by Brian Coatney
Psalm 118 always reminds me of my friend John Shank from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I met John 20+ years ago in the home of my good friend, Scott Breckenridge, who hosted Bible studies in his home. We all knew John was a good guitar player, but we didn’t know just how good he was, and John has exploded in recent years with creative force and unusual beauty and originality in his songwriting and recording. His CD Yeshua has a song on it titled “Your Love Endures Forever,” which he takes from Psalm 118. Every time I read Psalm 118 or hear it quoted, I think, “John!”
The Psalm opens with thanksgiving, always a good place to start in any situation. You can never go wrong giving thanks to the Lord. Then comes the line, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Those few words carry a solid ring, and the word steadfast has a cherishing tone. So what happens now?
“Out of my distress I called on the Lord.” What a surprise: here is distress. Our culture loves the word stress, and it’s a good synonym with distress; life is a composition of distresses and messes, and lo, what do we do? The Psalmist gets an answer by going straight to the Lord, and back comes freedom, confidence, and release from fear.
Now we see another favorite biblical word of mine: refuge. Some might think it’s not so noble to hide out in a refuge, but I think it’s great. When the Lord is the refuge, I enter. A refuge can also simple be a place inside our hearts that we go when trouble comes on the outside, making the refuge not always physical, but always surely the calm place inside.
The Psalmist needed that, and so do we, for look what happens next: “All nations surrounded me.” At this point, one might think, “Well this is certainly more international than my situation, so I don’t relate.” True, this sounds like an apocalyptic event, yet the principle is the same when angry opposition comes at us.
Listen to these words: “They surrounded me like bees.” I hadn’t caught the force of this image before because I’m not around bees except to see them buzzing around in our yard on the flowers and shrubs, so I don’t have occasion to think of an angry hive on the attack against me. It has to be terrifying if you don’t have a bee keeper’s suit on.
The other image here is one of pushing: “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling.” Falling is a helpless sensation; so much goes through the mind, and how helpless I feel when I’m on the way down. However, going into a fall doesn’t necessarily mean falling without remedy. The Lord breaks the fall for the Psalmist, balance is restored, and the assurance of life continuing takes over. In the Psalmist’s case, he recognizes chastening in what he’s been through, but he was spared from death.
I don’t know what the chastening was for. We’ve all been chastened. Sometimes we see a clue in the context that follows a statement, and what we see here is that the Psalmist says, “Open to me the gates of righteousness.” How well I remember knowing the Lord for a long time but living with agitating and fearful worries about what I would do under certain stresses: “Can I hold out?” I didn’t really believe yet and merely wished for the distresses not to be as bad as they had been.
That view never works, for life is relentless, and the negatives pile up. Eventually, we’re pushed to make a stand. I remember my stand: “I can’t try any more. Lord, if life is to continue on in any meaningful way, it will take a miracle.” The gates of righteousness had been open already in Christ Jesus, but I hadn’t known the security of the “Chief cornerstone” in my innermost self. Here was the day.
Funny that the day is always “today.” Notice the familiar words, “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us be rejoice and be glad in it.” The pinpoint is always today. God gives light for today, and the “festal procession” continues.