April 24, 2020 by Melissa Hullinger
The reading for today included Psalms 116-119:33. I ask for the reader’s leniency, though, because something beautiful is happening in this passage, starting with a few Psalms earlier, so I want to include a portion of yesterday’s reading again today.
Hallel (Hebrew for “praise”) is a Jewish liturgy of Psalms 113-118, recited or sung in community, as an expression of praise and gratitude for God’s providence and redemption. The Hallel is recited by observant Jews to mark joyous holidays, including the three pilgrimage festivals–Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot–as well as Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month). In Temple times, this recitation was often accompanied by instruments and dancing. When all of Israel gathered in Jerusalem to sacrifice their Passover lambs, the crowds would sing the Hallel (and inside, the Levites would chant while the priests sacrificed). The liturgy serves as a reminder of God’s provision and a communal celebration of His love and faithfulness.
Psalm 113 starts and ends with “Halleluyah”—a compound of “praise” and a form of the name of God. According to rabbinical tradition, this psalm was recited by the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the plague of the firstborn: On that night, they became servants of Adonai, no longer servants of the Pharaoh. It is a universal exultation of the God Who provides for even the most downtrodden in society, and it leads into Psalm 114, a description of nature’s response to that night of the Exodus, God’s tangible salvation of His people.
Psalm 115 is a beautiful communal psalm, written to uplift the people during a time of strife (v. 2 “Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’”) and remind them that those nations serve useless gods, who cannot see, hear, or speak to them, but Israel’s Lord is their help and shield, Who remembers them and wants to bless them.
Psalm 116 is an interesting interlude, as the psalmist is writing about a dire individual experience, in which he was “overcome by trouble and sorrow” (v. 3) until he called on the name of the Lord. He then reminds Israel of the Lord’s graciousness, righteousness, compassion, protection and salvation; as a response, the psalmist will publicly fulfill vows and offer sacrifices. Israel has also been saved from a desperate situation, and this psalm encourages them to publicly give thanks in response.
Psalm 117, a brief call to praise from all nations and all peoples, introduces the majestic Psalm 118, which opens and closes with the familiar words “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.” Of note, this psalm includes the prophecy, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” and the phrase “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
What struck me in reading and studying these scriptures was the following realization: Jesus, our Messiah, was greeted with that last phrase as He entered Jerusalem triumphantly (Matt 21:9). A few nights later, as He celebrated Passover with His disciples, Jesus sang the Hallel (Mark 14:26, Matt 26:30). This joyful, vibrant communal acknowledgement of God’s provision—yet how difficult was it for Him to recite Psalm 116, knowing what was going to occur in the next few hours? Did our Savior, the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:15), stumble on the words of God’s rescue, knowing that His request for relief (Matt 26:39) would not be answered? Did those familiar words, chanted from memory by our sacrificial Lamb, take on an entirely different meaning to Him that night? We know now, of course, that that Passover marked a new revelation, God’s ultimate provision for our salvation, once and for all. Yet on the evening of the most difficult night imaginable, when His soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34), when He wept and prayed in anguish in Gethsemane—on that night, Jesus sang the Hallel.
I imagine I am not alone in missing the experience of corporate worship right now. While I am grateful for the technology that allows us to gather virtually each Sunday, I miss the physical experience of worshiping together. These are unquestionably trying times, in different measures for each of us, and some of us may be struggling to see God’s presence in the midst of this season. My hope is that these Psalms (113-118) will serve us the way they have served His children for ages. Perhaps some of us simply need words to pray right now because our own words are not coming. Perhaps some of us need the reminder to reflect on the many ways He has been gracious and merciful in the past, to calm fears about what lies ahead. Perhaps some of us need the encouragement that He is good and His lavish love never ends. Wherever you are right now—in joyous times or darkest hours, may we all follow Christ’s example and sing praises. I cannot wait for the day when we can all gather again and can utter, together, “Hallelujah!”