Christ the Cornerstone (Psalm 118:22)
“A stone, which the ones who build rejected,
it is to the head of the corner.”
Though this translation is awkward and unfamiliar, I wanted to translate it more literally to retain the force of the idiom that is employed. Yet first, note that this is one of the most quoted Old Testament verses in the New Testament. It is quoted verbatim in Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11, and 1 Peter 2:7. Paul also paraphrases this verse in Ephesians 2:20, though, when Paul paraphrases the idiom about the “head of the corner, he uses the Greek word ajkrogwniai√oß (akrogoniaios), which can either mean “cornerstone” or “capstone.” Paul retains the meaning of the idiom (being the most important stone in a structure) though some of the force of the idiom is lost.
Before we look at the idiom itself, it is worth noting another important, though very subtle, difference between a literal translation and how we usually see the phrase translated. You will notice that I have translated the beginning of this verse as “a stone” rather than “the stone.” Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek translations of this passage contain the definite article (“the”) before the word for stone. Though this may seem like a very minor point to make, its connotations are sweeping. The implied thought, when the definite article is present, is that there is only one stone that the builders have rejected. Yet this is not the case! Indeed, one of Jesus’ great criticisms against the Jewish leaders is that they were constantly rejecting the prophets, murdering them because of the witness they bore.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones the ones sent to it. How often I have wanted to gather your children in the same way a bird gathers the chicks under its wing—and you would not! Behold! Your house is left to you desolate! For I say to you, you shall not see me from now until you should say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
The fact is that the psalmist understood the nature of his people when this prophesy was made, and indeed, he did not place the definite article to leave open the condemnation of those builders who were rejecting the multiple stones offered by God.
This does not mean, though, that there were more than one cornerstones intended by God for Israel. The idiom that follows, “the head of the corner,” is clearly speaking singularly of the Messiah who would come—hence the New Testament writers’ application of this passage to Jesus. This is a standard technique in Hebrew poetry, to go from a broad concept to a narrow concept, to go from the general to the specific. The picture presented to us is that of a huge heap of rejected stones, one of which, one very special one of which, is the promised Christ. What sweeping condemnation this is against the leaders of Israel for their rejection of our Lord!
So what of this language of the “head of the corner”? In context, we usually simply translate it as “cornerstone,” but I think that the value of the idiom is that it forces us to see the implications of Jesus’ position in terms of the church. The word that we translate as “head” is the Hebrew word varo (rosh), which refers to something that is first, chief, or primary. Jesus as the head of the corner is the stone that is placed first, apart from which no other stone can be laid. It is because of Jesus’ pre-creational covenant with the Father to sacrifice himself on behalf of the elect as their mediator so that God would not enter into eternal judgment immediately after Adam and Eve fell. There would have been no church, old or new, apart from Christ. Hallelujah for that promise! Yet, at the same time, do not miss what that means for us today as the church. Our very existence is based on Jesus Christ. That means that all we do as the church, both individually and corporately, must be seen in terms of that relationship. What we do must be judged not on the basis of how well it happens to work, but on the basis of how faithful it is to Jesus Christ. As Americans, we tend to be a rather pragmatic people, but when stones must be conformed to a cornerstone, what is true and right becomes far more important. Too many churches compromise the truth to get things accomplished, but it is far more important, as believers, to be interested in doing what is right and not what may seem to work.
So what about the rest of the idiom? The word for corner is hN”Pi (pinah), and is a word that can be used in a variety of ways. Primarily it speaks of a corner of a wall, and that is exactly how we normally interpret it in this psalm. Christ is the cornerstone, it is on the basis of his position that all other stones are laid. No stone can be part of the church if it is not laid in alignment with Christ, etc… It is also worth noting that structures get their strength from their corners, thus Christ presents himself as a strong corner upon which the rest of the church gathers its strength. In addition, the word hN”Pi (pinah) is often used figuratively to refer to one who is a leader amongst the people (see 1 Samuel 14:38). Understanding the idiom in this way would present Jesus as the first or chief leader amongst the people of the church. Either way you understand it, the force of the idiom strikes home in a mighty way. We may function as part of the church, but only in our relationship to Jesus Christ—he is our cornerstone and our chief leader. He is the basis upon which all we do must be ordered. He is the reason for our very existence.
Beloved, we have a tendency to run off ahead on our own paths, seeking after our own visions of grandeur. The problem is that often these things are not in alignment with the cornerstone that has been laid long ago (before the foundations of the earth!). Yet, loved ones, when you are building a structure out of stones, it is not the stone that tells the builder where it should be placed—the builder has the arbitrary right to place the stone as he wishes. So too with God, the master builder of the church and of our lives. Sometimes we have a tendency to look over the fence at the greener grasses that lie out of our reach. There is a reason why we have been set where we have been set—trust the master builder’s reasoning—seek to fulfill God’s design for your life and forget about the flights of fancy that will do nothing more than feed your ego.
Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ the head and cornerstone,
Chosen of the Lord and precious,
Binding all the church in one;
Holy Zion’s help forever,
And her confidence alone.
-7th century Latin Hymn
Translated by John Mason Neale