Psalm 118 – From Rejection to Keystone
TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)
1. Acclaim the LORD for He is good; indeed, His loving kindness is eternal.
now1 say “Indeed, His loving kindness is eternal.” Israel
3. Let the house of Aaron now1 say, “Indeed, His loving kindness is eternal.’’
4. Let those who fear the LORD now1 say, “Indeed, His loving kindness is eternal.”
5. From the narrow place2 I called on the LORD3; He answered me, the LORD3 in the broad place.
6. The LORD is for me, I do not fear; what could a man do to me?
7. The LORD is for me, among my helpers; so I will see [the downfall of] those who hate me.
8. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to rely on mankind;
9. it is better to take refuge in the LORD than to rely on princes.
10. All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I will surely cut them down.
11. They went round me, they surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I will surely cut them down.
12. They went round me like bees; they flared4 like burning thorns; in the name of the LORD I will surely cut them down,
13. You pressed and pressed,5 that I might fall; but the LORD helped me.
14. My strength and might6 is the LORD3; for me He has become a deliverance.
15. Hark!7 Joy and deliverance in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the LORD achieves triumph!
16. The right hand of the LORD is exalted! The right hand of the LORD achieves triumph!”
17. I shall not die but live and recount the achievements of the LORD.3
18. The LORD3 chastised, chastised5 me, but did not give me over to death.
19. Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter through them, acclaiming the LORD.3
20. This is the gate to the LORD—the righteous shall enter through it.
21. I acclaim You, for You have answered me, and You have become my deliverance.
22. The stone that the builders rejected has become the keystone.8
23. From the LORD has this come to be; it is marvelous in our sight.
24. This is the day the LORD has achieved—let us exult and rejoice in it.
25. Please, O LORD, grant now1 deliverance! Please, O LORD, grant now1 success!
26. Blessed be he who enters in the name of the LORD; we bless you all9 from the House of the LORD.
27. The Deity is the LORD, and He has given us light; 10-bind the festival offering with ropes up to the horns of the altar.-10
28. My Deity You are and I will acclaim You; my God and I will extol You.
29. Acclaim the LORD for He is good, indeed His loving kindness is eternal.
1. In the five instances noted, “now” translates na, a hortative term.
2. Indicating great anxiety.
3. In the six cases noted, a brief, poetic form of “LORD” is used.
4. As per Rashi, Dahood, Hacham. Others, “became extinguished.”
5. The Hebrew double use indicates intensity.
6. Alternatively, “song.”
7. Alternatively, “The voice of…”
8. Literally, “top of the corner.” Others, “cornerstone.”
9. “All” is not in the Hebrew. It is included here to indicate that “you” is plural.
10. Hebrew uncertain.
Psalm 118 celebrates change form near annihilation to victory. Throughout the psalm, the reader is in motion, moved from situation to situation and from site to site. An opening that bespeaks
worship is followed by an individual’s story (presumably, far from the Temple ) of danger punctuated with declarations of religious verities. This leads to victory and to an intention to acknowledge God, which in turn ends in a multi-voiced chorus of praise and request, this located again in the Temple . The poem, first marked by lyric repetitions that seem to comfort the threatened speaker, moves on to a celebration of miraculous deliverance. Across the psalm, the enclosing term, “acclaim,” appears five times, in the beginning, at the end (vv. 28, 29) and at the point of transfer from danger to acknowledgment (vv. 19, 21). Temple
Psalm 118 includes many complex literary usages. I therefore first comment on the psalm by verses, and only then proceed to overviews. In the end I add a few comments on historical uses of the psalm. (In the course of history this psalm of celebration became one of encouragement for those holding minority views in the face of a hostile majority.)
Literary Usages and References by Verse Order
(Note: With the many indicated double meanings, it is usually best to assume that the poet meant both to be heard. The reader must decide which takes priority.)
Verse 1: This liturgical phrase is found elsewhere (Jer. 33:11; Ps. 106:1; 107:1), most importantly in Psalm 136, where it opens the psalm and where the second half of the verse appears as a refrain in each line (as in verses 2–4 here). The verse is laced with double meanings: “Acclaim/acknowledge the LORD for/because/indeed He/it is good [to do], for/because/indeed His loving kindness is eternal.” Moreover, the second half might be a quotation (as in the next three verses), indicating the content of the acknowledgment. All the meanings are complementary: for example, He and praising Him are good; His goodness is both assured and the reason for praise; His eternal kindness is both the reason for praise and the content of its articulation.
Verses 2–4: The three groups seem to be a liturgical encompassment (see Psalm 115:9–13). Those who fear God are either the particularly pious or foreigners who accept His sovereignty. The second part of each verse can be either the reason for speaking up, a reassertion of God’s quality (“indeed…”) or again the content of the praise. Further, there could be a specific reference, telling each of these groups to recite Psalm 136. Verse 1–4 are united by one recurring phrase (“indeed… eternal”), and verses 2–4 also by a second (“let… say”).
Verse 5 rests on the metaphor of moving from a tight place to a wide place, the latter, although not specific, indicating where God is to be found or where He places the speaker.
Verses 6–7 and 8–9: two pairs of verses built on recurring phrases. The final (what could a man do) “to me” of verse 6 could also read “for me,” for the Hebrew can mean be either a negative or a positive action. The format of verses 8–9 is found many times biblical Wisdom literature (“better X than Y”).
Verses 10–12 are built entirely on rolling repetitions. The English “round” and “surround” reflect Hebrew echoes of related roots.
Verse 12: The imagery is enticing and multivalent. Bees have stings and thorns are sharp. Both fire and the swarm of bees can surround a victim, and they are both destined for destruction after attack, although the one attacked is scarcely considering the ultimate fate of the attacker at that moment.
Verse 13 introduces a sharp change, as the metaphor is dropped and the enemy is addressed. Perhaps the speaker dramatized the threat for the reader.
Verses 14–16 may recall the Song of the
Red Sea (Exodus 15:2, 3, and 6 are reflected in “deliverance,” “right hand,” and “exalted”; v. 14), an apt precedent. “Right hand (achieves triumph)” and "deliverance" are repeated. The tents of verse 15 might refer to an encamped army or the more peaceful home front.
Verses 17–21: As the speaker moves toward thanksgiving, repetitions move from recurring phrases to repeated terms and roots, as follows. The double use of a single root in verse 18 echoes the same structure in verse 13. “Achievements” of verse 17 recalls those of verses 15 and 16, as “death,” “gate,” “righteousness,” “enter through,” and “acclaim” are all repeated. Verse 21 also echoes the previous “answer” (v. 5) and “deliverance” (vv. 14, 15). Perhaps there is a sense of conclusion and finality, as the coming verses of celebration (vv. 22–24) do not include any repetitions apart from God’s name and “achieve.”
The gates of verse 19–20 are both metaphoric and real. “Gates of Righteousness” might be a proper name for the
gates, similar to gate names in Temple Babylonia. “Gate to the LORD” might indicate access to the His presence or a specific place.
The celebration of verses 22–24 introduces new elements: an effective metaphor (the keystone), the first-person plural, wonder and joy. The reader is again transported to the moment of thanksgiving. In verse 24, the first phrase means both that the LORD acted on that day and created the holiday, and the second phrase can read either “in it” or “in Him.”
Verse 25, an inserted prayer, takes the reader back to earlier parts of the poem through the use of recurring phrases and echoes (“please,” ana, and “now,” na) and repetitions of earlier terms (“deliverance,” vv. 14, 15, 21 and “now,” vv. 2–4). For a moment, the lyricism also returns.
Verse 26, through its double “blessing” and in its echo of “in the name of the LORD” (vv. 10–12), unites the individual, the community pilgrims, and the representative speakers of the
in deliverance. What was for most of the psalm an individual story has firmly entered the realm of community. Temple
Verse 27 is unclear (see note), possibly because we lack detailed knowledge of the stages of vow-fulfillment sacrifices. “Giving light” possibly refers to part of the priestly blessing (Num. ), appropriate to the
With verse 28, the individual speaker returns. Verse 29, a repetition of the opening verse, might be said by the speaker or by any of the groups that spoke before. Hence it circles perfectly back to the first four verses, in which the speaker spoke and invited others to do so. (Other psalms repeating the first statement at the end are 8, 103, and 104.)
Overviews – Poetry and Pageantry
All of these multivalent terms, changes of speaker and milieu, uncertainties and ambiguities make “it hard to follow the internal dynamics” (Schaefer). Between the introduction (vv. 1–4) and the conclusion (v. 29), however, one can delineate two sections, with one verse bridging between them.
The first section (vv. 5–21) relates a personal history, that tale interspersed with statements of religious verities (vv. 8–9, 15b–16, 20). It is enclosed by the first-person voice of the speaker and possibly the term li, “for me,” verses 6, 7, and 21 (in the last, translated “my” deliverance), and this section includes all six uses of the shortened form of LORD (all by the speaker) and many repetitions of phrases. Here is included all the history of confrontation and conflict.
Verse 21 bridges the two sections. For the speaker, it ends his tale with the intention to acclaim.
The speaker’s “voice” encloses the second section (vv. 21, 29) as does “acclaim,” the section’s emphasis. Here “we” enters the psalm, as does
and the Jerusalem . These are scenes from a celebration, clearly not consecutive (the prayer for help precedes the welcome, and the celebration of the day precedes both). The mix more resembles the musing of a mind’s eye than a record of events, probably reflecting the speaker as he comes toward the Temple area, picturing himself arriving there. (In this it is similar to the end of Psalm 116, in which the speaker muses, picturing his appearance at the Temple in a disjointed way.) Temple
I mention an alternative line of interpretation. For over a century, many interpreters have suggested that Psalm 118 is a liturgy, the radical changes representing sections said by different individuals over an extended period, stretching minimally from the approach to
through to the sacrifice. There is no agreement among scholars on the number of speakers, the assignment of roles, or the division of lines, which is one, but not the only, argument against the approach. As Seybold (p.119) notes, “It is difficult to say to what extent we can refer to texts like …118… as liturgies… because too little is known about the forms of worship in ancient Jerusalem ….” Although the Israel is recalled at the end, that does not necessarily indicate that this is a liturgy. Indeed, any liturgical interpretation requires a very complex assignment of lines, including choirs that are coordinated with worshippers, individual leaders, etc. The only proposed biblical basis for such an interpretation is a reference to antiphonal recitation in Ezra 3:11, but that reference better describes a recurring chorus such as in Psalm 136 than assigned complex parts. In short, there is little solid basis for a multi-speaker liturgical interpretation. As a poem, rather than a liturgical pageant, Psalm 118 makes eminent sense. Temple
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Additional Comment – Psalm 118 as Later Inspiration
The rise of the protagonist of Psalm 118 from near death by enemies to joyous celebration of victory among the masses and before God has inspired many, and has had particular appeal for those who felt they faced widespread opposition or persecution. It is interesting to note its consistent appeal across circumstances. The New Testament applies verse 22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the keystone,” to Jesus, often citing Peter (e.g., Matt. ; Mark ; Luke ; Acts ). Luther cites the psalm as most beloved by him for the comfort it gave him. In modern
, where national religious liturgy is still evolving, verses 22–24 are included by many in the Kiddush (the inaugural blessing over wine) on Independence Day. Israel
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in
and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at email@example.com. Jerusalem
(א) הוֹדוּ לַיהֹוָה כִּי טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ:
(ב) יֹאמַר נָא יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ:
(ג) יֹאמְרוּ נָא בֵית אַהֲרֹן כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ:
(ד) יֹאמְרוּ נָא יִרְאֵי יְהֹוָה כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ:
(ה) מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ:
(ו) יְהֹוָה לִי לֹא אִירָא מַה יַּעֲשֶׂה לִי אָדָם:
(ז) יְהֹוָה לִי בְּעֹזְרָי וַאֲנִי אֶרְאֶה בְשׂנְאָי:
(ח) טוֹב לַחֲסוֹת בַּיהֹוָה מִבְּטֹחַ בָּאָדָם:
(ט) טוֹב לַחֲסוֹת בַּיהֹוָה מִבְּטֹחַ בִּנְדִיבִים:
(י) כָּל גּוֹיִם סְבָבוּנִי בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה כִּי אֲמִילַם:
(יא) סַבּוּנִי גַם סְבָבוּנִי בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה כִּי אֲמִילַם:
(יב) סַבּוּנִי כִדְבוֹרִים דֹּעֲכוּ כְּאֵשׁ קוֹצִים בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה כִּי אֲמִילַם:
(יג) דַּחֹה דְחִיתַנִי לִנְפֹּל וַיהֹוָה עֲזָרָנִי:
(יד) עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה:
(טו) קוֹל רִנָּה וִישׁוּעָה בְּאָהֳלֵי צַדִּיקִים יְמִין יְהֹוָה עֹשָׂה חָיִל:
(טז) יְמִין יְהֹוָה רוֹמֵמָה יְמִין יְהֹוָה עֹשָׂה חָיִל:
(יז) לֹא אָמוּת כִּי אֶחְיֶה וַאֲסַפֵּר מַעֲשֵׂי יָהּ:
(יח) יַסֹּר יִסְּרַנִּי יָּהּ וְלַמָּוֶת לֹא נְתָנָנִי:
(יט) פִּתְחוּ לִי שַׁעֲרֵי צֶדֶק אָבֹא בָם אוֹדֶה יָהּ:
(כ) זֶה הַשַּׁעַר לַיהֹוָה צַדִּיקִים יָבֹאוּ בוֹ:
(כא) אוֹדְךָ כִּי עֲנִיתָנִי וַתְּהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה:
(כב) אֶבֶן מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים הָיְתָה לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה:
(כג) מֵאֵת יְהֹוָה הָיְתָה זֹּאת הִיא נִפְלָאת בְּעֵינֵינוּ:
(כד) זֶה הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ:
(כה) אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הַצְלִיחָה נָּא:
(כו) בָּרוּךְ הַבָּא בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה בֵּרַכְנוּכֶם מִבֵּית יְהֹוָה:
(כז) אֵל יְהֹוָה וַיָּאֶר לָנוּ אִסְרוּ חַג בַּעֲבֹתִים עַד קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ:
(כח) אֵלִי אַתָּה וְאוֹדֶךָּ אֱלֹהַי אֲרוֹמְמֶךָּ:
(כט) הוֹדוּ לַיהֹוָה כִּי טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ: