The Messianic Nature of Psalm 118
Michael G. McKelvey
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson
Psalm 118 has long been associated with the festival activities in Israelite tradition. Modern scholarship has tended to focus on the cultic and liturgical nature of the passage, especially as an entrance liturgy for worshippers coming to the temple. Other scholars have noted that it was written from the perspective of the Davidic king leading in thankful worship for deliverance from his enemies, which included the deliverance of the people. Mitchell Dahood labels it “a king’s hymn of thanksgiving for delivery from death and for a military victory.” The New Testament writers indicate their understanding of the Davidic nature of this psalm as well. In some manner, they saw the fulfillment of Psalm 118 in the life and work of Jesus. In view of the Davidic covenant, they believed this psalm pointed to the Messiah.
There are different perspectives within scholarship regarding what constitutes a “messianic psalm.” I define the term “messianic” as primarily or principally relating to the Davidic king as the “Lord’s Anointed” or “messiah,” historically and/or eschatologically. Thus, I propose that Psalm 118 should be understood as messianic for three main reasons. First, it appears that the Davidic king is the speaker in this psalm. Second, the canonical context of the Psalter supports its messianic nature. Third, subsequent communities of faith read it messianically, which is evidenced in the New Testament. With this in view, we will first examine Psalm 118 as a distinct text. Then, we will consider its canonical position within the Psalter. And finally, we will address its employment in the New Testament.
Psalm 118 as a Distinct Text
There is no superscription indicating the Davidic nature of this work, but the jubilant expressions of the psalmist would be difficult to picture as originating from any other mouth than the king’s. The royal/kingship themes that pervade the psalm also warrant reading it as a royal psalm. Jamie Grant has helpfully established royal nature of the work. He lists five “textual indications” that the leader in the psalm is the king:
1) The apparent setting for the deliverance received from Yahweh is one of military conflict, thus indicating that the most likely speaker is the king who would lead the people into battle. 2) The speaker refuses to trust in men or “princes” (v. 9) . . . this is probably a reference to foreign leaders and it is likely that only the king would have the opportunity to put his trust in princes by way of international alliance. 3) Verses 10-12 speak of the opposition of the nations surrounding the speaker, again indicating a military setting, where the king would lead the people in battle against other nations. 4) The representative nature of the speaker, who leads the community into Temple worship, means that the psalmist-speaker must fulfill some sort of official function on the people’s behalf—of all the known offices it is most likely that the king would fulfill the role indicated in Ps 118. 5) Finally, Eaton points out that the “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” formula is one which is associated with kingship in OT (Kingship, 62). Therefore, it seems most likely that it is king who is the speaker-leader in Ps 118.
With this in view, the Davidic king begins by saying, “Give thanks to YHWH because he is good, because his hesed is forever (לעולם חסדו).” In verses 1-4, he calls the congregation to worship YHWH, emphasizing his hesed (חסד). Three different groups—Israel, the house of Aaron, and those who fear YHWH—are summonsed to proclaim, “His hesed endures forever (לעולם חסדו).” This fourfold mention of God’s eternal hesed evokes the covenantal commitment of God to his people, and especially to David. It is within this context that the king declares that the Lord heard his cry and answered him in vv. 5-7. He knows that the Lord is on his side as his helper, and his enemies will not prevail against him. It is YHWH’s commitment to him as the Davidic king that distinguishes him from his adversaries. This leads the king to state the benefit of taking refuge in YHWH rather than in human leaders in vv. 8-9, for they can not ultimately deliver him. Though he is surrounded by nations, he will cut them off “in the name of YHWH,” because YHWH has helped him (vv. 10-13). In vv. 14-16, the psalmist confesses that the Lord is his salvation, and the righteous sing of the right hand of the Lord. The king will live and tell of God’s works, and even though this experience he has endured is YHWH’s discipline of him, God has not given him to death (vv. 17-18). The king calls for the gates to be opened to him as he enters victoriously from battle to give thanks to YHWH (v. 19). As Dahood says, “The triumphant king at the head of his army commands that the gates be thrown open.” The king says, “This is the gate of YHWH; the righteous will enter at it” (v. 19). He again thanks (ידה) God for answering him and achieving his salvation (v. 20).
A curious expression follows v. 20 about attempted treachery. This could be a reference to the nations or the king’s own subjects who betrayed him or both. Verse 22 states, “The stone the builders rejected became the head of the corner.” Who are these builders? They are the ones wanting to build the kingdom. They did not want the Davidic king, and engaged in some type of conspiracy to overthrow his reign. But instead of achieving their goal, the rejected king actually became the very one upon whom the kingdom is being built. Their rejection of him could not undermine God’s election of him: “This is from YHWH; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day YHWH made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v. 24). The Lord’s establishment of the Davidic king cannot be undermined by the attempts of human conspiracy.
The psalmist then cries out for YHWH to “save us” and “prosper us,” by which he identifies himself with the other “righteous” who are with him (v. 25). This cry is anticipatory, expressing an ongoing or coming (i.e. eschatological) need of deliverance. The statement in v. 26, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of YHWH,” constitutes a reference to the Davidic king himself, which is then followed by the identification of the king with his righteous people who say with him, “we bless you from the house of YHWH.” They are in the presence of the Lord at the temple, and the call is issued in v. 27 to place the sacrifice upon the altar. The festal worship is ready to begin.
Before the psalm comes to an end, there is one final declaration of the king’s loyal commitment to his heavenly King: “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; My God, I will extol you!” (v. 28). But the king does not simply represent himself. He functions as the leader of the people, and his role is to lead them to YHWH. So he calls the congregation once more to worship, forming an inclusio with v. 1, “Give thanks to YHWH because he is good, because his hesed is forever (לעולם חסדו).”
Psalm 118 is a well-structured text that begins and ends by emphasizing YHWH’s covenantal faithfulness expressed by the concept of his eternal hesed. Grant recognizes the importance of remembering this:
the intimate link between חסד and covenant—particularly since the idea of לעולם חסדו, as it is found here in Ps 118, is a usage of hesed which is particularly associated with the covenant. The חסד of Yahweh is revealed to Israel primarily in his covenant with them. He has bound himself to a covenant relationship of חסד with Israel as a community (Ex 20:6) as well as with the Davidic king as his anointed (2 Sam 7:15).
Thus, the king and his righteous subjects praise God for his covenant faithfulness. This faithfulness is exemplified by the Lord saving the king and, by their association with him, his righteous people. The king and his kingdom give thanks to YHWH for his eternal hesed.
With this in view, the Davidic persona in this psalm enables us to begin to see its messianic nature. James L. Mays helpfully explains,
David is the king whose throne has an everlasting future based on the promise of God. The songs he sponsored and spoke are to be read in the context of that promise. They are “messianic,” not because all of them are about the anointed of Israel, but rather in the sense that they are language to be spoken in the knowledge that God has chosen a messiah and surely keeps God’s promises.
So the connection of this psalm to the king gives it a messianic nature as a distinct text. This connection provides us with the necessary background for understanding the use Psalm 118 in the New Testament. However, before moving to the New Testament, it is important to consider the function of Psalm 118 within the Psalter.
Psalm 118 in the Psalter
When considering the message and interpretation of a psalm, it is important to consider its canonical placement and function within the book of Psalms. For several decades much of scholarship has provided evidence for the intentional editorial arrangement of the Psalter, which demonstrates a thematic and theological movement from the beginning of the book through the end. While not being able to rehearse the discussion of the canonical reading of the book of Psalms, I am persuaded that there is an overall arrangement of the Psalter. This arrangement centers on an apparent narrative of the rise and fall of Davidic kingship and a theological response to that fall in an exilic and post-exilic situation, a response which is given in the light of YHWH’s covenantal promises. I have joined other scholars in making a case for the canonical study of the psalms elsewhere. In the light of this research, I believe the arrangement of the Psalter sheds light on understanding Psalm 118. I will note two things with regards to this psalm.
First, it has been shown that there is an apparent relationship between kingship/royal psalms and Torah psalms, especially in three places in the Psalter. Three pairs of royal and torah psalms repeatedly examined by scholars are Psalms 1-2, 18-19, and 118-119. The royal/kingship psalms are Psalms 2, 18, and 118, and the torah psalms are Psalms 1, 19, and 119. Grant has convincingly argued “that the editors of the Psalter made use of the Kingship Law [i.e. Deut. 17:14-20] as an intellectual paradigm in their placement of kingship psalms alongside of torah psalms at key junctures in the Book of Psalms.” He also suggested a two-fold rationale for their employment of the Kingship Law:
1) in response to the climate of messianic expectation, the editors wished to make clear that the restored Davidic king should be one who follows the ideal of kingship rather than the historical examples found in Deuteronomic history;
2) the Law of the King defined the monarch as an example of devotion to Yahweh (by way of developing a torah-centered worldview) for the whole people, and the editors of the Psalter wished to pick up on this exemplary commitment to God, and set it as a model for the readers of the psalms to follow.
Secondly, with this canonical setting in view, the messianic nature of Psalm 118 is heightened, suggesting that we are not only to see the Davidic king in this psalm but also the psalm itself as portraying an anticipation of the future restoration of the Davidic king. This messianic expectation in the Psalter appears to be one of the great themes of Books IV and V. With the resounding lament in Psalm 89 over the fall of the Davidic monarchy through the exile, the books that follow address a community without nationhood and without a king. Thus, the post-exilic setting for the primary audience of Books IV and V creates a hermeneutical question for us to consider. How did they read this psalm in the light of the Davidic covenant and their present circumstances?
The answer appears to be that they read it in the light of God’s promise that a son of David would reign forever, and they yearned for a coming Davidic king who would restore them as a people. The overall theology of the Psalter maintains and conveys this anticipation, as well as the theology we find the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible. There is also evidence of a messianic anticipation in inter-testamental period communities and, especially, communities within Israel during the time of Jesus of Nazareth, which is corroborated by the accounts of the New Testament.
We can, therefore, say that at the very minimum there are elements in Psalm 118 that were associated with a messianic figure, and were viewed as a post-exilic foreshadowing of God’s deliverance of the messiah and the righteous people of God through the messiah. Interestingly, commenting on this psalm, Leslie C. Allen writes, “Like other royal psalms Ps 118 came to be imbued with messianic import and doubtless this is why it stands at the end of the Hallel psalms, Pss 113-118.” All these things provide us with a hermeneutical trajectory for considering the use of Psalm 118 the New Testament.
Psalm 118 in the New Testament
There are primarily two segments of Psalm 118 that are employed repeatedly in the New Testament in relation to Jesus, indicating that the New Testament authors interpreted this psalm as referring to Jesus as the Davidic King. The first passage, Psalm 118:22-23, states, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (ESV). Sometimes the quotations includes only vv. 22 regarding Jesus as the cornerstone. The second passage is v. 26, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of YHWH.” We will briefly consider each passage, but we will begin with the occurrences of the latter passage.
Psalm 118:26 is found in the account of the Triumphal entry of Jesus during the week of Passover just prior to his death. The three main passages are Matt. 21:9; Mark 11:9-10, and Luke 19:38-40. In two of the three occurrences there is the clear connection between Jesus and David:
And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:9, ESV)
And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10, ESV)
It is also interesting to note that in the third occurrence, Luke records that the people praise Jesus as “the king” and that he accepts the connection that the crowd was making between him and Psalm 118.
As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:37-40, ESV)
Jesus’ view of his own connection with Psalm 118:26 is further underscored by his statement recorded in both Matt. 23:39 and Luke 13:35 that Jerusalem would not see him until they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was interpreted as a fulfillment of Psalm 118, and the historical setting of the Passion week reveals many correspondences between the psalm and Jesus. First, the overarching context of Psalm 118 is YHWH’s salvation/deliverance of the king and, by association, the king’s righteous people. In the gospels, the crowds anticipate that Jesus as the Davidic king will deliver them. Second, both the psalm and the New Testament contain the elements of feast, worship, and sacrifice. In Psalm 118, the king leads them in worshipful celebration of God’s deliverance at the temple. In the New Testament, the people are in Jerusalem engaged in worshipful celebration of God’s deliverance from Egypt and are hopefully anticipating his deliverance again. Third, and this is more to the point of the New Testament writers, God delivers his people through the king. So as YHWH saved the righteous through the Davidic king in Psalm 118, YHWH is now saving the righteous through the Messiah, the Son of David, the King.
Note the irony, however, in the interpretation of Psalm 118 in Jesus’ day. The people’s anticipation of God’s deliverance characterized the crowd. But they did not anticipate the manner in with God was delivering his people. It was through the king, but through his death! In other words, while the people interpreted the psalm as applying to Jesus, they did not expect the Davidic king to deliver them in this way. The unexpected manner God’s salvation through the death of king reveals a misinterpretation of the Messiah’s role in redemption. In other words, in the eyes of the New Testament writers, the crowds identified the right person but the wrong interpretation regarding how he would procure God’s deliverance.
Moving on, Psalm 118:22-23 are the other verses highlighted in the New Testament, and each reference occurs in conjunction with the rejection of Jesus by the majority of the people of his day. Jesus refers to himself as the stone the builders rejected who becomes the cornerstone in Matt. 21:41, Mark 12:10-11, and Luke 20:17. Each of these quotations take place in the light of the parable of the tenant where Jesus indicates that the religious leaders are rejecting him as the Messiah/King. Moreover, each time Jesus introduces the quotation of Psalm 118:22-23 along the lines of the scriptures foretelling that this rejection would take place:
Matt. 21:41, “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures . . .’“
Mark 12:10, “Have you not read this Scripture . . .”
Luke 20:17, “But he looked directly at them and said, ‘What then is this that is written…’” (ESV)
It is clear that Jesus before his death and resurrection understood the psalm as a prophetic statement regarding his particular work as the Messiah. And the religious leaders of his day are the “builders” who are rejecting him. However, he will ironically become the actually cornerstone of the building, and this is all what God has purposed.
The application of Psalm 118:22-23 to Jesus also occurs in post-resurrection contexts in the New Testament. In Acts 4:11, Peter says to the religious rulers of his day, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” Ephesians 2:20 states that the household of God is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” And in the context of Jesus as the cornerstone of the church, 1 Pet. 2:7 says, “but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’“
What can be said of the use of Psalm 118 in these NT contexts? It was read messianically in that day by much of the community of faith. There was also an anticipation that Jesus was fulfilling the psalm prior to his death and resurrection, and that he ultimately did fulfilled it after his resurrection. We also see that the psalm was not fully understood by the crowds with regard to the Messiah’s function in delivering the people, but they clearly saw a connection to Jesus as the Davidic king. Therefore, New Testament writers saw the deliverance of Christ from the grave through the resurrection as God’s deliverance of the king and, thereby, God’s deliverance of his people.
Is Psalm 118 a messianic psalm? This is a complicated question, and the answer is largely governed by how we define a “messianic psalm.” In one sense, it is clearly messianic. It is about the Lord’s anointed, the Davidic king, as a distinct passage in its own right. It seems clearly messianic in its canonical context, anticipating YHWH’s faithful fulfillment of his promise to David. It was clearly read messianically by the New Testament writers and by others in their day. And above all, Divine intention via the doctrine of inspiration indicates its messianic nature. So the answer is yes. It is messianically prophetic, and though we may debate whether it is directly prophetic, or typological, or analogical, or a foreshadowing, etc., its eschatological significance has been acknowledged by the community of faith (at least portions of the community) since the final arrangement of the Psalter. This psalm may not be directly prophetic in the sense that it only refers to a future messiah, but it does play a significant role in the biblical theology of God’s salvation through his coming anointed one. In some way, it dramatically foreshadows that the Messiah will procure YHWH’s deliverance for his people, by being delivered himself from death by the hand of YHWH. Note Psalm 118:17-18 as the king says, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord. The Lord has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death” (ESV).
More discussion is required regarding what is meant by the designation “messianic psalm.” Perhaps we need to expand our understanding of the term “messianic” altogether, and be more intentional in qualifying what is meant by it.
- Mitchell Dahood, Psalms III, 101-150 (AB 17a; Garden City, NY: Double Day & Co., 1970), 155. For others works noting the kingly persona of this paslm (or its possibility), see Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, Vol. I, translated by D. R. Ap-Thomas (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), 180-181; Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (WBC; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 124-125; Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, Translated by Hebert Hartwell (OTL; London: SCM Press, 1962), 725-730; John Eaton, Psalms (London: SCM Press, 1967), 270-271; Kingship and the Psalms (SBT; Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson Inc., 176), 153; John Goldingay, Psalms, Volume 3: Psalms 90-150 (BCOT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 354. ↑
- These reasons are not to be viewed as exhaustive as there are other possibilities in determining the messianic nature of a psalm. The rationales presented in this paper simply highlight the messianic nature of Psalm 118 and add to the discussion of what constitutes a “messianic psalm.” ↑
- Notably, the Talmud links Ps 118:21-28 with David as being an exchange between David, Jesse, Samuel, and David’s brothers (Isidore Epstein, ed., The Babylonian Taulmud, Seder Mo’ed Vol. II, Pesaḥim [London: Soncino Press, 1961], 615). ↑
- Jamie A. Grant, The King as Exemplar: The Function of Deuteronomy’s Kingship Law in the Shaping of the Book of Psalms (AcBib 17; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 127-128, n. 11. ↑
- Note the Lord’s “discipline” of the king, but not to death. See 2 Sam. 7:14-16. ↑
- Dahood, Psalms III, 159. ↑
- Interestingly, in Ps 118:22 the Targum reads, “the youth that the builders left behind . . . has become king and ruler.” ↑
- Grant, King as Exemplar, 129. ↑
- James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 98. ↑
- Gerald H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (SBLDS 76; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985); J. Clinton McCann, Jr., ed., The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter (JSOTSup 159; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993); Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997); Jerome Creach, Yahweh as Refuge and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (JSOTSup 217; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996); Robert L. Cole, The Shape and Message of Book III (Psalms 73-89) (JSOTSup 307; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000); Grant, King as Exemplar; David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100 (BJS/UCSD 5; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997); O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015). This approach is also seen in some recent commentaries. See, e.g., J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms (NIB; Nashville: Abingdon, 1996); Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Die Psalmen I: Psalm 1-50 (NEchtB; Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1993); Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated by Linda M. Maloney (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005); Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011). ↑
- Michael G. McKelvey, Moses, David and the High Kingship of Yahweh: A Canonical Study of Book IV of the Psalter (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010, reprinted 2014). ↑
- Grant, King as Exemplar, 293. ↑
- Grant, King as Exemplar, 293. ↑
- Allen, Psalms 101-150, 125. ↑
- Interestingly (pre-dating the New Testament period), there is evidence that during Second Temple period at least parts of Ps 118 were interpreted in view of David as the Lord’s Anointed. See David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai, “The Apocryphal Psalms of David,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period, Volume I, eds. David Flusser and Azzan Yadin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 259-260; David M. Stec, The Genizah Psalms: A Study of MS 798 of the Antonin Collection (Cambridge Genizah Study Series 5; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 34-35. ↑
- Note the different historical/chronological context of the occurrence of this statement in Matthew and Luke. ↑