There seems to be no end to the current stream of superhero movies produced by Hollywood. There is obviously an insatiable appetite the world over for heroes. We gawk at them, root for them, dream we are them, and pay good money to see them. We love our heroes, even when forced to choose between Superman vs. Batman! Well, who is your hero? What is your hero to you? An ego-booster, an example, a champion, a teacher, a guide, a master? All serve as a kind of savior from one particular trouble or another.
Everyone trusts in someone to get them out of trouble. That person will necessarily be yourself or someone else. Americans like to think in terms of rugged individualism. “I can handle this. I don’t need your help.” But when real trouble—dangerous, life-threatening trouble—surrounds you, like most people you cry out for a hero. A savior. It’s the way you and I are designed to handle distress when faced with our greatest enemies.
The Bible clearly affirms you need a savior from the great troubles and enemies that threaten you. The human heart is adept at appointing various kinds of heroes to save us, and many are God’s merciful gifts to us. But there is only one God-appointed Hero who deserves our worship, praise, and thanks.
Psalm 118 is the last of the Hallel Psalms (113-118). It is a song that Jews still sing to this day during festivals and holy days. And it is a favorite of the NT authors who many times applied it to Jesus as he first applied it to himself (Mt 21 and synoptic ||’s; Acts 4; Heb 13; 1 Pet 2). We can get a deeper understanding of this psalm when we consider its liturgical use of antiphonal response. There are several “actors” in this play (vv. 1-4). (1) The psalmist, who is the victorious King returning from battle; (2) the people following in his train, who are Israel; (3) the temple gatekeepers, who are the Priests; and (4) the actors and you as spectators, who are All Those Who Fear the LORD.
Eyes Off Man (Your distress and how to handle it)
Don’t trust in man (friends, foes, self) (vv. 5-9)
This is Christianity 101. No one can call himself a believer in Christ and be united in profession to his Church without a fundamental renouncement of trusting in man. Yet we still need to be reminded, again and again. Why? Because as fallen selfish people our natural instinct is to trust in ourselves first, secondly to trust in our network of helpers (family and friends), and finally as a last resort to call out to God for help. The psalmist King has a clear-eyed view of what man can do for him. To trust in man (friends) or even princes (friends with power and influence) for help in distress is to stand on sinking or shifting sand. Jesus also took his eyes off man when he was being praised and followed (Jn 2:23-25). This principle (eyes off man) logically follows from what the King knows man can do to him as his enemy. There is no reason to fear man since he can genuinely look in triumph on those who hate him. Yet he doesn’t look to himself either as a rugged American individualist. So he doesn’t trust in friend, foe, or self. This is completely unnatural! Who does this? How is the King able to not trust his friends, not fear his foes, and not look to the hero within? There is only one possible answer. He puts his trust in the one bigger than them all.
Do trust in God (ezer-helper) (vv. 5-9)
The Hebrew word translated “helper” is ezer. It is used 16 of 21 times in the OT to describe God as Israel’s helper. God as ezer is a strong helper, one who fights alongside all those who trust in him (vv. 6-7). As this psalm teaches, God the ezer is a mighty warrior. Sounds manly. But where does this leave women? When God created Eve as Adam’s “helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18), she was appointed Adam’s ezer. The female is made in God’s image, and in God’s likeness she is made a strong helper to the male. As woman helps man, so also the LORD helps the King. Talk about female empowerment! When men and women trust in God, they both become fearless and confident, and humble and dependent at the same time. Our problem is that’s easy to say until distress comes, right?
Christians don’t trust in man until presidential election season when we buy the lie that we’re electing our Pastor-in-Chief. Unbelievers get into the act when they expect the next president to be the Political Messiah, their powerful and influential friend in high places who will keep all campaign promises. But it’s not just politics. While Christians lament the celebrity pastor’s fall like it’s the end of the Golden Era, the rest of the world rises and falls with the fate of their favorite sports team, TV series, or cultural ideology. It turns out taking your eyes off man when the going gets tough is difficult. We handle stress by trusting in God, which requires faith. But it’s not a faith with your eyes shut.
Eyes Wide Open (Your opposition and how to think of it)
First, notice divine sovereignty in this psalm (vv. 13-17). Reformed Christians are at ease declaring God’s control over their lives. We’re at home with the doctrine. We readily give God credit for deliverance because we understand rightly that “salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jon 2:9; Rev 7:10). The Bible teaches you to recount the deeds of the Lord, to boast of God’s right hand that delivers you from trouble. But sometimes we forget, or at least minimize, the ways God works deliverance through his appointed means. Sometimes through the work of a deliverer (a hero) like Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, Deborah, Esther, Mary. Other times through you.
Next, see the complementary human responsibility alongside divine sovereignty (vv. 10-12). Yes, we tend to get a little uncomfortable with the parts of the Bible that draw attention to our part in deliverance. Don’t overlook what the psalmist says about his own valiant efforts. In the King’s own words: “In the name of the LORD I cut them off!” He does not sit back, do nothing, and wait for God to deliver him. He is active, straining with all his strength against the opposition. He is working hard, “doing his part” we might say. There is a lesson here: divine sovereignty and human responsibility are compatible. They function together in a mysterious, not completely revealed way. God even means that evil, suffering, and the opposition of your enemies works for your good. How do we know this?
Discipline (chastisement from the Lord) (v. 18)
At the most basic level, the King realized it was ultimately God who was actively working through his opposition, not just passively using evil like rescuers respond to a flood and bring good out of it. The King knows God is sovereign, that nothing happens outside the purpose of his will, and that God does nothing to him that is not for his own good. The Hebrew verb for discipline is yasar, but the pattern of the verb in this verse alters the meaning to “chasten”. So the sense is, through adversity and opposition, God has disciplined the King for his spiritual growth by enrolling him in the “school of hard knocks.” This is tough training, a discipline with teeth (Heb 12:11)!
I’ve been in pastoral ministry for almost seven years. Before that I was in seminary for six and a half years. Those time periods are roughly equivalent. Yet for all the wonderful, valuable things I learned in class and in books, I think I can say the Lord has caused me to grow stronger in him through my deliverance from opposition, suffering, and life’s great enemies. And I don’t think my experience is any different than yours. We grow stronger when we become more dependent on the Lord. For me, I’ve experienced failed romances, my parents’ divorce, the sudden death of my youngest brother, the deaths of all my grandparents, family strife, unemployment, personal character attacks, hospitalization, the trials of parenting, loss of friends, investment failure, critical performance reviews, and more. Your list is surely similar and different. It may be shorter, but it might be longer. Yet looking back on it all I can count it as the Lord’s loving chastisement. Not because I now live happy ever after (there is surely more opposition to come). But because I believe “he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.”
If you are going to avoid getting angry at God when enemies surround you, when opposition engulfs you, you must see it all as the Lord’s loving chastisement for your good, and thank him for it. Otherwise you’ll surely succumb to either bitterness or despair. You either say in your heart, “God, you’re really my enemy!” or “God, you’ve abandoned me!” Only with eyes wide open can you accurately survey the battlefield. This is not some eyes-shut religious crutch we delude ourselves with. God really is in control. You have work to do in actively opposing your enemies. And God as your Heavenly Father is in it all with a grand overarching purpose: disciplining you like beloved sons just as he disciplined King Jesus his one and only Son (Heb 12:3-13).
Eyes On the King (Your salvation and how to share in it)
The Chastised and Righteous One (vv. 18-21)
Remember Psalm 118 is an OT song looking back in faith and looking forward by faith. It reenacts how God had delivered Israel multiple times in her history. But in its grandiose language the psalm refuses to be a simple remembrance. It has the feeling of unfulfilled expectation because no OT king ever perfectly fit the pattern of this hero. Follow along in this psalm to get a sense of this. The King has been sufficiently chastised by God, and has triumphed over his enemies with the Lord’s strong help. Now he approaches the temple to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving. The Priests meet the King and all those following the victorious hero. As all eyes are on the King a formal scripted dialog begins. Everyone knows their lines. First the King speaks, requesting entrance (v. 19). Next the Priests announce the requirement (v. 20). Then the King speaks, thanking God for saving him and thus vindicating his righteousness (v. 21). The idea is the wicked died but only the righteous shall live to recount the Lord’s deeds and give thanks. But which of Israel’s kings was not “given over” to death? Which king was only chastened as a righteous man but never disciplined as a sinner? Which king was ever qualified to enter the gates of the righteous to give thanks to the LORD?
The Rejected Stone and Cornerstone (vv. 22-23)
Then the Priests reply with those famous words quoted numerous times in the NT (v. 22). The King is the “stone” who his enemies rejected, but through his victory the King has become the cornerstone. The Priests speak approvingly. The humble has been exalted! Next Israel replies, giving God glory and credit for the King’s marvelous victory (v. 23). But again, which of Israel’s heroes was so humbled and exalted? The best candidate in the OT is David, a humble shepherd boy who rose through the ranks to become a valiant warrior and conqueror. He became the moral and spiritual standard of every king who descended from him. As the founder of the Davidic dynasty (one of the longest lasting royal dynasties in all human history), the broken cornerstone of his legacy caused the collapse of the House of David. Which king was rejected by his enemies yet became the cornerstone of an indestructible house—the Lord’s house which is his Church, his Temple?
The Day of Salvation (vv. 24-25)
The play continues. The Priests rejoice in this day of deliverance, a day made and orchestrated by God (v. 24). And then Israel rise up behind their hero, praying to God for salvation and success (v. 25). But what day in redemptive history can truly be described like this day? A day when all nations surrounded the King who could say a single enemy attacked him (vv. 10, 13). A day when the King will never again be given over to death. What day could possibly be described in such terms except the Day of Victory, the Day of Life, the Day of Resurrection?
The Sacrifice of Thanks (vv. 26-28)
The first line of verse 26 belongs to the Priests. They bless the King: the Chastened, Righteous Deliverer who comes in the name of the LORD. Then Israel speaks the second line of verse 26, returning the blessing to the Priests. All eyes still on the King. The Priests speak next to confirm the LORD God as the source of blessing, and then give instructions for offering the thanksgiving sacrifice on the altar (v. 27). Finally the King speaks the closing words of the liturgy, giving thanks and enthusiastic praise to God. This King is a beautiful, clear-eyed picture of Jesus Christ, the Son of David. For he is the Blessed King who comes in the name of the LORD (Lk 19:38). He is God’s Light that shines upon his people (Jn 8:12). He is the perfect sacrifice of thanksgiving as he lived his whole life as a thank offering to God. If all this is true of Jesus our King, then why did the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday feel like rain on a parade?
Occasionally I’ll be in a playful mood during family reading time. My kids bring me picture books they already know. Either I’ve read to them those old books a dozen times before, or Mom read them a new book just yesterday. So when they already know the plot and the words, I like to change the story in silly ridiculous ways so it plausibly fits the pictures. I try to present my changes as serious as possible, like it’s the real thing. It’s like turning something simple, predictable, and good into a fractured fairy tale—a “theater of the absurd.” The kids love it, but they are never ever fooled. There is a similar irony unfolding during Christ’s Triumphal Entry. The play seems to be going so well until the priests and leaders of Israel, who have rehearsed their part at festival after festival for centuries, suddenly forget who they are. They lost the plot when Showtime finally arrived! Psalm 118 had trained them how to share in the salvation won by the King. But they became the King’s enemies instead. They rejected the Stone that God made the Cornerstone! How ironic and tragic. Yet God had not lost control of the play, so his people were still able to meaningfully respond “This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (v. 23).
So what does this mean for you? Keep your eyes on the script and play your part well. You are not the hero. King Jesus is. He is the God-appointed hero who delivers you from every enemy—his and yours. He is your strong helper (ezer) who chastises you for your good, building you up to make you fearless and confident, and humble and dependent at the same time. That’s how trusting in the Lord, the Savior-Hero, transforms you. When people and circumstances oppose you, you’ll stand firm in the Lord. People who you fear what they can do to you—like your boss, the bully, politicians, the violent, you name it—will no longer paralyze you in fear. “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” And the people you fear what they won’t do for you—like give acceptance, approval, love, honor—will no longer hold you in their grip. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man or princes.” Instead you’ll be empowered by Jesus. On Palm Sunday, Psalm 118 calls All Those Who Fear the LORD to respond in faith: “His steadfast love endures forever.”
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