The Pursuit of God

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Psalm 118: The Cornerstone Who Isn’t Christ

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The book of Psalms is filled with poetry, not prophecy. The psalms we find in it are very exaggeratory, and they express a wide range of sentiments, many of which are not at all pleasing to God. To try and claim that an individual psalm writer had Christ in mind when he was venting his feelings in ink is utterly absurd, but this is what we do all the time today because we’re following the bad example of New Testament Jews.

Now Psalm 118 is one of several songs which is misquoted and misapplied by the New Testament writers.  The trouble starts when Jesus’ disciples misunderstand Jesus’ quotation of this psalm during The Parable of the Evil Tenant Farmers.  From there we have Peter claiming that the cornerstone referred to in this psalm is a specific reference to Christ.  In fact, Peter was so struck by the cornerstone analogy that he refers to this psalm once in Acts 4 and twice in 1 Peter 2.  Paul also refers to Christ as a cornerstone.  Well, once we understand the ancient metaphor of a cornerstone, we can see how it is applicable to Christ.  But trying to say that the writer of Psalm 118 was specifically prophesying about Christ’s coming is utterly ridiculous.  Let’s now go through this psalm line by line so we can get an understanding of what the original author was saying.

The author of this psalm is not named, but it soon becomes clear that he is a Jewish man who is reflecting on a personal experience in which Yahweh saved him from some kind of trouble.  He doesn’t spell out the details of his crisis, but he was obviously quite distressed by it and is now quite relieved that it is over.  In fact, he’s so relieved that he begins his praise song with these jubilant words:

Give thanks to Yahweh, for He is good! His faithful love endures forever.
Let all of Israel say: “His faithful love endures forever.”
Let Aaron’s descendants, the priests, say: “His faithful love endures forever.”
Let all who fear Yahweh say: “His faithful love endures forever.” (Ps. 118:1-4)

The ancient Jews used repetition as a form of emphasis, so our grateful psalmist is calling on all Yahweh followers to join him in exalting Yahweh by saying the same line over and over.

In my distress I prayed to Yahweh, and Yahweh answered me and set me free.
Yahweh is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me? (Ps. 118:5-6)

As we all know, humans can actually do some very horrific things to each other, but our psalmist is so filled with joyous energy, that he’s feeling fearless.

Yes, Yahweh is for me; He will help me. I will look in triumph at those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in Yahweh than to trust in people.
It is better to take refuge in Yahweh than to trust in princes. (Ps. 118:7-9)

While our psalmist talks a big story now, we’ll soon learn that he has just been through a period of severe discipline by Yahweh.  But that period has now passed, and as he reflects back on it, he describes things in a very biased and not-so-accurate light.

Though hostile nations surrounded me, in the Name of Yahweh I destroyed them.
Yes, they surrounded and attacked me, but in the Name of Yahweh I destroyed them.They swarmed around me like bees; they blazed against me like a crackling fire. But I destroyed them all in the Name of Yahweh. (Ps. 118:10-12)

Less literal translations say “in the Authority of Yahweh I destroyed them” which better captures the sentiment here.  Our psalmist is rightly crediting Yahweh for rescuing him, he’s not saying he just flung Yahweh’s Name around like a magic spell and got his way.  It’s not that the ancient Jews didn’t attempt such irreverent games, because they certainly did.  And we Christians are imitating their bad example with our incessant abuse of Jesus’ Name.  But happily our psalmist is really giving the credit where it’s due: to Yahweh, not to his own magical prayers.

My enemies did their best to kill me, but Yahweh rescued me. Yahweh is my strength and my song; He has given me victory.

Songs of joy and victory are sung in the camp of the godly. The strong right arm of Yahweh has done glorious things!

The strong right arm of Yahweh is raised in triumph. The strong right arm of Yahweh has done glorious things! (Ps. 118: 13-16)

To the ancient Jews and their neighbors arms and horns were common metaphors for power.  This is why you find so many references to Yahweh reaching His right arm out in the Old Testament, and it’s always the right arm because the right side was considered superior in these cultures.  To sit on the right side of a king was a higher honor than sitting on his left.  And we don’t find Yahweh ever doing anything with His left arm or hand, because that’s just not how the metaphors worked.

I will not die; instead, I will live to tell what Yahweh has done.  Yahweh has punished me severely, but He did not let me die. (Ps. 118:17-18)

Here our psalmist slips in a confession that he has been personally spanked by Yahweh.  Since we know how gracious Yahweh is, this suggests that our psalmist is coming out of some period of spiritual rebellion.  But his repentance sounds quite real, and he now talks of being eager to go and offer sacrifices to Yahweh at the Temple.

Open for me the gates where the righteous enter, and I will go in and thank Yahweh.
These gates lead to the Presence of Yahweh, and the godly enter there. (Ps. 118:19-20)

As Jewish men entered the main courtyard of the Temple, they could see the off limits structure where the Holy Place and Holy of Holies were.  Yahweh taught His people to view Him as dwelling with His Ark in the Holy of Holies—this is why our psalmist says “these gates lead to the Presence of Yahweh.”

I thank You for answering my prayer and giving me victory! (Ps. 118:21)

It sounds like there was a military victory involved in our psalmist’s salvation from troubles, and this is likely a Jewish king talking, for he spoke earlier of being attacked by nations, then of a celebration in a military camp when victory was won.  In these times, kings went to war with their armies, and even got into the fighting frenzy.  Our king feels that his great military victory has made him go from looking like a loser to looking very impressive in the eyes of his enemies.  It is clearly himself that he is referring to as the cornerstone in this next line:

The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.  This is Yahweh’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. (Ps. 118:22-23)

In the world of biblical architecture, the cornerstone was critical. It was the first stone you laid down, and you then you used it as a reference point in setting all of your other stones. If you set the cornerstone down crooked, then lined up all of the stones to it, the whole building would come out crooked. You don’t want some chipped, cracked, or uneven stone to serve as your key measurement block. You want a perfectly straight, good looking specimen.

Here in Psalm 118, our psalmist is being metaphorical. Yahweh was just recently grinding on him with some brutal Divine discipline. That’s a very humiliating position to be in. Who feels victorious when they’re going through some spiritual valley or when they’re dealing with the embarrassing fallout of some sin they committed? But then, in the middle of that mess, Yahweh suddenly called an end to the disciplinary period and gave our psalmist an epic military victory. Because of their great importance in architecture, cornerstones were used as metaphors of importance in other areas of life, and here our author is saying, “Wow, I’ve gone from feeling like some rejected stone that no one wanted to deal with to being the main man. What a great turnaround—Yahweh has lifted me out of the pit and given me great social status. I’m so grateful to Him!”

This is the day Yahweh has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. Please, Yahweh, please save us. Please, Yahweh, please give us success. (Ps. 118:24-25)

Here the confidence falters as our psalmist prays for ongoing protection and success.

Blessed is the one who comes in the Name of Yahweh.
We bless you from the House of Yahweh. (Ps. 118:26)

Yahweh called the Temple in Jerusalem His House and our psalmist is now picturing himself standing in the courtyard of the Temple, handing his animal sacrifice to a Levite priest as a way of expressing his gratitude to Yahweh.

Yahweh is God, shining upon us. Take the sacrifice and bind it with cords on the altar. (Ps. 118:27)

Here he’s eagerly telling the priest to process his worship offering, and then he closes this psalm with more praises.

You are my God, and I will praise You! You are my God, and I will exalt You!
Give thanks to Yahweh, for He is good! His faithful love endures forever. (Ps. 118:28-29)

So what does this psalm have to do with Christ?  Nothing.  After telling The Parable of the Evil Tenant Farmers to a group of angry Pharisees, Jesus quotes the cornerstone line from this psalm, but in that context He’s saying, “Hey, you guys all think you can destroy Me, but your plans won’t succeed.  Yahweh will exalt Me, just like He did that guy from Psalm 118.”  Jesus never said that this psalm was a prophecy about Him, and it’s obviously not.  But Peter does try to make this claim in the book of Acts, and this isn’t the only psalm Peter misinterprets (see Know Your Bible Lesson 74: Fishermen vs. Priests).

Whenever you find the New Testament writers quoting the Old Testament, you need to realize that they could be quoting it incorrectly.  This happens a lot throughout the epistles, Acts, and the Gospel books.  As is the case today, back in New Testament times, merely quoting Scripture—any Scripture—was a quick way to earn credibility in the eyes of your undiscerning audience.  So there’s a whole lot of abuse of the Old Testament going on by the early apostles, and some of it is quite intentional.  While there are valuable lessons to be learned in seeing manipulative teachers in action, before we start quoting things, we need to take the time to examine the original author’s actual meaning by studying passages within their original contexts.  The more we do this, the better we’ll get at telling the difference between what the Bible actually says and what someone is trying to make it say to further their own theological agenda.

FURTHER READING:
Messianic Passages According to Matthew
Debunking Messianic Psalms: The Real Meaning of Psalm 110
Psalm 91: Life is Perfect & God Always Does What We Want

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