Written by Matt Benton, Pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA
Psalm 118 is a Psalm of Victory. Literally. I’m not dipping into any special pastor knowledge to say this; it’s the Psalm heading in the NRSV. Psalm 118: A Psalm of Victory. And it is not hard to see why this Psalm has been assigned the heading. This Psalm speaks of vindication. This Psalm speaks of deliverance. This Psalm speaks of a powerful God who gives the singer victory over their enemies. After calling on all of Israel to praise the Lord, the Psalm declares: I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the LORD does valiantly; the right hand of the LORD is exalted; the right hand of the LORD does valiantly.” I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.”
This Psalm is a Psalm about the steadfast love of the Lord overcoming evil, oppression, sin, suffering. This Psalm is a Psalm about the steadfast love of the Lord granting victory to the faithful.
But the telling thing is precisely how that victory of God is meted out.
This Psalm is quoted during the Gospel telling of the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus enters Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. As Jesus enters Jerusalem a crowd gathers and begins shouting “Hosanna” meaning “please save us!” And then quoting this Psalm: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The crowd says “Please save us” and then references a Psalm of God’s victory.
When I think about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I often think about Marcus Borg’s articulation of the two processions that occurred in Jerusalem that year in the lead-up to the Passover. The Bible articulates what Jesus’ procession looked like. But Jesus’ wasn’t the only (grand) procession that occurred that Passover.
Pontius Pilate would have arrived in Jerusalem ahead of the Passover to be a presence in the city during a time of heightened tension. And Pilate would have arrived in such a way as to demonstrate the power of Rome. Pilate’s job was to keep the peace, to ensure that order was maintained. And he would have shown the manner in which he intended to keep the peace. He would have arrived with a massive military garrison. Thousands of foot soldiers. Multiple divisions of cavalry. He would have arrived through the main gate in Jerusalem, riding on a powerful war horse, and taken up residence in the governor’s palace. He would have arrived with the full power and might of Rome at his back and the message would have been clear: behave…or else.
Jesus arrives on a donkey. A humble beast of burden. Jesus arrives with the poor at his back, not a powerful army. Jesus engenders not fear of retribution, but the hope of an oppressed people.
Psalm 118 is a Psalm of victory. But how does our God achieve God’s victory? Not through the fear and coercion of Pilate’s procession. Not through might or strength. Not through threat. Instead, our God achieves victory through the voluntary offering of God’s self for the sake of the world.
Pilate’s procession leads to violence, as it was always meant to. It leads to him ordering the execution of the Son of God. And victory through the logic of Pilate’s procession will always lead to violence, domination, oppression.
Jesus’ procession led to the cross, as it was always meant to. It led to Him willingly accepting death that we might live. And victory through the logic of Jesus’ procession leads to resurrection, atonement, and salvation.
Psalm 118 is a victory Psalm. And we will be tempted to desire and seek out victory through the logic of Pilate’s procession. But when we sing our songs of victory, when we pray for God’s victory in our lives, when we desire our vindication, may we remember our salvation comes through Christ’s procession. A road that leads to the cross. A road that leads to the empty tomb. Having walked that road, then shall we sing “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”