The Sum of Salvation
Psalm 118:21–22 – “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” (NRSV)
The Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113–118) concludes with this climactic psalm. Like Ps. 113, it begins and ends with a repeated summons to worship God. Instead of “Praise the LORD,” though, Ps. 118 starts and finishes with “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (all quotes NRSV). The rationale this line gives for worship is the same as in Ps. 117:2 and echoes the worship chorus sung in Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3). The next two verses of Ps. 118 (verses 2 and 3) recall Ps. 115:9–12’s threefold classification of Israel, the house of Aaron, and all who fear the Lord. But the balance of the psalm is similar to Ps. 116. It’s an individual’s testimony of how God answered a cry for help, delivered from death, and now deserves gratitude and celebration. The major difference between this psalm’s ballad of salvation and Ps. 116’s is that this one brings in an international focus: verses 10–12 describe how all the nations swarmed around to attack and destroy this individual, but God granted victory over them. There’s a much more negative view of the nations here than in Ps. 117:1. The rest of Ps. 118 seems to portray a victory march back from the battle-tents of Israel’s army (v. 15) through the gates of Jerusalem (verses 19–20) and up to the altar in God’s temple in order to sacrifice a thank offering (verses 26–28).
With the other psalms in the Egyptian Hallel, we’ve had to make an educated guess as to whether Jesus had them in mind during Holy Week. When it comes to Ps. 118, though, we know for sure that not only he but the crowds gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover were thinking about it. When Jesus made his Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, the people around cried out in the words of verses 25–26, “Hosanna” (that is, “Save!”) and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9). Jesus enters the temple, as per the script of Ps. 118, but finds it corrupt. Instead of making an offering, he drives away the sacrificial animals (Matt. 21:12). He returns to the temple later that week, predicts that the religious leaders will kill him, and quotes Ps. 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Matt. 21:37–45).
The irony, then, is that Jesus “flips the script” of Ps. 118. Although he entered Jerusalem like a victorious king, he was rejected and driven outside the city and its temple to Calvary. There he bore the judgment due his people and the nations: “The LORD has punished me severely” (Ps. 118:18). That verse continues, “. . . but he did not give me over to death.” Although Jesus truly died and was buried, he did not remain death’s prey. On Easter Sunday, the power of death was shattered! Through the faithful, steadfast love of the Lord, he “became the chief cornerstone” (Ps. 118:22) of a new, spiritual temple—all those of every nation who respond to his saving love and call upon him as Lord (Eph. 2–3, especially 2:19–21; 1 Pet. 2:4–10). Christ has ascended to heavenly Jerusalem in triumph (Eph 1:20–23; 4:8–10; Heb. 12:22–24). From there he will return someday to judge the nations and complete his victory over sin, death, and the devil. When that day comes, the words of Ps. 118 will fully and finally come true:
- “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place” (v. 5).
- “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it” (verses 19–20).
- “The LORD is God, and he has given us light.” (v. 27)
We who follow the Lord now will celebrate then how he has delivered us from every distress and destroyer and has led us into the New Jerusalem, whose measurements are broad, whose gates are always open for the righteous to enter in, and whose source of light is the Lord himself (Rev. 21:15–27). As we journey through this Lenten season, let that glorious hope fill our hearts with gratitude. “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 118:1, 29).