The Bible’s rocks and stones have come up in my previous studies here and there, but there’s still more mystery on which to meditate.
A while back, I considered the interplay between iron and rock. Ironwork was considered the work and weapon of the enemies of God (Ex. 20:25, Jdgs 1:19, 1 Kgs 6:7, 2 Sam 12:31, Jn 20:25, Heb. 11). As such, it was forbidden to the Israelites. More specifically, God tells His people not to shape rock with iron, for that Rock was Christ (Isa. 28:16, 1 Cor. 10:1-4), a stone cut without hands (Dan. 2:34).
This linking of stones and salvation is beautifully prefigured in Genesis 29, where shepherds teach Jacob about timing. Only after “all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep.” The shepherd Rachel arrives with the sheep, and Jacob himself removes the stone so the sheep can drink.
Stones carry other positive connotations. They represent the permanence of memory (Jsh 4:6), place of rest (Ex. 17:12), refuge (Ex. 33:22) and secret safekeeping (SoS 2:14). As Nehemiah led the people in reconstructing the walls of Jerusalem after exile (Neh. 4:6), God was guiding their hands towards kingdom building, each rock a citizen of heaven, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” ( Ezek. 11:19, Eph. 2: 19-20).
But like all symbols in the Bible, there is another side to stone, a silence and stillness, symbolizing the physical enactment of terror and dread (Ex. 15:16). Stone represents the powerlessness of false gods to save us from sin (Lev. 26:1, Jer. 2:27), even the ineffectiveness of the law itself. In commanding Moses to carve the 10 commandments onto stone tablets, God communicates a message beyond the law, the gospel of salvation, which only the Spirit can inscribe onto the human heart (1 Pt 2:5).
God teaches this again in 1 Sam. 25:37. There, Nabal holds a huge banquet, eating and drinking in an unworthy manner. And after the wine has gone out of him, his wife Abigail tells him how she has rescued their family from King David’s wrath. At this, Nabal’s heart dies within him so that he became as a stone.
This link between stone and death also appears in the millstone, which the unknown woman uses to crush the skull of Abimelech (Jgs 9:53), also in the stones thrown down over the body of Absalom in a deep pit (2 Sam. 18:17). In Revelation 18:21, John’s vision recounts a strong angel taking up a stone like a great millstone and throwing it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence, and will not be found any longer.”
The Bible’s stones are also weapons, then, used to punish those who publicly disrupt God’s community, who steal sacred spoils (Deut. 13, Josh 7:1-26). In 1 Samuel 17, young David takes up five smooth stones from the brook, puts them in his shepherd’s bag, and approaches Philistine to slay the giant Goliath, symbol of the serpent. Later, God tells the Israelites to marr the land of their enemies with stones, symbolizing those whose hearts lack the living water of the Spirit (2 Kgs 3:19, Mt 13:5).
In these ways, what are for some stones of salvation, for others are stones of stumbling (Jer 6:21, 1 Cor. 1:23), rocks of offense (Rom. 9:33), even instruments of self-torture (Mk 5). He who falls on such a stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust (Matt. 21:44).
The complex symbolism of stones is perfectly encapsulated in Jesus’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. There, the devil tempts Jesus to hasten his mission by transforming stones into bread (Lk 4:3) and leaping over the edge of a cliff. Why not just get it all over with, the devil entices Jesus. You will no longer be hungry. Nor will you die, for “On their hands angels will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Lk 4:11). Later, Jesus rebukes this same impulse in Peter, saying
Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.Matthew 16:23
John 8 again evokes the interplay between stones and timing, where we read that some of the Jews picked up stones to throw at Jesus, but he hid himself and went out of the temple. Just prior to this, Jesus had prevented another stoning, as a hypocritical mob prepared to rage against a woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). We feel the tension building in texts like these, as Jesus Rock of Ages approaches his ultimate time of testing, senses its violent arrival. But also coming is the delivery from death that the Messiah offers his bride, the church, before Satan the accuser.
It’s no accident, then, this detail that the Gospel of Luke includes,
that on the night in which he was betrayed,
having entered the Garden of Gethsemane,
Jesus withdrew from his disciplines “about a stone’s throw, and he knelt down and began to pray” (Lk 22:41).
In this, we see that Jesus knew his time had come.
Yet the stone that held Absalom in the pit could not contain Jesus (Mark 16:4). For there is a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones. God has made everything appropriate in its time (Eccl 3:5,11). He has delivered our souls from death, our feet from stumbling (Ps. 56:13, Jude 1:24). He has turned our heart of stone to flesh, and set eternity within it (Eccl 3:11), adorned it with every kind of precious stone (Rev. 21:19).
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.Revelation 2:17
“To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.”