Summary: Its more than a praise song or call to worship
The Day the Lord has Made
We sing the chorus “This is the Day that the Lord has Made” often in our churches today as a call of worship. In it, we treat “this” as though it referred to today, that God has made this day as He makes every day special. I do not dissent to this as we should always see each day as a gift of God to be thankful for. But perhaps by just looking at today we are missing this psalm’s profound meaning. Let us see.
Exposition of the Text
Psalm 118 has no title which tells us who wrote the psalm like many of the others. The many quotations in the New Testament from Psalm 118 do not name an author either. So who wrote it, when, and for what occasion cannot be determined. There are a few clues which can give us some idea. First of all, the Psalm seems to require the existence of a Temple which would rule out the time of the Babylonian exile. Also, the alternation of “I” and “We” seems to indicate that it was written during the time that kings ruled over Israel. The king would line out the “I” and the people would respond with “we”. No kings ruled between Zedekiah at the time of the exile and a temporary restoration in 160BC by the Maccabees. The Dead Sea Scrolls show familiarity to the Psalm which means that it was not the latter time as well.
So now we find that the Psalm probably was written during the time of the Temple of Solomon. Jeremiah and Isaiah seem to allude to the themes of the Psalm. For since the king was a godly king, then my guess is that it was written by or for King Hezekiah after the Lord had destroyed the Assyrian army before the gates of Jerusalem.
The psalm it what is called a “thanksgiving psalm”. The text indicates that the king and his people had been delivered from certain catastrophe by the hand of the Lord. If this is the time of the Assyrian siege, then it makes sense. The city was surrounded by Sennacherib, the Assyrian army, and their client armies. The Bible tells us that the spokesman of the Assyrians who spoke Hebrew taunted Hezekiah and the troops protecting the city. Hezekiah was basically called a “fool” for trusting that Yahweh, the God of Israel would save him. After all, he hadn’t saved Israel or all the cities of Judah. We know about the letter he spread before the Lord and the prayer he made. We know that the Lord heard and sent Isaiah with the news that the Lord was going to deliver them, and He did.
Understanding this scenario, we hear the shout of triumph and thanksgiving in this psalm. Hezekiah had not put his trust in princes but in the LORD. Josiah would later do the opposite and fail. The pitiful Hezekiah who was so mocked and rejected in the nations was not established in their eyes. It wasn’t Hezekiah’s doing, but the LORD’s. Besides the coming to the Temple at the head of a thankful procession, they would bring sacrifices of thanksgiving which they would bind with chords to the altar.
What I have presented so far is a plausible explanation. However, I am not saying that it is the correct situation. But at any rate, the deliverance in the days of Hezekiah was short lived. The trajectory went downhill from there for the most past. Exile followed and then a return of the remnant, but even the upticks on the health chart were small and short in duration.
By the time of Jesus, the Psalms had long been assembled into the form we have today. They had been translated into Greek for world wide distribution. Psalms 113-18 were collected into a group of praise songs called the “Hallel” or praise songs used for the annual pilgrimage to the Temple at Passover. These would be sung throughout the Passover season.
The lamb for the family at Passover had to be kept up beforehand. And as pilgrims coming from the feast would find it inconvenient to bring one, they would come early to purchase one at the Temple market which had already been certified by the priests.
On the day the lamb for Passover was to be selected, a buzz came from the Jericho Road. Jesus was coming! God’s select Lamb who would take away the sin of the world was arriving. The people waved palm branches thinking him to be the promised King. And he was, but He came as a Lamb. We love to hear the children in the Churches wave their palm branches in our churches on Palm Sunday singing “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD.” This of course is a quote from Psalm 118. The pilgrims would have sung this anyway, but know the Psalm had come alive to them. Here is the King who would deliver them, the Son of David. Yes he was. Would the LORD deliver Israel from Rome the way He did from Sennacherib with a mighty and overt work of power? When I think of the St. John’s Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach and its haunting beauty comes the answer to this—als vie ein Lamm (as a Lamb).