Psalm 118 is one of the most important psalms for our understanding of the messiah, and it is one of the most cited Old Testament passages in the New Testament. Yet few people, I would imagine, know what Psalm 118 says or understand what it communicates about the messiah. It is a forgotten yet integral passage for Christian theology. Everyone knows the song: “Hosanna, Hosanna on the highest” or knows of Jesus as the cornerstone. But few know the source of these words or the theology behind these phrases, sourced in Psalm 118. As a small step to Psalm 118’s rehabilitation, I offer an overview of Psalm 118’s use in Mark’s Gospel.
Hyukjung Kwon identifies four instances where Mark references Psalm 118: Mark 8:31-33, Mark 11:1-11, Mark 12:1-12, and Mark 14:26 (2007: 119). When Mark quotes Psalm 118, he cites one of the many Greek translations that were available to him. I use the term LXX to refer to these old Greek translations of the Bible.*
Mark 8:31 and LXX Psalm 117:22
Mark 8:31 echoes LXX Psalm 117:22: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone” (LXX 117:22). Mark 8:31 reads: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man had to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, high priests, and scribes and to be killed and to rise after three days.” Kwon mentions that the verb “suffer” in Mark 8:31 may also allude to Psalm 118, since the verb form pathein (to suffer) may connect to the Passover (pascha), which Psalm 118 is typically associated with (2007: 122). While the verb to suffer and the noun passover don’t directly relate etymologically, at least one early Christian waxes eloquent on their relationship (Melito of Sardis). In any case, Jesus’ suffering/pasthein and the Passover/pascha may have been united in the minds of early Christians, allowing for an intentional allusion here.
Mark 11:9-10 and LXX Psalm 117:25-26
Mark 11:9-10 paraphrases and quotes LXX Psalm 117:25-26: “O Lord, Save me now! O Lord, lead me now! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We have blessed you from the house of the Lord!” Mark 11:9-10 reads: “Forerunners and followers were crying out: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David. Hosanna in the highest.”
The quotation appears exactly the same in both LXX 117 and Mark 11: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” and it obviously carries messianic overtones in Mark 11, since the crowd relates that the one who comes relates to the coming kingdom and king David, the archetypal messiah.
The paraphrase is Mark’s use of Hosanna in place of “O Lord, save me now” and so on. This paraphrase of the text is actually a kind of quotation. Hosanna is a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase: “Hoshiah na,” which means: “Save us!” In other words, Mark still cites Psalm 118 directly but just in two languages.
Mark also omits the whole phrase “O Lord, give me success now!”, and he adds the phrase: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David,” which almost certainly does not exist in the original. Likely, then Mark is paraphrasing Psalm 118 and inserting his interpretation (or the interpretation of those shouting to Jesus in the streets). For Mark (he seems to endorse the crowd’s interpretation), Jesus’ coming is linked to a messianic kingdom, which comes from David.
Kwon observes how scholars sometimes see a connection between Hosanna, and the Hebrew equivalent, Hoshiah na, with the name Jesus’ Hebrew name, Yehoshua (2007: 128-9). The name Jesus in Hebrew means “he saves,” which name derives from the same word Hoshiah. Coupled together with: “Blessed is the one comes in the NAME of the Lord,” we see an interesting relationship: the NAME of the Lord is Hoshiah > Yehoshua > Jesus. Maybe that’s why Mark added Hosanna (a Hebrew transliteration) to his citation of LXX Psalm 117—to evoke the idea that Jesus is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Added to that, Mark structures his quotation to emphasize the term Hosanna (cf. Kwon, 2007: 126):
B Blessed is the one …
B’ Blessed is …
Whatever the precise reason why Mark uses the term Hosanna with an eye-grabbing structure, he at least is emphasizing that Jesus has come to save and to inaugurate the messianic kingdom.
Mark 12:10-11 and LXX Psalm 117:22-23
Mark 12:10-11 quotes LXX Psalm 117:22-23: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone. This happened from the Lord, and it is beautiful in our eyes,” which Mark exactly quotes.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus quotes LXX Psalm 117 at the tail end of the parable of the vineyard owner. The Jewish leaders are tenant farmers who lease land from God, but these tenant farmers reject God’s emissaries, even killing God’s son. Jesus connects the parable to LXX Psalm 117, clearly condensing the Jewish leaders for not trusting the messiah, the cornerstone of the temple.
The idea seems to be that the messiah has come to rebuild the temple, the presence of God among Israel (cf. Mark 11:15-19). But Israel’s leaders have rejected their messiah.
Kwon sees a chiastic structure in Mark, connecting the quotations of LXX Psalm 117 in Mark 11 and 12 as intentionally placed to highlight Jesus’ temple demonstration in Mark 11:15-19:
Jesus, the “triumphant Davidic King (Ps 118:25-26) (11:1-11)
Cursing of the fig-tree (11:12-14)
Jesus’ Temple demonstration (Is 56:7/Jr 7:11) (11:15-19)
Withered fig-tree, and mountain-moving (11:20-26)
Jesus, the rejected but vindicated Davidic king (Ps 118:22-23) (11:27-12:12)
(2007: 131, adapted spacing to my needs)
In LXX Psalm 117, the builders appear to be the “nations” of 117:10, but Jesus places the religious leaders in the role of the gentiles in Mark’s Gospel (cf. Kwon, 2007: 135) . He also puts himself in the role of Israel’s king from Psalm 117 (cf. Ibid.).
As king, Jesus rebuilds the temple but not the physical temple, which he condemned and cleansed. Instead, Jesus builds the church, his body (cf. John 2:21; 1 Pet 2:4-7). The church, as body of Christ, becomes the temple (1 Cor 6:19). Kwon notes that this fulfills the new exodus expectation embedded in LXX Isaiah 56:7, a text cited when Jesus cleaned the temple in Mark 11: “I will lead them to my holy mountain, and I will make them celebrate in my house of prayer. Their burnt offering and their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar. For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (2007: 137-8).
Mark 14:26 and Psalms 113-118
At the end of the Passover supper, Jesus and the disciples sing hymns, which likely mean they sang the traditional liturgy of Psalms 113-118, the Egyptian Hallel (Kwon, 2007: 138-40).
Psalm 118 plays a central part in New Testament messianic interpretation, and Mark’s Gospel is no exception. It is as important as Psalm 110 is to messianic theology. In Mark’s gospel, Psalm 118 validates Jesus’ rejection by Israel’s leaders as well as Jesus’ rejection of Israel’s temple. By suffering on the cross, Jesus remakes the temple, making it truly a place of prayer for all nations.
* The New Testament generally quotes a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, which traditionally is called the Septuagint or in short form, LXX. Properly speaking, LXX refers only to a specific translation of the first five books of the Bible. But generally speaking, LXX refers to the multitude of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. In the ancient world, there were many translation of the Bible in Greek, like there are many translations of the Bible in English today. When I say LXX, I refer to the many Greek translations of the ancient world.