Praying Psalm 118: Who is the cornerstone?

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

What stone is this? Who is the cornerstone?

The key, perhaps, in praying the Psalms is to know who is speaking. This is the question of “person.” Who is this “I”?

Already in the text of the Psalm the I is complex. The I is an individual worshiper headed into the temple. But the I is also Israel, and the I is also the house of Aaron, the priesthood that leads the house of Israel in worship (verses 2–3).

If I make these words my own prayer, how far can I go? Can I say everything the Psalmist says? Or must I at times pull back and feel, No, thus far and no farther: I cannot say *these* words.

Think, for example, of Psalm 137. I might bemoan being in exile, being called on to sing one of the Lord’s songs in a foreign land, refusing to forget Jerusalem my happy home, but can I read all the way through the dreadful beatitude that concludes this lament? What would it mean to reach deep into myself and bring that depth of darkness to light? Am I that person, angry and vengeful enough to wish to dash my oppressors’ infants’ heads against rocks? Am I willing to step that far into the stark, all-confessing truthfulness of praying the Psalms? And if I am not, how will I ever be healed?

In Psalm 118 we step into the opposite challenge. I’m all right in verse 5, crying out the Lord in my distress. I can identify with feeling surrounded and hard pressed in verses 11 through 13. I might even be able to reflect in verse 18 that God has allowed this hardship to come upon me to teach me something, to discipline me, to form me into something better than I have previously been. But what then? In the verses depicted? I can go so far as to thank God in verse 21 for rescuing me. But surely I must stop short at verse 22, and do a sudden change of person. Because anyone who has read the New Testament—Gospels, Acts, Epistles—knows who is referred to here as the stone that builders rejected, the stone that has become the cornerstone.

As the hymn says:

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.

But trust the Psalter. Hold the course. The I of verses one through 21 is also the I of verse 22. If I have walked in truth through these verses, I am not just permitted but invited, urged, compelled to say also: the marvelous thing that the Lord has done is to take me—I am the stone rejected by the builders!—and make me the cornerstone. In 1 Peter 2, the apostle, quoting this very verse, in sequence with Isaiah 28:16, tells his readers that the precious cornerstone that God has laid in Zion is Christ, but also that they are themselves living stones that God is laying on that foundation to become one structure with him, one temple, one priesthood.

So I read Psalm 118 with a kind of double vision—not cross-eyed, seeing double in a conflicted and confused way, but with two layers of insight—once seeing Israel/Christ walk through the days of his earthly suffering through and beyond death to glorification, and then again owning my own journey through distress, fear, loss, and discipline become near-death, until by the Lord’s marvelous intervention I am able to see that I—yes, I—have on the far side of rejection been made the cornerstone, chosen and precious; not alone, but in union with Israel/Christ the archteypal cornerstone.

The I in the Psalm really is I. But it is not solitary I. It is the I that has been built into a temple that is the dwellingplace of the Lord, the I that is incorporated into Israel, into the body of Christ. Which is the only way to avoid being either rejected and isolated or else accepted by the wrong builders and assimilated into some other, alien collective that will reinforce my rejectedness, ally it with other alienations, and build it into a fake Israel, a sham temple that rings hollow with the cavernous emptiness of a false Lord, of a not-God.

To pray the Psalms, through their dark moments, their despairing moments, and into their moments of high exultation is to be knit ever more tightly into union with the true Israel, the Christ, the Lord, until the person that I am is taken up into the I AM.

As the psalm begins and ends:

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

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