by Luke Wayne
The 22nd Psalm is an extraordinary passage of Scripture which describes in vivid detail the suffering and ultimate victory of Jesus Christ centuries before the events would occur. There are many, however, who insist that Christians are reading Jesus into a Psalm that was meant to describe only the author's own suffering. They insist that it is a present-tense poem about events contemporary to the writer and cannot be construed as a predictive prophecy at all, much less one about the crucifixion of Jesus. Such objections fall flat on closer examination.
Can Psalms be Predictive Prophecies?
It must first be noted that Psalms can most certainly be predictive prophecies. For example, the third chapter of Habakkuk, which predicts God's ultimate judgment on the wicked nations whom God will use to chastise His people for their sin, is actually a Psalm. One doesn't need to know much about Hebrew poetry to recognize that the chapter is structured through familiar musical terms like "Selah" (v. 3, 9, 13) that are common throughout the Psalms. It is also specifically addressed to the choir director to be performed on string instruments (verse 19).
King David commissioned a group of priestly musicians who were "to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals," (1 Chronicles 25:1). Among them was the household of Asaph who wrote 12 of the Psalms,1 Heman who wrote another,2 and Jeduthan who was involved in the composition of three.3 They were commissioned to prophesy through music, and from that came biblical Psalms. There is no contradiction between being a Psalm and being prophecy. Indeed, there is an important, positive relationship between the two.
Let's take Psalm 2 for example. Like Psalm 22, the author speaks in the past tense, saying things like:
"He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware," (Psalm 2:7-9).
In spite of the grammatical tense and the author speaking in the first person, interpreters have long understood this Psalm as a prophetic text speaking of the Messiah. Christians are not the only ones who see it this way. The Rabbinic tradition in the Babylonian Talmud treats Psalm 2 as a Messianic prophecy, saying:
"The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said, I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance," (Sukkah 52a).4
An early Jewish Midrash also states:
"Three persons were bidden 'ask', viz.: Solomon, Ahaz, and the King Messiah. Solomon: Ask what I shall give thee (1 Kings III, 5). Ahaz: Ask thee a sign (Isa. VII, 11). The King Messiah: Ask of Me, etc. (Ps. II, 8)," (Midrash Rabbah Genesis, Chapter XLIV, Section 85
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the fragment 4Q174 explicitly identifies Psalm 2 as a prophecy against the nations in the Messianic age.6 The scroll 1Q28b refers to the Messiah smashing the nations with his scepter7 and testifies that all the nations will serve him,8 imagery that is also likely drawn from the Psalm as a Messianic revelation. Unsurprisingly, the New Testament writers also point to this passage as a Messianic promise (Acts 13:33. Hebrews 1:5, Revelation 2:26-27, etc.) as did other early Christian writers.9 The ancient interpreters, whether Rabbinic, Sectarian, or Christian, were united in understanding this Psalm to predict a future promised King. And why wouldn't they? Did David, Solomon, or any king after them receive all the nations as an inheritance? Did the whole Gentile world see in any of them the might of God declared in the King God had installed on His holy mountain? Indeed, it was clear to the ancient readers, and should be clear to us, that this Psalm pointed to a future Son of David, the Messiah to come.
This being the case, it is clear that Psalms can and do point forward prophetically to future fulfillments, at least sometimes messianic fulfillments.
But is Psalm 22 Such a Prediction?
Realizing that Psalms can be predictive, it is important to note just how predictive Psalm 22 really is of Jesus' suffering. The Psalm begins:
"My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1).
Jesus cried out these very words from the cross, (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 ). Likewise, the Psalmist explains:
"All who see me sneer at me; They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, 'Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him,'” (Psalm 22:7-8)
The gospel writers similarly report:
"And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, 'He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.' The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” (Luke 23:35-36, see also Matthew 27:39-43 and Mark 15-29-32).
The details are different enough that there is no reason to think that Luke or the other Gospel writers are merely copying lines from the Psalm and claiming they happened to Jesus, and yet the parallel is striking. The Psalmist also cries:
"They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots," (Psalm 22:18).
During the execution of Jesus, we are told:
"And they crucified Him, and divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots for them to decide what each man should take," (Mark 15:24, see also Matthew 27:35, Luke 23:34, and John 19:24).
The author of the Psalm exclaims:
"For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me; they pierced my hands and my feet," (Psalm 22:16).10
Surrounded by hostile gentiles ("dogs" and "evildoers"), Jesus is nailed to a Roman cross through His hands and feet.11 As one New Testament passage puts it:
"This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death," (Acts 2:23).
The process of crucifixion also fits well with phrases like:
"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint," (Psalm 22:14).
The Psalmist even explains "My tongue cleaves to my jaws," (Psalm 22:15) while Jesus cries out from the cross, "I am thirsty," (John 19:28). Many commentators have pointed to Psalm 22:17, "I can count all my bones," as according well with the fact that Jesus' bones were not broken during the crucifixion. One could even argue that the phrase, "You lay me in the dust of death," (Psalm 22:14) could point to the fact that the person about whom the Psalm is written literally dies and is buried before later being delivered, thus implying the resurrection. This is especially plausible since later in the Psalm the phrase "those who go down to the dust" is paralleled with the clause, "he who cannot keep his soul alive," (Psalm 22:29). Regardless, however, the Psalm as a whole parallels dramatically well with Jesus' own suffering in stunning detail. Simply reading the crucifixion narratives in the Gospels and then this Psalm back to back, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are describing the same events.
Coincidence, Plot, or Prophecy
These parallels leave us with three possibilities:
- It is a mere coincidence. The details just happen to line up as they do.
- It is an early Christian plot. The gospel writers invented the details of Jesus' execution to make it match the Psalm.
- Psalm 22 is, indeed, a prophecy of Jesus.
That the Psalmist would just happen to mention details as specific as the piercing of hands and feet or the dividing and casting lots for clothing just as they occurred in Jesus execution seems highly improbable. The more parallels we note, such as the intense thirst and all the bones of the body being stretched out of joint, the more unlikely it becomes that this is coincidence, especially since crucifixion did not yet exist when the Psalm was written. To attribute it to coincidence seems more than a bit of a stretch.
The conspiracy theory, where the Gospel writers manufacture a connection between Jesus and the Psalm, seems more plausible at first, but breaks down on closer examination:
- First of all, what reason would they have to pick a random Psalm and use it as a model for Jesus execution if that Psalm isn't a messianic prophecy? The only motivation for the conspiracy would be if Psalm 22 actually is intended to be prophetic.
- Secondly, there are four gospel writers. While many scholars argue that Matthew, Mark, and Luke's gospels may have in some way relied on one another (most often claiming that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source), few if any serious scholars would claim that John borrowed from any of these three. Yet, in all four gospels, the narrative of Jesus' death matches up strikingly well with the narrative of the Psalm. You would have to accuse at least two and arguably four different writers of coming up with the same conspiracy to take the same random, non-prophetic suffering Psalm and not only turn it into a prophecy of Jesus but make it a primary source for the whole narrative of Jesus' suffering. You would also have to claim, without clear evidence, that the author of the book of Hebrews already possessed one of the gospels or invented the same conspiracy himself when he also makes the Jesus-Psalm 22 connection. If you accept the theory of modern scholars that the book of Revelation was written by someone other than the John who wrote the gospel, then you have yet another author to deal with as Revelation also makes this connection. This would be a remarkably widespread and detailed conspiracy to happen so quickly among so many with only ancient media with which to work.
- Thirdly, the vast majority of these parallels are incidental in the narrative. The gospel writers are not making much of them, nor are they turning back to Psalm 22 again and again to say "as it was written," or "this occurred to fulfill the scripture..." as they often do with other passages elsewhere. Indeed, Mark and Luke don't cite the Psalm at all, and John and Matthew each only reference it once in passing. These writers love to point out the many places that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament but make surprisingly little effort to direct the reader to Psalm 22 as a fulfilled prophecy. This would be rather surprising if they were trying to manufacture a connection between Jesus and an otherwise non-prophetic Psalm
- Fourthly, many of the details are directly connected to the methods of torture and execution contemporary to the Roman society of Jesus' day. The gospel writers could not just make them up to match the Psalm. No one would have believed them if they were not practices that Romans would really do. The Psalmist wrote before such practices were invented, but the gospel writers wrote while they were still happening. They could not simply invent them to match the details of the Psalm because they were describing events from their own time and place. Their contemporary readers would catch the errors if they contrived unrealistic scenarios to make Jesus' death connect with the Psalm.
- Finally, there is the fact that these men were willing to suffer the loss of their possessions, imprisonment, torture, and death for what they said about Jesus. It seems absurd to think that they were intentionally fabricating their testimony. These men believed what they were claiming with great conviction and were willing to suffer and die for it. That does not fit well with the idea that they made up the details to force false connections with unrelated prophecies.
This leaves us with the conclusion that the Psalm is, indeed, prophetic. The text of the Psalm itself also gives us reason to think so. The Psalmist writes at the conclusion of the suffering and deliverance he describes that:
"All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You," (Psalm 22:27).
David's own suffering did not cause all the nations of the world to worship the one true God of Abraham. Neither did the suffering of any of the kings, prophets, or patriarchs of old. Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection have done exactly that. Indeed, to this day, more families of more nations all over the globe continue to come to God through the testimony of Jesus' suffering and deliverance. Not only do the details of the events fit, but what's more, the stated result of the events not only fits Jesus but fits Him exclusively. This simply cannot be said of any other person and there is no way that the author of the Psalm meant it about them self and the events of their own life. Psalm 22 is a prophecy, and one that was miraculously fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
- 1. Psalm 50, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83
- 2. Psalm 88
- 3. Psalm 39, 62, 77
- 4. http://www.halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Sukkah.pdf, (Accessed 3/31/2017)
- 5. Rabbi H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah: Translated into English with Notes, Glossary, and Indices: Volume 1 - Rabba Genesis (Stephen Austin and Sons, LTD 1939) 365-366. http://archive.org/stream/RabbaGenesis/midrashrabbahgen027557mbp#page/n357/mode/2up (accessed 3/31/2017)
- 6. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Books, 2004) 526.
- 7. ibid, 389.
- 8. ibid, 390.
- 9. See, for example, Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 40; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 7; Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 2
- 10. Some contend that a later Hebrew variant should be preferred, which reads "like a lion" rather than "they pierced." For a detailed discussion of this, see our article Does Psalm 22:16 really predict Jesus' crucifixion?
- 11. See, for example, John 20:25