Psalm 118 begins with a call for the community of faithful to worship. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love endures forever!” The worship of the community is grounded in the covenantal, everlasting, ever-enduring love that God has demonstrated to God’s people time and again.
From the formation of Creation, to the promise and covenant with Abraham, to the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, to the renewed call given to the freed slaves, God has tangibly demonstrated love by taking the “least of these” and weaving them into the fabric of God’s redemptive purposes for the whole Cosmos. Worship begins in the recognition that God first loved us.
“His steadfast love endures forever” is repeated four times by the various persons gathered together in adoration of the Lord. “The different groups of those who take part in the offering of thanksgiving are called upon in turn to join in singing the refrain attached to the testimony: first of all ‘Israel’, the people of the Covenant, then ‘the house of Aaron’, that is, the priesthood, and finally ‘those who fear God’, that is the proselytes of non-Israelite origin… By their testimony they set themselves without distinction under the everlasting grace of God of which they have once more been able to gain assurance in the celebration of the festival” (Artur Weiss, 725).
This love they proclaim is so profuse, so abounding, so overflowing that it cannot be mentioned only once. It must be recounted… again and again and again. God’s love poured out upon God’s people reminds us of Psalm 23’s remembrance of God’s blessing: “My cup overflows.”
As the old hymn’s poetry aptly captures:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky (“The Love of God”).
Even after all of these centuries of life as the Church, we still have not exhausted our communication, reflection, remembering, and embodying the love of God which has changed us and our world. We still find ever new ways to give voice to the affirmation that “His steadfast love endures forever.”
This statement is the greatest theological ground upon which we wrestle. We may disagree about the various nuances of what God’s love means. But, this theme has been the central theological truth that God’s people have continued to reflect upon, to sing about, and to conform their lives around. “His steadfast love endures forever.”
The Psalm shifts in perspective, recounting a king’s march into battle. The nations have rallied against him and his city. The foes are many and vicious. Bloodthirsty and vengeful. The enemies surround him on all sides. The night is falling, the light is fading. To any onlooker, all hope appears lost. The enemies swarm like bees that have had their nest disturbed. Like a torrent of fire, swept along by the wind in the brambles, the enemy threatens destruction.
The imagery brings to mind a scene from the book, Lord of the Rings. King Theoden is trapped in his mountain fortress with his people, where they have been forced to flee for refuge. The hordes of evil minions stand outside their gates, crashing against the gates and walls like a surging ocean tide. King Theoden looks upon the scene, despondent. “What can man do against such wreckless hate?” he questions. I can imagine the king in the Psalm understands these kinds of odds stacked against him.
Yet, the king does not fear what any mortal can do to him. Fear, which would surely be the most natural response to being surrounded by impending doom, is not his response. Ironically, and against the evidence, the king voices hope. The king holds on to trust.
It is noteworthy that the king does not place his hope and trust in mortals or princes. Hope is not directed at his own power, or the power of his army, or the power of a political alliance. In fact, the king does not arrange his vision on anything in the Creation with which to combat the enemy. Instead, he proclaims that it is better to take “refuge in the Lord” than to misplace one’s trust in nations, political parties, military might, financial systems, or anything else that might take the place of God – in one word, idol worship.
Artur Weiser writes, “Genuine faith can grow only where man has completely ceased to trust in men and hanker after earthly power and temporal means of power, only where every human support has broken down and trust in God has become the only living force. This is the spiritual atmosphere in which the courage and the clarity of such an attitude of faith can be gained and preserved” (The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, p. 726).
Despite the king’s affirmation of trust, he teeters on the edge of oblivion. Destruction looms near, even after proclaiming his hope in God, the king seems precariously and dangerously close to failure. The Psalm says that the king was “pushed hard, so that he was falling.” The king even admits that the nations rising against him has been the means by which God is punishing him.
It is this recognition of his own sin and brokenness before God that the king is also able to see God’s salvation open up to him. “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.” The king’s repentance, by God’s gracious act, has restored to him righteousness by which he (and the community) may enter into the presence of God, may pass through the “gate of the Lord.”
The king further acknowledges that it is all God’s doing. God is his “strength and might.” It is God who works salvation. The king’s deliverance spills out and over into the “tents of the righteous.” It is personal deliverance for the king, yes. But, it is also deliverance for the community of the faithful. Much like Moses had experienced God’s salvation in the desert, the same salvation becomes the experience of Israel being brought out of Pharaoh’s land and into a new place of promise. The faithful know the power of God because they have experienced God’s deliverance first hand.
The king promises to recount the deeds that God has done in and for them. “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The king calls for others of the faith community to join him in telling the story. As they remember God’s saving deeds, they are re-membered, put back together as God’s covenantal people. They shout, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes!”
The worship even recalls the king’s diminished state. He was “the stone the builders rejected.” He was disdained and with no honor. The king was a “stone” unworthy to hold the building together. The king was a “stone” that was better tossed in a ditch than used for a more glorious purpose. And, yet, what the world would discard, God uses to build upon as the cornerstone – the chief cornerstone. That which seemed worthy to be thrown in a rubble heap would be the very means by which God will rebuild God’s people.
The gathered faithful sing: “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.” The king, the one that the world rejected and scorned, is now called the “blessed one of the Lord.” Celebration ensues and breaks out because if God can take a broken king and restore him to blessing, then it surely can happen for the community, too! If God can take the rejected stone and restore it to a place of honor, then it is possible that God’s people will also be restored.
Psalm 118 hangs thick over the air during the Jewish Passover week. It is suggested by most scholars that this Psalm would have been sung during the week of the Passover. The king, the lineage of David, they prayed, would be restored. There was no king of Davidic lineage now. Psalm 118 points to a messiah, the blessed one, who would come and restore the future of God’s people. Psalm 118 is the community’s prayer that reaches back to the Egypt exodus and hopes for God’s deliverance in a similar fashion now. No more Egypt, no more Babylon, no more Rome.
Rumors and stories and hopes swirl around Jesus. He is a man of many talents. One who teaches with authority, not like their scribes and Pharisees. Jesus heals the sick, restores people back to life from the dead, gives sight to the blind, binds up the broken hearted, forgives sins, calms storms, changes water into wine, and enacts justice and hope for the needy in society. Surely this is the messiah, the one sung about in the Psalms. Surely this is the anointed one of God come to restore the fortunes of Israel.
The festival of Passover week is nearing upon them. Jerusalem is packed with those observing this holy week, preparing for the most holy time of the Jewish calendar – a time for remembering the deliverance of God’s people from Pharaoh. Whispers reach the corners, vendors, and street urchins. Jesus is riding into town. This can only mean one thing… deliverance!
Caesar’s armies would march into the city on occasion to display their military might and remind the people, by sheer force of numbers, who was in charge. Caesar is king. Any opposed to him will meet untimely deaths. The Maccabean family had once overthrown Rome, but those days were long gone. Now, moving Rome out would be like trying to remove a full-grown oak tree by hand – impossible and futile. The parade of military might would stream through the city to serve as a visible reminder to all of Jerusalem that they may worship Yahweh, but they served Rome.
Jesus enters the city atop a donkey. The crowds begin to swell around him. One cannot miss the counter to Caesar’s power that Jesus is enacting. Those gathered along the street corners grab their coats and palm branches, laying them on the ground before Jesus. It is a red carpet for royalty, of sorts. The people yell and shout with glee, waving their giant, foam fingers that sport the words: “Jesus is #1.” They can almost taste the freedom that will come from the ensuing revolt. Perhaps Jesus will march straight into Pilate’s home and kick him out right now. Tears stream from faces, happiness bursts into dancing and song.
They sing together:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!
Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
They are ready, anticipating the inauguration of their king, the branch of David. Finally, God’s salvation has come into their midst.
Jesus has in mind deliverance as well, but not what the people imagine. The parade does not go to Pilate’s palace, nor does it turn to overthrow Herod’s household to enthrone Jesus as the proper king. Rather, like Psalm 118, the palm branches lead Jesus to stand before the altar in the Temple. Jesus begins the work of deliverance and the reign of his kingdom by cleansing the Temple, overturning money-changer tables and scattering worshipers with corded whips.
His words ring with condemnation: “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations’; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Lk. 19:46; Mk 11:17; Mt. 21:13). In other words, Israel has failed to live out its call to be the means by which God will make God’s Self known to all the nations. It has faltered in demonstrating God’s way of living in the world so that the world might know God.
Artur Weiser comments about the scene of palms around the altar in the Temple: “The phrase ‘Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar’ probably means that as the festal bouquets and branches of palms or willows touch each other, as well as the horns of the altar, its quality of holiness will be imparted to the dancers; other commentators translate ‘ropes’ instead of ‘branches’ and see in this the widespread custom of using ropes to mark the congregation off as a holy people, thus separating them from what was regarded as profane” (The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, p. 729).
Jesus triumphal entry, which brings him into the sanctuary, is a call to holiness for God’s people. They are to be set apart for God’s purposes. This means not merely being set apart from the world, but set apart for the sake of the world. Jesus’ kingship calls into question Caesar’s claim to authority, yes. But, more importantly, it enacts judgment upon God’s people for their willingness to settle for the gods of Roman power and economic security.
Jesus drives out those gathered for worship because they have excluded the poor, the vulnerable, and the nations from gathering to worship Yahweh. Jesus denounces the kind of worship that understands itself as the exceptional recipients of God’s blessing but refuses to extend that same blessing to others.
What started out as a grand ticker-tape parade ends with questions about what kind of king Jesus is going to be. The people hope for deliverance, but they didn’t expect judgment. They rejoice in the messiah who comes to reign as sovereign, but they didn’t think their power would be compromised in the process. They sing songs of exaltation about God’s rule, but they thought they would be the lone recipients of that kingdom come. They never dreamed they might be the ones to come under God’s judgment… that they might be left standing outside the gates.
The parade ends with one man in the midst of a sea of enemies, surrounded on all sides like the king of Psalm 118. Rome and Caesar will not tolerate another claim to kingship. The Sanhedrin and Jerusalem won’t abide a challenge to their power. The powers that be surrounded Jesus to silence him, to put out his light. Yet, Jesus did not despair of life nor place his hope in mortals or princes. His hope remained in the God whose “steadfast love endures forever” and is able to deliver from death and destruction.
As one of my good friends wrote today, “It was easy for the people of Jerusalem to welcome Jesus, but not so easy for them to follow him.” The crowds began the day by singing: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel… Look, your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!” By Friday, the crowds will scream: “We have no king but Caesar!”
Should the king ride into our midst, we may pick up the palm branches to welcome him. But, the better question is whether or not we are willing to follow him to the tree on Friday. We may celebrate the king of glory coming into our world to reign, but are we willing to submit to his authority – even when all of our allegiances are brought under question. We may sing songs that tell of God’s deliverance, but are we willing to receive God’s judgment and discipline that is meant for our own benefit. Would we be willing to give up those idols, those powers, those hopes and dreams that vie for our loyalty to Jesus? Would we follow the king riding in on a donkey?