Psalm 118 is the last in the series 113 - 118, which is called the "Egyptian Hallel". Hallel means praise (hallelujah = leaves Yahweh); the term is used for a few series of hymns that were sung at the big festivals. This series is called "Egyptian" because the redemption from Egypt is mentioned in it, in Psalm 114. But the rest of the psalms in this series are praises to God's help to His people. Also in this Psalm 118, we find references to the redemption from Egypt: verse 14 is a quotation from the song of Moses, in which he thanks God for their salvation at the Red Sea. According to the Jewish tradition, these Psalms are also sung at Easter. According to some commentaries, Psalm 118 was written in the reconstruction of Jerusalem, after the exile in Babel, more particularly at the completion of the wall.
Image of salvation
In itself, both themes, the liberation from slavery in Egypt and the liberation from the exile in Babel, show a number of similarities. Moreover, both themes are ideally suited to describe the greater salvation from the slavery of sin. That is why Jesus applies to part of this Psalm to himself, and the evangelists also refer to it. That the deliverance from Egypt is the model for our salvation is seen in a number of places in the New Testament. The journey through the Red Sea is compared with the baptism, and the journey of Israel to the promised land with our journey to the promised kingdom.
The same is seen in a comparison with Babel. Babel is used as an image of a humanity that does not live according to God's will. If the Israelites stray too far, they are brought back to Babel, because they no longer belong in the land that God had chosen for them. But in Babylon they are called to be clean, and to leave Babylon again, to have no part in her sins (Isaiah 52:11). Parallel to this is the salvation by the "servant". He will say to the prisoners: "Go out". This call is therefore repeated in Revelation (18: 4). Isaiah shows how God ultimately "freed" His people. He acts as looser (savior) of His people.
Psalm 118 describes the believer who is allowed to go back to Jerusalem, to thank God there. He describes a victorious procession to the temple, at the Passover, with memories of the redemption from Egypt where God's redeeming hand was so clearly visible.
Also, that song of Moses ends on "the mountain that is your domain, lord", and "your own dwelling, the sanctuary built by you" (Exodus 15:17), that sanctuary that would come later in Jerusalem. The "I" in this Psalm can then refer to the people as a whole as well as to every individual in that ascending crowd. He arrives at the gate (verses 19-21), goes on his way to the temple (verse 26), to finally arrive at the altar, to sacrifice there (verse 27). These are also the words that the people, for the Passover on the road to Jerusalem, sing when it spreads branches and garments on the road and praises Jesus (Matthew 21: 9). And it is precisely in that context that we read the words:
"The stone that was rejected by the builders has become a cornerstone. This is the work of the Lord, a miracle in our eyes. "(Psalm 118: 22-23)
These are the words that Jesus applies to himself (in Matthew 21:42). But to know why He does that, we will have to understand what the psalmist means by these words. What is the greater connection of this psalm?
A precious cornerstone
Perhaps the answer can be found in Isaiah 28. Isaiah describes here the situation in Judah before the people were taken to Babel in exile. On the one hand, the people were convinced that the temple would never be destroyed. But on the other hand, they connected with other nations to stand strong against hostile nations, instead of trusting God. What Isaiah describes is a judgment that God is going to bring about His people, because it is straying further and further. That judgment would ultimately be that exile in Babel. If they do not want to listen to God, then they will listen to the foreign language of dominant nations.
Then it would be over with peace and quiet in our own country.
"By people with a strange accent, in another language, the Lord speaks to this people. He once said to them: 'Here is peace, here you find relaxation, let those who are tired rest here. ' But they refused to listen to Him "(Isaiah 28: 11-12).
The leaders of the people consider themselves safe for an attack from Assur / Babylon because they have made a covenant with Egypt (which Isaiah calls a "covenant with death"). They do not do what Isaiah says, namely to truly repent and then put their trust fully on God. That is why it will really turn out to be a covenant with death. Precisely in that connection, that only the one who truly believe, will be saved, says God through Isaiah:
"I lay in Zion a foundation with an excellent foundation stone, a precious cornerstone. He who bases his trust on it does not need to seek refuge "(Isaiah 28:16).
It is after this precious cornerstone that the psalmist refers. The builders, the leaders of the people, despised them. They preferred to make political connections. But in the whole theme of this Psalm 118, the believer praises God for saving them in the end, just by allowing them an exile. Now that the people, back in their own country, have come to understanding, and there Jerusalem and the temple are recovering, it looks in how God with them is.
"The Lord has (indeed) punished me, but has not given me up to death" (Psalm 118: 18).
That this link is there is also seen in a letter from Peter, but more on that later.
Jesus, the rejected cornerstone
This background of the psalm indeed appears to fit well in the gospel record, and then it becomes immediately clear why Jesus applies this to himself. Verse 22 of the psalm is cited in all three synoptic gospels, and in all three immediately after the parable of the unjust lords, although any similarities were hardly mentioned. This parable is directed against the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, which they also clearly understood. Jesus uses the image of tenants. The land belongs to God, and they are allowed to live in that country, under conditions that are clearly laid down when it is entered. But now they think they have a right to it. They are now making a covenant with death to kill the Son of God.
"Finally he sent his son to them ... When the winegrowers (lit .: the tenants) saw the son, they said among themselves: "That is the heir! Come on, let us kill him and get his legacy, "and they seized him, threw out the vineyard and killed him" (Matthew 21: 37-39).
Matthew notes from the bystanders about those tenants: "Let him kill them and lease the vineyard to other winemakers, who will pay the fruits to him when it's time for it". At Luke, we find the reaction of the Jewish leaders, who understood exactly what Jesus meant. They say "Never" and try to grab him. The answer of Jesus to this is this verse from the psalm. With this background in mind, we see that it is more than just rejecting the person Jesus, but that it is about rejecting God's salvation, the precious cornerstone in Zion, by leaders who prefer to make a human covenant to secure their own position. They also indicate that they think they can cross God's solution, just as the tenants also thought they could obtain the inheritance by killing the son.
Cited by Peter
When Peter and John are arrested, after having healed someone, they say that they have done this by the name of Jesus, and add that Jesus was put to death by the same Council they now stand for. Peter then says:
"He is the stone thrown away by you, the builders, with contempt, but who is now the cornerstone" (Acts 4:11).
Peter, too, immediately places that link with the redemption that God gives. In Isaiah, we see how God will bring redemption through the suffering servant, not only for the people but for the whole world.
"I will make you a light to all nations, that the salvation which I bring will reach to the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49: 6).
That word Jesus we also find in the psalm when God's salvation is clear:
"I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation." (Psalm 118: 21, NIV)
Later, in his first letter, Peter will quote the two verses about the cornerstone, and he also speaks to us. For the believer, this stone is a chosen (Isaiah 28:16) and precious cornerstone. But for the unbeliever, this stone rejected by the builders is now a stumbling block and a boulder to which one bump (1 Peter 2: 6-8). He speaks in this connection about the building of God's house, the temple, of which Jesus is the cornerstone. And he encourages the believers to use themselves as living stones in the construction of that house, to show truly their gratitude for God's salvation. "You are, however, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people to God's property, to preach the great deeds of him.
Thanks for reading.
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Christ in the Psalms - Psalm 22
Christ in the Psalms - Psalm 41
Christ in the Psalms - Psalm 69