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Open the Gates - Psalm 118

A service plan for Lent from Psalm 118 focused on thanking God for his deliverance in a Lenten series on the Psalms.

Worship Service
Also in this Series

Psalms for a Lenten Journey

This series of worship services for Lent is built around a sampling of the Psalms.

Theme of the Service

Psalm 118 is the focus of this service of worship. In this Psalm the king and the people give thanks to God for his deliverance. It is a Psalm of celebration, and God, their faithful deliverer, is honored and praised. This was probably one of the songs sung by Jesus and his disciples on Thursday evening after the Last Supper and their leaving for the Garden of Gethsemane.

We are grateful for the collaborative efforts of Professor Carl Bosma, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, who is providing helpful information on each of the Psalms during this season. You will find the information he has provided at the end of the worship service.

* * * * *


Prelude: “All Glory, Laud and Honor” [see music notes]
or: ”Lift Up Your Heads,” Guilmant

The Call to Worship [see liturgy notes]
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.
Open for me the gates of righteousness;
I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.
You are my God and I will give you thanks;
you are my God, and I will exalt you. (from Psalm 118)

*Song of Entrance: "All Glory, Laud and Honor” PH 88, PsH 375/376, RL 279, SFL 161, TH 235, TWC 204, UMH 280 [seemusic notes]

*Our Declaration of Trust and God's Greeting:
Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ, who do you trust?
Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.
Grace, mercy and peace to you
in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

*Our Songs of Praise: “Mantos y palmas/Filled with Excitement” SNC 133
“Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” PH 89, PsH 378, TWC 203, UMC 278

The Children Observe Palm Sunday [see liturgy notes]


The Call to Confession:

Because we trust in God's covenant faithfulness, we are free to make our confession to God and call for his compassion. Let us, therefore, confess our sins that we may be renewed in his grace.

The Prayer of Confession:

O Master, great and awesome God.
You never waver in your covenant commitment,
never give up on those who love you and do what you say.
Yet we have sinned in every way imaginable.
We've done evil things, rebelled, dodged
and taken detours around your clearly marked paths.

Compassion is our only hope,
the compassion of you, the Master, our God,
since in our rebellion we've forfeited our rights.
Master, you are our God,
for you delivered your people from the land of Egypt
in such a show of power that people are still talking about it!
We confess that we have sinned,
that we have lived bad lives.

Turn your ears our way, God, and listen.
Open your eyes and take a long look at us,
your people named after you.
We know that we don't deserve a hearing from you.
Our appeal is to your compassion.
This prayer is our last and only hope:
Master, listen to us!
Master, forgive us!
Through Christ, your Lamb, our Lord. Amen.
(adapted from Daniel 9 in The Message)

The Assurance of Pardon

The Gospel of Christ speaks to us of the pardon we have through the finished work of Jesus Christ. Please rise for the reading of the Gospel.

(The worshipers rise.)

The reading of John 15:1-5
This is the Gospel of Christ.
Thanks be to God.

On the basis of the Gospel of Christ, we may be assured that our sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ.

Passing the Peace
The peace of Christ be with you all.
And also with you.
(The worshipers greet each other saying, "The peace of Christ be with you.")

Our Grateful Affirmation:

I believe that every thing God reveals in his Word is true.
I also believe that true faith is not only a knowledge and conviction.
It is also a deep-rooted assurance,
created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel,
that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ,
not only others, but I too,
have had my sins forgiven,
have been made forever right with God,
and have been granted salvation.
(from the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 21)

Song of Testimony: "When Peace Like a River" PsH 489:1, 3; TH 691:1, 3; TWC 519:1, 3; UMH 377:1, 3

God's Will for Grateful Living


The Prayer for Illumination

A Reading of Psalm 118 [see liturgy notes]
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!

Sermon: Open the Gates
[Psalms for a Lenten Journey 6]

The Prayer of Application

[see liturgy notes]

*With Songs: "The Glorious Gates of Righteousness" PsH 179:1-3
"Lift Up Your Heads, O Gates” PsH 163, WOV 631

With Offerings:
Of Music: "Lift Up Your Heads, O Gates” [see music notes]
Of Gifts for….

With Prayers for God's People and the World


*The Benediction with Congregational Amen!

*Song of Faith: “Give Thanks to God for All His Goodness” PsH 118
or: “Give Thanks to God, for Good Is He” PsH 182

Postlude: “Give Thanks to God for All His Goodness” [see music notes]

* You are invited to stand.

Sermon Notes
Introduction to Psalm 118: “Hosanna!”
by Carl Bosma

Psalm 118 is one of the most popular psalms of the Psalter for Jews and Christians. Martin Luther, for example, considered it his favorite psalm. He wrote:

This is the psalm that I love…for it has often served me well and has helped me out of
grave troubles, when neither emperor, kings, wise men, clever men, nor saints could
have helped me.1

Psalm 118 is also one of the most important psalms of the Psalter. According to Luke 24:44, the Psalter is an important basis for the interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection and mission of the disciples (vv. 46-48). Psalm 118 is one of the more prominent psalms that was used to interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus.2 Because of its use in Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem, Psalm 118 is a good text for a sermon on Palm Sunday.

I. Canonical Position in the Old Testament

Psalm 118 is the last of six “Egyptian Hallel” psalms (Ps 113-118) that are framed by the twin Psalm 111-112 and 119.3 These psalms were used in connection with the three great Old Testament religious festivals. Psalm 118 had a very important role during the Feast of Tabernacles and the Passover Feast. At Passover Psalm 118 was sung, together with Psalms 115-117, after the meal in connection with the fourth cup of wine. Its prominent use during the Passover may also explain its prevalent use in the Gospels because Jesus went up to Jerusalem during the Passover feast (John 12: 1, 12, 20).

II. Literary Genre

Psalm 118 is a song of thanksgiving by an individual4 who was delivered from his enemies. As such, however, a comparison with the textbook example of this type of psalm, Psalm 30, shows that it is unique. It is unique because, in addition to the regular constituent parts of this type of psalm (vv. 5-18, 21, and 28), it combines modes of speech that are typical for communal hymns of praise (vv. 1-4; 22-25; 27 and 29).

In addition to this distinctive shift in modes of discourse, Psalm 118 is also unique because it alternates speeches that refer to God in the third person (e.g. vv. 5-18) with those that address God directly in the second person (vv. 21, 25, and 28). Moreover, various voices are heard in Psalm 118. There are sections that are clearly spoken by “I” and those that are spoken by “we.” Verses 19-28 are clear examples of this dramatic shift in speakers. Other verses appear to be spoken by cult representatives (vv. 20, 26, 27cd). Furthermore, Psalm 118 is also marked by a remarkable number of striking repetitions.5 To name but one important example, the divine name Yahweh is repeated twenty-two times in Psalm 118, which underscores its theocentric character.

These prominent rhetorical features of Psalm 118 enhance its dramatic effect and can best be explained in terms of the liturgical origins of the psalm.6 Originally Psalm 118 was probably a liturgy for a thanksgiving processional.7

III. Compositional Structure

As a result of the interchange of various voices in Psalm 118 and the shifts of address, the compositional structure of this liturgical psalm is very complex. For the purposes of this aid to preaching, we would suggest that Psalm 118 begins with an opening call to give thanks in verses 1-4. It continues with the king’s personal testimony of his rescue from a vicious attack by international enemies (vv. 5-18)8 and a “script” for a thanksgiving processional (vv. 19-28). The psalm concludes in verse 29 with the same call to praise as verse 1, thereby enclosing the poem as a whole.

IV. Identity of the Celebrant

The obvious alternating voices in Psalm 118 raise the crucial question concerning the identity of the individual celebrant. This key exegetical question has been a matter of constant debate.9 In view of the apparent allusions to military engagements in verses 10-13, victory songs in verses 14-16 and communal participation in the thanksgiving processional, the exposition below adopts the view that the speaker is a Davidic king, who leads Israel in a liturgy of thanksgiving on the occasion of a major victory in a hard-fought battle (cf. 2 Chron 20:27-28).10 This choice facilitates a Christological interpretation of Psalm 118.

V. Exposition

A. Opening Call to Praise (vv. 1-4)

Psalm 118 opens and closes with a conventional imperatival call to give thanks to the LORD (vs. 111), which, along with verse 29, frames the poem as a whole. The opening call is followed by a triple series of jussive calls to praise in verses 2-4.12 Together with verse 29, this opening call to praise may have been spoken by a priest or, according to John H. Stek,13 the voice of the king who speaks in verses 5-21. The affirmation, “indeed, the LORD’s steadfast love (hesed) endures forever,” may have been sung antiphonally by the congregation. Jeremiah 33:11 indicates that this call to praise was used in connection with thanksgiving offerings.

At any rate, along with verse 29, this opening call to praise introduces the theme of the psalm.14 As such, it underscores the fact that in essence all thanksgiving centers on God’s hesed as this manifests itself concretely in his powerful acts of deliverance.

B. Introductory Summary Account (vs. 5)

The predominant use of the first person singular throughout verses 5-18 suggests that these verses constitute the king’s personal testimony of his dire distress and marvelous deliverance. This testimony forms the backbone of Psalm 118, and its primary aim is, according to verse 17, to proclaim the deeds of the LORD.

The king’s recital of his distress and deliverance begins in verse 5 with an introductory summary statement of the reason for praise,15 a hallmark of individual psalms of thanksgiving. Unlike the -clause in Psalm 30:1, however, this statement is not addressed to God but to the worshiping community:
Out of my distress I call on the Lord;
the Lord answered me
and set me in a broad place.

Formally, therefore, this verse is similar to Psalm 34:4, which we have studied earlier. Like Psalm 34:4, the “I cried—God answered—he delivered” theme underscores the effectiveness of prayer to God in times of dire distress (cf. Ps 30:2-3).

Verse 5 contains a graphic description of the king’s distress and deliverance. The opening prepositional phrase refers to a narrowly confined space, i.e. dire straits or tight spot. By contrast, the closing prepositional phrase refers to a “broad place” (Ps 18:19; 31:8).

C. A Confident Confession of Trust (vv. 6-7)

After verse 5 there follows a triumphant confession of trust in verses 6-7. This wonderful confession of trust is unparalleled in other songs of thanksgiving.16 It explains what the king has learned from his experience of divine deliverance.

The opening declaration in verse 6, “the Lord is with me, I do not fear” (Ps 23:4),17 reads like a response to an oracle of salvation, “Fear not, because I am with you” (Is 41:10).18 Moreover, the language of verse 6 echoes the expression of trust in Psalm 27:1-2, a lament psalm. Similarly, the phraseology of verse 7 recalls Psalm 54:7, also a lament.

D. A Memorable Maxim (vv. 8-9)

On the basis of this learned lesson the king then affirms two “better-than” proverb-like statements in verses 8-9.19 They too are unparalleled in other songs of thanksgiving.20 In these verses the king reflects on his “cried—answered—delivered” experience and concludes that it is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in human nobles (cf. Ps 146:3).21 In this didactic statement the king echoes what Psalms 2:12 and 34:8 have also asserted, namely, that the key to happiness is to take refuge in the Lord.

E. A Condensed Retrospective Report (vv. 10-13)

The next subunit, verses 10-13, is a condensed narrative report that looks back to the time of need. In powerful antithetic parallelism these verses specify the nature of the distress that was introduced in the summary statement of verse 5. The reference to “all nations” in verse 10 suggests that this was not a distress suffered by a private person but a king.

Formally verses 10-12 are unified by the fourfold repetition of the phrase “encircled” and the triple refrain “but in the name of the Lord I cut them off” (cf. 1 Sam 17:45).22 Together with the antithetical parallelism, these memorable repetitions lend a staccato effect to verses 10-12.

The fourfold repetition of “encircled” emphasizes, on the one hand, that there was no escape from the enemies and, on the other hand, the magnitude of divine deliverance.23 Two graphic similes in verse 12 describe the swarming attackers (“like bees”) and, at the same time, their total destruction.24

The triple staccato account of the king’s distress in verses 10-12 reaches its climax in verse 13 that falls outside of this rhythmic pattern. Apparently the versions and modern translations (NIV; NRSV) found the first part of this verse too offensive. Literally it reads: “You really pushed me down, to fall.” In this case the Lord appears to be the subject. Although this may seem strange, the idea that God himself inflicts suffering is not a foreign idea in complaint psalms (cf. Ps 44; 88). Moreover, it seems to agree with the king’s recognition in verse 18 that the Lord had chastised him. Surprisingly, the same God delivers the afflicted believer!25

F. Triumphant Victory Songs (vv. 14-16)

The king’s striking declaration in verse 13 leads into a triumphant victory song. This victory song begins in verse 14 with an exact quotation of Exodus 15:2 (cf. Is 12:2). Next, verse 15a refers to “the victory songs in the tents of the righteous” and then quotes the words of the short victory song in verses (vv.15b-16)26 that functions as a spontaneous response to a powerful act of divine deliverance.27 Like Exodus 15:6, the song proper is a climactic tricola whose theme is “the right hand of the Lord.” It envisions the Lord as a mighty warrior who defeats decisively the enemies of his people.

G. A Marvelous Confession (vv. 17-18)

The triumphant victory chant is followed by two verses that are joined by the key word “death.” Verse 17 is a most marvelous affirmation of trust in verse 17, which Luther had inscribed as his personal motto on the wall of his study at Coburg Castle28:
I will not die
But live,
And will proclaim what the Lord has done.

Like Psalm 30:11-12, this affirmation emphasizes that the purpose of the life that has been restored by divine deliverance “finds its meaning in praise.”29 As John Calvin observes so well:
God does not prolong the lives of his people, that they may pamper themselves with
meat and drink, sleep as much as they please, and enjoy every temporal blessing, but to
magnify him for his benefits which he is daily heaping upon them.30

A retrospective summary statement in the form of a doxology of judgment31 follows this pivotal line in verse 18. Significantly, the first part of this statement interprets the king’s distress reported in verse 5 and verses 10-13 as divine discipline.32 Surprisingly, in Psalm 118 there is no confession of wrongdoing, as in Psalm 30:6. In any case, the second clause underscores that God’s chastisement was controlled. The Lord did not hand him over to death.

H. Open the Gates! (vv. 19-20)

Verses 19-20 suggest a liturgical procession (Ps 68:24). The king has been reciting his story of distress and answered prayer in front of the gate of the temple. Apparently this was part of an entrance ritual whereby the righteous would gain admittance to the temple (Ps. 15; 24:3-6).33 At any rate, in verse 19 the speaker begins this section with a call to the gatekeepers to open “the gates34 of righteousness”35 for the thanksgiving procession so that he may give thanks to the Lord. Verse 20 is then best understood as the response of (a) gatekeeper(s).36

I. A Pivotal Personal Thanksgiving (vs. 21)

Once the king has gained entrance to the temple, he proceeds immediately in verse 21 to render the promised thanksgiving to the Lord:

I will thank you
+because you answered me
and have become my salvation.

Significantly, this succinct voluntary resolve to give thanks (Ps 138:1)37 constitutes the first direct address to God in the poem. It is important to note that, as in the case of Psalm 30:1, so in this verse the short summary statement that follows the resolve to give thanks corresponds to the vow to praise and the reason given for praise in lament psalms (Ps 13:6). This connection underscores the important fact that songs of thanksgiving are the flipside of lament psalms. Moreover, verse 17b echoes verse 5b (“he answered’), and verse 17c repeats verse 14b (“he has become my salvation”). In view of the retrospective statements, one may infer that verse 21 concludes the first part of the poem. Also, the voluntary resolve to praise, “I will thank you,” is also repeated in verse 28, which suggests that verses 21 and 28 frame verses 22-27.

J. A Remarkable Communal Testimony (vv. 22-24)

With respect to verses 22-27, it is important to note the switch from the first person singular in verse 21 to the first person plural in verses 23-27. This switch indicates clearly that at this point the community joins in the thanksgiving ceremony.38

In verses 22-24 the community interprets the king’s suffering from a different perspective than verse 18. By means of the well-known mini-parable of the rejected stone39 in verse 22 the king’s experience is explained as a dramatic reversal.40 On the assumption that the stone metaphor refers to a Davidic king, the mini-parable claims that this king was disdainfully rejected by world powers, but he was raised to a prominent and very strategic position in God’s rule over the world.41

In language that recalls the Exodus, the congregation recognizes unambiguously in verses 23-24 that this wondrous change was God’s miraculous work.42 By using the crucial language of Exodus 14-15, the congregation acknowledges that God’s dramatic deliverance of the king is on par with this foundational event of Israel’s history. As a result of this recognition, the congregation then appropriately resolves to join in the liturgy of thanksgiving (vs. 24bc): “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

As we noted in our introduction, the remarkable interpretation of the king’s suffering in verse 22 became a crucial text for the New Testament’s interpretation of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord. According to the Gospels, Jesus applied verses 22-23 to his rejection and suffering in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mt 21:42; Mk 12:10-11; Lk 20:17). Moreover, in Acts 4:11 verse 22 is quoted in defense of Jesus’ resurrection. Because of the powerful demonstration of the truth of verse 22 in the death and resurrection of Jesus believers who suffer in this life may draw comfort from this impressive testimony.43

K. A Unique and Urgent Communal Prayer (v. 25)

The community’s resolve to praise in verse 24bc passes into a unique communal prayer in verse 25. This communal prayer consists of two short and powerful petitions, in which the congregation prays for deliverance:

O Lord, please save us!44
O Lord, please give us success!

This urgent double supplication is unusual in a song of thanksgiving.45 Because these plaintive pleas contain no specific occasion,46 they serve to indicate the congregation’s recognition that they depend on the Lord for continued deliverance and success (Ps 1:3). The congregation’s recognition continues to serve as an important connecting link to the church, the Israel of God (Gal 6:16) today as it reflects on the meaning of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (see below).

It is important to recall that the opening petition “save us” (hosi‘ah na) was used twice as “Hosanna” in Matthew 21:9 and Mark 11:9-10 at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.47 However, it should be noted that, whereas in Psalm 118.25a “Hosanna” is a typical petition of lament psalms,48 in the Gospels the same phrase apparently became a popular acclamation of Jesus’ kingship.49 In this connection, it is also important to recognize Jesus’ rejection of this popular acclaim in John 12:14.

L. A Priestly Benediction (vs. 26)

The unique congregational prayer in verse 25 is followed by a benediction in verse 26a that appears to have been pronounced by priests from “within the temple” (v. 26b):

Blessed is he
+who comes in the name of the Lord.

The fact that the phrase “in the name of the Lord” occurs three times in verses 10-12 indicates that the king is included in the addressees. However, the plural “you” in next declarative statement, “from the house of the Lord we bless you” (v. 26b), suggests that the benediction may also have included those who accompanied the king.50

The function of this priestly benediction in verse 26ab is debated. On the basis of 2 Samuel 6:18 and 1 Kings 8:55, 56, Gerhard S. Gerstenberger, for example, suggests that this benediction concludes the thanksgiving liturgy. However, we believe that the short “Blessed be” formula plus the participial phrase, “who comes in the name of the Lord,”51 in verse 26ab, serves as a public acknowledgement that there exists a relationship of solidarity between the speaker and the addressee (cf. Rt 3:10).52 As such, it can serve as a greeting (1 Sam 15:13; Rt 2:4), an acknowledgement of indebtedness (1 Sam 26:26), or rehabilitation (Jdg 17:2). Through both the rejection-rehabilitation motif in the stone metaphor of verse 22 and the role of Psalm 24:5 (“he will receive blessing from the Lord”) as an entrance liturgy, we infer that the benediction in verse 26 acknowledges the king’s triumphant victory over his enemies as a divine vindication of the king’s position. To support this inference, we recall that Melchizedek’s pronouncement of the short formula “Blessed be” in Genesis 14:19 after Abram’s military victory also served as a public recognition of Abram’s important status.

As we noted above, in the Gospels the crowds also used this benediction in verse 26a as they greeted Jesus at his entry into Jerusalem on the occasion of the Passover. Together with the shout “Hosanna,” however, this priestly benediction became a popular acclamation of Jesus’ kingship when Jesus entered the city. Significantly, this benediction is referred to again in Matthew 23:39 (cf. Lk 13:35), in which it is clearly a future orientation.

M. A Congregational Response (vs. 27ab)

The switch from the second person plural addressee in verse 26b to the first common plural “us” in verse 27 suggests that this verse is the people’s response to the blessing. The first two clauses of verse 27 are a marvelous expression of trust:

The Lord is El,
and he has made his light shine upon us.

In the first clause (vs. 27a) they articulate a central confession of faith: the Lord is El (vs. 27a). Only the Lord is the highest God!53 Next, in language that echoes the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:25,54 they acknowledge that the Lord has heard their prayer (cf. Ps 80:3). They recognize that the Lord shone his face upon them, and that, as a result, they have experienced deliverance and blessing.

N. A Liturgical Call to a Dance (vs. 27c)

After this robust confession an unidentified speaker, perhaps a priest55 or a gatekeeper,56 commands the congregation to perform a liturgical act that is connected with the procession.57 Presumably this liturgical act would conclude the liturgy for a thank offering (Lev 7:11-21).58 However, the reference to “branches” in verse 27c could be an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:40). Unfortunately, because the translation of this clause is problematic, the precise nature and meaning of this solemn liturgical act is subject to dispute.59 The Hebrew term chag, “feast,” could refer to a dance about the altar (cf. Ps 26:6; 43:4).

O. Confession of Loyalty and Resolve to Give Thanks (vs. 28)

In verse 28 we hear once more the voice of the king, who addresses God in a solemn, double confession of loyalty, together with another resolve to praise:
You are my God (El),
and I will thank you;
You are my God (El),
and I will exalt you.

In this solemn declaration the king confirms emphatically, on the one hand, the congregation’s affirmation in verse 27a and, on the other hand, his vow to praise in verse 21a.

P. Concluding Call to Give Thanks (vs. 29)

Finally, verse 29 repeats the opening call to praise from verse 1 as a conclusion to the poem. Consequently, like Psalm 8, Psalm 118 is a well-rounded literary unit. This effective inclusio also indicates that the primary theme of this psalm is to confess the Lord’s hesed as this has manifested itself powerfully in the rescue of the king from his enemies.

VI. Reflections For Preaching

As we have noted above, Psalm 118:25a and 26ab were cited in the Gospels on the occasion of Jesus’ triumphal entry. For this reason Psalm 118 should be included in the liturgy for Palm Sunday. Psalm 118 could even be, of course, the text for the sermon on Palm Sunday. Before we offer our suggestions on how to preach a sermon on Psalm 118 for this occasion, however, a word of caution and three introductory remarks on the function of praise in songs of thanksgiving are in order.

First, a word of caution that a sermon on Psalm 118 for Palm Sunday should resist the temptation of imposing the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem onto this O.T. text. Instead, the message of the psalm should inform the interpretation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Second, remember the function of praise in a song of thanksgiving. In preparing a sermon on this psalm of thanksgiving, the preacher should remember that the church has not only suffered “The Costly Loss of Lament” but also “The Costly Loss of Praise.” 60 For this reason it is important that the preacher keep in mind three important functions of praise in a psalm of thanksgiving.

A psalm of thanksgiving is, first of all, a response to a heard lament. This is clearly articulated in verse 5, in which the king recalls the fact that he cried out and that God heard and delivered him from the crisis at hand. Psalm 118 is, therefore, the flipside of a lament psalm.

The intimate connection between the lament and the song of thanksgiving shows clearly that in the O.T. praise does not occur in a vacuum. On the contrary, it reveals that, to use a memorable phrase from Walter Brueggemann, pain is the matrix of genuine praise.

Second, praise in a song of thanksgiving evokes a theological worldview in which the Lord actively reigns as sovereign.61 In Psalm 118, for example, the king’s military victory is acknowledged to be a work of the Lord. It was obtained by “the right hand of the Lord” (vv. 15-16), which is “a figure for the intervening action of God in human affairs.”62 Moreover, the framework of Psalm 118 (vv. 1-4, 29) underscores that this victory is a powerful demonstration of the Lord’s hesed.63

Third, because this theological worldview may be at odds with the worldview of the dominant culture, praise in a thanksgiving psalm is frequently polemical and often political.64 In other words, it not only evokes a worldview in which the Lord alone reigns in righteousness; it also undoes rival gods and rulers. Psalm 118, for example, shouts out clearly in verse 27, “The Lord is El,” not Marduk, Shemesh, Baal, or money and a particular way of life. Moreover, verses 8-9 broadcast clearly that one should take refuge in the Lord and not trust human rulers. This clear message serves as a kindly reminder for the church today.

Fourth, an essential goal of psalms of thanksgiving is to teach important lessons of faith to the audience. For this reason the king’s recital is addressed primarily to the congregation.

An important lesson that the king communicates in Psalm 118 is the effectiveness of prayer to the Lord when in distress. Luther recognized the importance of this theme in his comments on verse 5 and wrote:

You must learn to call [on God]. Do not sit by yourself or lie on a couch, hanging and
shaking your head. Do not destroy yourself with your own thoughts by worrying…Say to
yourself, “Come on, you lazy bum; down on your knees, and lift your eyes and hands
toward heaven.”65

Another significant experiential truth is that the Lord is the only reliable helper (vv. 6-7). Based on his own experience, therefore, the king calls everyone to “take refuge in the Lord” (vv. 8-9). As we have noted in our discussion of Psalms 32, 34, 73 and 91, the idea of taking refuge in the Lord is an important theme in the Psalter.

With these factors in mind, how then should one preach Psalm 118 for Palm Sunday? Because of the length of Psalm 118 and because it contains multiple themes that are important for Holy Week, a sermon on Psalm 118 for Palm Sunday should probably focus on verses 19-29.66 The sermon could then focus on the worshipers’ response to the king’s recital of the wondrous victory that he received from God over his enemies. In their response the worshipers interpret the significance of the king’s marvelous military victory: “This is from the Lord.” Moreover, they recognize that the Lord “has made his light shine upon” them (vs. 27) in the person of “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Consequently, a sermon on Psalm 118 from their perspective would facilitate the application of the text’s message for the contemporary audience.

On which elements of Psalm 118:19-29 should a sermon on Palm Sunday focus? We would suggest three foci.

First, the sermon should focus on the short blessing formula in verse 26ab and explain it as the community’s recognition of God’s public vindication of the disdainfully rejected king. In so doing, the sermon should make the Christological move by using the quotation of Psalm 118:26ab in both Matthew 21:9 and 23:39. As we see it, in Matthew 23:39 the short blessing formula still has the same function as in Psalm 118:26ab (see above). The use of both Matthew 21:9 and 23:39 would allow the preacher to proclaim the significance of its use on the occasion of Jesus’ triumphal entry from an “already” and “not yet” perspective and press the claim of Christ’s universal kingship today, over against the claims of rival rulers.

Second, the sermon should also focus on the prayer in Psalm 118:25. As John Calvin notes, the prayer and short blessing formula connect the welfare of the Church and the prosperity of the kingdom.67 The common safety of the believers depends on the welfare of the Church and of Christ’s kingdom.

In his sermon on Psalm 118:19-29 Walter Brueggemann also centers his attention on the congregation’s prayer in verse 25. In fact, he claims that verses 19-29 are “a model for evangelical prayer” and that this prayer reflects the structure proposed by Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics, III, 3, 266-88).68 In concentric circles this prayer begins with praise (vv. 19-23). At its center stands a passionate prayer (vs. 25), which, in turn, concludes with praise (vv. 28-29).

Prayer is important for contemporary believers who live between the first pronouncement of the short blessing formula in Matthew 21:9 and the second future pronouncement in Matthew 23:39. To be sure, Psalm 118:8-9 emphasizes that it pays to take refuge in the Lord. However, taking refuge in the Lord does not automatically eliminate suffering from one’s life. As Luther remarked in his comments on verse 22, the stone continues to be rejected today.69 However, the Lord’s dramatic reversal of disdainful rejection also continues. Consequently, when believers experience such rejection, they can place their hope in the Lord’shesed and pray.

Third, the sermon should encourage the congregation to make the central confession of verse 27: “The Lord is El!” In fact, it should persuade each member of the congregation to personally appropriate this crucial profession of faith with the words of verse 28:

You are my God (El),
and I will thank you;
You are my God (El),
and I will exalt you.

Music Notes:
Glossary of Hymnal Abbreviations:
PH The Presbyterian Hymnal (Presbyterian Church USA; Westminster/John Knox Press)
PsH The Psalter Hymnal (Christian Reformed Church; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
RL Rejoice in the Lord (Reformed Church in America; W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
RN Renew! (Hope Publishing Company)
SFL Songs for LiFE (children's songbook; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
SNC Sing! A New Creation (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Christian Reformed Church,
Reformed Church in America; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
TH Trinity Hymnal (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America; Great
Commission Publications)
TWC The Worshiping Church (Hope Publishing Company)
UMH The United Methodist Hymnal (United Methodist Publishing House)
WOV With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress)

You will notice there are no choral anthems in this service. However there is much congregational song included. We would encourage your use of the choir or vocal ensemble to “lead” the congregational song, particularly on songs that might not be well known to your congregation.

Suggestions for prelude, based on the entrance hymn include:


Diemer, Emma Lou. (1979) Augsburg Organ Library – Lent. Augsburg
11-11036 [2000] (M)
Bach, J. S. Organ Works, vol. 3. Schirmer 867 (M-D)
Burkhardt, Michael. Partita on All Glory, Laud and Honor. Morningstar
MSM-10-306 [1990] (M)
Kauffmann, Georg Friedrich Music for a Celebration, set 4. Morningstar
MSM-10-579 [2005] (E-M)
Krapf, Gerhard. Sing and Rejoice, vol. 1. SMP KK234 [1978] (E, adaptable to piano)
Leupold, A. W. An Organ Book. Chantry Music Press [1960] (E-M)
Linker, Janet. Suite for Holy Week. Beckenhorst OC5 [1989] (E-M)
McCollin, Frances. Two Chorale Preludes for Organ. (All Glory, Laud and Honor)
Ricordi [1950] (E-M)

Dobrinski, Cynthia. Processional on "All Glory,Laud and Honor". Agape 1230 [1986]
(3-5 with organ and optional trumpet and voices, M)

The alternate suggestion for prelude “Lift Up Your Heads” by Alexandre Guilmant is an organ arrangement of the theme found in Handel’s “Messiah”. It can be found in the Clarence Dickinson organ method book “The Technique and Art of Organ Playing” published by H. W. Grey GB 30 [1950] (D)

An alternative harmonization for organ on the opening entrance hymn can be found in:
Eggert, John. Creative Hymn Accompaniments for Organ, vol. 2. CPH 97-6851 [2000]
Ferguson, John. Hymn Harmonizations for Organ, bk. 5. Ludwig O-14 [1992]
Goode, Jack C. Thirty-four Changes on Hymn Tunes. H W Grey GB 644 [1978]
Vogel, William. Free Organ Accompaniments to Hymns, vol. 3. Augsburg 11-9189 [1966]
Wood, Dale. New Settings of Twenty Well-Known Hymn Tunes. Augsburg 11-9292

An alternative accompaniment for “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” can be found in:

ELLACOMBE [“Hosanna, Loud Hosanna”]

Alternative Harmonization for Organ:
Ferguson, John. Hymn Harmonizations for Organ, bk. 1. Ludwig O-05 [1975]

Suggestions for offertory music can be found in the following resources:

VINEYARD HAVEN [“Lift Up Your Heads, O Gates”]
Dahl, David P. Hymn Interpretations. Augsburg 11-10972 [1999] (E-M)
Powell, Robert J. Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart. Augsburg 11-10478 [1994] (E-M)

Suggestions for postlude on the closing setting of Psalm 118 can be found in:

GENEVAN 98/118/RENDEZ Á DIEU [“Give Thanks to God for All His Goodness”]
Biery, James. Rendez a Dieu. Augsburg 11-11007 [1999] (M)
Hamersma, John. Composers Workshop, series 1. Calvin College (M)
McKay, George Frederick. Suite on Sixteenth Hymn Tunes. H. W. Grey [1950] (E-M)

Liturgy Notes:

1. The Call to Worship is constructed from selected verses of Psalm 118. You may use this same pattern to design all of Psalm 118 for the Scripture Reading if you like. This is a Psalm that allows multiple voices and can become a testimony of thanksgiving. It would be helpful to introduce this reading by explaining that this Psalm was likely sung by Jesus and the disciples on Thursday evening after the Lord's Supper before going to Gethsemane.

2. Since this is also Palm/Passion Sunday, you will surely want to include the type of worship activities that your community customarily desires for this event. The children of the congregation will likely be included either in a procession of palms, songs of Palm Sunday, and/or a children's message that is appropriate to the day.

3. The worship leader should reinforce the message the printed worship sheet aims to communicate; we are responding to God's word with our songs, our offerings, and our prayers. A direct link should be established through the transitional comments and some of the themes of Psalm 118 should be picked up in songs and in prayers.

1 For this quotation I am indebted to Artur Weiser, Psalms: A Commentary, Old Testament Library, tr. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 724.
2 For details see: J. Clinton McCann, Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 166-168; Craig A. Evans, “Praise and Prophecy in the Psalter and the New Testament,” in The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, Volume XCIX, eds. Peter W. Flint and Patrick D. Miller (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 556-560.
3 John H. Stek, The NIV Study Bible: Fully Revised (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 918. In this connection it should also be noted that, according to James L. Mays (“The Place of Torah-Psalms in the Psalter,” JBL 106 [1987]: 11), Psalms 118 and 119 were intentionally juxtaposed as a royal (Ps 118) and a torah psalm (Ps 119).
4 Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, trs. Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 102. Hereafter cited as PLP.
5 For details see: Konrad Schaefer, Psalms, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 290.
6 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999), 438.
7 Westermann, PLP, 105.
8 In view of the predominance of the first person singular, Weiser (Psalms, 725), Hans-Joachim Kraus (Psalms 60-150: A Commentary, tr. Hilton C. Oswald [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989], 397) and Stek (The NIV Study Bible, 922) segment this section as vv. 5-21.
9 For the three basic options see: Stek, The NIV Study Bible, 922.
10 Stek, The NIV Study Bible, 922. For arguments against this position see: Broyles, Psalms, 438-439.
11 Cf. Ps 106:1; 107:1; 136:1ff.; 1 Chron 16:8, 34; 2 Chron 5:11-14; 7:1-3; 20:21; Jer 33:11.
12 For the reference to the house of Israel, house of Aaron and those that fear the LORD see: Ps 115:12-13 and 135:19-20. For the jussive command, “Let Israel say,” see Ps 124:1 and 129:1.
13 Stek, The NIV Study Bible, 905.
14 Weiser, Psalms, 725. Surprisingly, however, the Hebrew word hesed does not occur in the body of this psalm.
15 Westermann, PLP, 106.
16 Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 2, and Lamentations, The Forms of Old Testament Literature, Volume XV (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 302.
17 Pss 56:9; 124:1-2; Rom 8:31. This opening declaration is quoted in Hebrews 13:6.
18 Cf. Lam 3:57; Is 41:13.
19 Cf. Ps 37:16; 84:10.
20 Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 2, 302.
21 The speaker is probably the celebrant. However, the speakers could also be, as Michael Wilcock (The Message of Psalms 73-150: Songs for the People of God, The Bible Speaks Today [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001], 2: 189) suggests, the congregation.
22 The meaning of the Hebrew verb mul is actually uncertain. It is frequently used in connection with circumcision, which gives an added nuance to its use here.
23 Weiser, Psalms, 726.
24 The Septuagint reads “blazed” instead of “extinguished.” This reading was adopted by the NRSV.
25 For this paragraph see: Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 2, 304.
26 Westermann, PLP, 92.
27 Westermann, PLP, 232.
28 Limburg, Psalms, 403.
29 Westermann, PLP, 110. Cf. Ps 119:175; Is 38:18-19.
30 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, tr. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 4: 385.
31 For this literary form see: Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume I, tr. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962), 402.
32 For this theocentric understanding of suffering see: Ps 6:1; 38:1; 66:10; and Prov 3:11-12.
33 Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 399.
34 For gates see Ps 24:7, 100:4, Is 26:2 and Jer 7:2.
35 Compare the various names of the gates mentioned in a lament from Mesopotamia cited by Kraus (Psalms 60-150, 399).
36 Weiser, Psalms, 728.
37 For this form see Westermann, PLP, 102.
38 Wilcock (Psalms 73-150, 190) suggests that the gatekeepers are the speakers.
39 Cf. Is 28:16; Jer 51:26.
40 For the details of this mini-parable see: Stek, NIV Study Bible, 923.
41 Stek, NIV Study Bible, 923.
42 For “marvelous” in v. 23 see Ex 15:11 and for “the day the Lord has made” in v. 24 see also Ex 14:13.
43 Willem VanGemeren, “Psalms,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5: 735.
44 Cf. Ps 116:4.
45 For petitions in hymns see: Pss 33:22 and 104:35.
46 For J. J. Petuchowski’s hypothesis that these petitions were a cry for rain and fertility expressed at the Feast of Tabernacles see: Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 400.
47 It was used only once in John 12:13.
48 Pss 12:1; 20:10; 28:9; 60:5; 108:6. Cf. 2 Sam 14:4 and 2 Kings 6:26.
49 It should be noted that in Mt 27:49 passersby insulted Jesus, saying: “Save yourself!”
50 On the basis of 1 Kgs 9:6, Stek (NIV Study Bible, 923) also suggests that the plural is a plural of majesty.
51 The participial phrase expresses the reason for the blessing.
52 Josef Schabert, TDOT 2:284-285.
53 Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 400.
54 Cf. Pss 4:6; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3, 7, 19; and 119:135.
55 Weiser, Psalms, 729.
56 Wilcock, Psalms 73-150, 2:190.
57 Weiser (Psalms, 729) suggests that the speaker was a priest. However, Broyles (Psalms, 440) opines that v. 27c is not “part of the spoken liturgy” but probably “a ritual instruction to the priests that crept into the main text.”
58 Stek, NIV Study Bible, 923.
59 For the practice see Mishnah (Sukkah 3:4) and Josephus (Antiquities III.10.4).
60 Rolf Jacobson, “The Costly Loss of Praise,” Theology Today 57 (2000): 377.
61 Jacobson, “The Costly Loss of Praise,” 377.
62 James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 376.
63 Strikingly, the Hebrew term hesed does not occur in the body of the poem. Moreover, this Hebrew word is difficult to translate. Furthermore, it should be noted that hesed implies an action; one does hesed. In Psalm 118, therefore, it refers to the Lord’s powerful act of delivering his royal servant from a dangerous military situation.
64 Jacobson, “The Costly Loss of Praise,” 378.
65 For this quote see: Limburg, Psalms, 403.
66 Cf. Walter Brueggemann, “Psalm 118:19-29: Psalm for Palm Sunday,” No Other Foundation, 10 (1989-1990): 13-16.
67 Calvin, Psalms, 4:390-391.
68 Brueggemann, “Psalm 118:19-29," 16.
69 James L. Mays, Psalms, 381.