Think of your favorite movie — any of your favorite movies. Try to imagine it without a musical soundtrack. Would your experience of the movie be any different?
Of course it would. And it doesn’t have to be an award-winning soundtrack. The music cues our emotions, helps us to interpret what we see. There’s bold, swelling music for acts of courage and times of triumph, and plaintive music for death scenes. Dark, foreboding music warns us of the threat lurking around the corner, while a lighter tone accompanies moments of comedy. Whatever the situation, there’s an appropriate score, and our experience of the story would be flatter without it.
What I’m proposing is this: if the gospels had a soundtrack, at least part of it would be from the Psalms.
Studying the story of the Triumphal Entry recently, I’ve been struck again by the subtle role played by Psalm 118, working like background music to the drama. “Hosanna!” the people proclaim, as Jesus rides toward Jerusalem, surrounded by throngs of pilgrims who have come to the city for the Passover festival. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (John 12:13, NRSV).
It’s an echo of Psalm 118:25-26, a song that forms part of the people’s collective memory. The psalm itself seems to have been written for liturgical purposes. In it, an individual (possibly the king) who had called to God from amidst dire circumstances tells of the Lord’s salvation and calls upon the congregation to proclaim with him: “His steadfast love endures forever” (vss. 1-4, 29).
Indeed, the song echoes an even earlier one. When the psalmist declares, “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (vs. 14), we hear the strains of Moses’ song as the Israelites stood on the far shore of the Red Sea: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2).
It’s a bit like having your own theme song.
Interestingly, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus himself quotes the psalm soon after his entry into Jerusalem. After telling the parable of the wicked tenant farmers who killed the landowner’s son, Jesus asks his opponents, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Matt 21:42). Jesus seems to assume that the chief priests and elders know the text: it’s Psalm 118:22-23.
In the context of the psalm itself, the quote seems mostly about how God can miraculously reverse the fortunes of the faithful, of those whom he loves and saves. The community sings that song to remember God’s steadfast love and to trust in his eventual salvation: Don’t give up. God will yet rescue and restore his people.
Problem is, their way of singing the song has gotten out of tune. More on that in the next post.