April 2, 2023
I talked a few weeks ago about how we still love the psalms even though they’re thousands of years old. But we often have no idea how they came into being, or what they were used for by the people who wrote them. The 118th Psalm is a good example of this. It’s very important to Christians during Holy Week. And though we think we might know, we’re not 100% sure of its origins.
It’s important during Holy Week because Jesus quoted it. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, after he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus tells a parable and then quotes Psalm 118:22
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
It seems obvious what Jesus meant. At that point, it seemed like Jesus could have all the power he wanted. He’d just been welcomed to the capital with shouts of Hosanna! but he knew what was going to happen. The acceptance had been based on a false hope. Rejection was coming quickly. But the One who was rejected was to become the centerpiece of a whole new world—the cornerstone of the Kindom of God.
And so we know that this psalm was quoted by Jesus during the week leading up to the crucifixion. But when (or how) did ancient Israel first use it? Well, it seems to be about the congregation and the temple, so we think that Psalm 118 might have been written for one of two occasions: Either the dedication of the temple, or the laying of its cornerstone. And the temple we’re talking about here is probably not the first temple—the one Solomon had built. That temple was destroyed by the Babylonians when Israel was carted off into exile. Instead, it was probably written for either the dedication or the laying of the cornerstone of the second temple—the one Israel rebuilt when they returned from exile. That would make this psalm about 2500 years old.
Now it was the Babylonians who exiled the Jews, but they were defeated by the Persians. So it was under the Persians that Israel returned to Jerusalem and began rebuilding. And we read about this return in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. At the beginning of the 4th chapter of Nehemiah, a very interesting little conversation is recorded that might shed a little bit of light on this psalm—on the 22nd verse specifically (the one that Jesus later quoted). It’s between two non-Jewish military officials of the Persian empire, and it goes like this:
Sanballat was very angry when he learned that we were rebuilding the wall. He flew into a rage and mocked the Jews, saying in front of his friends and the Samarian army officers, ‘What does this bunch of poor, feeble Jews think they’re doing? Do they think they can build the wall in a single day by just offering a few sacrifices? Do they actually think they can make something of stones from a rubbish heap—and charred ones at that?’
Tobiah the Ammonite, who was standing beside him, remarked, ‘That stone wall would collapse if even a fox walked along the top of it!’
What the nations dismissed as nothing more than charred rubble, Israel used as precious building materials. And if we make the connection between Nehemiah 4 and Psalm 118, it appears that one of those rejected stones was used to form the cornerstone of the house of the God of the universe.
Does this context help us understand the Jesus we read about in the Bible? He’s the Jesus who was born a homeless baby whose first bed was a feeding trough, who worked as a laborer, who became a homeless, itinerate teacher, and who died on a cross. His one moment of glory in all that time occurred on this day, when he was hailed as the Promised One… but he followed it up immediately by reminding his followers that the cornerstone of God’s dwelling-place was itself a rejected piece of rubble, one judged by the powerful to be too weak to support a fox.
Most nations have a story they tell to remind themselves of who they are, and Israel was no different. But what made Israel unique was that their story was so very humble. A wandering Aramean was their father. Their ancestors were slaves in Egypt. They were exiles. And it wasn’t beneath them to use rejected building materials in their city walls, or to choose a leftover, charred block as the cornerstone of their holiest building.
Christians are a branch grafted onto Israel’s family tree. So why would we expect to have a more glorious past or a more respectable foundation? If Christ himself identifies as one of those pieces of rubble—the one that became the cornerstone—then his disciples must surely be the other rejected stones (the ones the two commanders joked about when they saw the exiled Jews building those walls).
I wonder if any of this was in Jesus’ head on Palm Sunday when the Pharisees told Jesus he should shut his disciples up—they were going to get him in trouble with the authorities. “If they kept quiet,” Jesus told them, “the very stones would burst into cheers!” [Luke 19:40]
Do you ever feel like one of those stones? You feel like a nobody. You feel rejected. You hear others making you the butt of their jokes. Rejected stones don’t seem to be good for much of anything except being a stumbling block, or to be picked up and thrown at others. We see that happen a lot in our society these days. It’s easy to condemn people we don’t understand. It’s easy to turn them into weapons. It seems to be happening more and more.
But God seems to have other plans for the rejected. Jesus accepts their praises, and he’s the one who gives them stability, holds them together, and knits them into a new community. So don’t worry if you feel like a reject: God knows who you are. God has a plan to make you part of something great. Whether you’re too old and worn, or rejected because you’re raw and have jagged edges, the stone that was rejected is the cornerstone that will hold you together to be the very house of God.
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.