider view by forming clusters, often trilogies. Amongst the more memorable trilogies are Psalms 22 to 24 and 132 to 134; Psalm 118 closes another trilogy. The thought of millennial glory for the Old Testament saints concludes Psalm 116, but the next psalm, remarkable for its brevity, is the song of Gentiles praising God that ‘his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endures forever’, v. 2 NKJV. From our viewpoint as New Testament believers, we can see in Psalm 117 the setting aside of Israel, of whom there is no mention in the psalm, and a reflection of the Church age in which Gentiles praise God for merciful kindness that comes to us at no expense to God’s truth which ‘endureth for ever’. Once the Church has been taken to heaven at the rapture, God will resume His dealings with Israel and, by means of the tribulation period, effect the repentance and restoration of the nation. That restoration is the subject of Psalm 118.
Finally, regarding the setting of the psalm, it concludes the six-song series that, beginning with Psalm 113, is known as the ‘Egyptian Hallel’. These songs recall Israel’s deliverance from the bondage of Egypt and are sung during the course of the annual Passover memorial feast. The concluding verses of Psalm 118 portray the fulfilment of God’s purpose in bringing the nation out of the toil and suffering of Egypt into their promised rest. It is very probable that this was the ‘hymn’ sung by the Lord Jesus and His disciples before they went out ‘into the mount of Olives’, Matt. 26. 30; Mark 14. 26.
There are a number of valid ways in which Psalm 118 might be divided into sections but, broadly, there are three prominent themes. The first section, covering verses 1 to 4, is about thankfulness; the second, verses 5 to 18, is about trial; the third, in verses 19 to 29, is about triumph.
In verses 1 to 4, thankfulness is expressed by three companies: Israel as a nation; the house of Aaron – the priesthood; them that fear the Lord – probably a reference to the faithful remnant, the godly element of the nation, cp. Mal. 3. 16. In each case the word ‘now’ is used, indicating that thankfulness is imperative as the result of a particular event.
Verses 5 to 18, dealing with trial, help us to understand the circumstances that have provoked the call to thankfulness in verses 1 to 4. Whilst features of Israel’s suffering through the ages can be seen, the culmination of all their sorrows will be the future tribulation period, referred to by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble’, Jer. 30. 7. It is of note that throughout this section of the psalm the first-person singular is used; ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my’. Such is the shared experience and grief of the nation that they are viewed as a single entity, fused together in their collective suffering. That singular identity was also seen in the days of their suffering in Egypt, when God told Moses to ‘say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: and I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me’, Exod. 4. 22, 23. The thought of plurality in unity is confirmed by the wording of verse 20, where the word ‘righteous’ is plural, thus meaning ‘righteous ones’.
The third section of the psalm, verses 19 to 29, is full of praise, blessing and joy. The reference to the Lord as ‘The stone which the builders refused’, v. 22, is well known, and it was quoted by Him when He said to the chief priests and the elders, ‘Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder’, Matt. 21. 42-44. The ultimate triumph of Christ is the theme of this section.
It is possible that this psalm was sung when the foundation of the new temple was laid, after the Babylonian captivity of Judah. Ezra records, ‘And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord, after the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord; because he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid’, Ezra 3. 10, 11. It must have been wonderful to listen as ‘they sang together by course’ – a reference to what is otherwise known as ‘antiphonal singing’. A solo voice would have sung, ‘O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good’, and the company would have responded by singing, ‘[For] his mercy endureth for ever’. The soloist would continue ‘Let Israel now say’, and the company would sing again ‘[For] his mercy endureth for ever’. Read through the psalm and, where you find repetition such as, ‘in the name of the Lord will I destroy them’, you will be able to imagine the antiphonal singing of this lovely psalm.
One of the great confirmations that the Bible is the word of God is the way in which its writers dealt in detail with matters beyond their human comprehension. From our viewpoint, as those who not only have the complete canon of scripture, but are also indwelt by its divine interpreter, the Holy Spirit, we can see significance and meaning in the Old Testament writings that was hidden, in the wisdom and purpose of God, from the very men who were used to record divine truth. Thus, we understand that in all the catalogue of suffering endured by Israel over centuries, no event has yet seen the fulfilment of Psalm 118. There is a period of intense persecution and suffering on the nation’s horizon that will make their past horrors almost pale into insignificance. That time was referred to by the Lord Jesus in His ‘Olivet Discourse’, ‘For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be’, Matt. 24. 21.
Psalm 118 sees the reaction of the nation to its divine deliverance from the terrible ordeal that will threaten its very existence. In verse 5, an appeal had been made to the Lord when the nation found itself hemmed in on every side. The word ‘distress’ can also be rendered ‘straits’, and that might be the better word since it is in contrast with ‘a large place’. The nation will call, and God will answer in deliverance.
In that future time of sore persecution, the godly remnant of Israel will be left in no doubt that they are being divinely preserved. That realization will embolden them, and the courage of faith is reflected in the language of verses 6 to 12 of our psalm.
Verse 13 reveals the genuine contrition of a famously arrogant and intractable nation: collectively, the people say, ‘Thou hast thrust sore at me that I might fall’. Recognizing the hand of God upon them in corrective judgement, Israel will acknowledge that their fall from the eminent position God had originally given to them had been on account of their sin and rebellion. Perhaps, in those days of great tribulation, godly Israelites will read Paul’s words and take heart, ‘I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?’ Rom. 11. 11, 12.
In verses 14 to 21 the nation sings of its deliverance – a song reminiscent of that led by Miriam after Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The future song, however, will be from a nation that has not only been delivered physically from its enemies, but has also been spiritually and morally restored to its God. Verses 22 to 25 show that the Messiah they crucified after His first advent has now been acknowledged and received and, as a result of their true repentance, Israel has come into all the good of the promised New Covenant.
Verse 27 is probably a reference to the first Passover memorial that the nation will keep after the inauguration of the Millennial Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wonderfully restored, Israel will function as ‘a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation’ – God’s original intention for them when the Old Covenant was forged at Sinai, Exod. 19. 6.
The psalm ends with praise, and thanksgiving for the goodness and mercy of God. It is the endless song of the redeemed of the Lord.
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