Marching to our own music

Music inspires us. The melodies and harmonies can lift our spirits or create a sense of foreboding; the lyrics can give voice to our longings and fears. As I suggested in the previous post, the Psalms can be taken as something of a soundtrack for the gospel drama. The songs shape the imagination and expectations of a people.

But few have perfect pitch, and not everyone can carry a tune.

When the crowds shouted their Hosannas on Palm Sunday, they were quoting Psalm 118. When shortly thereafter Jesus spoke of himself as “the stone the builders rejected,” he too was quoting Psalm 118. Indeed, the metaphor is used of Jesus by Matthew (21:42), Mark (12:10), Luke (20:17; Acts 4:11), and Peter (1 Pet 2:4, 7).

But why this psalm and not some other? One possible answer: the people were already expecting to sing that song as part of their Passover celebration.

Psalm 118 comes at the end of what’s known as the “Egyptian Hallel” — a set of consecutive psalms that were reminiscent of the story of the exodus from Egypt and traditionally sung at Passover. Psalms 113 and 114 would be sung before the final blessing of the Passover meal; Psalms 115 to 118 would be sung after. Thus, when Matthew tells us that after the Last Supper the disciples sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives (Matt 26:30), he probably had at least Psalm 118 in mind.

Thus, when the crowds acclaimed Jesus as Messiah-king, they did so with Psalm 118 in the backs of their minds: a song praising the God of steadfast love for his mighty, miraculous deliverance. That is, after all, what Passover was meant to commemorate. In the psalm, the blessed one “who comes in the name of the Lord” (vs. 26) is the one rescued by God, who has come to the temple to offer thanks. Applied to Jesus on Palm Sunday, however, the phrase morphs to hail Jesus as the one who comes to bring divine deliverance once again.

For the pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place: the miracle-man has arrived, fresh from performing the mightiest miracle of all; it’s Passover; thoughts of being rescued from the surrounding nations are in the air.

And then someone begins to sing. Soon everyone is singing. The coming of Jesus “is marvelous in their eyes” (Ps 118:23; Matt 21:42).

But wait: the stone hasn’t been rejected yet.

The people in the crowd don’t yet realize that their hope for a miraculous rescue from Rome will soon be thwarted. Their excitement will flip to disillusionment, their adulation to scorn and hatred.

They will be among those who do the rejecting.

The psalm is not the problem. We are. We want to march to our own music, to make the music fit the story we want to tell. We want God to do things our way, to make God the cornerstone of the building we want to build.

Maybe we need to go back to the psalmist’s call to praise: “Let those who fear the Lord say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever'” (Ps 118:4). In other words, praise God for who he is, not for what we think he may do for us.