Psalm 118 and 31, 28 March 2021

Palms come in many shapes and sizes, like those who wave them. These ones at Percy Island, Queensland.

Two psalms are listed in the two liturgies for Palm Sunday: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 for the Palms, and Psalm 31:9-16 in the liturgy of the Passion.

The two occasions celebrated are marked by quite different emotions. The shouting crowd waving palms gives way to a moment of sober reflection. The choice of psalm will depend on the flow of the leader’s ideas. Both can be sung — such as the 118 while entering the worship space and 31 inside.

This post looks at 118 as that set for the Palms but in truth, neither refers particularly to riding on donkeys over fronds. For comments on the second set psalm see Psalm 31: Refuge when besieged.

118 is a song of thanksgiving and praise, and invites a cheerful voice. It is the last of the Hallel psalms (113 to 118), which in the Jewish tradition were repeated together on holy days as a prayer of praise and thanks.

Sunday’s reading includes verses 1-2 and 19-29. This includes verses 22 and 23, from which came the whole idea of the stone which the builders rejected. They are quoted directly in Matthew 21:

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is amazing in our eyes”?
The rejected stone of Psalm 118:22 (modern numbering), Henry VIII Psalter, BL Royal MS 2 A XVI. Literally: ‘The stone which (they) refused, the builders,’ noting that order does not matter much in Latin.


This quote has often been used in Woden Valley to prompt rolling out Paul Stookey’s song ‘The building block’, with words suitably paraphrased to fit the tune. Many other good settings are available.

Entry to Psalm 118 in a motet by Lassus

Together in Song has a nice one by Christopher Willcock (TiS 74) requiring a confident cantor but worth considering. As is often the case in TiS, the RCL verses are not fully included but this should not condemn entirely.

The Emergent Psalter presents a refrain that is easier than some of those in this book. (Choose your own tone.) Conversely, the Taizé song in Psalms for All Seasons (118C), uncharacteristically for Berthier, requires a little more care than usual. Still, this book gathers no less than eight other settings for your perusal.

As for early music, the earliest of polyphonists, Léonin and Pérotin would have included 118 in their works. An interesting TTBB is listed in CPDL, Aperite mihi portas by Giovanni Francesco Anerio (1567-1630). It’s only one page but would need reasonably experienced singers. Several others by composers from John Mouton and Martin Luther to Pascal L’Estocart might interest the enterprising quartet.

Audiovisuals of such nice early compositions specific to Psalm 118 are scarce online at present, so I offer you the energy of Paul Stookey. The words of his verses are not those of the psalm, but as noted above it’s easy to fit paraphrased words of 118 to this great tune.

For more commentary on this psalm, please see Psalm 118: Gates to right living.

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