This psalm opens with the imperative, “Give thanks to YHWH.” Expressions of gratitude are rightly directed to him, for he is “good,” the ultimate standard in moral excellence and the source of all good things, and his abiding love, compassionate concern or “mercy” (LXX) continues for all time to come. The lasting nature of his compassionate care assures his servants that they can always rely on it.
Israel, the house of Aaron or the priests, those fearing YHWH or those having reverential regard for him are to “say” or acknowledge that YHWH’s compassionate concern is everlasting. According to the Septuagint, they are to “praise” him because he is good and his mercy is forever (literally, “into the age”).
While experiencing distress, the psalmist called upon Yah (YHWH) for aid, and Yah answered his plea. The Masoretic Text literally reads, “Yah answered me in [with] a broad space.” This suggests that the psalmist felt hemmed in or trapped, with no maneuverability or avenue of escape. Relief came with an end to the confining circumstances that threatened him and his coming to have a “broad space.”
Confident that YHWH was on his side, the psalmist determined not to give in to fear. His complete trust in YHWH’s protective care is revealed in the question, “What can man do to me?” The implied answer is nothing that could lead to permanent harm. (See the Notes section regarding verse 6.)
With YHWH on his side to help him, the psalmist believed that he would look upon those who hated him, meaning that he would see the downfall of his enemies. They would receive the punishment they deserved.
Far better it is for one “to take refuge in YHWH,” looking to him for help and protection, than “to trust” in man, a mere earthling whose ability to offer aid is very limited and may be restricted on account of self-interest. In the Septuagint and a Dead Sea scroll, the expression “to take refuge” is “to trust” and is then repeated in the second part of the verse, where the Masoretic Text reads the same.
It is better “to take refuge” in YHWH than “to trust” in princes or rulers. Although in possession of more authority and power than people generally, rulers are still mortals and limited in what they may be willing or able to do. In this case, the reading of the Dead Sea scroll is the same as the Masoretic Text, but the Septuagint uses a form of the word elpízo, (“hope” or “trust”) in both parts of the verse.
The psalmist indicated that “all nations surrounded” him, which suggests that he spoke for Israel as a whole and represented his actions as those of his people. In the name of YHWH or with complete reliance on God, he was able to fend off the enemy nations.
Continuing, the psalmist repeated the thought, “They surrounded, surrounded me, indeed surrounded me. In the name of YHWH I fended them off.” The repetition of “surrounded” indicates that the enemies appeared to have the advantage and that an extremely perilous situation had developed, with no maneuverability or avenue for escape.
Like bees, the enemy nations surrounded him, but their capacity to inflict harm came to nothing. They were extinguished like a fire of thorns. This could refer to how thorns quickly burst into flames and are soon consumed, extinguishing the fire. The Septuagint rendering indicates that the enemy nations burst into flames “like fire among thorns.” Modern translations have rendered the Hebrew text in various ways. “They swarmed around me like bees, but they died out as quickly as burning thorns.” (NIV) “They have beset me like bees; they shall be extinguished like burning thorns.” (Tanakh) “They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns.” (NRSV) “They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like fire among thorns.” (NAB) “They swarmed around me like bees, they flared up like a brushwood fire.” (NJB) “They swarmed round me like bees; they attacked me, as fire attacks brushwood.” (REB)
The psalmist next directed his words to the foe, “You pushed me hard.” With such intensity did the enemy push against him that he was about to fall, but YHWH helped him, saving him from calamity.
“Yah” (YHWH) proved to be his strength and his song. The Most High granted him the assistance needed to triumph over the enemy, providing the basis for joyful songs of praise and thanksgiving. YHWH came to be “salvation” to the psalmist, delivering him from the threatening situation.
In the “tents” of the upright songs of victory can be heard, appreciatively acknowledging YHWH’s help. His “right hand” (representative of his great power) had been directed against the enemy, working in a powerful manner for his servants. In being “exalted” or lifted up, the “right hand of YHWH” would be in a position to strike, showing itself to be mighty.
Confident in YHWH’s saving aid, the psalmist declared that he would not die but would live, making it possible for him to relate YHWH’s (Yah’s) deeds. He regarded the perilous situation in which he came to be as the means by which Yah had disciplined or corrected him. Although the chastening had been severe, he had been delivered and not been given over to death.
The “gates of righteousness” could refer to the gates leading into the courtyard of the sanctuary. Possibly the request, “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” are directed to the priests or Levites. The psalmist thus expressed the desire to be permitted to enter the sacred court in order to thank Yah for the help he had been given.
“The gate of YHWH” would have been a gate associated with the sanctuary, as it was his representative place of dwelling. Through this gate, the upright would enter to worship him.
Having received the answer to his prayers, the psalmist expressed gratitude, acknowledging YHWH as having been the source of his deliverance. Possibly in his state of distress, the psalmist regarded himself as a stone that builders had rejected as unsuitable for their purposes. By reason of the deliverance the Most High effected, however, he had been greatly honored, coming to be like the stone at the “head of the corner” or the most important stone. (For the application to Jesus Christ, see the Notes section on verse 22 and 23.)
In the next verse, the dramatic change from a rejected stone to a stone in a vital position is attributed to YHWH. This was something marvelous in the eyes of his servants.
The amazing reversal proved to be like the making of a new day. Therefore, the reference is to the “day YHWH has made.” It was a “day” in which to rejoice and jubilate.
In verse 25, the opening interjection could be rendered “Ah” or “O,” but it has commonly been left untranslated. At this point, the psalmist used the first person plural, referring to the people in their time of distress. The appeal is directed to YHWH, pleading that he deliver them and grant prosperity or success (which could be understood as applying to successful efforts against the foe).
The one coming in YHWH’s name (the “anointed one” or the king) or the one coming as a representative of the Most High is pronounced blessed. In view of the context, he may be regarded as coming to the sanctuary as a victor to present an offering of thanksgiving. Those at YHWH’s house or there at the sanctuary do the blessing. (For additional comments on verse 26, see the Notes section.)
YHWH’s giving “light” probably refers to his effecting deliverance, bringing an end to the gloom that had resulted from the distress. Gratefully, the procession of worshipers would walk to the altar in the court of the sanctuary. The Masoretic Text is somewhat obscure in describing this aspect. A literal reading would be, “Bind [the] festival [procession] with cords [or branches] up to the horns of the altar.” This has been interpretively translated in various ways. “Link the pilgrims with cords as far as the horns of the altar.” (REB) “With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” (NIV) “Bind the festal offering to the horns of the altar with cords.” (Tanakh)
The psalmist acknowledged YHWH as his God. He resolved to express thanks to him and to extol or exalt him, giving him all the credit for the deliverance. (See the Notes section for additional comments on verse 28.)
Psalm 118 concludes as it began, with the imperative, “Give thanks to YHWH.” The wording of the complete verse is identical to that of the opening verse.
Regarding the divine name (abbreviated as Yah), see Psalm 1.
In verse 6, the Septuagint reads, “[The] Lord [is] my helper. I shall not fear. What can man do to me?” The wording is the same in the quotation found at Hebrews 13:6.
Unlike the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, a Dead Sea scroll omits the words of verse 11, which repeats the point about being “surrounded.”
Jesus Christ applied the words about the rejected stone (Psalm 118:22, 23) to himself (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10, 11; Luke 20:17), and the same application is found in Acts 4:10, 11 and 1 Peter 2:7.
In verse 26, the significance may either be “come” or “enter.” This is reflected in modern translations. “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the LORD.” (REB) “May he who enters be blessed in the name of the LORD.” (Tanakh; note that this interpretive rendering represents the one entering as being blessed by the people in the name of the LORD.) “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.” (NAB)
A Dead Sea scroll, in verse 26, adds “by name” (“we bless you by name”).
The crowd that acknowledged Jesus as the “son of David,” or the rightful heir to the kingship in the royal line of Judah, used the words of Psalm 118:26, “Blessed [is] the one coming in the Lord’s name.” (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9, 10; John 12:13) In Luke 19:38, the one coming is identified as being “the king.” Jesus Christ applied Psalm 118:26 to himself when indicating that those who rejected him would not see him again until they acknowledged him with the words of the psalmist. (Matthew 23:39; Luke 13:35)
In verse 28, the extant Septuagint text adds that the psalmist would acknowledge God because of having heard him and come to be his savior.