So, we come to the last of these great Hallel psalms – Psalms 113-118. We have been looking at them from the standpoint that they were traditionally the songs sung by Jews at Passover, and thus likely to have been sung by Jesus and his disciples when they celebrated the Passover the night before the cross.
In contrast to #117, #118 is a longer song, containing 29 verses (though not nearly as long as its neighbor to the right, #119, with 176 verses!). As we read its lyrics, it sounds like a song to us, with its repetition of certain phrases – “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever”; “The Lord is on my side”; “It is better to take refuge in the Lord”; “They surrounded me”; “The right hand of the Lord”; “You are my God.”
Like many songs, its words were well-remembered and quoted by later writers. Jonah quotes verse 5 from the belly of the great fish – Jonah 2:1. The writer of Hebrews quotes verse 6 in Hebrews 13:6. Verse 22 is one of the most oft-remembered lines by New Testament writers. Verse 24 is a favorite of many of us moderns. Verse 25 (and then 26) is shouted by the masses who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem for the last week of his life, when they said “Hosanna! [“Save us, please!”].
We might most helpfully see the words of this song as a march – a procession – of a worshipper toward the Temple. Ultimately it is played out in the life of Jesus the Christ, who set his face toward Jerusalem to offer himself on the altar of God, the single great sacrifice of all time – our sacrifice – our Passover lamb – 1 Corinthians 5:7. He approached the city of God with joy and thanksgiving, despite the personal cost. He affirmed his total trust in his Father. He was surrounded by enemies, but not deterred. He was welcomed to the city with wonderful words whose speakers knew not what they were saying.
What a powerful song for Jesus to sing the night he was betrayed, the night before he laid down his life for you and me. Perhaps we have underestimated the power of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to prepare us to accomplish the will of God in this world? The Son of God prepared himself by singing, and of course by prayer, to accomplish the good news of God. We who are charged with spreading the good news would do well to tap in to such potent sources of spiritual strength.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 117 is another of the great Hallel psalms we are considering in this series, in light of the very real possibility that they are the hymns sung by Jesus and his disciples on His last night before the cross. This is the briefest of these songs – just 2 verses! Here are the lyrics:
Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD!
As you can see, a “hallelujah” both opens and closes the song – thus its appropriate inclusion in this section. As all mature people have discovered, sometimes great power comes in small packages. This short song has a huge reach! It calls on “all nations” to praise God! Not just Israel – ALL.
Jesus would soon command his disciples to “go into all the world” and preach good news. How apropos that on the night before He generated all that gospel work on the cross, they sang of all the world praising God!
You might take note that verse 1 is taken up and used by the great apostle to all the world – Paul – in Romans 15:11. In a section where Paul is driving home the point that the good news of Jesus is for both Jew and Gentile alike, he remembers the powerful words to this little psalm.
Also, in verse 2, most of our translations render something like “great is His steadfast love toward us.” The word “great” there is the same used in the Genesis story of the Flood, whose waters “prevailed mightily” upon the earth (Genesis 7:18). God’s steadfast love is a powerful thing which cannot be held back, and which covers the entire earth, we might say.
I told you – a lot of power in a little song! Wouldn’t you love to know how it sounded?
As Jesus prepared himself and his disciples for the cross, one of the songs they may have sung is Psalm 116, a great psalm of thanksgiving. There is much to meditate upon in these ancient words, including the famous question of verse 12 – “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” Thereafter comes a three-fold response in verses 13-19.
But for this reflection, consider another well-known phrase which occurs here in verse 15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Jesus knew he was hours from death. His disciples should have known, but they would not accept it. Imagine the intensity of singing these words from Psalm 115, and then adding the “Hallelujah” at the end (vs. 19b)!
It is one thing, from a distance, to quote this verse, perhaps at a funeral as many have, and apply its words, legitimately, mind you, to some good soul, some faithful servant, who has left this earth for eternity’s shores. It is another thing to sing this verse with the death of the cross staring you in the face.
Death on a cross – precious? How? In what way? It boggles human imagination! Even Jesus – 100% man, 100% God – would it not have been a struggle to fathom the meaning of these song lyrics? Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints?
On the cross, in the midst of the gruesome mix of pain and shame, Jesus would quote another Psalm/song – the 22nd – when he shouted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
My death is precious to God vs. Why have you forsaken me? In the words of these ancient songs we begin to plumb the depths of the mysteries of what God has done in Christ Jesus. Perhaps we should allow Paul to be our tutor in going deeper, for he wrote of it this way in Philippians 2 –
…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name…
The word “precious” in verse 15 can be a source of confusion. We think of precious being a cute child, an adorable puppy, a kind deed. Think instead “highly valued.” Jesus’ death was of high value to God. With it He accomplished the greatest thing ever accomplished – the redemption of mankind. The cross brought forth “the precious blood of Christ,” and with it we were ransomed from our sins (1 Peter 1:19).
It is truly amazing what God can do with a thing we consider awful. Even death becomes a cause for celebration. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints!
As Jesus and the 11 left the upper room and made their way across the valley toward the garden of prayer, the words of a hymn were on their lips. These words helped prepare them for the dark and trying events of the next many hours, when the Innocent One would be arrested, “tried,” tortured, and killed. The Lord of life would give up His life for all the world.
Some of the words they sang together may have been from what we know as Psalm 115. Central to this song is a mocking of paganism, verses 2-8. It acknowledges that believers in God are often mocked – “Where is their God?” Such was actually done while Jesus hung on the cross! (Matthew 27:43). But notice in these verses how the psalmist points out how fake the gods of the world are: they are hand-made, they can’t speak, they can’t see, they can’t hear, they can’t smell. Their hands do not feel and their feet do not walk.
And the saddest truth? Those who make them and then bow down to them become just like them: blind, deaf, immobile, callous, cruel. What better description of those who put Jesus to death could be made? And amazingly, of these people, Jesus said – “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The rest of the song is a call to trust – to trust in God. Such would be greatly needed in the coming hours as Jesus and the disciples faced their greatest tests. The disciples, despite singing such words of faith, would fail miserably. Jesus would pass with flying colors. Such is the difference between Jesus and us.
Thanks be to God that Jesus always has these meaningful words on his heart in relation to us – “Father, forgive them…” He is truly our divine Advocate, pleading our case effectively before the Father, offering His blood before the throne on our behalf.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.
This last week, one of the giants of the recent generations of the church passed away at age 99, brother Jack Lewis. Here is a portion of his obituary:
Dr. Jack P. Lewis entered into Heaven July 24, 2018. He was born in Midlothian, TX on March 13, 1919. Dr. Lewis married twice. His first marriage, to Lynell Carpenter, lasted from 1943 to her death in 1975, and produced two sons. He later married Annie May Alston in 1978, and enjoyed the birth of two grandchildren before her death in 2006.
Dr. Lewis grew up in a farm family during the Great Depression, and the lessons of perseverance served him well later in life. He completed a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard University in 1953, and added a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Hebrew Union College in 1962. A renowned Biblical scholar and translator, he was among the founding faculty of Harding Graduate School of Religion, now Harding School of Theology, and was named professor emeritus.
Dr. Lewis was also active in the Church of Christ at White Station, serving for decades as a Bible class teacher and elder.
If you would like to read more about the man and his bountiful accomplishments, you can find them at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_P._Lewis
I was never blessed to take a class Dr. Lewis taught, but was blessed to hear him speak numerous times through the years, and have benefited from his deep and rich and true scholarship all through my ministry. Brother Lewis emphasized and epitomized the “ministry of study,” and made such more accessible for many of us through the years.
A moment I will never forget with Dr. Lewis was at a Christmas party for faculty and staff one year at Harding Graduate School (I was invited because Tracey was one of the secretaries). I sat next to the esteemed man, one of my personal heroes, during the gift exchange, one of those where gifts are passed around and stolen back and forth in fun and holiday frolic. Dr. Lewis and I both had our eyes set on a desk calendar – a Far Side calendar, of all things. We fought over that and stole it back and forth several times. Who knew the smartest man I ever knew liked silly comics, too!
God bless the memory of Jack Pearl Lewis, a true man of the Book!