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Psalms 118 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

In this, the last of the Hallel Psalms, the spirit of jubilant thanksgiving finds fullest utterance. The speaker is Israel, or a representative of Israel, who speaks in the name of the nation ( Psa 118:10 ff.). As of old upon the shores of the Red Sea the people gave thanks as one man for their miraculous deliverance, so now they give thanks once more. As upon that occasion the dominant motive of their song was the realisation that to Jehovah alone they owed their deliverance, so now it is again ( Psa 118:14 ; Psa 118:23). Now as of old they feel that this deliverance is nothing less than a miracle; and the conviction has given them a fresh sense of the solidarity and continuity of their national life, and of the greatness of Israel’s destiny in the counsels of Jehovah ( Psa 118:17 ; Psa 118:22).

All Israel, priests and people alike, are bidden to join in praising Jehovah for His lovingkindness (Psa 118:1-4). It is He alone Who is the Deliverer and Strength of His people (Psa 118:5-9). The nations round about have plotted to destroy Israel, but in vain; once more as of old Jehovah has proved Himself their Saviour (Psa 118:10-14), and glad thanksgivings celebrate the renewal of the national life (Psa 118:15-18). The solemn procession of worshippers approaches the Temple gates proclaiming the greatness of the miracle which Jehovah has wrought for them (Psa 118:19-24). With Hosannas and benedictions and thanksgivings the service is consummated in the Temple courts (Psa 118:25-29).

The Psalm was evidently intended to be sung by the procession of worshippers on their way to the Temple upon some special occasion of national rejoicing. Doubtless it was sung antiphonally, in the manner described in Ezr 3:11, choir answering choir: but the precise distribution of the parts between the different choirs or voices cannot be determined with certainty. Psa 118:1-4 however may have been sung as the procession started, the first line of each verse by the leader or a part of the choir, the refrain by the full chorus, and Psa 118:5-18 on the way to the Temple in a similar manner, the refrains at any rate being taken up by the full chorus. Psa 118:19 is obviously the challenge of the procession as it approaches the Temple, and Psa 118:20 the response of the priests from within. Psa 118:21-25 may have been sung as the procession entered the Temple courts; Psa 118:26 is the blessing with which the priests greet it; and Psa 118:27-29 may perhaps best be assigned to the procession and its leader.

It is generally agreed that the Psalm belongs to the post-exilic period, and that it must have been composed for some special and notable occasion. This occasion cannot have been the Feast of Tabernacles in the first year of the Return (Ezr 3:1-4) or the laying of the foundation stone of the Temple in the following year (Ezr 3:8 ff.); for Psa 118:19-20 presume the existence of the Temple. Rather we might think of the Dedication of the Temple in b.c. 516, or the Passover which followed it (Ezr 6:15 ff.). But the most probable view is that which connects the Psalm with the great celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles recorded in Nehemiah 8. In spite of the sneers of Sanballat and Tobiah, and the active hostility of the neighbouring tribes, the repair of the walls of Jerusalem had been successfully completed. The work was finished on the 25th day of the month Elul in the 21st year of Artaxerxes (b.c. 444). Nehemiah concludes his narrative with the words; “And it came to pass, when all our enemies heard thereof, that all the nations that were about us feared, and were much cast down in their own eyes; and they perceived that this work was wrought of our God” (Neh 6:16). In the following month (Tisri) the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated with exceptional rejoicings. “There was exceeding great gladness” (Neh 8:14-18). The triumphant joyousness of the Psalm, its thanksgivings for recent deliverance from the hostility of surrounding enemies, its vivid consciousness that this deliverance is due to Jehovah’s help alone, correspond strikingly to the circumstances and feelings of that time, as they are delineated in the Book of Nehemiah.

The very words of Psa 118:25 of the Psalm occur in the prayer of Nehemiah (Neh 1:11) and nowhere else, and several other striking resemblances of thought and language between the Psalm and the Book of Nehemiah will be noticed. The metaphor from building ( Psa 118:22) would naturally have been suggested by the recent building of the walls. And lastly, the connexion of the Psalm with the Feast of Tabernacles is corroborated by the historical use of the Psalm at that Festival. “In the time of the Second Temple Psa 118:25 formed the festal cry with which the altar of burnt offering was compassed in solemn procession, once on each of the first six days of the Feast of Tabernacles, and seven times on the seventh day. This seventh day was called ‘the Great Hosanna’ ( Hosanna Rabba); and not only the prayers of the Feast of Tabernacles, but even the branches of willow and myrtle bound up with the palm-branch ( Lulab) were called Hosannas ” (Delitzsch). Baethgen does not speak too strongly when he says, “I believe it may be said with confidence that Psalms 118 was sung for the first time at the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the year b.c. 444.”

Cheyne thinks that “the exuberant spirit of independence and martial ardour in the Psalm” points to the purification and reconsecration of the Temple by Judas the Maccabee in b.c. 165 ( 1Ma 4:37-59 ; 2Ma 10:1-7 ). Venema, followed by Rosenmüller, assigns it to the time when Simon drove the Syrians out of the Acra, and celebrated the triumph with signal rejoicings ( 1Ma 13:51 ; 1Ma 14:4 ff.). But the Psalm breathes a freer spirit than might have been expected at the time when the Temple was still dominated by the Syrian garrison in the Acra; and the profession of Psa 118:8-9 is hardly consistent with the eagerness of the Jews for alliance with Rome and Sparta.

The Psalm was Luther’s favourite Psalm. “Though the whole Psalter,” he wrote, “and all Holy Scripture is dear to me, as my only comfort in life, this Psalm has been of special service to me. It has helped me out of many great troubles, when neither Emperor nor kings nor wise men nor saints could help” (Tholuck).

It is appointed as one of the Proper Psalms for Easter Day, partly doubtless because it formed part of the Hallel sung at the Passover, but still more because of the reference of Psa 118:22 to Christ, and the obvious appropriateness of much of its language, especially Psa 118:23-24, to the triumph of the Resurrection.

Consult other comments:

Psalms 118:0 - Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Psalms 118:0 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Psalms 118:0 - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)

Psalms 118:0 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Psalms 118:0 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Psalms 118:0 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Psalms 118:0 - Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

Psalms 118:0 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

Psalms 118:0 - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges