In yesterday’s sermon our local pastor gave an intriguing discussion of the importance of Jacob’s pillar stone to Israelite history, discussing its place in the history of Ireland, Scotland, and England as the “lia-fail” or “stone of destiny,” but also discussing how the stone, and its relevance to Christ, is referred to in scripture. Although I have not ever, to my knowledge, focused on the aspect of the chief cornerstone or pillar stone, it is quoted at least half a dozen times and it does have a relevance to Bible study that is striking . Rather than write a forbodingly long discussion of this Bible passage, by my standards at least, what I wished to do is to write first a discussion of the passages that deal with the chief cornerstone in the Hebrew scriptures, along with some references to the role of the king being crowned by the pillar stone, and then examine the importance of these passages in light of politics in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Then, in a second part to this entry, I wish to discuss how the passages are quoted in the New Testament, and what it means for those of us who are believers.
When we first see the pillar stone of Jacob, it is serving as a pillow during Jacob’s flight from his homicidal brother Esau, from whom Jacob first stole the birthright and then the blessing through grasping and deception. While Jacob is often given a hard time for this, as is his mother Rebekkah, who aided him in his deception, in truth it was according to the expressed will of God to Rebekkah when Esau and Jacob were both struggling together in the womb, a will that Isaac had tried to thwart by making his blessing test biased in Esau’s favor. Jacob’s placement of his pillow rock as a pillar of memory to God is told in Genesis 28:10-22, which reads as follows: “Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.””
There is a lot that could be said about this particular passage. It should be noted, though, that the placement of the pillar stone before God is dependent on a few related matters. For one, on this stone Jacob had a vision of communication between earth and heaven, and was told by God that his children would inherit the land on which he slept, and that through him would come the seed in which all the world would be blessed. Likewise, God also promised Jacob himself blessings and protections, and a safe return to his homeland after his time of exile in Haran. For this, Jacob promises to keep the pillar stone as memorial to his covenant with God, and also to worship and tithe to God. It should be noted as well that this particular passage is quoted one time in a context which demonstrates its messianic importance, when Nathanael/Bartholomew is sitting under this fig tree as recorded in John 1:43-51 pondering the communication and interaction between earth and heaven before becoming one of Jesus’ disciples . Additionally, this particular passage has also been the source of more contemporary explorations of salvation and spiritual growth, often heavily laced with political criticism as well . Given the promises of blessing and rule that are attached to the pillar stone from its beginning, it ought to be no surprise that its quotation has often come in a political context, something that we find is the case over and over again.
This is certainly true when we look at the reference to pillar stones and the coronation of kings. In the history of Tara, Dal Raida, Scotland, England, and the United Kingdom, the stone of Scone has been typically used as a coronation stone, which has a complexity of meaning depending on how it is viewed. On the one hand, being crowned on a memorial stone is a way to tie the legitimacy of one’s rule to the covenant made with our fathers so very long ago, in which God promised to bless His people if they obeyed Him, a covenant which was verbally assented to by the people but not obeyed particularly well. Depending on the motives of the people involved in the ceremony or witnessing it, either such a ceremony could be viewed as giving divine right and legitimacy to the ruler being crowned, or in reminding him (or her) that they owe their throne and the continuance of their dynasty to the coventantal blessings of God, and are to be restrained in their conduct by their awareness that they owe their throne to God’s favor and grace, and that their offices can be taken away just as they have been given, for nonperformance of their covenantal duties and through abuse of the people whom God has given them to rule, as happened with Rehoboam when he did not repent of the sins of his father with regards to abuse of the people of Israel for his own monumental construction projects .
We see references to this pillar stone several times in the historical prophets relating to the coronation of monarchs. Perhaps the most poignant example is that of the coronation of young king Joash, who had been hidden during his early childhood from the murderous rage of the Omride Queen Athaliah. The story is told in greater detail in 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 22 and 23 , where it is said that it was the custom that the king should stand beside a pillar during his coronation. Coronation ceremonies are fraught with all kinds of symbolism, since the power and glory of a ruler depends in large part on how they are able to motivate the hearts and minds of those they lead, and symbol is one of the most useful ways this is done. While a seven year old king like Joash would not have been all that glorious in his own right, the fact that he had able counselors at his side like Johoaida and the support of godly priests and Levites would have made him a much more inspiring figure of hope and the survival of the House of David in the eyes of the people than would have been the case otherwise. It is clear that pillar stones and divinely blessed or appointed rulers are closely related in the Bible, as well as in history.
There are two main passages that are quoted with regards to the chief cornerstone, namely Jesus Christ, in the New Testament. Both of these passages not only have a context of their own that is worth discussing in this light, but at least one of these passages has an important role in American history as providing evidence of the corrupt and ungodly origins of the Confederate States of America. Again, given the close connection between pillar stones or cornerstones and political authority and legitimacy, it should come as no surprise that the same passages should be quoted over and over again in contexts that are fraught with political drama, even if that political context is not often well understood nor focused on in scriptural commentary. Let us therefore look at the two passages in question, Isaiah 8:11-22, and Psalm 118:22-24, and let us understand the religious and political implications of these passages as they have been referred to throughout history.
Isaiah 8:11-22 reads as follows: “For the Lord spoke thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not say, ‘A conspiracy,’ concerning all that this people call a conspiracy, nor be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken.” Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. And I will wait on the Lord, who hides His face from the house of Jacob; and I will hope in Him. Here am I and the children whom the Lord has given me! We are for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells in Mount Zion. And when they say to you, “Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,” should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. They will pass through it hard-pressed and hungry; and it shall happen, when they are hungry, that they will be enraged and curse their king and their God, and look upward. Then they will look to the earth, and see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness.”
It is clear from this passage that both political and religious matters are intertwined here. Isaiah’s work as a prophet of God in the Kingdom of Judah had political implications, as is the case generally with those servants of God who speak up about the duties and responsibilities and moral standards by which leaders are held to. His work, in fact, had prompted some people to plot against him, which God tells him not to worry about. Even more worrisome, despite the fact that there were some genuine believers of God who were disciples of Isaiah in Judah at the time this passage was written, there were many who sought religious and political insight by calling up supposed spirits through mediums and spiritists ad King Saul had done, rejecting the God of heaven and earth. Here too the religious act of immorally seeking wisdom through seances had political ramifications in their rejection of God’s rule over them, and a rejection of the laws by which God has called upon all men to live by. In that regard, the messianic aspect of Jesus Christ being a sanctuary to believers but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense has many layers of meaning, because it is on or by the stones that kings and priests would be ordained and crowned, and by the stone cut without hands that the kingdoms of the earth will be made to crumble at the establishment of His rule. Prophecy has clear political implications, and the authority of God and that of rulers and leaders is related in profound and often complicated ways.
Psalm 118:22-24 reads as follows: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Here too we have a passage that has a strong religious and political context, and one that relates to the return of Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Psalm 118 has an intriguing place in the Psalms, one that makes its connection to Jesus Christ all the more noteworthy. It happens to be part of the Haggadah , one of the psalms that is sung yearly during the Passover Seder for Jews, near the end of the meal, as there is only one psalm sung (Psalm 136) after this one. Given that the rejection of the chief cornerstone took place on the Passover, and that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world is what made Him the chief cornerstone, and that it is accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and living according to His laws and ways in faith and out of love for Him that would make the day of His return a day of gladness and rejoicing, it is all the more ironic that this psalm would be sung by Jews during the time of His sacrifice, given the treachery of the Jewish leadership in seeking to kill one Man because they were so concerned for their own political positions, which they ended up losing within forty years when the Romans destroyed the Temple of Herod.
Within American history this passage has an ominous importance, in that it was cited by Alexander Stephens, reluctant Georgia secessionist after the election of his (former?) friend Abraham Lincoln to the White House, and Confederate Vice President. In this speech, Stephens made the following comments about slavery being the cornerstone of the Confederacy, and pointing to it as the real reason for separation between the Union and the rebels: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal .”
In the aftermath of the Civil War, many people, including Alexander Stephens, sought to cloak the real cornerstone and rock of stumbling and offense in the language of economic or political disagreements, in the fight over tariffs, or some other such nonsense. It was different worldviews about mankind that stood between North and South, despite the fact that racism was certainly present and even predominant in the North of the 1860’s as well, and long afterward. Yet the belief that all men were created equal, and all men referring to mankind and not merely the male sex, in according with the statements of Paul who affirmed that in God there is no slave nor free, no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, but that all believers were joint heirs of God with Jesus Christ (see Galatians 3:26-29). The implications of Jesus Christ, and of the law of God, and of the relationship of mankind to God and with each other, is a matter of faith that has always had deep and unsettling political implications. We know, of course, from history that the Confederacy, like other wicked and unsuccessful regimes, was founded on ungodly principles and justly consigned to the dustbin of history. It is also clear that addressing these passages concerning Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone has long been done in a context of concern over authority and its legitimacy, whether of a political or a religious nature, or some combination between the two, even in American history, where there are many who facetiously think that the two are not connected. Let us therefore turn our attention to how these same connections mark the way these passages are cited in the New Testament by Jesus Christ and others, so that we may properly recognize the implications of Jesus Christ being both the chief cornerstone as well as a rock of stumbling for the wicked and corrupt institutions of this present evil age.
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