Blessed is the One Who Comes in The Name of the Lord: A Close Reading of Psalm 118

A Close Reading

Every time we celebrate the Lord’s supper, we say or sing a verse from Psalm 118: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.” Every time we mark Palm Sunday, we remember how the people sang (according to Mark 11.9-10)

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven

Indeed, in some places, on Palm Sunday the psalm is sung as one processes into the church from some place outside of it.

And then there are the hymns that were inspired by it.Two are:

  • This is the day that the Lord hath made.
  • Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ our head and cornerstone.

According to the New Testament Jesus quoted from this psalm, and the disciples formed an understanding of who Jesus was from certain verses of it.

In this blog post (based on a group study I led with parishioners at St. Thomas, Kefalas, Crete during Lent 2019) I want to do a “close reading” of the text of this psalm. “Close reading”, as the Wikipedia article states,

is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of a text. A close reading emphasizes the single and the particular over the general, effected by close attention to individual words, the syntax, the order in which the sentences unfold ideas, as well as formal structures. A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight.

My understanding is that “close reading” emerged in the middle of the Twentieth Century as a reaction to interpretations to texts that paid more attention to supposed facts about the authors, or the motivations for writing a passage. Biographical information about why, say, T. S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland is not irrelevant, but it does not necessarily explain why the modernist poem caught the tenor of the times when it was published. Similarly, when close reading a biblical text one pays attention first and foremost to the words, only using historical information and anagogical elaboration afterwards.

The Text of Psalm 118

So let’s jump in. It’s a long poem. Below is the English of the NRSV, only I have substituted the four letters YHWH where the English has the LORD. In the original Hebrew the divine name is written  יהוה and is probably pronounced “Yahweh.” Since before Jesus’s time pious Jews would not pronounce the name, instead saying אֲדֹנָי Adonai “the Lord” (and these days rather than say even that Orthodox Jews will say “Ha-Shem” or “the name”). Since the original text uses a personal name I’ve put it back in.

Psalm 118

1 O give thanks to YHWH, for he is good; *
his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say,*
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say,*
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear YHWH say,*
“His steadfast love endures forever.”

5 Out of my distress I called on YHWH;*
YHWH answered me and set me in a broad place.
6 With YHWH on my side I do not fear.*
What can mortals do to me?
7 YHWH is on my side to help me;*
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
8 It is better to take refuge in YHWH*
than to put confidence in mortals.
9 It is better to take refuge in YHWH*
than to put confidence in princes.

10 All nations surrounded me;*
in the name of YHWH I cut them off!
11 They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;*
in the name of YHWH I cut them off!
12 They surrounded me like bees;
they blazed like a fire of thorns;*
in the name of YHWH I cut them off!
13 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,*
but YHWH helped me.
14 YHWH is my strength and my might;*
he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:*
“The right hand of YHWH does valiantly;
16 the right hand of YHWH is exalted;*
the right hand of YHWH does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,*
and recount the deeds of YHWH.
18 YHWH has punished me severely,*
but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them*
and give thanks to YHWH.

20 This is the gate of YHWH;*
the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me*
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected*
has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is YHWH’s doing;*
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that YHWH has made;*
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O YHWH!*
O YHWH, we beseech you, give us success!

26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of YHWH.*
We bless you from the house of YHWH.
27 YHWH is God,*
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,*
up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;*
you are my God, I will extol you.

29 O give thanks to YHWH, for he is good,*
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Unattributed

This psalm is unattributed; some editions and translations may give it a title – the NRSV labels it “A Song of Victory”, but this is a 20th century editor’s description, and it is not there in the original Hebrew. However, in the ancient text of the Hebrew original many of the psalms are attributed – to David, to Solomon, Moses, and the sons of Asaph. But not here. What does it mean that the author is not identified? Many Biblical scholars suggest that the attributions of the psalms date from after the time that the texts themselves were written. They are thus a guide to interpreting them that reflects a later stage in the canonization process. This psalm is not attributed to David or the sons of Korah, or Asaph or Moses, or to anyone. The original anonymous compiler(s) of the psalms perhaps received this text unattributed and chose not to make any guess as to who wrote it. So we do not receive any internal guidance to the interpretation that way.

A Key: Who Is Speaking, And What Are They Doing

To grasp what is going on I suggest we first look at who is speaking, and parse the verbs.

  1. In the first four verses the main verbs are in the imperative or subjunctive mood – which is a fancy way of saying that someone is expressing a command or wish. Thus, the psalmist says, “Give thanks . . .” once and and “Let . . . say” three times. It is the voice of the psalmist, or the voice of those reciting the psalm as if it were their own voice.
  2. Verses 5 to 7 are in the first person, and describe a person in distress calling out to God.
  3. Verses 8 and 9 are in the third person, and affirm YHWH as a better refuge than mortals. It may be an impersonal aside, or it may be a statement by the speaker of verses 5-7.
  4. Verses 10 to 14 clarify that the speaker of the earlier verses was under attack, quite literally in battle. In the first person singular the speaker cuts them off – using a sword presumably – in the name of YHWH, and YHWH helps him in this. YHWH is the speaker’s strength, help, and now is his salvation, or help.
  5. Verses 15 to 18, in third person, says that something is said in the tents of the righteous, and then switches to the first person to voice what is said. It is similar to what is said in verses 10 to 14. One gets the impression that the battle was hard fought, and the speaker(s) were close to death, but they exult in victory instead, and look forward to proclaiming that victory.
  6. If the earlier verses describe someone in distress on a field of battle and in the tents of an army, the next verse, verse 19, advances to “the gates of righteousness”; in the first person the speaker asks for the gates of a fortress or city to be opened. In verse 20 the gate is opened.
  7. Verses 21 and 25 are in the first person, and seems to bracket 22 through 24. It begins with a thanksgiving that God has answered the psalmist – for delivering the speaker in battle, presumably. Then follows in third person a proverb, which seems to suggest that the speaker or his comrades had appeared to be rejected, but now had become very highly valued; a useless stone was now being used as the cornerstone of a building on which everything else would be built. YHWH is identified as the one who is doing it in verse 23, and the very day on which YHWH has done this is a day of rejoicing and gladness. Verse 25 appears to be the call that the speaker may have made back in verse 5.
  8. Verse 26 appears to be in the second person – someone is speaking a blessing on another. If the psalmist back in verses 19 and 20 is entering the gates of a city or fortress, then someone is greeting them. They come in the name of YHWH, and these new speakers bless them in the name of YHWH, recognising that the Lord is working through them.
  9. Verse 27 is odd. There is the statement that YHWH is אלהים Elohim, God,which is a statement of identity, and is clear enough; it is a standard statement of who Israel’s God is – not Ba’al or Dagon or Melqart, who are the gods of other peoples. Light here may be literal, but it also may stand for the victory God has given the psalmist. The second half of the verse seems like an interpolation, and instruction of what to do. However it is read, it locates the place of the psalmist in a temple, in a joyful procession, going towards an altar.
  10. In verse 28 the psalmist directly addresses YHWH directly, identifying him as his own personal deity, and offering thanks and exaltation.
  11. Verse 29 returns to the language of the first three verses, thus bookending the psalm and bringing it to a conclusion.

From the Midst of Battle to the Altar of Thanksgiving

Wilshire Battle

A Battle Between Israel and Judah, from the Warner Murals at Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard Temple, c.1929. Description From the Lectures of Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, 1929-1930: “This panel depicts the wars of Israel and Judah with the surrounding nations between the 11th and 9th century BCE. During this period there was continued strife, both defensive and offensive, with the Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, Arameans and Assyrians.”

By now you should be able to see that there is a progression and a narrative in the text of Psalm 118. Verses 1 to 9 set up the scene: this is a psalm of praise, but it arises out of a time of distress, when the speaker seeks refuge in YHWH in the midst of a battle.

In verses 10-14 we are in the battle, and the speaker is hard pressed, but trusts in YHWH to give victory. Verses 15-18 is immediately after the battle, and victory has been won and is being proclaimed. In verses 19-20 the speaker (and the army) advances to the gates of their home city and passes through the gates, singing songs of victory to YHWH. In verse 26 they are greeted by the priests and are blessed, and they pass on to the altar of a temple, where they offer sacrifice and praise. The psalm then concludes.

Who is the psalmist, the first person speaker? As it appears that this is the person making thanksgiving, receiving blessing, and offering sacrifice, it is presumably a general or a king. This would have been a psalm with an aura of royalty about it.

The psalm, then, has a narrative structure – it is not a haphazard bunch of verses, but tells a story mainly in the first person.

So, What Does It Mean For Us?

The psalm has its literal meaning, which is simple praise following a hard fought victory. In that sense it might be appropriated by 21st century people who are serving in armed forces and who rely on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph.

Perhaps the interesting thing is that it has also been interpreted in other ways. One of them is prophetic. By the time of Jesus the Psalms were being read by Jews as both Torah and as prophecy. Thus, verse 22 The stone that the builders rejected * has become the chief cornerstone is applied by New Testament Christians not to a warrior leader, but to Jesus, who turns the other cheek and suffers and dies at the hands of a cruel empire and its collaborators. Verse 26, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of YHWH, is sung by the people as Jesus enters Jerusalem. The royal aura of the psalm now becomes messianic, as the words applied to the entry of a warrior king centuries before are now put on Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, then, is in a battle, but a spiritual one with the personified forces of evil in the world, foremost among them sin and death. His struggle begins, according to the Gospel of Mark, with the temptation in the desert, and continues as evil spirits taunt Jesus even as he exorcises them from possessed individuals. They work through Herod the Great and the chief priests and scribes, who are puppets and collaborators with the evil Roman Empire. Finally, death itself seems to overcome Jesus in the cross, and he is laid in the grave. However, that most finite thing called death cannot encompass the infinite and unbounded God, and so Christ rises triumphant to new life, the first fruits of a new creation in which all things are being made new.

The psalm, then, is applied to Jesus not literally but spiritually. Thus Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord is sung as the Benedictus immediately after the Sanctus (from Isaiah 6), as praise of Christ in his victory over the grave, and as a sign of his perpetual entry into our lives in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

Christians have sung and said this psalm as a prayer for twenty centuries. Monks, since the 3rd century, have sung this psalm daily or weekly as they work their way through the psalter. St Benedict in his Rule prescribed it for the service of Lauds every Sunday. I suspect that these pacifist monks used this psalm not only Christologically, but also in reference to their own personal struggles, as they sought through discipline and spiritual exercises to let go of the world and be filled with the Holy Spirit. In that sense, we can also pray it, making the “I” of the psalm our selves.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
This entry was posted in Lent, Prayer and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Blessed is the One Who Comes in The Name of the Lord: A Close Reading of Psalm 118

  1. Pingback: Resources for Palm Sunday 2020 | The Island Parson

  2. Pingback: Resources for Easter Sunday 2020: The Sunday of the Resurrection in the Year of the Great Pandemic | The Island Parson

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