Psalm 118: Gates to right living

‘Open for me the gates of righteousness.’ (19)

An educational sign in the Red Garden of the wonderful National Botanic Gardens in Canberra, replicating the dry red heartland of Australia, advises that palms growing in remote corners of the Kimberley, like those depicted here, may have been native to Australia or imported with aboriginal people many thousands of years ago. Wherever seen, the distinctive shape of palms is well known to many peoples; they grow all over the world including around the Mediterranean and the scene of the entry into Jerusalem.

On both Palm Sunday and on Easter Sunday we are invited to hear Psalm 118, which opens with a song of praise and thanks. Just as Jesus enters the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, so here in the second half of the psalm:

Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them and praise God. (19)

That corner stone now appears.(22) The stone that was rejected became the chief cornerstone of a new world of faith, a new system of justice and life. Several oft-quoted lines follow:

This is the day that God has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it (24)
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God (26)
Give thanks to God, whose mercy endures forever (29)

The Easter story opens a new chapter of the search for justice and justification. This way recognises and compensates for our essential inability to keep the scales of justice and equity in true balance.

Here is how that enduring and powerful text looked in the 1540 Henry VIII Psalter:1

Psalm 118:22 (modern numbering), Henry VIII Psalter, BL Royal MS 2 A XVI

This foundational imagery, a long way from Easter eggs to be sure but no less seminal, is not confined to the psalm. Isaiah is recorded as expanding the builder analogy, including justice, by warning the rulers of the day:

See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet. (Is. 28:16)

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

Concepts of justice were built into English common law long before then. The Magna Carta of 1215 is a famous example. Well before that, biblical precepts were being absorbed into official and secular mores by early rulers. In the 11th century Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) wrote them into draft proclamations by King Cnut. The British Library notes:

The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents.2

God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, “I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted”. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The psalms tell us that justice and equity emanate from the just Creator spirit at the beginning of time. All this was written long ‘BCE’, of course. But the idea is carried forward to the New Testament, with Jesus revealed as the stone in the first letter of Peter, appropriately enough as the apostle who was named ‘stone’.3

On the whole, however, despite centuries of law-making around the world, justice is still rough, equity lacking. The gap between rich and poor is growing, but this seems lost on societies and governments.

Detail of ‘Laudate Dominum’ Ps 117 (118) by Lassus

There are dozens of classical settings of this psalm, including some classical pieces by Renaissance and later composers.

  • Lassus wrote one called Dominus mihi adjutor, starting with text from verse 6. (The illustration above is from the preceding psalm.)
  • There’s an ambitious setting for 16 voices, four quartets, by German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) that runs to 50 pages in one modern transcription. All parts are shown on each page so there are but four bars per page; those pages would flick by quite fast but it’s still a major work. Praetorius (whose family name was originally Schultze, of rather less superior airs) was a German Lutheran.
  • So, in a way, was Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther wrote a lot of words — poems, sermons and ideas — but also several songs, including the well-known Ein feste burg, ‘A mighty fortress’, based on (you guessed it) a psalm, in this case 48. So he was quite capable of running up a good harmony. Perhaps he spied verse 17 of this psalm from a hundred paces and was moved to write the short and sweet four-part motet, Non moriar sed vivam. No doubt the text fitted his mission perfectly: I shall not die but live, and tell the works of the Lord.
Plaque on the rebuilt Damenhof in Augsburg where Luther advocated the centrality of justification by faith.

A building in Augsburg bears a plaque recording the fact that therein, Luther defended himself before the Papal investigation of 1518. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as we know (well, he was a bit rough on the Pope) and he went into hiding.

Amongst modern compositions we find:

  • An old favourite tune suggested in PFAS,This is the day‘ is appropriate. It’s quite repetitive, not necessarily a bad thing. It also suggests a possible antiphonal approach, one group serving a phrase (con brio of course) and another group volleying it back. An enjoyable sing.
  • A Paul Stookey folk song called The building block from verse 22 is a local favourite.
  • NCH has a nice simple refrain but music directors may wish to avoid songs using the jargonistic ‘righteousness’, a word not found in common usage.
  • Everett offers a repetitive but nicely syncopated refrain: Praise the Lord whose love is eternal. And still in a picky mood, a reservation here would be the use of the gender-specific ‘Lord’.

1Henry VIII Psalter digitised manuscript in the British Library Royal MS 2 A XVI, The Law Code II, London, Cotton MS Nero AI, f.33r

3I Peter 2:7-10