For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 2 – Psalm 118:14-29
I’m back, fully recovered from Covid and having had a lovely few days in the sun to recuperate. So here I come a-blogging once again, and a-podcasting too, as I begin my new series on ‘Culture and the Mind of Christ’, elsewhere on this website.
I spend a large amount of my time when teaching (and quite a lot in my blogs and podcasts) insisting that OT passages are not simply there to be read as prophecies about the NT, but must be read for what they are, or what they were in their original contexts. My students hear me saying, ad nauseam, that ‘a passage cannot mean anything which the original author did not intend his original hearers to understand from it’. But this Psalm creates some difficulties for that principle, since it is one of the most widely quoted in the NT, and indeed in the Church’s liturgy. So it will be hard to read it without any reference to Jesus and his resurrection, although we must try.
Ps 118 is the final of a series of Psalms, from 113 – 118, known as the ‘Egyptian Hallel’ psalms. The word ‘Hallelujah’ – ‘Praise the Lord’ – appears frequently in this mini-collection, and Rabbinic tradition tells us that these Psalms were all about the first Passover, and were apparently sung by the Israelites as they were escaping from Egypt, although it is very unlikely that they were composed that early. Psalm 118 in particular faces us with two important questions: what is the Psalm’s genre, and who is the ‘I’ who speaks through much of it?
In fact the Psalm shows a wide variety of different genres. It is clearly an act of corporate or national thanksgiving – that theme runs right through it. But there are also elements of invitation to praise (v.1-4, 29), and personal testimony (v.5-14). It is also about confidence in God, by someone who has been in real danger but who has been rescued, but then, in v.19-21 we have what sounds like an entrance liturgy, similar to that found in Ps 24. There is a cry for help in v.25, and a concluding litany of praise, in the context of a procession to the Temple (which would be very anachronistic had the Psalm been composed in time for the Exodus!) So all in all it is a right mess, and it’s really hard to identify it with one specific type of Psalm.
But what a beautiful mess! Maybe that’s why it proved so fruitful to the early Christians when they were reflecting on Jesus’ life and death. The crowds on Palm Sunday (echoed maybe in v.27) quoted from v.26 as they hailed Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem. But this same Jesus became the rejected cornerstone of v.22 who nevertheless was counted as vitally foundational to the whole edifice of faith. It is likely that this Psalm was associated with the Jewish Passover celebrations, and also with the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the fruitfulness of harvest and the goodness of God, so again it is easy to see how Christians would have come to associate these words with Easter.
But the really perplexing question is about who is speaking in the first person passages. ‘I cried to the Lord’ (v.5) ‘They surrounded me on every side’ (v.11) and so on throughout the Psalm. No doubt the early Christians heard these words as those of their Lord, threatened to the extreme by crucifixion, but rescued by the Father on the third day. But originally they must have reflected the dangers which the nation had faced, and were perhaps voiced by the King as the leader of national celebration. So we come back to where we started – who is this Psalm meant to be for?
I think it is easy for us to degrade the original meaning of OT passages by claiming they are merely prophecies about Jesus (as so often happens with Is 7:14, or with Is 53) and had no real purpose and meaning before the Christians suddenly got it. There is a subtle difference, though, between that approach and Christians finding that the experience of Jesus is so clearly illustrated by ancient words that they couldn’t help but quote them. They saw in Jesus a further example of God’s rescue of the desperate, his bringing of new life and his defeat of evil played out before their eyes in Jesus. This Psalm invites us to put ourselves in the place of the ‘I’ speaker and give thanks for the rescuing power of God, thus renewing our confidence in him.