With gratitude for Jehovah’s goodness, the psalmist in Psalm 118 begins with a fourfold declaration of God’s never failing mercy. The nation, the priests, and all that fear the Lord are urged to say with him “that his mercy endures forever.” This is much on the psalmist’s heart as he describes how God had answered his prayer and delivered him from a host of enemies. The Lord had chastised him, “but he hath not given me over unto death” (18). Jehovah’s steadfast love had helped him. “The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation” (14).
As frequently happens in Old Testament literature, in the context of historical concerns, the Holy Spirit causes the writer to insert statements with Messianic implications. In verse 19 he pleads, “Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them” (19). “Righteousness” means justification. The “gate” indicates the way into, or means by which, one can be made right with God. Only God can make righteousness/justification possible. In its fullest sense, justification was not possible in the time of the psalmist. The law under which he lived could not provide justification. “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20). The opening of the “gate of righteousness” would be by the gospel. Paul wrote that the gospel is the “power of God to salvation . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:16ff). Those who enter the gate of the Lord are those who have been made righteous—made right with God, i.e., justified (20ff). The words of the poet anticipated the coming of the gospel age.
The next verses (22ff) would seem unconnected were it not for New Testament explanations. “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” Some commentators have struggled to apply this to something in the time of the psalmist. The apostle Peter, however, explained it as a prophetic metaphor for Christ’s having been rejected and murdered, but raised up to be the cornerstone of salvation. He told the Jewish hierarchy that they had crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. “This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone” (Acts 4:11). Jesus himself had cited the same to show the folly and failure of their efforts against him (Matt. 21:42ff).
The figure of Christ as a “stone” is prominent in Messianic prophecy. Isaiah 28:16 foretells the establishment of the church on a stone foundation. “Therefore, thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation . . .’” At Zion, Jerusalem, would be the beginning of the gospel system and the founding of the church. The stone (Christ) had been rejected, but God has made him the cornerstone (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11). It is significant that in Jesus’ promise concerning the church, he spoke of himself as the “rock” (stone) upon which the church would be built (Matt. 16:18). His choice of “this rock” as a metaphor for himself reflected the “stone” prophecies of Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22.
That the stone was to be laid in Zion (Jerusalem) pointed to Acts 2, the beginning of the gospel/church age when the apostles preached Christ as the “chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:20). For those who reject the stone, it is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (Isa. 8:14; Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8).
Exalting Christ to be the chief cornerstone is described by the psalmist as “marvelous in our eyes.” This might seem an understatement. Indeed, that the rejected stone (Christ crucified) was raised from death to be the chief cornerstone is the greatest event in all history. The psalmist then adds, “This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (24). As Creator, God has made every day. Here, however, it is a special day that the Lord has made. Certain days are special because of events that happened on them. Israel was commanded to keep every Sabbath day as a memorial of their deliverance from bondage (Deut. 5:15). The day chosen for their special remembrance was the day God rested after six days of creation (Gen 2:2; Ex. 20:8ff). Sundays are special days for Christians because Jesus arose on the first day of the week. When John on Patmos said, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” he was referring to the day named by the Psalmist, “the day the Lord has made,” the day of Christ’s resurrection, the first day of the week. The church met for the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). “We will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Another New Testament connection will be found in verses 25-26. “Save now, I beseech thee” is the meaning of the word “hosanna,” and is taken from this psalm. This was the shout of the multitude as Jesus rode triumphally into Jerusalem. With it they also were shouting verse 26. “Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Hosanna in the highest!’” (Matt. 21:9).
“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”