PSALM 118 OVERVIEW.
AUTHOR AND SUBJECT. In the book Ezra 3:10-11 , we read that "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 he 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." Now the words mentioned in Ezra are the first and last sentences of this Psalm, and we therefore conclude that the people chanted the whole of this sublime song; and, moreover, that the use of this composition on such occasions was ordained by David, whom we conceive to be its author. The next step leads us to believe that he is its subject, at least in some degree; for it is clear that the writer is speaking concerning himself in the first place, though he may not have strictly confined himself to all the details of his our personal experience. That the Psalmist had a prophetic view of our Lord Jesus is very manifest; the frequent quotations from this song in the New Testament prove this beyond all questions; but at the same time it could not have been intended that every particular line and sentence should be read in reference to the Messiah, for this requires very great ingenuity, and ingenious interpretations are seldom true. Certain devout expositors have managed to twist the expression of Ps 118:17, "I shall not die, but live," so as to make it applicable to our Lord, who did actually die, and whose glory it is that he died; but we cannot bring our minds to do such violence to the words of holy writ.
The Psalm, seems to us to describe either David or some other man of God who was appointed by the divine choice to a high and honourable office in Israel. This elect champion found himself rejected by his friends and fellow countrymen, and at the same time violently opposed by his enemies. In faith in God he battles for his appointed place, and in due time he obtains it in such a way as greatly to display the power and goodness of the Lord. He then goes up to the house of the Lord to offer sacrifice, and to express his gratitude for the divine interposition, all the people blessing him, and wishing him abundant prosperity. This heroic personage, whom we cannot help thinking to be David himself, broadly typified our Lord, but not in such a manner that in all the minutiae of his struggles and prayers we are to hunt for parallels. The suggestion of Alexander that the speaker is a typical individual representing the nation, is exceedingly well worthy of attention, but it is not inconsistent with the idea that a personal leader may be intended, since that which describes the leader will be in a great measure true of his followers. The experience of the Head is that of the members, and both may be spoken of in much the same terms. Alexander thinks that the deliverance celebrated cannot be identified with any one so exactly as with that from the Babylonian exile; but we judge it best to refer it to no one incident in particular, but to regard it as a national song, adapted alike for the rise of a chosen here, and the building of a temple. Whether a nation is founded again by a conquering prince, or a temple founded by the laying of its cornerstone in joyful state, the Psalm is equally applicable.
DIVISION. We propose to divide this Psalm thus, from Psalms 118:1-4 the faithful are called upon to magnify the everlasting mercy of the Lord; from Psalms 118:5-18 the Psalmist gives forth a narrative of his experience, and an expression of his faith; in Psalms 118:19-21 he asks admittance into the house of the Lord, and begins the acknowledgment of the divine salvation. In Psalms 118:22-27 the priests and people recognize their ruler, magnify the Lord for him, declare him blessed, and bid him approach the altar with his sacrifice. In Ps 118:28-29 the grateful hero himself exalts God the ever merciful.
Verse 1. O give thanks unto the LORD. The grateful hero feels that he cannot himself alone sufficiently express his thankfulness, and therefore he calls in the aid of others. Grateful hearts are greedy of men's tongues, and would monopolize them all for God's glory. The whole nation was concerned in David's triumphant accession, and therefore it was right that they should unite in his adoring song of praise. The thanks were to be rendered unto Jehovah alone, and not to the patience or valour of the hero himself. It is always well to trace our mercies to him who bestows them, and if we cannot give him anything else, let us at any rate give him our thanks. We must not stop short at the second agent, but rise at once to the first cause, and render all our praises unto the Lord himself. Have we been of a forgetful or murmuring spirit? Let us hear the lively language of the text, and allow it to speak to our hearts: "Cease your complaining, cease from all self glorification, and give thanks unto the Lord."
For he is good. This is reason enough for giving him thanks; goodness is his essence and nature, and therefore he is always to be praised whether we are receiving anything from him or not. Those who only praise God because he does them good should rise to a higher note and give thanks to him because he is good. In the truest sense he alone is good, "There is none good but one, that is God"; therefore in all gratitude the Lord should have the royal portion. If others seem to be good, he is good. If others are good in a measure, he is good beyond measure. When others behave badly to us, it should only stir us up the more heartily to give thanks unto the Lord because he is good; and when we ourselves are conscious that we are far from being good, we should only the more reverently bless him that "he is good." We must never tolerate an instant's unbelief as to the goodness of the Lord; whatever else may be questionable, this is absolutely certain, that Jehovah is good; his dispensations may vary, but his nature is always the same, and always good. It is not only that he was good, and will be good, but he is good; let his providence be what it may. Therefore let us even at this present moment, though the skies be dark with clouds, yet give thanks unto his name.
Because his mercy endureth for ever. Mercy is a great part of his goodness, and one which more concerns us than any other, for we are sinners and have need of his mercy. Angels may say that he is good, but they need not his mercy and cannot therefore take an equal delight in it; inanimate creation declares that he is good, but it cannot feel his mercy, for it has never transgressed; but man, deeply guilty and graciously forgiven, beholds mercy as the very focus and centre of the goodness of the Lord. The endurance of the divine mercy is a special subject for song: notwithstanding our sins, our trials, our fears, his mercy endureth for ever. The best of earthly joys pass away, and even the world itself grows old and hastens to decay, but there is no change in the mercy of God; he was faithful to our forefathers, he is merciful to us, and will be gracious to our children and our children's children. It is to be hoped that the philosophical interpreters who endeavour to clip the word "for ever", into a mere period of time will have the goodness to let this passage alone. However, whether they do or not, we shall believe in endless mercy -- mercy to eternity. The Lord Jesus Christ, who is the grand incarnation of the mercy of God, calls upon us at every remembrance of him to give thanks unto the Lord, for "he is good."
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Whole Psalm. This is the last of those Psalms which form the great Hallel, which the Jews sang at the end of the passover. Adam Clarke.
Whole Psalm. The whole Psalm has a peculiar formation. It resembles the Maschal Psalms, for each verse has of itself its completed sense, its own scent and hue; one thought is joined to another as branch to branch and flower to flower. Franz Delitzsch.
Whole Psalm. Nothing can surpass the force and majesty, as well as the richly varied beauty, of this Psalm. Its general burden is quite manifest. It is the prophetic expression, by the Spirit of Christ, of that exultant strain of anticipative triumph, wherein the virgin daughter of Zion will laugh to scorn, in the immediate prospect of her Deliverer's advent, the congregated armies of the Man of Sin ( Psalms 118:10-13 ). Arthur Pridham.
Whole Psalm. The two Psalms, 117th and 118th, are placed together because, though each is a distinct portion in itself, the 117th is an exordium to that which follows it, an address and an invitation to the Gentile and heathen world to acknowledge and praise Jehovah.
We are now arrived at the concluding portion of the hymn, which Christ and his disciples sung preparatory to their going forth to the Mount of Olives. Nothing could be more appropriate or better fitted to comfort and encourage, at that awful period, than a prophecy which, overleaping the suffering to be endured, showed forth the glory that was afterwards to follow, and a song of triumph, then only recited, but in due time to be literally acted, when the cross was to be succeeded by a crown. This Psalm is not only frequently quoted in the New Testament, but it was also partially applied at one period of our Saviour's sojourn on earth, and thus we are afforded decisive testimony to the purpose for which it is originally and prophetically destined. It was partially used at the time when Messiah, in the days of his humiliation, was received with triumph and acclamation into Jerusalem; and we may conclude it will be fully enacted, when our glorified and triumphant Lord, coming with ten thousand of his saints, will again stand upon the earth and receive the promised salutation, "Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of Jehovah." This dramatic representation of Messiah coming in glory, to take his great power and reign among us, is apportioned to the chief character, "the King of kings and Lord of lords," to his saints following him in procession, and to priests and Levites, representing the Jewish nation.
The Conqueror and his attendants sing the 117th Psalm, an introductory hymn, inviting all, Jews and Gentiles, to share in the merciful kindness of God, and to sing his praises. It is a gathering together of all the Lord's people, to be witnesses and partakers of his glory. Psalms 118:1-3 are sung by single voices. As the procession moves along, the theme of rejoicing is announced. The first voice repeats, O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever. Another single voice calls on Israel to acknowledge this great truth; and a third invites the house of Aaron, the priesthood, to acknowledge their share in Jehovah's love. Psalms 118:4 is a chorus; the whole procession, the living: and the dead who are raised to meet Christ ( 1 Thessalonians 4:16 ), shout aloud the burden of the song, Psalms 118:1 . Arrived at the temple gate, or rather, the gate of Jerusalem, the Conqueror alone sings, Psalms 118:5-7 . He begins by recounting the circumstances of his distress. Next, he tells of his refuge: I betook me to God, I told him my sorrows, and he heard me. The procession, in chorus, sings Psalms 118:8-9 , taking up the substance of Messiah's chaunt, and fully echoing the sentiment, It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes. The Conqueror alone again sings Psalms 118:10-14 . He enlarges on the magnitude of his dangers, and the hopelessness of his situation. It was not a common difficulty, or a single enemy, whole nations compassed him about. The procession in chorus, Psalms 118:15-16 , attributes their Lord's gloat deliverance to his righteous person, and to his righteous cause. Justice and equity and truth, all demanded that Messiah should not be trodden down. "Was it not thine arm, O Jehovah, which has gotten thee the victory?" Messiah now takes up the language of a conqueror, Psalms 118:17 - 19. My sufferings were sore, but they were only for a season. I laid down my life, and I now take it up again: and then, with a loud voice, as when he roused Lazarus out of the grave, he cries to those within the walls, Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the LORD. The priests and Levites within instantly obey his command, and while they throw open the gates, they sing, This is the gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter. As he enters, the Conqueror alone repeats Psalms 118:21 . His sorrows are ended, his victory is complete. The objects for which he lived and died, and for which his prayers were offered, are now fulfilled, and thus, in a few short words, he expresses his joy and gratitude to God. The priests and Levites sing in chorus Ps 118:22-24. Depositaries and expounders of the prophecies as they had long been, they now, for the first time, quote and apply one, Isaiah 28:16 , which held a conspicuous place, but never before was intelligible to Jewish ears. "The man of sorrows," the stone which the builders refused, is become the headstone of the corner. The Conqueror is now within the gates, and proceeds to accomplish his good purpose, Luke 1:68 . Hosannah, save thy people, O LORD, and send them now prosperity, Psalms 118:25 . The priests and Levites are led by the Spirit to use the words foretold by our Lord, Matthew 28:39 . Now at length the veil is removed, and his people say, Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord, Psalms 118:26 . The Conqueror and his train ( Psalms 118:27 ) now praise God, who has given light and deliverance and salvation, and they offer to him the sacrifice of thanksgiving for all that they enjoy. The Conqueror alone ( Psalms 118:28 ) next makes a solemn acknowledgment of gratitude and praise to Jehovah, and then, all being within the gates, the united body, triumphant procession, priests and Levites, end, as they commenced, O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. R. H. Ryland, in "The Psalms restored to Messiah," 1853.
Whole Psalm. It was Luther's favourite Psalm, his beauteous Confitemini, which "had helped him out of what neither emperor nor king, nor any other man on earth, could have helped him." With the exposition of this his noblest jewel, his defence and his treasure, he occupied himself in the solitude of his Patmos (Coburg). Franz Delitzsch.
Whole 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... But it may be objected, that this Psalm is common to all; no one has a right to call it his own. Yes; but Christ is also common to all, and yet Christ is mine. I am not jealous of my property; I would divide it with the whole world... And would to God that all men would claim the Psalm as especially theirs! It would be the most touching quarrel, the most agreeable to God -- a quarrel of union and perfect charity. Luther. From his Dedication of his Translation of Psalm 118 to the Abbot Frederick of Nuremberg.
Verse 1. For he is good. The praise of God could not be expressed in fewer words than these, "For he is good." I see not what can be more solemn than this brevity, since goodness is so peculiarly the quality of God, that the Son of God himself when addressed by some one as "Good Master," by one, namely, who beholding his flesh, and comprehending not the fulness of his divine nature, considered him as man only, replied, "Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God." And what is this but to say, If you wish to call me good, recognize me as God? Augustine.
Verse 1. His mercy endureth for ever. What the close of Psalm 117 says of God's truth, viz., that it endureth for ever, Psalms 118:1-4 says of its sister, his mercy or lovingkindness. Franz Delitzsch.
Verse 1-4. As the salvation of the elect is one, and the love of God to them one, so should their song be one, as here four several times it is said, His mercy endureth for ever. David Dickson.
Verse 1-4. Because we hear the sentence so frequently repeated here, that "the mercy of the Lord endureth for ever," we are not to think that the Holy Spirit has employed empty tautology, but our great necessity demands it: for in temptations and dangers the flesh begins to doubt of the mercy of God; therefore nothing should be so frequently impressed on the mind as this, that the mercy of God does not fail, that the Eternal Father wearies not in remitting our sins. Solomon Gesner.
HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS
- The subject of songs "O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good."
- The chorus -- "His mercy endureth for ever."
- The choir -- "Let Israel now say," etc.; "Let the house of Aaron," etc.; "Let them that fear the Lord," etc.
- The rehearsal -- "Let them now say," that they may be better prepared for universal praise hereafter.