I started to write a reply to a post on another blog, but it got too big, so I decided to make it into a post of its own. A friend of mine over at First Century Sage has been going through the six chapters of the Hallel (Psalm 113-118) and looking for Messianic connections and prophecies. It’s an interesting study, and he’s uncovered a few gems I had never seen before. Definitely well worth checking out.
I was going to reply to his post on Psalm 118, specifically about Psalm 118:22 where it says, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone”. Here’s what my reply turned into.
How could the stone the builders rejected become the capstone? Jesus tells a parable to illustrate it:
He went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’
But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “May this never be!”
Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’?”
Jesus uses this story to say, “Well if this isn’t the meaning of Psalm 118:22, then what is?” At first this seems like a problem because this parable Jesus tells doesn’t seem to explain Psalm 118:22. In Jesus’ parable, the ‘stone the builders rejected’ is the son who gets killed. But I don’t see the ‘rejected stone’ coming back to glory in this parable (being made the capstone). So what’s going on here?
There is an old rabbinic parable used to explain Psalm 118:22, which I think sheds some light on this parable of Jesus':
When Solomon’s temple was being built, it was forbidden for the sound of hammers to be heard at the job site because it was a holy place of worship. You can’t have worship with construction going on in the background! So it had to be quiet. What this meant for the construction was that each and every 20 ton stone had to have a ‘shop drawing’ and was made several miles away in the quarry. Several miles away each stone was carefully cut for its exact spot in the temple. From the very start, there was a plan for each stone. The very first stone to be delivered was the capstone, but that’s the last stone needed in construction. So the builders said, “What is this? This doesn’t look like any of the first stones we need. Put it over there for now.” Well, years went by and the grass grew over the capstone and everyone generally forgot about it. Finally the construction was done and the builders said “send us the capstone” and the word came back from the quarry “we already did”. They were confused. Then someone remembered what they had done with the very first stone sent to them. It was taken from its lowly position among the overgrown weeds where it had been forgotten, and it was honored in the final ceremony to complete the temple. Thus the scripture says, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” 
Just like Jesus’ parable, this rabbinic parallel is a picture of Jesus. When he came the first time, he didn’t fit the blueprint the builders thought they needed, so they tossed him aside as wrong and rejected him. They didn’t recognize him. And later, much later, they will realize their mistake and give him his rightful place as the capstone. I think there’s a reasonable chance that when Jesus said (paraphrase) “Well then what’s the meaning of Psalm 118:22?” he was calling to mind the familiar folk tale about the construction of the temple. This can be supported by how one of his closest disciples interpreted the passage. Listen to Peter as he explains Psalm 118:22:
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,”
–1 Peter 2:4-7, NIV
I find it interesting that Peter uses these words “as you come to him” and that you are being built into a “spiritual house”. “As you come to him” seems to invoke that image from the rabbinic parable about how stones came to the builders one at a time from the quarry where they had been carefully cut to the exact specifications of the blueprints. Then Peter uses the image of being built into a “spiritual house”. The word for “house” in Hebrew is “bet” which is the same word used many times for the temple. Many times in the Tanakh, when you see the words “the temple”, the Hebrew there could be more literally translated “the house”, since the temple was God’s house. Thus, Peter tells us that God has a blueprint for each of us, is shaping us, and is placing us in his spiritual temple as we come to him from the quarry (see Isaiah 51:1-2 for more on the quarry where we come from). He goes on to use more temple imagery: a holy priesthood and sacrifices that are acceptable to God. Peter then uses this temple imagery in connection with Psalm 118:22, imagery which is not found in Jesus’ parable explaining Psalm 118:22. It seems there is a clear connection between Peter’s understanding of how his rabbi taught about Psalm 118:22 and the rabbinic parable I quoted above. 
So what does it mean that Jesus, after telling the parable of the vineyard, evoked imagery of a common parable about the temple’s construction? To answer that question, we must look at another. The Jews at the time of Jesus did not know who the Messiah would be, and there were many competing theories as to his identify. Would he be called by God from a farm, a common peasant? Would he be a famous rabbi before being called by God? Some even thought there would be two messiahs, a priest messiah and a king messiah. Jesus here identifies the Messiah for us. He identifies the Messiah as the son of the owner of the vineyard. In the Tanakh, the vineyard is Israel, and the owner is God (e.g. Jer 12:10). In other words, by linking the ‘capstone’ (Messiah) to the son of the owner of the vineyard, Jesus declared his Messiahship and Sonship (deity) in one breath.
Peace to you,
1. This is my own summary of a rabbinic parable that I heard Ray Vander Laan quote, but I have not been able to find the source. If you can find it, please let me know.
2. Amazingly, the Greek word the New Testament uses for Jesus’ occupation is “tekton”, which literally translates “builder”. In Israel, buildings were not built with wood but stone because you don’t have a large source of wood in the desert. So it’s more than likely that Jesus was a stone mason rather than a carpenter. Peter calls you living stones and says that you, as living stones, have the master mason (Jesus) shaping you into the perfect fit for his spiritual temple. What an incredible blessing!