Military mode, Psalm 118

People often speak of Christ’s church existing in two parts: the Church triumphant and the Church militant.

The difference is often explained as that between believers who have died and believers who are still alive, but the difference is primarily one of location. The Church triumphant is in heaven and the Church militant is on earth. The souls of believers who have been translated to heaven are still very much alive, but they wait for the renewal of all things when their souls will be reunited with their glorified bodies.

We believers on earth long for that day with increasing eagerness, but we can’t allow the cares and concerns of this life to overwhelm us until we hunker down in a self-constructed bunker. That fortress mentality leads to becoming paralyzed in a fetal position.

We need to uncurl, stand up, and walk forward. From before the creation of the world, God prepared work for us to do for the common good and his glory. We are his sonnets, his symphonies, his great American novels, his best of the show watercolors. We are not his rhymes, his ditties, his comic books, or his scribbles. Ephesians 2:10 assures us that we are his masterpieces.

And Psalm 118 shows us that we do not aimlessly amble as we walk forward in God’s good works; we walk forward in military mode. This psalm gleams with brilliant gems like the crown of a conquering king.

Bookended by thankful praise for God’s steadfast love, the psalm begins and ends with identical verses (1 & 29, ESV):

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!

These beautiful and uplifting phrases are not unique to this psalm; many psalms contain similar expressions of thankfulness for God’s unfailing love. But God’s unchanging love is emphasized through repetition in verses 2-4, which call believers to repeat, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

The next section of the psalm reiterates the familiar refrain of personal rescue:

Out of my distress I called on the LORD;
the LORD answered me and set me free.
The LORD is on my side; I will not fear.
What can man do to me?
The LORD is on my side as my helper;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me (5-7, ESV).

The Lord heard the psalmist’s cry for mercy and set him free from his distress. Because he has seen the hand of God in his life, he knows that God is on his side and he need not fear any mere mortal. He knows that by God’s grace he will triumph over those who hate him.

This song of triumph is a battle song; the psalmist sings in military mode. The Lord has rescued this soldier from his enemies and will give him the final victory over them. If the Lord of hosts in on our side, we do not need to fear any man. If King Jesus leads us into battle, we can be assured of the outcome. We will see the complete defeat of the wicked.

But our trust must be in Christ.

It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in princes (8-9, ESV).

All men are sinners and will disappoint, discourage, even betray. We cannot put our trust in any man, no matter how perfect and godly he appears. Our trust must be firmly planted on the solid rock of Christ.

The next section (verses 10-13) describes in highly visual language the psalmist’s fight for his life as he was surrounded on every side by enemies like “bees” who came toward him like a “fire among thorns.” But he was able to cut them off in the name of the Lord. He was falling, but the Lord helped him.

The next section seems to depict a military camp after a day of battle (14-16, ESV):

The LORD is my strength and song;
he has become my salvation.
Glad songs of salvation
are in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the LORD does valiantly,
the right hand of the LORD exalts,
the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!”

One can almost imagine smoke rising from dying fires after weary warriors have been refreshed with meat and drink. Resting in their tents or around the glowing embers as dusk deepens, they sing songs of salvation that give God all the glory. God’s right hand exalts! God’s right hand does valiantly!

I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the LORD.
The LORD has disciplined me severely,
but he has not given me over to death (17-18, ESV).

In amazement, the psalmist sings of his deliverance from what seemed certain death. You may feel the knife of trial at your throat. You may feel that God is disciplining you more than you can bear. But he is not allowing you to die. He saves your life. And he saves you for a purpose. You shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord!

The next section (verses 19-24) evokes the image of a victorious king entering the gates of his city in triumphal procession. The references to “gates of righteousness” and giving thanks to God also suggest corporate worship. And “the gate of the LORD” through which the righteous enter seems to indicate Christ, the only way of salvation.

Verses 21 and 22 focus in increasing sharpness on Christ:

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders have rejected
has become the cornerstone.

It is good to remember that verses 23 and 24 directly follow this Messianic prophesy.

This is the LORD’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

We can appropriately attribute many marvelous things to the Lord. And we can rejoice in every day that the Lord has made. But the “This” in verse 23 is first and foremost salvation through Christ. Our primary joy is in the day of salvation.

One can envision the triumphal procession of the Lord’s army coming into the house of God to thank him. And to pray for continued success (25, ESV):

Save us, we pray, O LORD!
O LORD, we pray, give us success!

The scene of corporate praise continues:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us (26-27a, ESV).

This corporate worship includes “festal sacrifice” (27b, ESV) and exuberant personal thanksgiving:

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you (28, ESV).

As noted earlier, Psalm 118 concludes with the same bookend of thanks for God’s steadfast love with which it began.

We are the Church. Those who have conquered in the fight rest in the great tent of heaven as the Church triumphant. Those of us still engaged in battle are the Church militant.

We may be part of a local church, but our primary allegiance is to our Commander-in-Chief. He is the previously rejected rock that has become the Chief Cornerstone. Believers are all troops in the great army of God with the Lord of Hosts as our conquering King.

Let’s not curl into the fetal position of paralysis. Let’s stand up. Let’s walk forward into the works God has prepared for us with a firm conviction that Christ conquers our enemies. Let’s live in victorious military mode!


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