And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26).
Jesus and the disciples have just celebrated the Passover, and Jesus has instituted the memorial of the New Covenant, the Lord’s Supper. According to John’s gospel, Jesus has also just given his Upper Room Discourse where he promised the “other helper,” the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17), and where he gave such sweeping and foundation-laying promises like, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). After these things, Jesus and the eleven head out of the city to the Mount of Olives and sing “a hymn.” Biblical scholars seem pretty well agreed that the “hymn” sung here would have been the “Hallel”—Psalms 113-118, traditionally sung by Jews at Passover. Possibly much of it had been sung already, and before going out of Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples sang the last portion: Psalm 118. This night was one of the most somber and weighty in history.
If Jesus here sang Psalm 118, it’s certainly safe to assume he meant what he sang. Psalm 118 though is really only representative, because all the Psalms are ultimately the word of Christ. It opens up a whole new perspective to consider the Psalms from that angle, and particularly in this case Psalm 118 as the mind of Christ on the night in which he was betrayed. In such a light, the Psalm helps us to know Christ, and by joining with it we can be more closely united to him.
All the Psalms are the Words of Christ
The “Spirit of Christ” is the prophetic voice of the Old Testament according to 1 Peter 1:10-11. This would appear to apply to more than just the books which we typically think of as “the prophets.” This is because there are plenty of citations of Psalms in the New Testament where Christ is assumed to be the first-person speaker:
- Acts 2:25-31
- Hebrews 2:12
- Hebrews 10:5-7
- There are others, and many Psalms are generally recognized as being “messianic.”
The second of the references listed above, Hebrews 2:12, is a quotation from Psalm 22, the first verse of which Jesus takes upon his lips on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is still the speaker in Psalm 22:22 when he says: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the assembly [or “ekklesia”—church] I will sing your praise” (Psalm 22:22). The author of Hebrews would appear to conceive of the whole Psalm as representing Christ’s own perspective, and v.22 in particular therefore implies something amazing…
Christ is the Worship Leader when the Church Gathers
“In the midst of the church I will sing your praise,” is what Jesus says to the Father. He is the one who goes into the presence of God on our behalf, and he is the Truth in whom by the Spirit we worship (John 4:24). As the Psalms are the church’s book of worship, and as Christ stands in solidarity with and as the head of his people, we can rightly think of the words of the Psalms as his own words.¹ He breathed them by his Spirit, and it is he who leads his people express their faith in the words of the Psalms. We might even think of the Psalms as an instance of the Holy Spirit interceding on our behalf. In his earthly life Jesus certainly would have sung the Psalms in the synagogues and at festivals while growing up. Not to mention that David, the chief Psalmist, is the primary messianic type for Christ in the Old Testament.
But what if Psalm 118 in particular is what Jesus sang with his disciples on his last night? That Psalm begins with the exclamation,
1 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
Jesus knows he is going to his death, and knows that he is doing so at the call of his Father. Yet, unlike we who so often mouth words without knowing or meaning what we say, Jesus says in all truth and sincertiy, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” It goes on,
2-4 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Let those who fear the LORD say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
Israel who didn’t recognize him. The house of Aaron, represented by Annas and Caiaphas, which is about to put him on a sham trial and find him guilty simply because they can’t stand him. And those in Israel who really fear the Lord? They appear to be few and far between. But here Jesus both weeps over Jerusalem and prays for his enemies. He lived in the midst of an adulterous generation, but is not willing for any to perish but for all to reach repentance. Jesus would like nothing more than to see his people Israel praising their God in all sincerity.
5-9 Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free. The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.
This is a prayer of faith if ever there was one, because again, Jesus knows that the Father is leading him straight into a shameful death. He is in distress. Jesus will bleed with anxiety in the garden and face the curse of the Law, he will even ask in the end why the Father had forsaken him. But here he confesses confidence that the LORD is in fact his helper and is on his side. What can man do? Well, nothing that has not been given to them from above, but that will turn out to be quite a lot. Pilate moreover will give Jesus just this choice, to take refuge in the LORD or in princes: “Do you not know that I have power to crucify you and power to release you?” (John 19:10) But Jesus made the good confession in this Psalm that it is better to take refuge in the LORD, he acted on it a few hours later, and his confidence paid off.
10-13 All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! They surrounded me like bees; they went out like a fire among thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me.
The Jews as represented by the chief priests and scribes, the Gentiles as represented by Pilate and Roman soldiers. When they have Jesus in their power (seemingly), the reality is that the wisdom of the world is being brought to nothing (1 Cor 1:20) and the rulers and authorities are being disarmed and put to open shame (Col 2:14-15).
14-16 The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. Glad songs of salvation are in the tents of the righteous: The right hand of the LORD does valiantly, the right hand of the LORD exalts, the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!
The first line here is from the Song of Sea (Exo 15:2). It’s a celebration of God’s victory over Egypt, when the Israelites went free and the Egyptians lay dead on the seashore. Jesus sings this knowing that for this new exodus, for his people to go free, he’ll have to be made like a dead Egyptian. He himself will have to face the sword and darkness of judgment. The LORD’s right hand is God’s salvation, and that salvation is Jesus himself. He is certainly doing valiantly. He is willingly walking into death for the sake of his people.
17-18 I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. The LORD has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death.
He will die, but not be given over to death. He will die but will not see corruption. He will be raised up, and will be able to recount the deeds of the LORD to his stunned disciples (John 20:17; Luke 24:26-27; Luke 24:46-48). What we often miss is that this was in the fullest sense of the word an act of faith on the part of Christ. Jesus knew that he would be raised up not because he was omniscient as the Second Person of the Trinity. The incarnation subjected him to human limitations, and part of the deal was that he lived by faith in the word of God, in what the Father revealed to him (1 Peter 2:23). When he laid down his life, he did so trusting that the Father would raise him up—”Into your hands I commit my Spirit.” Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, and it was perhaps precisely this word in Psalm 118 that strengthened the faith of Christ for the task ahead.
19-21 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. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
In Isaiah 25:7, the prophet says that a day is coming in which the Lord will swallow up death forever. In Isaiah 26:1-2, part of the same prophetic speech, the prophet says that “In that day this song will be sung in Judah: “We have a strong city; he sets up salvation as walls and bulwarks. Open the gates, that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.” It’s remarkably similar to the line here in Psalm 118. And as it turns out, the day has come in which death will begin to be swallowed up forever, by what Jesus is going to accomplish.
22-25 The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success!
Jesus cites this of himself explicitly in Matthew 21:42, where he applies it in a parable about the kingdom being taken from the leaders of Israel and given “to a nation bearing its fruits.” Jesus knows that his people have rejected him, but he knows that when he is lifted up he will draw “all men to himself” (John 12:32).
26-29 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar! You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
Originally this would probably have been a responsive Psalm. Until now there has been a single person speaking, but now it appears that the people as a whole respond to the Psalmist, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!“—This is how Jesus wanted his people Israel to respond to him (Matthew 23:39). Here Jesus speaks for them. He is the light of the world who has shone upon them, and he will be the festal sacrifice bound to the altar. All these things are coming to their intended fulfillment in him. And again, going to his death, he offers thanks to the Father, and confesses that he is good and that his steadfast love endures forever.
In Psalm 118, we have a window into the mind of Christ. As we apply it to his final hours, we have a picture of what entrusting ourselves to God even in the most trying times really ought to look like. But first of all, Psalm 118 ought to put us in awe of our Savior who could sing these things in his darkest hour—the darkest hour of human history. Job could say “the Lord has given and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21), but here is a new Job, taken to a greater extreme, and possessing an even more unshakeable confidence. Jesus here says, “I have come to do your will, O God,” and as Hebrews continues, “by that will he have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:7-10).
¹I would suggest, cautiously, that this is even the case when the Psalmist is confessing sin. Of course it would be blasphemous to suggest that Christ himself was guilty of personal sin, but consider: The Psalms are meant as corporate expressions of praise, even though many of them are in origin David’s meditations on his own personal circumstances. Despite their historical specificity, they are tailored to be fitting expressions of the experience of God’s people throughout the ages. Jesus, as the head of his people and as their corporate representative, stands with them. Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance despite John’s protest perhaps for this very reason. Without committing personal sin, he could identify with it as the sponsor of his people, and would identify with it completely on the cross, taking it upon himself. And does the Spirit not intercede for us? Why could some of that intercession not include confession of sin on our behalf? That’s what the High Priest did on the Day of Atonement. We commit many sins of which are ignorant, after all.