There can be no doubt that Psalm 118 had a significant influence on the Gospel Tradition. Verses 19-24 came to be applied to Jesus, in no small part, it would seem, due to the use of vv. 22-23 by Jesus himself (cf. below). Even more notably, we have the famous exclamation in verse 26:
“Blessed (is) the (one) coming in (the) name of YHWH,
we bless you from (the) house of YHWH!”
In Hebrew, the first line reads:
hw`hy+ <v@B= aB*h^ EWrB
Which the LXX renders as:
eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$ e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou
The Greek is a quite literal translation of the Hebrew, though the fundamental meaning of the verb eu)loge/w differs considerably from Hebrew Er^B*. That Greek verb means literally “give a good account of,” “speak well of”, that is, to give a word of blessing; the Hebrew, by contrast, seems to refer primarily to a gesture of blessing (esp. of bowing, bending the knee). The conventional meaning of “bless, give a blessing” is, however, common to both verbs.
Psalm 118:26 occurs twice in the Gospel Tradition: (1) in the Triumphal Entry scene (the exclamation by the crowds), and (2) in a saying of Jesus preserved (in differing locations) by Matthew and Luke (“Q”). Before we proceed to consider these two occurrences, along with the wider influence of Psalm 118 on early Christianity, it is necessary to establish something of the background and structure of the original Psalm.
Psalm 118 may be outlined as follows:
- An opening thanksgiving to YHWH, with a call to worship (vv. 1-4)
- An account of how YHWH delivered the king, giving him strength and victory over his enemies [in battle] (vv. 5-18)
- A victory celebration involving a procession (back) to the city, and into the Temple (vv. 19-27)
- A closing thanksgiving to YHWH (vv. 28-29)
The core of the Psalm can thus be divided into two parts: (a) a description of the king’s victory (vv. 5-18), and (b) a celebration of that victory (19-27). Verse 26 comes as a climactic moment to the second part, with the king’s victorious procession, having come into the city (vv. 19-20ff), now entering the Temple precincts. Once inside, the sacrificial altar (“horns of the place of slaughter”) will be adorned with festive decoration in commemoration of the great victory achieved by YHWH for His servant the king.
In this original historical context, it is principally the king who is acclaimed as “the one coming in the name of YHWH”. The verb in the second line does use the plural suffix (“we bless you [pl.]”), and this might seem to contradict the singular reference (“blessed is the [one]…”) in line 1. In all likelihood, the plural simply refers to the procession that accompanies the king.
Over the course of time, the use of the Psalm in worship gave to it a new dimension, in which the focal point was not the king, but the procession of the faithful, coming to the city of Jerusalem (and the Temple). It was natural that Psalm 118 would come to be used in the context of the pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover or Sukkot (Booths/Tabernancles), when the people were obligated to make the journey to Jerusalem; in that context, “the one coming in the name of YHWH” referred to the pilgrim. Ps 118 was counted among the Hallel Psalms (113-118) sung or recited on such occasions, and the place (and grouping) of these hymns within the Psalter almost certainly reflects this ritual usage.
Psalm 118:26 in the Triumphal Entry Scene
The Triumphal Entry scene occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of John—that is, in both lines of tradition. This suggests that all four accounts derive from a common historical tradition; the use of Psalm 118:26 is part of this common tradition. The words shouted by the crowds (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9-10; Luke 19:38; John 12:13) are based upon Ps 118:26 [LXX], and yet, in each instance, the Scripture is modified in a way that reflects a Messianic interpretation (and application).
It is useful to compare each version side by side (translated words in italics represent details unique to each Gospel):
w(sanna/: eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$ e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou: eu)loghme/nh h( e)rxome/nh basilei/a tou= patro\$ h(mw=n Daui/d: w(sanna/ e)n toi=$ u(yi/stoi$
Hosha’-nâ Blessed (is) the (one) coming in (the) name of (the) Lord Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David Hosha’-nâ in the highest (place)s
w(sanna/ tw=| ui(w=| Daui/d: eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$ e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou: w(sanna/ e)n toi=$ u(yi/stoi$
Hosha’-nâ to the son of David Blessed (is) the (one) coming in (the) name of (the) Lord Hosha’-nâ in the highest (place)s
eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$ o( basileu\$ e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou: e)n ou)ranw=| ei)rh/nh kai\ do/ca e)n u(yi/stoi$
Blessed is the (one) coming—the king—in (the) name of (the) Lord Peace in heaven and glory in (the) highest place(s)
w(sanna/: eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$ e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou, [kai\] o( basileu\$ tou= )Israh/l
Hosha’-nâ Blessed is the (one) coming in (the) name of (the) Lord, [and] the king of Israel
First, note what is common to all of the Gospels:
(a) w(sanna/—a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic an` uv^oh (hôša± nâ) (Hebrew aN` hu*yv!oh [hôšî±¹ (n)nâ]), which would be translated “Save, please…” or “Save, I pray…” (an being a particle of entreaty). This verb form (with or without the particle) reflects a real request from a petitioner (toward the king, or God) everywhere it occurs in the Old Testament; however, gradually, it came to be used as an acclamation or exclamation of praise (something like “God save the king!” in Britain). Its appearance here is certainly a result of its use in Psalm 118 (v. 25)—it may originally have indicated a prayer for victory and/or prosperity: in the context of Sukkoth (harvest festival) it is intended as a prayer for rain. Of the Gospels, only Luke omits any w(sanna/ exclamation.
(b) Psalm 118:26a—all four Gospels include the first half of verse 26, which is an exact quote from the Septuagint (cf. above): eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$ e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou, “blessed is the (one) coming in the name of the Lord”.
(c) Reference to king/kingdom—In all four Gospels, some mention is made of a king (basileu/$, John 12:13, Luke 19:38), a kingdom (basilei/a, Mark 11:10), or David (Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:10). This would imply that the crowds (and/or the Gospel writer) had a Messianic context in mind—specifically, the Davidic Ruler figure-type (cf. below).
(d) e)n toi=$ u(yi/stoi$—this phrase occurs in all three Synoptic accounts (though Luke is quite different, see below). Literally, the phrase would be rendered “in the highest (place)s”, i.e., in heaven, or in the highest heaven. The rare instances where this phrase occurs in the Septuagint (Psalm 148:1; Job 16:19), it translates <ym!orM=B^ (“in the heights”) parallel to “heaven” (<y]m^v*, ou)rano/$). The usage in Matthew and Mark (with w(sanna/) probably represents a climactic intensification of the acclamation.
Secondly, what is unique to each Gospel:
(a) Mark adds eu)loghme/nh h( e)rxome/nh basilei/a tou= patro\$ h(mw=n Daui/d (“blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David”), as a parallel to Psalm 118:26a— “blessed is the one coming…blessed is the kingdom coming”. Here the Messianic connotation could not be more explicit: not just the king, but the kingdom itself is coming; that is, the restored Davidic kingdom will be ushered in. One is reminded of the annunciation to Mary: “he shall be great and shall be called Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32).
(b) Matthew adds tw=| ui(w=| Daui/d to w(sanna/: “Hôsha’-nâ to the son of David”, so that the exclamation of praise (or entreaty, in the original Psalm) is addressed specifically to the “Son of David”. This is a clear Messianic title which is applied to Jesus on a number of occasions (only in the Synoptic Gospels, most frequently in Matthew). It should be noted that generally it is the crowds (or other individuals) who use this title, never Jesus himself: in fact, the only time Jesus mentions it occurs in a brief exposition of Psalm 110:1 (Mark 12:35-37; Matthew 21:41-45; Luke 20:41-44) the precise meaning of which remains difficult to determine. Matthew records the same phrase (w(sanna/ tw=| ui(w=| Daui/d) being uttered by children in the Temple; Luke has a similar notice (without the phrase) involving the disciples (Luke 19:39-40).
(c) John follows Psalm 118:26a with the phrase [kai\] o( basileu\$ tou= )Israh/l (“and the king of Israel”). This addition seems to specify who the coming one is— “even the king of Israel”.
(d) Similar to John, Luke seems to have added o( basileu/$ to Psalm 118:26a; however, the text is uncertain (see the textual note on Lk 19:38). More notably, Luke has, apparently, modified and expanded the phrase e)n toi=$ u(yi/stoi$, so that it is a clear echo of the angelic announcement to the shepherds: “in heaven peace, and glory in the highest (place)s” (compare Luke 2:14). The climactic moment of Jesus entry into Jerusalem (cf. Luke 9:51) parallels the entry of Jesus into the world.
It is interesting how the Messianic adaptation of Psalm 118:26 has effectively restored the original context of the Psalm, with its focus on the victorious king, in his processional entry into Jerusalem. Once again, it is the king who is identified as the one coming “in the name of the Lord”. Only now Jesus is the king, the royal Messiah from the line of David, who, it was expected, would subdue the enemies of Israel and establish a new Kingdom in Jerusalem. Such an expectation seems to have been clearly present among the crowd, even though the actual Messianic identity of Jesus would be realized in a very different way during his time in Jerusalem. Instead of a great political or military victory over his enemies, Jesus would meet with suffering and death at their hands.
Psalm 118:26 in the “Q” saying: Jesus’ Lament for Jerusalem
Psalm 118:26 is also cited by Jesus in a saying that is found in both Matthew and Luke (part of the so-called “Q” material). The two Gospel writers are clearly drawing upon the same tradition, since the two versions (Matt 23:37-39; Lk 13:34-35) are quite close in their wording. However, the location within the narrative is different in each case. Matthew sets this tradition—a lament by Jesus for the city of Jerusalem—most dramatically, at the climax of Jesus’ “woes” against the Scribes and Pharisees (23:1-36); it also immediately precedes his prediction of the Temple’s destruction (24:1-2ff). Luke has it at a different location, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Presumably, it was tied to the preceding tradition (13:31-33) by way of “catchword-bonding”, based on the mention of Jerusalem and the shared idea of prophets being put to death. Luke also includes a separate lament for Jerusalem at 19:41-44, immediately following the Triumphal Entry scene. The Lukan version of the “Q” lament-saying (13:34-35) is located during the journey to Jerusalem (9:51-18:34ff).
Jesus’ use of Psalm 118:26 in this saying is intriguing, since he mixes together two traditional motifs: (a) YHWH as protector of His people (like a mother bird protecting her young), and (b) the king who is under YHWH’s protection. The first motif is expressed, most famously, in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:11). Jesus casts himself in this Divine role of protector, functioning as God’s chosen representative on earth. He gladly would have protected the people in the time to come (i.e., the end-time Judgment), but the response of the people (as a whole) would not allow it. This reflects the basic reality that many Israelites and Jews—especially the leaders and religious authorities in Jerusalem—were unwilling (or unable) to accept him as the Messiah. And, unless they do so, they will never see him in the role of their protector during the time of Judgment:
“…you shall not see me, until (the time) arrives when you would say, ‘Blessed (is) the (one) coming in (the) name of (the) Lord’!” (Lk 13:35)
The citation of Ps 118:26a, used in much the same sense as it is in the Triumphal Entry scene (cf. above), implies a recognition of Jesus as the King—that is, the royal Messiah from the line of David. By refusing to recognize him as their King, the people of Jerusalem will be without the Divine protection that he would provide. This warning of Judgment (“your house is left to you [desolate],” cf. Jer 22:5), within the Gospel context, surely alludes to the impending conquest and destruction of the city in the war of 66-70 A.D. The lament in Lk 19:41-44 brings this out more precisely, and it is also central to the Eschatological Discourse (esp. the Lukan version, cf. 21:20-24).
Psalm 118:22-23 in the Gospel Tradition
In Jesus’ parable of the Vineyard workers (Mk 12:1-12, par Matt 21:33-46; Lk 20:9-18), he brings it to a climax with a citation of Psalm 118:22-23. This is significant, because the parable has a strong Judgment-theme very much in keeping with the “Q” saying (Lk 13:34-35 par) discussed above. More precisely, both traditions contain the following elements:
- The idea that the people of Jerusalem (spec. its leaders) have put prophets to death.
- Their rejection of Jesus as the Chosen One (Messiah) of God; in the parable, he is specifically identified as God’s beloved Son.
- A citation from Psalm 118, with its royal/Messianic setting, effectively identifying Jesus as the Messianic king.
Of special importance in verse 22 is the image of the cornerstone—in Hebrew lit. “the stone…at the head of the corner”. The original couplet reads:
“The stone (that) the (one)s building rejected
became (used) for (the) head of (the) corner.”
This must be understood first from the standpoint of the Psalm in its original context. As noted above, verses 5-18 describe a great victory by the king over his enemies, which was made possible through the strength and support of YHWH Himself. This is declared in the celebration that follows (vv. 19-27), and stated specifically in the couplet that precedes v. 22:
“I will throw you (praise), for you answered me,
and you became the salvation for me.” (v. 21)
In other words, his victory is entirely dependent on YHWH. The king himself can be regarded as a seemingly insignificant stone, of the kind that would be rejected by builders as being unworthy of an important place in the structure. However, due to the marvelous actions of YHWH on his behalf, the king has a chief place at “the head of the corner” —a ruling place in God’s Kingdom. What is true for the king in the Psalm, is even more appropriate to Jesus, the royal Messiah, in the context of the Gospel narrative. The ‘builders’ —this, the leaders and authorities of the Jewish people—have rejected him as an unworthy stone, and yet, as the Messiah (and Son of God), Jesus is destined to take the place at the “head of the corner” in God’s Kingdom.
In the core Synoptic narrative, the parable of the Vineyard-workers is the last major parable spoken by Jesus prior to his Passion. It very much anticipates his impending suffering and death, and also warns the people (and leaders) of Jerusalem of the Judgment that will come upon them (cf. above). As much as we may wish to avoid the association between the rejection of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem, it is very much part of the Gospel Tradition. It is no coincidence that the Temple-prediction and the Eschatological Discourse are situated in such close proximity to the Passion narrative. As noted above, Luke brings out this association most explicitly and vividly, by recording Jesus’ lament for the city immediately after his entry (19:41-44), and by the way the Judgment on the city is described in the Eschatological Discourse (21:20-24).
Early Christians followed Jesus in his interpretation of Ps 118:22-23, as can be seen in Acts 4:11, where it is central to the early Gospel proclamation, expounding the rudimentary narrative of Jesus’ Passion (vv. 10-12). There, Jesus is specifically identified as the ‘cornerstone’ of Ps 118:22 (cf. also Isa 28:16). Subsequent Christian preachers and authors further developed the idea; examples can be found in Eph 2:20, and, most notably, in 1 Peter 2:4-7. Through union with Jesus, believers also are regarded as precious stones, which likewise hold an important place in the building of God. Indeed, the Petrine exposition suggests that the building is constructed entirely of these precious stones (believers), while Jesus Christ retains the position of chief cornerstone.