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 is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.
Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord: O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity.
Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord: we have blessed you out of the house of the Lord.
God is the Lord, which hath shewed us light: bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.
Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee.
The following psalm/hymn by Isaac Watts contains references to Psalm 118:22-28 (see above)[i] (Scripture text from Authorised Version Bible; Hymn text from Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Apply’d to the Christian State and Worship, 1719). The previously innocuous-seeming poem has become a source of tension for Sacred Harp singers, especially with the new number of singers who like the music but do not agree with the theology. In her introduction of the tradition for beginning Sacred Harp singers, Lisa Grayson advises that some Sacred Harp singers “do not subscribe to the same religious beliefs as the poets who wrote the texts, yet still appreciate their often austere and haunting beauty.”[ii] We note that there are newcomers who “do not subscribe to the same religious beliefs as the poets who wrote the texts” and obviously do not always appreciate them!
In a piece titled Alternate words to “Stafford” someone wrote that “The theology of the poem is so outdated, and so universally rejected among both Christian and non-Christian persons, that many Sacred Harp singers today don’t like to sing Stafford.”[iii] While it is true that some Sacred Harp singers do not like to sing Stafford, it cannot be conceded that Watts’s poem and its “theology” is “universally rejected” among Christians. Further, some singers who have no problem with the words do not lead it because they are worried that they might offend someone. New Testament Christians will not agree with the assessment that the theology is outdated. Those who have adopted the theology of inclusivism are the only ones driven to this conclusion. Many of us can readily – and with no desire to offend – agree that Watts’s hymn and theology agree with the teachings of the New Testament. Those who reject Watts and “The Living Stone” may be either theologically inclusive, historically oblivious,[iv] or biblically illiterate – and in some cases all three. The person who rejects the theology of the New Testament will not be expected to espouse the theology of Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 118:22-27. The person who espouses the theology of the New Testament should not be expected to reject the theology of Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 118:22-27.
Those who reject the New Testament will argue there is nothing in Psalm about envious Jews. However, Isaac Watts did not claim to make a strict metrical paraphrase of the Psalms. His poetry was “imitated in the language of the New Testament” and “applied to the Christian state and worship.” Therefore, Watts is free to bring in the New Testament context and interpretation of Psalm 118. The stone the builders refused is Jesus Christ. The builders who refused him were the religious and political leaders among the Jews. The stone, Jesus Christ, became the chief cornerstone on which the church was built, despite this rejection of the leaders – of whom it is said were envious or jealous of him. This is New Testament theology in the New Testament. Watts masterfully weaves all this into his “imitation” of Psalm 118:22-27.
An Hosanna for the Lord’s-day; or, a new Song of Salvation by Christ.
1. See what a living stone v. 22
The builders did refuse; Matthew 21:42-43
In spite of envious Jews. Matthew 27:18, Mark 15:10, Luke 20:17; See also Acts 4:11-12, Acts 13:45, & Acts 17:5
Yet on this Rock shall Zion rest, Isaiah 28:16
As the chief corner-stone. 1 Peter 2:6-7
3. The work, O Lord, is thine, v. 23
And wondrous in our eyes;
This day declares it all divine,
This day did Jesus rise. Romans 1:3-4
4. This is the glorious day
That our Redeemer made; Revelation 1:10
Let us rejoice, and sing, and pray,
Let all the church be glad. v. 24
5. Hosanna to the King
Of David’s royal blood; Matthew 21:9
Bless him, ye saints, he comes to bring v. 26
Salvation from your God. Titus 2:11
6. We bless thine holy word, Luke 11:28
Which all this grace displays;
And offer on thine altar, Lord, v. 27
Our sacrifice of praise. v. 28
A reference to Psalm 118:22 is placed in Jesus’s parable of the householder and his vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46). The husbandmen are envious of the owner and his son, the heir, and kill the householder’s son in order to “seize on his inheritance.” The chief priests and Pharisees “perceived that he spake of them.” The religious leaders of Jesus’s day rejected him (John 1:11) – yes, Jesus, the chief cornerstone on whom the church was built.
No doubt some who avoid the poetry are sincere in an attempt to “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Many who reject the poetry are those that “make a man an offender for a word” (Isaiah 29:21).
This psalm/hymn taken candidly is not anti-Semitic. It is consistent with the New Testament record. Jesus was a Jew by birth, and so his apostles and most of the early church. The writers who connected “Jews” and “envy” in the Gospels and Acts were Jews themselves. In general Jewish religious leaders vigorously opposed Jesus. Yet he died for them (John 11:49-51, Luke 23:34). They also opposed Paul, an apostle, a Jew, a former Pharisee. Yet his sensitivity for his people made him cry out “I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites” and “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.” May we so be found.[v]
[i] Though labeled “Psalm 118:22-27,” the last line seems to bring in the praise of verse 28 as well.
[ii] “A Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing: Hints, stories, advice, and minutiae,” (by Lisa Grayson, Fifth edition 2012, p. 2)
[iv] Specifically, to the history recorded in the Gospels. Interestingly, Jesus excoriated the Pharisees (see Matthew 23, for example), one of the primary Jewish religious groups who envied and rejected him as the chief cornerstone. Many people today similarly excoriate the historical Pharisees of Jesus’s day, as well as labeling those in the present with whom they do not agree “Pharisees.” Often, this latter group of “excoriaters” is made up of the same people who object to the terminology “envious Jews.”