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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 118

Psalms 118

The exhortation to praise the Lord because of his mercy towards Israel, Psalms 118:1-4, is followed by a reference to that good deed which had led on to this praise (the Lord has delivered his people out of great trouble), and there is then annexed the expression of unlimited confidence in him, Psalms 118:6-14, who, with the same omnipotent mercy with which he has at the present time come to the help of his people when threatened with destruction, will lead them on to full victory over the heathen world, which still continues to oppress them. After a new introduction in Psalms 118:15-18, which praises the deliverance which the Lord has imparted to his people in prospect of death, then follow, in Psalms 118:19-28, the exhortation to open to the people the doors of the sanctuary, in order that they may there give him thanks for his deliverance, a joyful song of triumph for the salvation which has been obtained, and the prayer to the Lord that he would impart his blessing on the important undertaking which gave occasion to the Psalm.

The Psalm falls into two strophes, each of fourteen verses, and a concluding verse, in which the end turns back to the beginning. The fourteen fall both times into an introduction of four verses, and a main-division, divided by the five. The concluding verses of both strophes, fourteen and twenty-eight, depend upon Exodus 15:2. The word Jehovah occurs twenty-two times, according to the number of the letters of the alphabet; ten times in the first part and twelve times in the second.

That the Psalm has a national reference is put beyond a doubt by Psalms 118:1-4. According to that passage, the singular in Psalms 118:5, and also in the following verses, can refer only to the ideal person of the people. For Psalms 118:5 th gives the reason why Israel ought to praise the Lord. And this reason can be found only in a salvation granted to Israel.

That the deliverance for which the Psalm gives thanks is the deliverance from the Babylonish captivity, there can be no doubt. That the Psalm was composed immediately after this deliverance is evident from the tenderness of the thanks, which renders it impossible for us to conceive of the time being that of Nehemiah, as several expositors have done. The destination of the Psalm for use at some important national undertaking, is evident from O Lord help, O Lord cause us to prosper, in Psalms 118:25, according to which the destination of the Psalm, assumed by some, without any tenable ground, for general use at the feast of Tabernacles, is altogether excluded. Psalms 118:22 makes it apparent that this undertaking was the laying of the foundation-stone of the temple in the second year after the return from captivity.

So far we are led on by the Psalm itself. We are brought, however, to a more definite result by the passage, Ezra 3:10-11: “And the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, and they set the priests in their apparel with the trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with symbols to praise the Lord according to the arrangement [Note: The על ידי , where it is used of persons, signifies always “upon the hands of any one,” so that his hands, his deeds, thereby form the foundation; according to the arrangement; comp. Gesen. in the Thesaur., and especially De Dieu in the Crit. Sacr. on Jeremiah 5:31.] of David the king of Israel: and they responded (in so far as each expression of thanks was a response to the good deeds of the Lord) with praise and thanks to the Lord that he is good, because his mercy is for ever over Israel, and the whole people shouted with a great shout, praising the Lord because of the laying of the foundation of the house of the Lord.”

1. The expression, “with thanks to the Lord,” &c., indicates that at the laying of the foundation-stone of the temple a song was sung, the kernel of which consisted of those words which begin and end the Psalm before us. The recollection of this was so fresh that even the author of Chronicles describes with similar words the contents of the songs which were sung at the dedication of the first temple, 2 Chronicles 5:13, 2 Chronicles 7:3. We are here decidedly directed to the Psalm before us, as the contents of Psalms 106, Psalms 107, and Psalms 136, prevent us from thinking of them.

2. The expression, “according to the arrangement of David,” contains surprising light as soon as we assume that our Psalm, along with the whole dodecade to which it belongs, [Note: That it is impossible to isolate our Psalm is evident, for example, from ver. 1-4, compared with 115:9-11, the מזר here in ver. 5, and Psalms 116:3, used elsewhere only in the single passage, Lamentations 1:3 אנא in ver. 23, compared with Psalms 116:10, the דתיתני in ver. 13, compared with the מדחי in Psalms 116:8.] was sung at the laying of the foundation-stone of the temple. The dodecade is opened by three Psalms of David’s; and these give the tone for the rest.

3. The division also of the priests (and Levites) and the people in praising the Lord, is mentioned in precisely a similar way in the book of Ezra, as it is here in Psalms 118:1-4; comp. Psalms 115:9-11.

4. The joyful shout of the whole people, and the weeping of those who had seen the first temple, the singular mixture of lamentation and joy, Ezra 3:12-13, give the key to the character of the dodecade before us, in which we cannot fail to observe, on the one hand, a sound of melancholy and anguish, and, on the other, a shout of joy over the salvation already wrought out by the Lord.

The common idea that the Psalm was sung by alternate choruses is not confirmed by the narrative in the book of Ezra. That narrative merely assigns the first part in the song to the priests and Levites, while the people fall in. Even the Psalm itself contains nothing that can justify or even favour this view. Luther: “This my Psalm, the one which I love. Although the whole Psalter and indeed the whole sacred volume, is dear to me as that which is my only consolation and my life, yet I am particularly pleased with this Psalm, so that it must be called and must be mine, for it has often served me well, and has helped me out of many great troubles.”

Verses 1-4

Ver. 1. Praise the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endureth or ever. Ver. 2: Let Israel still say: for his mercy endureth for ever. Ver. 3. Let the house of Aaron still say: for his mercy endureth for ever. Ver. 4. Let those who fear the Lord still say: for his mercy endureth for even

The “praise the Lord, &c.,” in Psalms 118:1, is literally from Psalms 106:1. The passage there is the original one; the expression is first borrowed in Psalms 107:1. It depends on Psalms 100:4-5, where all the constituent parts are to be found. On the threefold division in Psalms 118:2-4, comp. at Psalms 115:9-11.

Verses 5-14

Ver. 5. In the straitness I called upon the Lord, the Lord answered me in a wide place. Ver. 6. The Lord is mine, I am not afraid: what can men do to me? Ver. 7. The Lord is among those who help me, I shall see my pleasure on those who hate me. Ver. 8. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in men. Ver. 9. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes. Ver. 10. All the heathen surround me, in the name of the Lord I shall cut them down. Ver. 11. They surround me, they surround me, in the name of the Lord I shall cut them down. Ver. 12. They surround me like bees, they are extinguished like fire of thorns, in the name of the Lord I shall cut them down. Ver. 13. Thou didst push at me that I might fall, but the Lord helped me. Ver. 14. My strength and my Psalm is the Lord, and he has been my salvation.

At the beginning, Psalms 118:5, and at the end, Psalms 118:13-14, we have the salvation already imparted to the church of the Lord, the deliverance from impending destruction; and in the middle, in seven verses, (which are divided by the four and the three), we have the confident expectation, rising on this ground, of the completion of the salvation, of the exaltation from the dust of humiliation in which Israel was still lying, and of victory over the heathen world by which they were still surrounded on all sides.

On the second clause of Psalms 118:5, comp. Psalms 4:1, Psalms 18:19, Psalms 31:8. The במרחב is not “ into a wide place,” but “ in a wide place.” The matter-of-fact answer of the Lord was imparted to the church there. She cried out of the narrow place and the straitness, and she obtained the answer in the wide place. [Note: Luther: “Let him learn here who can, and every one shall become even a falcon who may mount on high in such trouble. It is said: I called upon the Lord. Thou must learn to call and not to sit there by thyself, and lie on the bench, hang and shake the head, and bite and devour thyself with thy thoughts, but come on, thou indolent knave, down upon thy knees, up with thy hands and eyes to heaven, take a Psalm or a prayer, and set forth thy distress with tears before God.”]

Psalms 118:6 is from Psalms 56:4, Psalms 56:11, with this difference, that instead of “I trust in God” there, we have here, “the Lord is to me,” from the ( Psalms 56:9) 9th verse of the same Psalm.

The first clause of Psalms 118:7 is from Psalms 54:4, comp. on the ב at that passage. On the second clause, comp. Psalms 54:7. In the contest of David and Saul, the church truly beheld an allegory of her contest with the world.

On Psalms 118:8-9 comp. Psalms 62:8-9. On חסה at Psalms 2:12. The princes are the possessors of the power of the world (comp. Psalms 146:3), on whom the heathen placed their trust, and to whom Israel stood in opposition. If we realize the condition of Israel at the time immediately after the return from captivity, the small, poor, disorganized, little mass, in view of a hostile world, we shall find in the clause before us an expression of real heroic faith, well fitted to put us to shame.

We must not change, “ all the heathens” in Psalms 118:10, into “heathens of all kinds. The whole surrounding power of the world was hostile to Israel. [Note: Luther most significantly points to the real ground of this hostility: “Men can put up with all other doctrines and all other gods, so that no nation and no country will set itself in hostility; but when the word of God comes, then the whole world is up, then tumults and animosities rise on all sides.”] In these parts fear and faith beheld the whole. In the name of the Lord,—through his power which has been rendered glorious by the illustration of his deeds, comp. at Psalms 33:21, Psalms 52:9, Psalms 54:1. The כי is to be taken in the sense of “that:”— it is that I shall cut them down,—an emphatic expression, instead of I shall cut them down; comp. Isaiah 7:7, and Drechsler on the passage. The warlike cry, “I shall cut them down,” is an echo to Psalms 110. It was only in connection with an entirely new state of things, such as that which was to be introduced by the Messiah, that such hopes, thoroughly foolish in a human point of view, could be realized. The מול , with the single exception of Psalms 90:6, where the Pil. occurs in the sense of to cut, has always the sense of to circumcise; and this sense is assuredly to be retained here. Victory over the heathen, the “uncircumcised,” appears under the image of a forced circumcision; comp. similar allusions to circumcision in Galatians 5:12; Php_3:2 ; Psalms 58:7; Isaiah 1:22; perhaps with reference to the practical irony in 1 Samuel 18:25, 2 Samuel 3:14.

In reference to the relation of the סבוני and the סבבוני in Psalms 118:11, comp. at Psalms 18:5.—”As bees,” in Psalms 118:12, is from Deuteronomy 1:44. “They are extinguished” (Luther falsely: they smoke), is a pret. of faith. Fire of thorns,—which quickly blazes up, bit is soon extinguished.

In Psalms 118:13, where the Psalmist returns to the facts of the past, which afford security for what is to take place in the future, the address is directed to the enemy.

Psalms 118:14 is, like Isaiah 12:2, taken from the song of Moses, the servant of God, Exodus 15:2, the first of the church’s songs of thanksgiving, and which forms the foundation for all the later songs till the end of time; comp. Revelation 15:3. That the Psalmist drew from the fountain, and not from Isaiah 12:2, is clear from the circumstance, that the concluding verse of the second main division depends upon the second half of Exodus 15:2. The first half of the verse before us denotes the constantly abiding relation (my strength and my song, the object of the same, i.e., my mighty and glorious helper), the second the consequence which proceeded from that relation. As there is not one single well ascertained instance of the suffix having to be supplied from the preceding clauses (the instances adduced by Ewald, § 329, are not tenable), we must have recourse to the supposition, that the Jod of the suffix in זמרת is rejected on account of the יה which follows, after the Syrian fashion, according to which the Jod is merely written, not pronounced.

Verses 15-18

Ver. 15. The voice of rejoicing and salvation (resounds) in the tabernacles of the righteous: the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly. Ver. 16. The right hand of the Lord exalts, the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly. Ver. 17. I shall not die, but live and make known the works of the Lord. Ver. 18. The Lord afflicted me sorely, but he did not give me over to death.

The voice of salvation in Psalms 118:15 is the voice which praises the salvation, that already wrought out and that still hoped for. Tabernacles is repeatedly used as a poetic term for habitations generally, Psalms 78:55, Psalms 91:10. In all probability a part of the people at that time, the second year after the return, still dwelt in tents; at all events the chief habitation of Israel still consisted of a tent. On צדיקים righteous, as a name of the Israelites, comp. at Psalms 33:1. “Does valiantly” alludes to Psalms 108:12, comp. Psalms 60:12.

The רוממה , Psalms 118:16, is not the partic. of רמם , but the Pil. of רום , to exalt; Psalms 37:34, in accordance with “it does valiantly,” according to which we are led to expect here a description of what the Lord’s right hand does, not of what it is.—“I shall not die,” in Psalms 118:17, shows that, as far as could be seen, the thought of death to the church was very near; comp. Psalms 71:20, Habakkuk 1:12, Psalms 116:15. She conquers this thought, however, while looking at the deliverance from death which she had just experienced; I shall not die, because he has not left me to die. The works of the Lord are the glorious deeds by which he shall protect and deliver his people.

Verses 19-28

Ver. 19. Open unto me the gates of righteousness, I will go in and praise the Lord. Ver. 20. This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous enter in by it. Ver. 21. I praise thee that thou didst hear me and hast been my salvation. Ver. 22. The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone. Ver. 23. This has happened from the Lord, it is wonderful in our eyes. Ver. 24. This is the day which the Lord hath made, us rejoice and be glad in it. Ver. 25. O Lord , help now, O Lord, cause us to prosper. Ver. 26. Blessed be he who cometh, in the name of the Lord, we bless you from the house of the Lord. Ver. 27. The Lord is God, and he hath enlightened us, bind the sacrifice with cords unto the horns of the altars. Ver. 28. Thou art my God, and I will praise thee, my God, I will exalt thee.

The gates, in Psalms 118:19, are the gates of the provisional sanctuary. Almost immediately after the return from captivity, the site of the old sanctuary was undoubtedly enclosed, and as had been the case on a former occasion in the days of David, a tabernacle was erected previous to the commencement of the celebration of public worship, Ezra 3:1, ss. The gates of the sanctuary are called the gates of righteousness, because the fountain of righteousness, i.e., of matter-of-fact justification, or of salvation, for Israel was there, comp. Psalms 118:26.

The righteous go in by it, Psalms 118:20, for the purpose, namely, announced in Psalms 118:19, of praising and giving thanks. The Lord, by his righteousness, their matter-of-fact justification, such as Israel has now experienced, gives them opportunity to praise him in the sanctuary.

The second clause of Psalms 118:21 alludes again to Exodus 15:2, comp. at Psalms 118:14.

The figure in Psalms 118:22 becomes clear, as soon as we acknowledge the national reference of the Psalm, and ascertain correctly the occasion for which it was written. The whole Psalm is taken up with the happy change which had taken place in the circumstances of the people of God. It is this that is treated of in the three verses immediately preceding. The sense therefore can only be: the people of God whom earthly potentates have despised, have been exalted by the influence of their God to the rank of a people that shall reign over the world. Jeremiah 51:26 is parallel when it is said of Babylon, the exact counterpart of Israel, the representative of the power of the world: “they shall not take of thee a stone for a corner, nor a stone for a foundation,” for the building of the edifice of universal dominion. What happened in the type to Israel happened in the antitype to Christ, comp. Matthew 21:42, Acts 4:11, passages which led the older expositors to apply directly the whole Psalm to Christ—an application, the untenable nature of which is clear as day. The expression “has become” belongs to the view taken by faith, which in this weak beginning, the deliverance of Israel from captivity, sees the glorious end, dominion over the world, just as the external corner stone, the sight of which suggested the figure, was at the time a corner stone only in idea: there elapsed many a long year, and the work went on through many painful hindrances before the temple was ended, and the corner stone became such in reality. Perhaps at bottom there is an allusion to a contest which had taken place between the builders of the temple (comp. Ezra 3:10, “And the builders laid the foundation of the temple,”) and the priests in reference to the choice of the corner stone, and in which the theological principles of the latter had gained the victory over the worldly views of the former. ראש הפנה , the (figurative) head of the corner, the main stone of the corner, is always the stone usually termed by us the corner stone (comp. Job 38:6), which is also in other passages used as a figure of royalty, comp. the Christol. at Zechariah 10:4. The scriptures know nothing of a top stone. Zechariah 10:4 is to be translated “Who art thou, O great mountain, before Zerubabel? Become a plain! And he has brought out (at the laying the foundation stone of the temple, as the following context shows), the main-stone under the repeated shouting (of angels): grace, grace, to it !”

The lifting up of the church from the dust of humiliation to dominion over all the nations of the world, Psalms 118:23, is infinitely more wonderful than any wonders usually so called, which occupy the foreground only for the blind.

The Lord has made the day, Psalms 118:24, in which by his salvation he has given occasion to this festive meeting, has brought about the possibility of laying the foundation-stone of the temple.

It is evident from Nehemiah 1:11, that we have before us in Psalms 118:25 the formula made use of in imploring the divine blessing on important undertakings. In later times this formula was undoubtedly made use of at the Feast of Tabernacles. But no inference can be drawn from this later use as to the origin of the expression.

In Psalms 118:26 the connection usually adopted is, “blessed is he who come in the name of the Lord,” i.e., under the protecting care of him who has rendered himself glorious by his deeds. But that the connection ought rather to be “blessed in the name of the Lord is he who cometh is evident, besides the accents (comp. on these Dachsel in his Bibl. accent.), from the corresponding expression “from the house of the Lord,” “the house of righteousness,” Psalms 118:19, the fountain and the treasury of all blessing, but above all from the phrase, “to bless in the name of the Lord”—the name of the Lord, his historically manifested glory, the fountain of blessing—a phrase which is one of constant occurrence, comp. Deuteronomy 21:5, Numbers 6:27, 2 Samuel 6:18, Psalms 129:8. The expression “who cometh,” [Note: The designation of the Messiah ὁ? ἐ?ρχό?μενοι was not taken from the passage before us, but from Malachi 3:1, compare the Christol. 3 p. 468.] needs no epithet or additional clause. It refers to Psalms 118:19-20, where the discourse had been simply of coming. There is not the least necessity in the verse before us to apply it to a separate chorus of priests. The priests and the Levites had the first part in all the singing; and such formulae of blessing were then uttered also by the people, comp. Psalms 129:8, Ruth 2:4; the Israelites were far less high-church than is generally imagined.

The sense of the ( Psalms 118:27) 27th verse is this: “Jehovah is God in the full sense of the word, and he has really shown this by bestowing salvation upon us his people, let us therefore do our part and show our gratitude to him by our offerings.” The relation of the two clauses to each other is precisely the same as that of “thou art my God,” and “I will praise thee (therefore I will)” in Psalms 118:28. The expression “he shone,” or “he enlightened us,” does not allude to the Mosaic blessing, Numbers 6:25—in this case the “countenance” world not be wanting—but to Exodus 13:21: “and the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud to guide them in the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to shine or to shine upon them,” להאיר להמ ) comp. Exodus 14:20, Nehemiah 9:12). The expression therefore is equivalent to “he hath shone upon us during the night of our misery, as he did formerly during the natural night in the march through the wilderness. In the second clause the “feast” stands instead of the “feast, offering” The חג is used in this way of the sacrifices of feast in Exodus 23:18, “to eat the feast,” מועד , is used instead of “the flesh of the feast-offering.” In Deuteronomy 16:2, the “passover” denotes the “sacrifice of the passover;” and in the New Testament, “to eat the passover,” is used of the eating not merely of the paschal lamb, but also of the other paschal offerings, John 18:28. “To the horns of the altar,” is “till they be sacrified.” The horns of the altar are named because they were sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifices. Luther’s translation, “adorn the feast with green boughs even to the horns of the altar,” has found defenders even in recent times. But it must be rejected for the following reasons. 1. The עבתים never signifies “boughs.” This sense has been altogether incorrectly assumed in Ezekiel 19:11, Ezekiel 31:3, Ezekiel 31:10, Ezekiel 31:14, comp. against this view the Christol. 3, p. 305, and Hävernick on his commentary. 2. The whole phrase אסר בעבתים occurs in Judges 15:13, Judges 16:11. Ezekiel 3:25, in the sense of “to bind with cords.” 3. The horns of the altar, in which the altar as it were culminated, as the horn of the beast is strength and ornament, are constantly mentioned in connection with the blood of the victims sprinkled upon them. 4. The “I will praise and I will exalt,” in Psalms 118:28, stands in the same relation to “bind, &c.” exactly as in Psalms 116:17, “I will call upon the name of the Lord,” does to “I will bring to thee offerings of praise.” “I will pay my vows to the Lord,” Psalms 116:18 is exactly parallel to the second clause.

Psalms 118:28 is from Exodus 15:2, comp. at Psalms 118:14.

Verse 29

Ver. 29. Praise the Lord, because he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever.

Luther: “Thus it is that we are wont to begin again good songs after we have sung them through, especially if we have sung them with pleasure and love.’’

Our Psalm concludes what is usually called the Great Hallel, which consists of Psalms 113-118, and which was sung at all the feasts, especially at the Passover and the feast of Tabernacles;—a practice which appears to have been followed by our Lord with his disciples, Matthew 26:30, and which testifies to the deep impression which the Psalm must have made on the people at the time when it was originally composed. This practice is deserving of our notice in so far as it must have been based upon a perception of the connection subsisting among these Psalms.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 118". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-118.html.