Reflections on Psalm 118

Psalm 118 is chock full of verses that many church-goers will know. It’s a truly inspirational Psalm in its hope, joy, optimism, and faith. Yet, we often isolate verses from this Psalm and miss out on the richness of them within the context of the whole Psalm. Psalm 118 invites us to see the goodness and sovereignty of God as complimentary attributes that invite our trust.

It is the combination of these attributes that makes God great. His sovereignty alone would not invite trust, but rather fear. For, if God is not good but can do all things then we may rightly fear what He will cause and bring about in our lives. If, however, God is only good and not sovereign then we may know his love for us but it feels largely sentimental. For, God cares but is incapable of intervening to help us in our time of need. That God is both sovereign and good is truly remarkable and encouraging. The dual attributes invite our trust.

The Psalmist begins with the repeated phrase “the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever” (v. 1-4). These verses invite Israel as a whole, the house of Aaron in particular, and all those who fear the Lord in general to trust and believe in the goodness of this God. He has an enduring love that can never be shaken, dissolved, or depleted. It endures through all generations, through all of time, through all circumstances. Trust this God because He loves forever!

Then, the Psalmist gets personal. He speaks of a time when he called out to the Lord in distress (v. 5) and God answered Him. In fact, more pointedly, the Lord set him free. He describes the Lord as being “on my side” or as his “helper.” The confidence He has in God enables him to be fearless in the face of man. “What can man do to me?” (v. 6). We are getting a glimpse from the Psalmist as to just how powerful and capable this God is. Verses 8-9 give us a comparison to show us just how reliable the Lord is. The Psalmist says plainly:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord

    than to trust in man.

It is better to take refuge in the Lord

    than to trust in princes.

God is greater than all men, even powerful men. The Psalmist is not only free from fear of man but he is free from ultimate dependence of man. God is more reliable. The combination of sovereignty and goodness makes Him a better advocate, a better savior, a better “refuge.”

It’s not, of course, that man cannot harm or that man can never be trusted. That would be an overstatement of what this Psalm is getting at. The Psalms are poetic language and as such should not be over-extended in application. The point the Psalmist wants to make, however, is that God is ultimately in control and ultimately good. Can man harm? Yes, and the Psalms and the Scriptures as a whole describe many wicked scenarios of this reality. Man cannot, however, steal our ultimate hope and confidence. Man can only harm the body, not the soul (Matt. 10:28), and even at that man can only do what God permits and no more (Prov. 16:9; Prov. 21:1). Can man be trusted? Yes, absolutely and God has created us to have meaningful relationships. But no man can be more trustworthy than God. We should never hang all our hope and salvation on men. Only God can be trusted fully and He may choose to work through men or He may choose to work apart from them, but He is the one who does it!

The Psalmist unpacks a bit more clearly what he means in verses 5-7, when he speaks of crying out to the Lord and receiving rescue. In verses 10-13 he describes being surrounded by many nations and many foes, and the Lord enabled Him to resist them and the Lord delivered Him. Once again the Lord was his helper (v. 13). It causes him to burst in to praise in verses 14-16 declaring that the Lord is salvation, and the Lord has done “valiantly.”

Verse 18 stands out as rather unique in this Psalm. It speaks less of God’s triumph, or of the Psalmist’s faith and fearlessness, and instead seems randomly to speak of the Lord’s discipline. It reads:

The Lord has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death.

The Psalmist was “severely” disciplined. Perhaps that is a reference to these nations and foes surrounding him. Perhaps the Lord sent armies to try him and punish him. Yet, whatever the meaning, He speaks of the Lord’s goodness again. The Psalmist knows what he deserved, he was being disciplined, and yet the Lord did not give him over to death. “I shall not die,” he declares in verse 16. The Lord’s goodness abounds even in His discipline. The Lord is still his “salvation” (v. 21).

Verse 22 speaks of a “cornerstone” that the builders rejected. In the immediate context this is most likely a self-referential statement. The Psalmist views himself as this cornerstone rejected by others, but which God has reclaimed and used as a the cornerstone of His people. Once again, the Psalmist notes that regardless of what men think and do, God has a plan and is working it out. What’s interesting for us as modern readers, however, is that Jesus applies this passage to Himself in Matthew 21:42. The apostles repeat this reference about Jesus too (see Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Peter 2:7). Ultimately our hope in God is strong because we have Christ as our cornerstone. He has made a way for us to be perfectly united to God, He has rescued us from our ultimate enemy of sin, He has been our true help! Because Christ is on our side we have nothing to fear!

Christ is the perfect demonstration of the goodness and sovereignty of God. The cross itself speaks to this. For, the crucifixion was God’s “definite plan” and every detail of it was foreknown by God before it happened (Acts 2:23), His sovereignty delivered Christ up for crucifixion. And this happened because God is good and loves sinful man. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” (John 3:16). The dual attributes of sovereignty and goodness invite our trust. God can do all things and He can work all things for our good (Rom. 8:28) because He is good.

Such news leads the Psalmist to be able to rejoice in whatever comes because each day is made by the good and sovereign hand of the Lord. Even when foes surround him he will say:

This is the day that the Lord has made;  let us rejoice and be glad in it. (v. 24)

Can you say the same? Have you cultivated such trust in God in your own life? Meditate on these dual attributes of sovereignty and goodness and allow your faith in the Lord to increase.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you. I really needed this today as I face a legal situation in which I do not have an attorney. I’m hoping for God to be my advocate once again. I vacillate between trust and worry, even though I know I’m to be anxious for nothing. Thank you for giving me an infusion of positive hopefulness that God has this!

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