Friday, February 5, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament: Psalm 22

Let’s play a little game. I’ll write just a few words from a biblical passage and see if you can finish the rest of the verse.

“In the beginning God…”

“For God so love the world…”

“The Lord is my shepherd…”

My guess is that most Christians would be able to finish these famous verses. For some, it probably loads the larger context and meaning of the rest of the chapter. We are used to referring to biblical passages by chapter and verse number, but we need to remember that those are not original to the text and were added later to make it easier to communicate about specific passages. In first century Palestine, when a person wanted to refer to a section of scripture, they would not use chapter and verse designations, but would use a method similar to the one I just illustrated by saying the first phrase or sentence of that passage. Someone might say, “You know, in the ‘In the beginning God’ passage” to refer to the first chapter of Genesis.

Therefore, when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is doing more than expressing the separation from the Father that he experienced while enduring God’s just wrath for the sin of mankind. He was also directing the observers to the words of King David in Psalm 22. Those who heard his words would have immediately loaded the rest of the psalm in their minds. It was as if Jesus was saying, “At this moment, Psalm 22 is being fulfilled.”

The idea that Psalm 22 is a prophetic illustration of the suffering of the Messiah is not a Christian idea that was concocted to highjack Jewish scriptures. The famous Jewish Midrash Pesikta Rabbati of the 8th century explains, “It was because of the ordeal of the son of David (i.e. the Messiah) that David wept, saying: ‘My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.’” Additionally, if one surveys the life and death of David, there is nothing that even remotely fits the events described in Psalm 22. It must be referring to someone else. A straight-forward reading of the text points to one person in history: Jesus of Nazareth.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (v. 1)

The initial words of the Psalm not only reference the passage for listeners, but they also carry important theological significance. Jesus was not forsaken by the Father in the sense of forfeiting the favor and love of the Father. He never laid down his identity as the beloved Son of God, yet he did experience a time of abandonment and desolation as the full weight of God’s wrath was poured out on the sins of the world. Jesus’ cry of agony meshes perfectly with Isaiah 53, where we read, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Jesus’ experience of being forsaken on the cross, should direct our attention to the seriousness of our sin and the depth of God’s love that he would give his only Son to bear it on our behalf.

“I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” (v. 6)

Although the Hebrew word “rimmah” is often used to describe a worm or maggot in the Old Testament, the word selected in this verse is “tola’ath”, which specifically refers to the “crimson worm” or “scarlet worm.” This insect is important in the region and was used to make a natural red dye. The life cycle of the worm is particularly interesting.

When it comes time to reproduce, the female tola’ath firmly attaches herself to a tree by surrounding her body with a hard, crimson shell where she will lay her eggs. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the body of the mother, emerging from the shell in a few days after becoming permanently stained red by a dye that oozes from the dying mother. However, after three days, the dead mother’s body loses its crimson color and the empty shell turns into a white, flaky wax. To summarize, a mother tola’ath worm hangs on a tree to offer its body as a sacrifice for her children, who must eat her flesh and are permanently marked by her blood, but three days later the tomb where her bloody body lay is empty and turns to pure white. Does that sound familiar?

The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13). Jesus told the crowds that followed him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56). We are made free from guilt and can come near to God with a sincere heart because we have been “sprinkled with the blood of Christ.” (Hebrews 10:22). And, of course, we know that “[Jesus] was buried [and] that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:4). Indeed, Jesus is our tola’ath worm.

I almost feel like I could end with a mic drop here, but there is so much more.

“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (v. 7-8)

The ordeal described in this psalm is clearly a public humiliation of some kind, such as crucifixion, which was designed to be a public warning against provoking the ire of the Roman empire. Not only did Jesus suffer publicly, but he also endured the scorn of the people in almost identical fashion to the derision described in Psalm 22. In the gospel of Matthew, we read, “So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ And the robbers were with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matthew 27:41-44).

“Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me, they open wide their moths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” (v. 12)

Bashan was a territory east of the Jordan River that was known for its fertile pastureland and bulls renowned for their size, strength and fierceness. During the crucifixion, Jesus was encircled by both the religious power of the scribes, pharisees, and chief priests and the military might of the Roman ruling authorities and soldiers.

“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” (v. 14)

In the next section of the psalm, the imagery used will seem to clearly describe crucifixion. However, one must remember that David lived 1000 years before Christ and crucifixion was invented by the Persians in the 6th century B.C. The accuracy with which David seems to describe crucifixion gives prophetic validity to the psalm that I think is difficult to dismiss.

As Jesus hung upon the cross, the strain on the wrists, arms, and shoulders would have resulted in the dislocation of the elbow and shoulder joints. During the ordeal, he experienced extreme thirst and dehydration as body fluids were diverted to try to make up for heavy blood loss. As the end neared, Jesus said, “I thirst” so “they put a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.” (John 19:28). Since the crucifixion occurred on the day before the Sabbath, the day of preparation, the Jews requested that the Roman soldiers break Jesus’ legs and the legs of the criminals who were crucified one either side. Doing so would prevent the crucifixion victims from holding themselves up, which would quickly lead to suffocation and death. However, seeing that Jesus was already dead, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (John 19:34). Modern medicine supports this eye-witness detail. As Jesus’ heart beat faster to circulate available oxygen, capillaries would have begun to leak watery fluid from the blood, resulting in a build up of fluid around the heart and lungs. This was the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side.

“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.” (v. 16)

Keep in mind that this psalm was written four centuries before crucifixion was even invented, yet King David seems to perfectly describe this method of execution when it says, “they have pierced my hands and feet.” It is no surprise that this particular verse is questioned by Jewish counter-missionaries. Rabbi Tovia Singer claims that the correct translation is “like a lion, they are at my hands and feet” and that “The King James version (of the Bible) deliberately mistranslated the Hebrew word kaari as ‘pierced,’ rather than ‘like a lion,’ thereby drawing the reader to a false conclusion that this Psalm is describing the Crucifixion.”

Let’s suppose for a minute that Rabbi Singer is correct and the verse should be translated as “like a lion, they are at my hands and feet.” What would hands and feet look like after being ravaged by a lion? Probably pretty similar to how they would look after having a metal spike driven through them.

We don’t need to rest on this reasoning, though, because Rabbi Singer’s accusation is incorrect. He is relying on the Masoretic texts, which were written between the 6th and 10th century AD. However, the Masoretic texts are not the oldest manuscripts of Psalm 22. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written two hundred years before Jesus’ birth have only one letter different in the passage in question, but it changes the meaning to “They have mined (bore a hole) my hands and feet.” Additionally, the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was also written before Jesus’ birth, uses the Greek word “oruxsan” which can be translated as “they dug” or “they pierced.” Despite Rabbi Singer’s claim, it would appear that it was actually the Jewish scribes who wrote the Masoretic texts who deliberately manipulated the passage so that it would not point so clearly to the crucifixion.

“I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (v. 17-18)

Not only do these verses point to medical realities that Jesus would have experienced on the cross, they make an incredibly specific prediction that the sufferer’s clothing would be both divided equally amongst some bystanders and awarded to the winner of a game of chance. Though these results seem slightly at odds, they are exactly what happened in the crucifixion. In John’s gospel we read, “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” (John 19:23-24).

“But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!” (v. 19-21)

At this point, the psalm begins to turn. As we move on the song is no longer about death. There is a temporary forsaking of the person described in Psalm 22, but an ultimate deliverance.

“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!” (v. 22-23)

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” (v. 27)

As a result of the events described in this psalm, first the Jews and then people around the earth will turn to worship the Lord. This describes exactly how the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection, which demonstrates the forgiveness of sin that comes through faith in Christ, spread first in “Jerusalem and in all Judea…and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Who else could this psalm be pointing towards? Who else has died in a similar manner and been ultimately delivered, resulting in both Jews and Gentiles coming to praise the God of the Hebrew Scriptures?

“All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”

One cannot help but think of the following verse: “God has highly exalted him (Jesus) and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11). What was accomplished in this psalm has been proclaimed to a people yet unborn. The glory and gospel of Jesus Christ has been declared around the globe. He has done it!

As we come to the end of Psalm 22, I am amazed at how accurately it describes the death, deliverance, and glorification of Jesus. There are intricate details, written centuries in advance, that point with laser-sharp precision to the actual events of the crucifixion. Is this all just coincidence? Did the gospel writers purposely fabricate their accounts to align with Psalm 22, even though this would contradict the deep moral foundation of their teaching and their willingness to face persecution and even death for the message they were preaching? Or is this one of the many examples where God has revealed Jesus in the Old Testament so that, like “all the ends of the earth”, we might turn to worship him?

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