The Festal Horns (Psalm 118:26-27)
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Yahweh!
We bless you from the house of Yahweh.
Yahweh is God and he has given us light—bind up the festival in thickets!
As far as the horns of the altar!”
While it may seem that these two verses are rather disparate at first glance, they are actually linked together by a common theme upon closer inspection. Verse 26 begins with a wonderfully Messianic statement: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Yahweh!” This statement, of course, will later be used by the crowds as they come to greet Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem just prior to his crucifixion. It is a statement that has a clear hope toward the Messiah, and in the context of the “hosannas” that precede it, it is looking toward the Messiah’s kingly office and saving work. Notice, though, the singular use of the Hebrew participle: “blessed is the one…” This should not be seen as an error or as a generalization, but should be recognized as a very individualistic statement. Blessed is the one, the person, the individual, who comes in Yahweh’s name, representing him to the people of Israel. All hail the king who comes—all hail Yahweh’s anointed one!
As we move on in the psalm, though, there is a shift in verse 26 to the plural that continues through verse 27. The psalmist, being a good southerner (southern Israel, that is…) says, “We bless y’all from the house of Yahweh.” Sometimes in English, we miss the plural use of the second-person verb, but here we have the transition. The rest of this passage is not so much focused on the “one” coming in, but all of the believers—all of the faithful—coming in to God’s house to worship—all faithfully hoping and praying for the coming Messiah. How these festivals looked toward the fulfillment of this ancient promise; how sad it is that when the one who fulfilled that promise came, the Jewish leaders rejected him and put him to death. How narrow-sighted we can become when we are more concerned with our own agenda and tradition than with the truth.
So how does verse 27 tie into this picture. The first thing we must note is the very general principle that the festivals of ancient Israel all revolved around various sacrifices for sin and guilt. In and of themselves, the sacrifices had no power; it is the sacrifice of Christ, once and for all times, that gave efficacy to the older animal sacrifices. The sacrifices of the animals served two important functions: first, they were meant to show the horrific nature of sin that would require such a bloody sacrifice and second, they were designed to point toward Christ’s sacrifice to come. And because there is surety in the promises of God, these sacrifices could be performed earlier with effectiveness because of the absolute certainty that Christ was coming to fulfill what the earlier sacrifices only symbolized—a substitutionary and propitiatory atonement for sins through the blood of Jesus. Thus, the people looked forward to and celebrated these times as they represented forgiveness from sin, which separated them from a holy and righteous God.
Secondly, notice the language of this verse as we have translated it: “Bind up the festival in thickets!” Usually, this is translated in terms of binding up the festival sacrifice in cords, but that is not what the text says precisely. First of all, the term gx; (chag) refers to the festival as a whole, not the specific sacrifice on the altar. One could make the assertion that the heart of the festival as a whole is the sacrifice, making the language idiomatic (using language that reflects the whole to speak of the central sacrifice). I think that this misses what the psalmist is seeking to emphasize. The language that speaks of the whole being used in the context of the central sacrifice can also be used to make the point that all that is done in the festival is sacrifice. Given that this is a Hallel Psalm, it seems quite reasonable to see this whole psalm as a sacrifice of praise to our God—that indeed, all that is done, from the streaming down of the people into Jerusalem, to the sacrifices on the altar, to the rejoicing on the trip home—all of that was connected to this festival was a sacrifice of praise to our God.
We need to park here for a few minutes and remind ourselves of the evangelistic nature of so many of these Hallel Psalms. One thing that most believers forget is that they are being watched by an unbelieving world. One of the methods by which we witness the gospel is the way by which we live our daily life. Sure, we may witness to them by sharing our testimony, gospel tracts, and offering short Bible studies, but what impact will that witness have if they see us dragging our feet Sunday mornings on the way to church? If they see you grumbling all of the time, what will attract them to the kind of life you are living? Beloved, do not forget that part of your witness is the joy and peace that the watching world observes as you live out your faith day to day, and imagine the power of your witness if your unbelieving neighbors see you excited about going to church on Sunday mornings!
What then about the language of the “thicket”? The word that is used (and is often translated as “cords”) is the term tAb[‘ (avoth). Literally, this term refers to branches of trees or bushes, like a thicket in the woods. The idea of the sacrifice being bound in a thicket had significant theological connotations for the Jewish people, for Abraham, when taking his son up on the mountain for sacrifice, found a ram caught in the thicket to be sacrificed instead of his son (see Genesis 22). The idea of a sacrificial animal caught in a thicket, then is connected to the idea of God’s providing of a sacrifice (certainly and ultimately fulfilled in the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah). In the context of the festivals, indeed the provision of sacrifice was a provision that was seen as divine mercy and providence, not one of human works. Thus, the sacrifice of praise, from beginning to end, was taken to the horns of the altar, from entry to sacrifice to exit—a sacrifice to the Lord.
One final note about the language of the “horns of the altar.” While we don’t know the origin of the tradition, it seems that in Ancient Israel, people held the belief that clinging to the horns of the altar would provide them sanctuary and refuge from their oppressors. In 1 Kings 1:49-53, we find Adonijah, in fear of Solomon, running and clinging to the horns of the altar for protection. Soon afterward, as recorded in 1 Kings 2:28-35), we also find Joab doing the same. It seems that Solomon puts an end to this tradition, for while he pardons Adonijah, he has Joab slain while still clinging to the altar’s horns. In a similar vein, though this is a negative example, when God speaks through the prophet Amos, commanding him to speak of the judgment that is coming upon the people, one thing he states is that he will “cut off” the horns of the altar at the time of said judgment, implying that the presence of the horns on the altar was at least symbolic of God’s protection for his people—that in this judgment that is coming, there will be no place of refuge for the people to go (see Amos 3:14). True refuge is in the arms of the redeemer.
Lastly, we would be remiss if we did not make mention of the language of God having given his people light. This, of course, carries with it a double reference. First, it looks back to the creation account where on the very first day of creation, God said, “Be light!” and it was. Indeed, even before the sun or the stars were brought into being, God revealed the light of his glory, shining forth upon creation. In addition, light is a major Biblical theme that is connected with truth. From what other place do God’s people gain truth? It is found in God’s word and in God’s word alone. Yes, we may glean some things from the natural world around us, but unless they are interpreted through the light of God’s word, what is learned is shadowy and incomplete light indeed. It is God alone who dispenses truth and wisdom, and God has revealed that within his wonderful and glorious Word—indeed, the Word, the Bible, which points to the one who is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the revelation of the glory of God. Beloved, let every moment of our worship reflect the joy we have in Jesus Christ in such a way that when the unbelieving world sees us, they see something in us that they don’t have, but want—and are drawn to Christ as a result. Rejoice, loved ones, rejoice in your Savior, that others may want to do so as well!
We praise thee, O God! For thy Spirit of light,
Who has shown us our Savior and scattered our night.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory,
Hallelujah! We sing;
Hallelujah! Thine the glory,
Our praise now we bring.