The Passover Hymn

The Last "Hillel"

And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.—Matthew 26:30

A verse-by-verse study of Psalm 118 by Carl Hagensick

According to Jewish tradition, Psalms .113 to 118 were sung at the annual ..feast of Passover. These were known as “The Great Hillel” or song of praise, from the same root as the word Hallelujah, “Praise to Jehovah.” Supposedly Psalms 113 and 114 were sung with the second cup of Passover and Psalms 115 to 118 at the end of the meal. These psalms were also sung on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Although written at different times and for various occasions, they are all variations on the theme of praise. Opinion is divided on whether they refer to David or to the Messiah. Quite likely they have reference to the king as a type of the greater than David, Jesus of Nazareth.

Three-Fold Mercy—Psalm 118:1-4

“O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever. Let Israel now say, that his mercy endureth for ever. Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth for ever. Let them now that fear the LORD say, that his mercy endureth for ever.”

God’s goodness is indelibly connected with his mercy. Fallen man has claim to neither. Because mercy is one of the deity’s operable principles, it acts regardless of the rights of its recipients. Mercy dictates the operation of divine grace; goodness is the product of such actions. “The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad” (Psalm 126:3).

Three classes are singled out as examples of having received such unmerited favor:

Israel: With the Temple being completed, the nation had, so to speak, passed out of its probationary phase of acceptable worship into a permanent one. God’s mercy had not only brought Israel to its promised land, but established sufficient tranquility to establish a permanent sanctuary to Jehovah.

The House of Aaron: This permanent temple was also a special blessing to the priesthood. These descendants of Aaron were now permanently ensconced in their sacerdotal positions.

All That Fear the Lord: Not only natural-born Israelites, but the proselytes in their midst were beneficiaries of these mercies.

But this three-fold mercy, great as it was, blanched in comparison with the mercies vouchsafed by the sacrifice, which followed the last Passover of Jesus when these words were sung before the departure into the mount of Olives.

Israel, though temporarily falling into disfavor, is guaranteed a restoration to the highest earthly position, under their resurrected ancient prophets, in the kingdom for which Christ died.

The House of Aaron, the priesthood, was typical of a spiritual order of priests. These “Melchizedek” priests are to be priests on thrones, reigning with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6).

All That Fear the Lord from every land and nation will then taste the merciful goodness of eternal life. Only the stubbornly and rebellious disobedient will be cut off in second death.

Trust in the Lord—Psalm 118:5-9

“I called upon the LORD in distress: the LORD answered me, and set me in a large place. The LORD is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? The LORD taketh my part with them that help me: therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes.”

David’s past experiences were the basis for his implicit trust in the Lord. It has well been said, “All that I have seen, leads me to trust him for all I have not seen.” At the time of the writing of this psalm, all of Israel’s foes had not yet been defeated. The miraculous manner in which past victories were accomplished gave David confidence that future victories would be secure.

This faith had been the hallmark of David from his earliest youth. When volunteering to fight the Philistine giant Goliath, he rested his trust in his earlier victories over a lion and a bear (1 Samuel 17:34-37). This was the faith with which he met his mighty foe: “Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Samuel 17:45,46).

The word translated “distress” in verse 5 literally means a narrow place, and is set in contrast to the larger place wherein he now was set. This finds a deeper meaning on the day when Jesus and his disciples sang this song. That Passover, and the events which followed it, brought Jesus’ followers out from the bondage of the law into the “liberty wherewith Christ has made us free” (Galatians 5:1). Jesus, too, was about to be released from the restrictions of flesh to enjoy an unhampered spiritual life with his Father on the plane of the Divine nature.

While the wording of this psalm makes David appear vengeful, his abhorrence of his enemies is not personal, but rather because they had defied Israel and its God. It was this omnipotence of Jehovah that fueled David’s desire to demonstrate that the God of Israel was well able to protect his people.

It was not, therefore, either in the men of his army or their prince or leaders in whom David placed his trust, but in Jehovah who had promised their eternal care and protection.

More To Follow—Psalm 118:10-16

“All nations compassed me about: but in the name of the LORD will I destroy them. They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the LORD I will destroy them. They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the LORD I will destroy them. Thou hast thrust sore at me that I might fall: but the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and song, and is become my salvation. The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly. The right hand of the LORD is exalted: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly.”

David now turns his attention from the past to the future. In his lifetime the Philistines from the east, the Ammonites from the west, the Moabites from the southwest, the Amalekites from the south, and the Syrians from the north, threatened Israel. Buoyed up by past victories, he faces these foes unafraid.

They stormed Israel as swarms of bees. The Hebrew suggests that they also attacked with bee hives. One of the tactics of ancient warfare was for invading troops to throw hives of bees at their attackers and quickly retreat while the insects stung the defending horses, causing them to panic, run, and throw off their riders. In confidence, David viewed them as no more than tumbling tumbleweeds to be quickly quenched by the fires of Jehovah.

Verse 14 is borrowed from the song of deliverance which Moses and the children of Israel sang after God drowned Pharaoh’s army in the surging waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1). The sword and shield of battle would soon give way to the songs of triumph and deliverance.

David credits these future victories to “the right hand of Jehovah,” a metaphor for the son of God, who as Michael, was the Creator’s guardian angel for Israel.

In the deeper picture of Jesus’ last Passover, this song heralded the sure defeat of all the enemies of his incoming kingdom. As the Master put it in the parable of the pounds, “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me” (Luke 19:27). Here he speaks not of the literal slaughter of those who opposed him, but the transformation of them into friends by conversion on the “way of holiness” (Isaiah 35).

The Gates of Righteousness—Psalm 118:17-21

“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD. The LORD hath chastened me sore: but he hath not given me over unto death. Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the LORD: This gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter. I will praise thee: for thou hast heard me, and art become my salvation.”

David did die and, as the apostle expressed it, “his sepulcher is with us to this day” (Acts 2:29). The reference here, in this Messianic psalm, is to the greater than David, Jesus Christ. He also died, but in three days he was raised in triumph from his tomb. As a result of his death David also will live again, as will all mankind.

Jesus’ father had permitted him to be chastened sore: “Though he were a son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). As his chastening experiences proved his total loyalty, so his followers must learn the same implicit obedience through hard trials. But though they, like their Master, might be afflicted, they would not suffer eternal death but rather gain life with their Lord by passing through death.

The opened gates of righteousness may refer to either of three entranceways:

1. The gates of Jerusalem. The Targum translates the phrase “open to me the gates of the city of righteousness.” The Jerusalem of the kingdom is to be called “the city of righteousness” (Isaiah 1:26).

2. The outer temple gates of the temple over which the spiritual Levites will have oversight (Ezekiel 44:11).

3. The gates into the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, picturing heaven itself.

While all three may be appropriate, we suggest that the reference is to the outer gates of the temple. It is through these gates that all who eventually attain full righteousness will enter to worship Jehovah their God. Christ and his church enter these gates and proceed on to the gates of the second vail, while all mankind will be able to enter the outer gates into a spacious courtyard large enough for the entire human race.

It was fitting for this hymn to be sung at that last fateful Passover in Jerusalem, for there began the trail of events which led to the death of mankind’s redeemer who, entering these everlasting portals, “brought life [on earth] and immortality [in heaven] to light” (2 Timothy 1:10). Only as these gates are entered will Christ have become their salvation.

The Rejected Stone—Psalm 118:22-24

“The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

The corner stone is an obvious reference to the chief corner stone of the temple (see 1 Peter 2:4-7). The term “chief” corner stone is apt in such a reference. Being constructed on the crest of Mount Moriah, the foundation plane was uneven. Even after leveling the ground, the Temple platform was to extend over the Kidron valley which was more than a hundred feet below. Thus the southeast corner stone of the Temple complex had to be carefully fitted to the terrain and on it would come the bulk of the weight of the structure above.

Such a stone would be rejected at first by the builders, but later greatly prized for its preeminent position. David was looking forward in his mind to the realization of his dream—to build a fitting house for the worship of Jehovah, a temple that would attract the devotees to it. The day of its inauguration, when tradition says this psalm was sung, would truly be a great day of rejoicing.

In like manner Jesus was about to be rejected and killed shortly after the Passover in 33 A.D., but it was that very event which would begin the construction of the spiritual house of which Peter writes in the second chapter of his first epistle. Looking backward we, although repulsed at the cruelty of his crucifixion, nevertheless consider it a day of rejoicing for it portends the salvation of all. Truly the day of Jesus’ dying for man’s sin was a unique “day which the Lord hath made.” We rejoice, not in the agonies he endured, but in the result of redemption thus attained.

Peter expressed it well when speaking of the plot of the Jews, Herod, and Pilate. He states that all they really accomplished was “to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:28).

Hosanna—Psalm 118:25, 26

“Save now, I beseech thee, O LORD: O LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity. Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD: we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD.”

These are the words that were shouted by the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem just four days before the Passover (Matthew 21:9). These are also the words which Jesus quoted in his sermon denunciating the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:39, “For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

The plea of the crowds at the triumphal entry would not be answered until the people acclaimed him in his rightful role as king. Jesus did not say that he would not return until they recognized him, but that they would not realize that he was invisibly in their midst until they accorded him that honor.

This is in accordance with the prophecy of Revelation 1:7, “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”

The blessing that is spoken of in the latter half of verse 26 is that of Numbers 6:23-27, “Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: the LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: the LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.”

Bind the Sacrifice—Psalm 118:27-29

“God is the LORD, which hath shewed us light: bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar. Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee. O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

The symbolism here is apt for the Passover festival. Thousands of lambs were brought to the priest as ritual sacrifices. These lambs were pictures of Jesus as the Lamb of God, who would soon bind the sacrifice of his life to the altar as a ransom price for the entire race.

It is interesting that both Rotherham and the New American Standard Bible add the word “festive” before “sacrifice,” again suggesting the celebratory nature of Jesus as the spiritual Passover Lamb, providing atonement now for his church, but eventually for all humanity.

The course he had embarked upon at Jordan was now about to be climaxed with the words, “It is finished.” He had begun his narrow way of sacrifice in the words of the psalmist, “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8). Now he was to complete it in the words of this psalm: “Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee.” From beginning to end his walk was a walk of willing and joyful obedience to the desires of his heavenly Father.

This is the example he left us to follow. “O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever.”