Saturday, March 2, 2013

Psalm 118

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 118.  I'll focus on vv 22-23, while also bringing into my discussion other parts of Psalm 118.  Psalm 118:22-23 states (in the King James Version):

"The stone [which] the builders refused is become the head [stone] of the corner.  This is the LORD'S doing; it [is] marvellous in our eyes."

This passage is quoted often in the New Testament, in Matthew 21:24; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; and I Peter 2:7.  The implication usually seems to be that the Jewish leaders, the builders of Israel, rejected Jesus, but Jesus became the cornerstone in that God exalted Jesus and demonstrated Jesus' importance.
But there are other interpretations of what Psalm 118:22-23 is all about.  Jewish interpretations (which I gather from such sources as Artscroll, the Targum, and the Midrash on the Psalms) include:

----The builders were David's father and brothers, who rejected David in that they did not summon David when Samuel was looking for the son of Jesse whom he would anoint as king (I Samuel 16:4-13).  But David became the cornerstone in that he was the one who would be king.  I'd like to expand on this interpretation a bit, adding some of my own thoughts.  David was not only rejected by his family, but also the king of Israel, who could be likened to a builder.  But David became the cornerstone, not only in the sense that David was important, but also in the sense that David would fulfill a role that would be necessary for the survival and existence of Israel, as a cornerstone gives stability to a building.  David would provide this stability as king by fighting Israel's enemies (which David did even before he became king), and also by bringing about justice within Israel.

----The builders were Laban and Esau, and the rejected one was Jacob, whom God built into his favored nation.

----The builders were the Gentile rulers of the world, and the rejected one was Israel.  God would reveal Israel to be the cornerstone, which prevents the world from falling into chaos.  According to Radak, Israel is the cornerstone in the sense that her observance of God's commandments preserves the world, one reason being that it encourages other nations to keep aspects of God's law.  Keil-Delitzsch disagree with applying vv 22-23 to the Gentile rejection of Israel, for they contend that the Gentile nations used Israel as opposed to rejecting her.  For Keil-Delitzsch, the passage is about the Jewish leaders' rejection of Christ.

Historical-critical interpretations of Psalm 118:22-23 include:

----The builders were Israel, whereas the rejected one was the sufferer whom God saved and re-incorporated into the community as a valued member.  Erhard Gerstenberger offers this view.

----During a New Year's festival, in which the world was renewed, the king was ceremonially humiliated prior to his exaltation.  Leslie Allen refers to this interpretation, but he himself does not accept it.  (Will it become the cornerstone of biblical scholarship? :D)  According to Allen, Psalm 118 is a celebration after a military victory.  Allen may think that the rejected one was Israel, which was rejected by the nations but was exalted as the cornerstone through her military victory.

I think that an important element of Psalm 118 is vv 10-12, in which the Psalmist affirms that the hostile nations surround him, but he (the Psalmist) will destroy them.  Let's muse about how the various interpretations of Psalm 118:22-23 fit in (or don't fit in) to that:

----Let's start with the Jesus interpretation.  Did Jesus destroy his enemies?  I thought that one reason that Jesus was so admirable was that he did not fight back when the nations (in this case, perhaps Israel and Rome) attacked him; rather, Jesus submitted to death.  And yet, there are themes within the New Testament about Jesus overcoming the world (John 16:33) and Jesus through the cross triumphing over principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15).  Jesus also combated demons during his ministry.  In addition, according to the New Testament, was Jesus in heaven involved in the destruction of Jerusalem, the system that had rejected him (Luke 13:35)?

----What about the David interpretation?  Even within the Targum, David does not appear to slaughter the builders who rejected him.  Rather, David and his family seem to celebrate through ceremony what God is doing through David.  David also did not slaughter Saul, who was pursuing him, for Saul was God's anointed (I Samuel 24).  Yet, when Absalom revolted, David had an army that fought Absalom.  In that series of events, David was rejected in the sense that many in Israel followed Absalom (II Samuel 15:6), but David won against Absalom and thus was reaffirmed as the cornerstone.  David also fought the enemies of Israel.  Psalm 118:10-12 may not be saying that the Psalmist destroyed the builders who had rejected him, but rather that he killed enemies to Israel.  Psalm 118 may be celebrating that David (or a descendant of David on the throne) slaughtered aggressors against Israel, while also remembering that God in the past had exalted David even though David was rejected.

----How about the Jacob interpretation?  I can't think of an example of Jacob destroying enemies who had attacked him.  The Shechemites, whom Simeon and Levi slaughtered, were not surrounding Israel with obvious hostility.

----The Israel interpretation makes some sense.  Israel is rejected by surrounding nations, but she triumphs by slaughtering her enemies----either in the pre-exilic period, the time of Nehemiah, the Maccabean period, or in the eschaton.  Keil-Delitzsch raise a valuable point when they argue that the nations did not technically reject Israel, but rather made use of her.  But perhaps the nations rejected Israel in the sense that they looked down on her and her God, seeing them as impotent.

----How about the restored sufferer interpretation?  I don't think that a sufferer who was restored to the community slaughtered enemies who had surrounded him.

----I, like Leslie Allen, tend to doubt the ceremonial-humiliation interpretation, even though I cannot disprove it.  I tend to agree with Allen that Psalm 118 concerns a literal battle, since the Psalmist destroys enemy nations.


  1. What do you make of suggestions that Psalm 118 as we have it is a composite?

  2. Hi James! It was actually a while back that I studied Psalm 118, and I don't remember reading that it was a composite, though I might have. I really don't know. Do some say it is a composite because it appears to focus on an individual, but also a nation amidst nations?


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