Commentary on Psalm by Nancy Koester
On Easter Sunday, the church proclaims, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1).
Jesus Christ is risen. And in Christ, we too shall rise. God’s steadfast love endures forever! The words of Psalm 118 have long been used to herald Easter. “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (118:24).
In its ancient Jewish context, Psalm 118 was most likely an entrance liturgy to the Temple, used at the festival of Passover. It proclaimed God’s deliverance from Egypt and, later on, from the Exile. The Psalm was a liturgical script, complete with speaking parts for leaders and congregation. One can hear the jubilant call and response in 118:2-4: “Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.'”
With this Psalm on their lips, the priests and people processed into the Temple. The approach to the Temple culminates in verse 19, “Open to me the gates of righteousness…” and the condition for entrance is given in verse 20, “The righteous shall enter through it.” Then the festival procession proceeds up to the altar, to adorn it with signs of victory (verse 27). The physical movement begins outside the Temple, progressing inside and all the way to the altar. The people express their faith that since God has saved them in the past, he can be trusted in the future (verse 25).1
The spiritual movement is just as dramatic. Biblical scholar Richard Clifford notes that “Christians will see in the movement from humiliation to exaltation a foreshadowing of Jesus… His rescue from death is a new exodus and a fresh sign that God’s steadfast love endures forever… His exaltation means [our] own. The Psalm is therefore a wonderful song for the Easter Season.”2 It recalls God’s deliverance of the people, and expresses their joy and gratitude.
Since New Testament times, Psalm 118 evokes for Christians the story of Easter.
“Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals do to me?” (118:5-6)
This confidence – what can mortals do to me? – anticipates Paul’s great resurrection chapter in 1 Corinthians 15. But instead of taunting mere mortals, Paul addresses death itself: “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54, 55)
New Testament writers used Psalm 118 “as a means of understanding and articulating the significance of Jesus.”3 (See Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7.) Christians have long read this Psalm with Jesus in mind.
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118: 22-24).
The ancient church relied on the words of the New Testament writers, and during the Middle Ages, Psalm 118 continued to inspire Christian worship. For example, here are two hymns which appear in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Both are translated from the Latin and set to music worthy of choirs, trumpets and organ.
The first hymn is “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation.”4
Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ our head and cornerstone,
chosen of the Lord and precious,
binding all the church in one.
In the second verse, the hymn echoes the Psalm’s original setting as Temple entrance liturgy.
To this temple, where we call you,
come, O Lord of hosts, and stay.
Come with all your loving-kindness,
Hear your people as they pray
And your fullest benediction
Shed within these walls today.
A second hymn, “The day of resurrection!,” is explicitly an Easter hymn. Again the Psalm’s original Passover setting gets translated into Easter. Exodus, when God ‘brought the people over’ the Red Sea, becomes Resurrection, when Christ ‘brings us over’ from sin’s dominion.
The day of resurrection! Earth tell it out abroad,
the passover of gladness, the passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from sin’s dominion free,
our Christ has brought us over with hymns of victory.5
Martin Luther made another strong connection with Psalm 118. While Luther had several favorite Psalms, he had a passion for 118. While in hiding in the Coburg Castle during 1530, he wrote (among other things) an extensive commentary on Psalm 118. On the wall of the room where he worked was written his personal motto: “I shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (118:17).6 This is the central message of the Psalm. It applies to Jesus and, through him, to all believers. “I shall not die but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” inspired Luther’s militant faith.
Of all people, Martin Luther certainly had cause to fear what mortals might do to him. Of this Psalm he wrote, “the dying live; the suffering rejoice; the fallen rise; the disgraced are honored. It is as Christ says, ‘He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.'” Luther further declared that whenever the scriptures “deal with God concerning comfort and help in their need, eternal life and the resurrection of the dead are involved.”7
Just as the Psalmist was delivered by God, so now Christ empowers us, comforts us, and snatches us out of the realm of death. All this is done, says Luther, so that we might proclaim the deeds of the Lord. Easter is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! (118:24).