Psalm 118 is a psalm of triumph—we see the king and people of Israel praising God for victory in battle, a victory in defiance of all human expectation. The army of Israel was badly outnumbered, their king was hard pressed on every side, but the Lord heard the prayer of his servant and delivered him from death; by his power, the Lord gave the king victory against overwhelming odds. In thanksgiving and joy, the king is now leading a procession through the streets to the temple to offer his sacrifice to God.
Which king? What battle? We don’t know. We do see the psalmist reaching back to the first great victory God won for his people, their deliverance from Egypt; verse 14, which we used as part of the call to worship, is quoted from Moses’ song of praise in Exodus 15, after the Lord drowned the army of Egypt in the Red Sea. Whatever event occasioned this text, the writer is deliberately setting it in the context of God’s mighty acts of deliverance in the past—his righteousness to his people—in order to show this victory as one more step in God’s ongoing work of salvation. That’s what’s important.
Irony, the reversal of expectations, is potent in this psalm. It comes to a point in verse 22, in the context of the temple of God. In verses 19-20 we have a challenge and response: the king arrives at the great doors of the sanctuary and calls, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and give thanks to the Lord”; the countersign comes, “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous may enter through it.” The king passes through to worship the Lord; in verse 14, borrowing from Moses, he has declared, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” and now he gives thanks to God for so answering his prayers.
And then in verse 22, we get this: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the keystone.” NIV has “capstone” there, which is fine too; you’re likely more familiar with the translation “cornerstone,” but that points us in the wrong direction. The keystone holds the integrity of the arch and makes it work, serving to transfer the weight of the wall outward and down the arch to its vertical supports. In a stone arch, you’ll often see the keystone emphasized because of this—it may be larger, or a different color, or perhaps engraved or embossed. It would be the prize stone in that section of the wall.
And yet here, the king and the psalmist declare, the keystone is not a stone the builders prized, but one they rejected. How? Remember what we were saying about the divine passive a couple weeks ago—to say this stone “has become the keystone,” without any other explanation, means that God did it. God has trumped the builders. Which is particularly interesting because, remember, this is the temple. It’s God’s building, but who built it? The leaders of Israel. The keystone of God’s work here, the person through whom he has won this victory, wasn’t just facing enemies among the other nations—he had been rejected by the leaders of his own people. He could truly say his enemies surrounded him on every side, because even his own side was against him. Even so, he overcame them all by the power and faithfulness of God.
Thus we have verse 23: “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” There is no one else to credit, and no one else to blame; there is no other explanation. Human power and human brilliance cannot encompass it, much less create it, for it’s a victory in defiance of all prediction. This isn’t even a mere upset; we’re not just talking Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown, or Valpo over Ole Miss, or Butler making the championship game two years running. Those get called March miracles, but they’re entirely human affairs when all’s said. The psalmist is celebrating a victory more on the order of Grace College beating IU to win the NCAA tournament. Only God can do that.
Now, I mentioned earlier that this psalm draws on Moses’ song of praise after the Lord drowned the Egyptian army. That was one of the great events of the Exodus, when God delivered Israel from Egypt; over the centuries, as Israel celebrated the Exodus in the Passover feast, this psalm came to be a part of that celebration. As the Passover began, Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead; popular interest in him and his ministry was likely at its peak, and the city was full of pilgrims, many of them from Galilee where he had done most of his work. Given that Psalm 118 was already in the hearts and on the lips of the people of Jerusalem as he approached the city, it’s no wonder that they took up its words to acclaim him: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The thing is, they’d had centuries to wear the edges off this psalm; the crowds hailed Jesus in the words of verses 25-26, but they didn’t really understand the significance of verses 22-23. Over the generations, repetition had ground away the shock value of those verses and their message, leaving them safe and familiar; what was once unpredictable had become completely predictable. The crowds knew they needed a deliverer, but only in the conventional way—someone who would kick out the Romans and give them political independence. They wanted God to do something that made sense to them. They missed the lesson of the psalm that God can and does deliver us in ways that defy common sense and human expectation, “to showthat the all-surpassing power belongs to God and not to us”; he doesn’t limit his victories to the horizon of our imagination.
The crowds were excited by Jesus because they thought he might give them the worldly success they wanted; because they failed to understand what he was really on about, it would be just a few short days before the Jewish leaders would be able to fire them up to demand his crucifixion. They missed the Messiah for thinking too small.