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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 118

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-29

Psalms 118:1-29

THIS is unmistakably a psalm for use in the Temple worship, and probably meant to be sung antiphonally, on some day of national rejoicing (Psalms 118:24). A general concurrence of opinion points to the period of the Restoration from Babylon as its date, as in the case of many psalms in this Book 5 but different events connected with that restoration have been selected. The psalm implies the completion of the Temple, and therefore shuts out any point prior to that. Delitzsch fixes on the dedication of the Temple as the occasion; but the view is still more probable which supposes that it was sung on the great celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, recorded in Nehemiah 8:14-18. In later times Psalms 118:25 was the festal cry raised while the altar of burnt offering was solemnly compassed, once on each of the first six days of the Feast of Tabernacles, and seven times on the seventh. This seventh day was called the "Great Hosanna; and not only the prayers at the Feast of Tabernacles, but even the branches of osiers (including the myrtles), which are bound to the palm branch (Lulab), were called Hosannas" (Delitzsch). The allusions in the psalm fit the circumstances of the time in question. Stier, Perowne, and Baethgen concur in preferring this date: the last named critic, who is very slow to recognise indications of specific dates, speaks with unwonted decisiveness, when he writes, "I believe that I can say with certainty, Psalms 118:1-29 was sung for the first time at the Feast of Tabernacles in the year 444 B.C." Cheyne follows his usual guides in pointing to the purification and reconstruction of the Temple by Judas Maccabaeus as "fully adequate to explain alike the tone and the expressions." He is "the terrible hero," to whose character the refrain, "In the name of Jehovah I will cut them down," corresponds. But the allusions in the psalm are quite as appropriate to any other times of national jubilation and yet of danger, such as that of the Restoration, and Judas the Maccabee had no monopoly of the warrior trust which flames in that refrain.

Apparently the psalm falls into two halves, of which the former (Psalms 118:1-16) seems to have been sung as a processional hymn while approaching the sanctuary, and the latter (Psalms 118:17-29), partly at the Temple gates, partly by a chorus of priests within, and partly by the procession when it had entered. Every reader recognises traces of antiphonal singing; but it is difficult to separate the parts with certainty. A clue may possibly be found by noting that verses marked by the occurrence of "I," "me," and "my" are mingled with others more impersonal. The personified nation is clearly the speaker of the former class of verses, which tells a connected story of distress, deliverance, and grateful triumph; while the other less personal verses generalise the experience of the first speaker, and sustain substantially the part of the chorus in a Greek play. In the first part of the psalm we may suppose that a part of the procession sang the one and another portion the other series; while in the second part (Psalms 118:17-29) the more personal verses were sung by the whole cortege arrived at the Temple, and the more generalised other part was taken by a chorus of priests or Levites within the sanctuary. This distribution of verses is occasionally uncertain, but on the whole is clear, and aids the understanding of the psalm.

First rings out from the full choir the summons to praise, which peculiarly belonged to the period of the Restoration. {Ezra 3:11; Psalms 106:1; Psalms 107:1} As in Psalms 115:1-18, three classes are called on: the whole house of Israel, the priests, and "those who fear Jehovah"-i.e., aliens who have taken refuge beneath the wings of Israel’s God. The threefold designation expresses the thrill of joy in the recovery of national life; the high estimate of the priesthood as the only remaining God-appointed order, now that the monarchy was swept away; and the growing desire to draw the nations into the community of God’s people.

Then, with Psalms 118:5, the single voice begins. His experience, now to be told, is the reason for the praise called for in the previous verses. It is the familiar sequence reiterated in many a psalm and many a life, -distress, or "a strait place," {Psalms 116:3} a cry to Jehovah, His answer by enlargement, and a consequent triumphant confidence, which has warrant in the past for believing that no hand can hurt him whom Jehovah’s hand helps. Many a man passes through the psalmist’s experience without thereby achieving the psalmist’s settled faith and power to despise threatening calamities. We fail both in recounting clearly to ourselves our deliverances and in drawing assurance from them for the future. Psalms 118:5 b is a pregnant construction. He "answered me in [or, into] an open place"-i.e., by bringing me into it The contrast of a narrow gorge and a wide plain picturesquely expresses past restraints and present freedom of movement. Psalms 118:6 is taken from Psalms 56:9; Psalms 56:11; and Psalms 118:7 is influenced by Psalms 54:4, and reproduces the peculiar expression occurring there, "Jehovah is among my helpers,"-on which compare remarks on that passage.

Psalms 118:8-9 are impersonal, and generalise the experience of the preceding verses. They ring out loud, like a trumpet, and are the more intense for reiteration. Israel was but a feeble handful. Its very existence seemed to depend on the caprice of the protecting kings who had permitted its return. It had had bitter experience of the unreliableness of a monarch’s whim. Now, with superb reliance, which was felt by the psalmist to be the true lesson of the immediate past, it peals out its choral confidence in Jehovah with a "heroism of faith which may well put us to the blush." These verses surpass the preceding in that they avow that faith in Jehovah makes men independent of human helpers, while the former verses declared that it makes superior to mortal foes. Fear of and confidence in man are both removed by trust in God. But it is perhaps harder to be weaned from the confidence than to rise above the fear.

The individual experience is resumed in Psalms 118:10-14. The energetic reduplications strengthen the impression of multiplied attacks, corresponding with the facts of the Restoration period. The same impression is accentuated by the use in Psalms 118:11 a of two forms of the same verb, and in Psalms 118:12 a by the metaphor of a swarm of angry bees. {Deuteronomy 1:44} Numerous, venomous, swift, and hard to strike at as the enemies were, buzzing and stinging around, they were but insects after all, and a strong hand could crush them. The psalmist does not merely look to God to interpose for him, as in Psalms 118:6-7, but expects that God will give him power to conquer by the use of his own strengthened arm. We are not only objects of Divine protection, but organs of Divine power. Trusting in the revealed character of Jehovah, we shall find conquering energy flowing into us from Him, and the most fierce assaults will die out as quickly as a fire of dry thorn twigs, which sinks into ashes the sooner the more it crackles and blazes. Then the psalmist individualises the multitude of foes, just as the collective Israel is individualised, and brings assailants and assailed down to two antagonists, engaged in desperate duel. But a third Person intervenes. "Jehovah helped me" (Psalms 118:13); as in old legends, the gods on their immortal steeds charged at the head of the hosts of their worshippers. Thus delivered, the ginger breaks into the ancient strain, which had gone up on the shores of the sullen sea that rolled over Pharaoh’s army, and is still true after centuries have intervenel: "Jah is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation." Miriam sang it, the restored exiles sang it, tried and trustful men in every age have sung and will sing it, till there are no more foes; and then, by the shores of the sea of glass mingled with fire, the calm victors will lift again the undying "song of Moses and of the Lamb."

Psalms 118:15-16 are probably best taken as sung by the chorus, generalising and giving voice to the emotions excited by the preceding verses. The same reiteration which characterised Psalms 118:8-9 reappears here. Two broad truths are built on the individual voice’s autobiography: namely, that trust in Jehovah and consequent conformity to His law are never in vain, but always issue in joy; and that God’s power, when put forth, always conquers. "The tents of the righteous" may possibly allude to the "tabernacles" constructed for the feast, at which the song was probably sung.

Psalms 118:17-19 belong to the individual voice. The procession has reached the Temple. Deeper thoughts than before now mark the retrospect of past trial and deliverance. Both are recognised to be from Jehovah. It is He who has corrected, severely indeed, but still "in measure, not to bring to nothing, but to make capable and recipient of fuller life." The enemy thrust sore, with intent to make Israel fall; but God’s strokes are meant to make us stand the firmer. It is beautiful that all thought of human foes has faded away, and God only is seen in all the sorrow. But His chastisement has wider purposes than individual blessedness. It is intended to make its objects the heralds of His name to the world. Israel is beginning to lay to heart more earnestly its world wide vocation to "tell forth the works of Jehovah." The imperative obligation of all who have received delivering help from Him is to become missionaries of His name. The reed is cut and pared thin and bored with hot irons, and the very pith of it extracted, that it may be fit to be put to the owner’s lips, and give out music from his breath. Thus conscious of its vocation and eager to render its due of sacrifice and praise, Israel asks that "the gates of righteousness" may be opened for the entrance of the long procession. The Temple doors are so called, because Righteousness is the condition of entrance. {Isaiah 26:2 compare Psalms 24:1-10}

Psalms 118:20 may belong to the individual voice, but is perhaps better taken as the answer from within the Temple, of the priests or Levites who guarded the closed doors, and who now proclaim what must be the character of those who would tread the sacred courts. The gate (not as in Psalms 118:19, gates) belongs to Jehovah, and therefore access by it is permitted to none but the righteous. That is an everlasting truth. It is possible to translate, "This is the gate to Jehovah"-i.e., by which one comes to His presence; and that rendering would bring out still more emphatically the necessity of the condition laid down: "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord."

The condition is supposed to be met; for in Psalms 118:21 the individual voice again breaks into thanksgiving, for being allowed once more to stand in the house of Jehovah. "Thou hast answered me": the psalmist had already sung that Jah had answered him (Psalms 118:5). "And art become my salvation": he had already hailed Jehovah as having become such (Psalms 118:14). God’s deliverance is not complete till full communion with Him is enjoyed. Dwelling in His house is the crown of all His blessings. We are set free from enemies, from sins and fears and struggles, that we may abide forever with Him, and only then do we realise the full sweetness of His redeeming hand, when we stand in His presence and commune evermore with Him.

Psalms 118:22, Psalms 118:23, Psalms 118:24, probably belong to the priestly chorus. They set forth the great truth made manifest by restored Israel’s presence in the rebuilt Temple. The metaphor is suggested by the incidents connected with the rebuilding. The "stone" is obviously Israel, weak, contemptible, but now once more laid as the very foundation stone of God’s house in the world. The broad truth taught by its history is that God lays as the basis of His building-i.e., uses for the execution of His purposes that which the wisdom of man despises and tosses aside. There had been abundant faintheartedness among even the restored exiles. The nations around had scoffed at these "feeble Jews," and the scoffs had not been without echoes in Israel itself. Chiefly, the men of position and influence, who ought to have strengthened drooping courage, had been infected with the tendency to rate low the nation’s power, and to think that their enterprise was destined to disaster. But now the Temple is built, and the worshippers stand in it. What does that teach but that all has been God’s doing? So wonderful is it, so far beyond expectation, that the very objects of such marvellous intervention are amazed to find themselves where they stand. So rooted is our tendency to unbelief that, when God does what He has sworn to do, we are apt to be astonished with a wonder which reveals the greatness of our past incredulity. No man who trusts God ought to be surprised at God’s answers to trust.

The general truth contained here is that of Paul’s great saying, "God hath chosen the weak things of the world that He might put to shame the things that are strong." It is the constant law, not because God chooses unfit instruments, but because the world’s estimates of fitness are false, and the qualities which it admires are irrelevant with regard to His designs, while the requisite qualities are of another sort altogether. Therefore, it is a law which finds its highest exemplification in the foundation for God’s true temple, other than which can no man lay. "Israel is not only a figure of Christ-there is an organic unity between Him and them. Whatever, therefore, is true of Israel in a lower sense is true in its highest sense of Christ. If Israel is the rejected stone made the head of the corner, this is far truer of Him who was indeed rejected of men, but chosen of God and precious, the corner stone of the one great living temple of the redeemed" (Perowne).

Psalms 118:24 is best regarded as the continuation of the choral praise in Psalms 118:22-23. "The day" is that of the festival now in process, the joyful culmination of God’s manifold deliverances. It is a day in which joy is duty, and no heart has a right to be too heavy to leap for gladness. Private sorrows enough many of the jubilant worshippers no doubt had, but the sight of the Stone laid as the head of the corner should bring joy even to such. If sadness was ingratitude and almost treason then, what sorrow should now be so dense that it cannot be pierced by the Light which lighteth every man? The joy of the Lord should float, like oil on stormy waves, above our troublous sorrows, and smooth their tossing.

Again the single voice rises, but not now in thanksgiving, as might have been expected, but in plaintive tones of earnest imploring (Psalms 118:25). Standing in the sanctuary, Israel is conscious of its perils, its need, its weakness, and so with pathetic reiteration of the particle of entreaty, which occurs twice in each clause of the verse, cries for continued deliverance from continuing evils, and for prosperity in the course opening before it. The "day" in which unmingled gladness inspires our songs has not yet dawned, fair as are the many days which Jehovah has made. In the earthly house of the Lord thanksgiving must ever pass into petition. An unending day comes, when there will be nothing to dread, and no need for the sadder notes occasioned by felt weakness and feared foes.

Psalms 118:26-27 come from the chorus of priests, who welcome the entering procession, and solemnly pronounce on them the benediction of Jehovah. They answer, in His name, the prayer of Psalms 118:25, and bless the single leader of the procession and the multitudes following. The use of Psalms 118:26 a and of the "Hosanna" (an attempted transliteration of the Hebrew "Save, I beseech") from Psalms 118:25 at Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem probably shows that the psalm was regarded as Messianic. It is so, in virtue of the relation already referred to between Israel and Christ. He "cometh in the name of Jehovah" in a deeper sense than did Israel, the servant of the Lord.

Psalms 118:27 a recalls the priestly benediction, {Numbers 6:25} and thankfully recognises its ample fulfilment in Israel’s history, and especially in the dawning of new prosperity now. Psalms 118:27 b, c, is difficult. Obviously it should be a summons to worship, as thanksgiving for the benefits acknowledged in a. But what is the act of worship intended is hard to say. The rendering "Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar," has against it the usual meaning of the word rendered sacrifice, which is rather festival, and the fact that the last words of the verse cannot possibly be translated "to the horns," etc., but must mean "as far as" or "even up to the horns," etc. There must therefore be a good deal supplied in the sentence; and commentators differ as to how to fill the gap. Delitzsch supposes that "the number of the sacrificial animals is to be so great that the whole space of the courts of the priests becomes full of them, and the binding of them has therefore to take place even up to the horns of the altar." Perowne takes the expression to be a pregnant one for, "till [the victim] is sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the horns of the altar." So Hupfeld, following Chaldee and some Jewish interpreters. Others regard the supposed ellipsis as too great to be natural, and take an entirely different view. The word rendered sacrifice in the former explanation is taken to mean a procession round the altar, which is etymologically justifiable, and is supported by the known custom of making such a circuit during the Feast of Tabernacles. For "cords" this explanation would read branches or boughs, which is also warranted. But what does "binding a procession with boughs" mean? Various answers are given. Cheyne supposes that the branches borne in the hands of the members of the procession were in some unknown way used to bind or link them together before they left the Temple. Baethgen takes "with boughs" as " bearing boughs," with which he supposes that the bearers touched the altar horns, for the purpose of transferring to themselves the holiness concentrated there. Either explanation has difficulties, -the former in requiring an unusual sense for the word rendered sacrifice; the latter in finding a suitable meaning for that translated bind. In either c is but loosely connected with b, and is best understood as an exclamation. The verb rendered bind is used in 1 Kings 20:14, 2 Chronicles 13:3, in a sense which fits well with "procession" here-i.e., that of marshalling an army for battle. If this meaning is adopted, b will be the summons to order the bough-bearing procession, and c a call to march onwards, so as to encircle the altar. This meaning of the obscure verse may be provisionally accepted, while owning that our ignorance of the ceremonial referred to prevents complete understanding of the words.

Once more Miriam’s song supplies ancient language of praise for recent mercies, and the personified Israel compasses the altar with thanksgiving (Psalms 118:28). Then the whole multitude, both of those who had come up to the Temple and of those who had welcomed them there, join in the chorus of praise with which the psalm begins and ends, and which was so often pealed forth in those days of early joy for the new manifestations of that Lovingkindness which endures through all days, both those of past evil and those of future hoped for good.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 118". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-118.html.
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