Psalm 118 is the last of the ‘Hallel’ psalms. For the Jews of Jesus’ day it was a psalm to be sung within the context of the Passover. There is no reason for not assuming that within the context of the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang this psalm.
For Christians who follow the lectionary Psalm 118 has been appointed to be read on Easter Day, and as such it becomes a great Psalm of triumph. Indeed, in my NRSV Psalm 118 is entitled ‘A Song of Victory’. For here we read: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (v1); “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v24). All this is very appropriate for Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
However, the Psalm takes on a different character when read in the context of Maundy Thursday, the day when hatred was well and truly in the air. Jesus was facing the shame and agony of the Cross. Jesus no doubt would have identified with the Psalmist when he declared “Out of my distress I called on the Lord” (v5). Like the Psalmist, Jesus was very conscious of “many enemies” (v10 GNB), swarming around him “like bees” (v12) as they plotted against him.
Yet, like the Psalmist, Jesus knew that he was not on his own: “With the Lord on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me” (v6). As he sang Psalm 118, Jesus dared to believe that God would be there to help him. “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (vv13-14).
That night for Jesus the past tense of the Psalm became prophetic of the future. People may do their worst, but the Lord would help him and save him. Jesus wasn’t being naïve. He knew that death lay ahead of him, but he knew that death would not have the last word. So with the Psalmist he affirmed: “I shall not die, but live” (v17). Jesus did die, but death could not hold him in its grip. What was true for Jesus, is true for the followers of Jesus. Death is not the final word. With that thought in mind John Calvin in his Commentary on the Psalms wrote: “We whose life is hid with Christ in God ought to meditate on this psalm as the days of our lives, Col 3.3”.
Almost certainly Jesus had made this Psalm his own long before Maundy Thursday. It is significant that after he told the parable of the tenants in the vineyard who put to death the Owner’s son, he went on to quote from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (v22). Although the people of his day failed to recognize him for who he was, with the Psalmist he believed that a day would come when everybody would see that his role had been crucial to the purposes of God. That day, of course, was the day of resurrection, when the rejected stone was seen to the chief cornerstone in God’s work of salvation. As James Mays commented:
These verses teach the church that the risen Christ is the crucified Jesus and warn us against separating Easter from its context in the passion of our Lord.
So with his disciples Jesus dared to sing: “This is the day that the Lord has made” (v24); or as the GNB renders the verse, “This is the day of the Lord’s victory” (v24). Actually the REB gets to the heart of the Psalmist’s meaning with its translation “This is the day on which the Lord has acted”. A similar emphasis is found in the NIV: “The Lord has done it this very day”. The God of the Bible is the God who acts. In the darkness of Good Friday God was at much at work as in the light of Easter Day, for there on the Cross God acted to deal with the powers of sin and guilt. So as Jesus came to the end of the hymn, he could repeat the words with which the Psalm had begun: “Give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his love is eternal” (vv1, 29 GNB).
Psalm 118 is a Psalm to ponder in the light of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, as well as of Easter Day. But it is also a Psalm to ponder in the light our own circumstances. There are times when we too have to walk in the dark and feel that everything is against us. But the God who stood by his Son is the God who stands by his people. In times of testing we too can affirm that “his steadfast love endures forever” (vv1, 29). With the Psalmist we too can dare to sing: “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you” (v28).