Canticles: Psalm 118—A Wide Welcome

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

The curse of the lectionary strikes again!

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a lectionary blog. It follows the poetic texts selected for each Sunday according to a list of readings. Obviously, since this is a lectionary blog, I think there is something to be gained by following that list. It pushes us to read outside of our comfort zone by providing two texts from the Hebrew Bible and two from the New Testament for almost every week. Because I do not select these texts, I am forced to pay attention more carefully, to search for a word from God. This is a good habit, a spiritual discipline for worship. And the benefit of following the lectionary is knowing that hundreds of others are doing it, too.

But for all of these virtues, the lectionary still sometimes leads us astray in at least two ways. Sometimes, the lectionary avoids passages that we would like to avoid, too. It does not cover everything in the Bible, and this can lead to significant distortion. Other times, it chops up a text to near unrecognizability, for the sake of providing a short reading or highlighting popular or more familiar verses.

In the first half of the psalm, the psalmist is surrounded, but utterly alone. Everyone, even all the nations, are against him. In the second half of the psalm, having entered the holy city of worship, the great congregation, the psalmist is similarly surrounded, but this time is welcomed. The psalmist has moved from a place of loneliness to a place of community. Once, he was cast away, rejected; now he is foundational to the community.

The lectionary’s use of Psalm 118 falls into the second category. The lectionary never includes the whole psalm. It always skips at least from verse 3 to verse 13. This year, it excises 16 verses in the middle of the psalm, highlighting the aspects that most closely align with the gospel text—Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. All of the gospels have the people quote verse 26 as Jesus saunters in on his donkey. The second half of Psalm 118 resounds with a joyful entry through the festival gates, preparing for the sacrifice and for the time of the Passover. We get to read the famous verse 22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Some of us will probably sing that classic Sunday School Song, based on verse 24: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

But here’s the problem: chopping up the psalm eliminates its poetic unity.

Of course, I have to admit that this isn’t fully the lectionary’s fault. In his translation and commentary of the Psalms, Robert Alter notes, “Some of [Psalm 118]’s segments seem disjunct with others, and there are medieval manuscripts that divide this text into as many as five different psalms.”1 It’s true; at first read, the psalm does appear to lurch from topic to topic. But I am convinced that the 11 verses everyone avoids offer the proper poetic counterpart to the rest of the psalm.

In my reading, Psalm 118 moves dynamically from claustrophobia to openness, from rejection to welcome. This dynamic is obscured slightly by the psalm’s framing device and the ambiguity of translation. So we have to do a bit of digging.

First, let’s take away the framing device that lets us know that this is a Thanksgiving Psalm. So, remove verses 1-4 and 28-29 (oddly enough the parts that the lectionary almost always has us read). Now, the central text of the psalm begins with a cry to God. “Out of my distress I called on the Lord.” The word “distress” here is boring and generic. In Hebrew, the word is much more evocative and based in the body. A better translation would be “From a tight spot, I cried out to the Lord.” This enables the parallel of the next line make much more sense: “the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.” Verse 5 sets up the dynamic of the rest of the psalm.

The sense of claustrophobia from verse 5 carries through to verses 10-14. The psalmist is “surrounded” three times over in these five verses. Surrounded by “all nations,” “on every side.” The nations are like a swarm of bees and a “fire of thorns.” These two metaphors adequately capture the feeling of claustrophobia. Some bees, including garden variety honey bees, can swarm their enemies to death, suffocating them. Thorns catch at the clothes, trapping the victim. This would be doubly true if the thorns were on fire. Imagine a fence made of blazing thorns. It would be nearly impossible to get out. (Sorry if I’m causing anyone nightmares.)

The claustrophobia is broken by God. The psalmist does not die, but lives to tell of God’s wonders (verse 17). After being rescued from the “tight spot,” the psalmist then comes to the broad place. Verse 19 opens the second section of the psalm: “Open to me the gates of righteousness.” From claustrophobia to wide open gates. From fear to wonder: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (verse 23).

The only verse that seems out of place now is verse 22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” What do cornerstones have to do with openness?

One key when reading the psalms for poetic meaning is to trace changes in voice. Notice that, after verse 22, the psalmist suddenly switches from 1st person singular (I, me) to 1st person plural (we, us). Now the dynamic becomes clear. In the first half of the psalm, the psalmist is surrounded, but utterly alone. Everyone, even all the nations, are against him. In the second half of the psalm, having entered the holy city of worship, the great congregation, the psalmist is similarly surrounded, but this time is welcomed. The psalmist has moved from a place of loneliness to a place of community. Once, he was cast away, rejected; now he is foundational to the community.

This is where the emotional heart of the psalm lies for us and for our young people. Who has not experienced the claustrophobic loneliness of being one in a crowd? Who doesn’t long for the wide open spaciousness of being a part of a community?

Psalm 118 really does sit at the foundations of the gospel. It reminds us of how Jesus was rejected, but how God welcomes. It reminds us to look out for all those who sit lonely amongst the crowd.

When Jesus quotes verse 22 in the gospel of Mark (Mark 12:10), we are reminded that he, too was rejected. He was cast out by the religious leaders, betrayed by a friend, abandoned by his followers, and even experienced God-forsakenness. No wonder we talk about him in terms of Isaiah 53:3, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”

But, Jesus also welcomed people. He welcomed all the outcasts. He ate dinner with tax collectors and sinners. He started a new community where all are welcomed. Indeed, it was for these very reasons that he was rejected! He opened the gates wide enough to make people uncomfortable.

Psalm 118:22 is quoted by another author in the New Testament. First Peter issues an invitation: “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). After quoting Psalm 118 and setting it in the context of a few other verses, the author returns to his theme: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9). He closes with his own little bit of poetry, perhaps inspired by the psalmist:

“Once you were not a people,

but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,

but now you have received mercy.” (2:10)

Psalm 118 really does sit at the foundations of the gospel. It reminds us of how Jesus was rejected, but how God welcomes. It reminds us to look out for all those who sit lonely amongst the crowd. It reminds us that we once felt the sting of rejection. And just imagine, we never would have discovered this if we had left out the parts that didn’t seem to fit. Perhaps there’s a word there for our ministries, too.

Song Recommendations:

Robbie Seay, Psalm 118 – Okay, so the framing device needs some love, too. Here’s Robbie Seay’s beautiful rendition of the first and last lines of Psalm 118.

Jars of Clay, The Stone – This oldie but goodie was inspired by verse 22. You may have to move the key down a few steps, but this song is singable in a congregation.

Chris and Emery Clark, I Was Pushed Hard (Verses Project) – This beautiful version of verses 13 and 14 comes from the Verses Project, which aims to help people to memorize scripture through song. Not all of the songs at the website work well for singing together, but I think this one achieves its aim admirably. Also, Chris and Emery Clark provide chords.

Marcus Hong, Psalm 118 – Even though all of these songs are wonderful, I still felt that none of them was quite able to capture the Psalm’s dynamic. Not only this, but all three of the previous are a bit more on the meditative side. The Psalm itself is a song of Thanksgiving! So, as I sometimes do, I wrote my own rendition. And my version includes angry bees! The quietness of the beginning opens out into a vibrant song of welcome and thanksgiving by the end. Here’s a link to the chord chart.

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Footnotes:

1. Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), p. 415.

 


Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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