A number of verses from this Psalm are quoted in the New Testament account of the crucifixion, notably the first verse ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ which Jesus cries from the cross. We also have a reference to verse 8 of the Psalm He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him; let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!” in Matthew 27.43 and a quote from verse 18 in John 19.24 ‘They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.’ See also Matthew 27.35, Mark 15.24, Luke 23.34. Most Christian versions of the Psalm translate verse 17 as ‘They pierced My hands and My feet’ with an obvious reference to the crucifixion implied, although it should be pointed out that this verse is not quoted in the New Testament.
According to Asher Norman this Psalm is about David’s sufferings and is not messianic. He says there is no messianic prophecy of the Messiah being ‘pierced’ and the Christians have deliberately mistranslated Psalm 22.17 to connect this Psalm with the crucifixion. He says ‘In Psalm 22.17 the Hebrew word ‘ka’ari’ (which means like a lion), was mistranslated in the Christian Bible as ‘they pierced.’
Psalm 22 raises a number of issues on this subject:
- Is it a lament by David as he finds himself surrounded by bitter foes, with no messianic or future significance?
- Is the translation of verse 17 ‘they pierced my hands and feet’ a deliberate Christian mistranslation?
- Can we connect the section of the Psalm from verse 6 to verse 18 with the crucifixion as described in the Gospels?
- The latter part of the Psalm speaks of the ends of the earth remembering and turning to the Lord, and people from all nations worshiping the Lord. Is there a connection between this and the suffering of the person identified earlier in the Psalm?
1. A lament by David?
In a general sense this Psalm is a prayer of one who is suffering and is brought to the jaws of death and then rescued by God in answer to prayer. As such it can be seen in the context of David’s sufferings at the hands of his enemies. However it also goes beyond David’s sufferings. Believers in Jesus as Messiah say that the Holy Spirit was revealing to David what would happen to Jesus as the righteous sufferer, surrounded by hostile crowds, beaten, mocked, crucified and seemingly abandoned by man and God, but then delivered from death, raised from the dead and now worshipped by people from the ends of the earth.
Today many rabbis opposing the Messianic movement say that this Psalm is not a prophecy, nor does it speak of any future event. This is the claim of Rabbi Tovia Singer, who says ‘the entire Psalm contains a dramatic monologue in which King David cried out to God from the depths of his personal pain, anguish and longing as he remained a fugitive from his enemies.’ (www.outreachjudaism.org/like-a-lion.htm)
There are Jewish writings which associate this Psalm with a future event. Commenting on this Psalm, Rashi says, ‘They (meaning the Jewish people) are destined to go into exile and David recited this prayer for the future.’ So this would mean that the Psalm does have a future application.
The Pesikta Rabbati, the eighth century midrash, put some of the words of this psalm on the lips of the suffering Messiah (called Ephraim, but associated with the son of David), quoting verses 8, 13-14 and 16 in the context of Messiah’s sufferings. In fact the midrash explicitly states that ‘it was because of the ordeal of the son of David that David wept, saying ‘My strength is dried up like a potsherd’ (Psalm 22.16). Further information on this is to be found at http://www.messianicart.com/chazak/yeshua/psalm22.htm . From this we conclude that Jewish interpreters have connected this Psalm with future events, not just with David’s sufferings and also with the sufferings of the Messiah.
2. Like a lion or they have pierced?
Asher Norman says that ‘a key phrase in the Christian Old Testament Translation was strategically manipulated to support this New Testament ‘messianic prophecy.’ The Hebrew word ‘ca’ari’ was mistranslated as ‘pierced’ although it means ‘like a lion.’
He is referring to verse 16 (17) of this psalm, which is translated in the King James Version as ‘They pierced my hands and feet.’ Rabbi Tovia Singer says of this: ‘The phrase ‘they pierced my hands and feet’ is a Christian contrivance that appears nowhere in the Jewish scriptures. Bear in mind that this stunning mistranslation in the 22nd Psalm did not occur because Christian translators were unaware of the correct meaning of the Hebrew word. Clearly this was not the case.’ In other words this translation of Psalm 22 is a deliberate fraud perpetrated by Christians to ‘shoehorn Jesus into the text’ as Asher Norman puts it.
Actually it is not quite as simple as that. The majority reading of the Masoretic text literally reads, “Like a lion my hands and feet,” translating ‘ca’ari’ from the Hebrew. This reading is difficult, and doesn’t make sense. Asher Norman says that the correct translation should be ‘like (the prey of a lion) are my hands and feet.’ The problem with this is that there is no word in the text about ‘the prey of a lion.’ Also if the text is meant to convey being attacked by a lion, this raises the question, ‘Why would a single lion attack the four extremities of the body, where it would injure but not kill, rather than a vital organ like the throat where it would kill?’ Also the usual word for lion in Hebrew is ‘aryeh’ spelt differently from ‘ari’. The word aryeh with its usual form is found in verse 13 of Psalm 22.
To change the Hebrew from ‘ca’ari’ to ‘caru’ requires just the smallest difference between the Hebrew letters vav and jud. Significantly about a dozen Masoretic manuscripts exist with the word written as ‘caru’. Hebrew scholars believe this comes from a root meaning ‘to dig out’ or to ‘bore through.’ In other words to pierce. In the Septuagint (translated before the time of Jesus), the text reads, “they have pierced my hands and my feet” using the verb oruxan in Greek. The Syriac Peshitta version two or three centuries after the Septuagint also has the same rendering. The oldest Hebrew copy of the Psalms we possess (from the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating to a century before Jesus) writes the verb in this verse as caru (not ca’ari like a lion).
So it is not so dishonest for Christians to translate this verse as ‘They pierced my hands and feet.’ This may not have made much sense to David when he wrote it, but Peter wrote in his epistle: ‘Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Messiah who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Messiah and the glories that would follow.’ 1 Peter 1.10-11. As David was a prophet, he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write this psalm which would speak of the sufferings of Messiah and the glories that would follow.
3. Psalm 22 and the crucifixion.
There can be no doubt that the Gospel writers saw Psalm 22 as very significant in the light of what happened to Jesus on the cross. The fact that Jesus is recorded as quoting its opening verse ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’ is a way of drawing our attention to Psalm 22 and connecting what was happening at the cross with this psalm. For more on this go to our article The crucifixion accounts.
There are nine prophecies from Psalm 22 fulfilled in Jesus on the cross.
1. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? (Psalms 22:1).
This was fulfilled in Matthew 27:46. Jesus the Messiah felt forsaken of the Father as He hung on the cross and suffered the wrath of God against sin and died as the sinner’s substitute. This cry was revealing the worst agony of the cross for Jesus when ‘the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53.6). The sin of the world was placed upon the Lord Jesus and He who ‘knew no sin’ became the ‘sin offering’ for us all (2 Corinthians 5.21). The Bible says in Galatians 3:13 that Jesus actually became a curse, and suffered under the curse of the Father while bearing our sin, that we might be freed from the curse and given the blessing of eternal life through the Holy Spirit.
2. But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. (Psalms 22:6).
This is an amazing prophecy, but to capture the fullness of it, we have to look at the Hebrew text behind it. The Hebrew word translated, “worm” in our Bible is ‘tolaath’ actually a name of a very specific worm in Israel. It is a worm that would first be dried out, and then crushed in order to extract a red dye from. This is significant. The same Hebrew word occurs 42 times in the Old Testament, and only 8 of those times is it translated “worm(s)”. The rest of the occurrences translate it as “scarlet” and once as “crimson”. Some of the references are the scarlet thread used in the tabernacle (Exodus 26.1, 35.6), in the ritual for cleansing a leper (Leviticus 14.4), and in the ritual for the red heifer (Numbers 19.6). It is also used in Isaiah 1.18 ‘Though your sins are red as scarlet they shall be as white as snow.’ The application is tremendous: Jesus the Messiah was dried out in intense suffering, and was crushed like a worm under the wrath of God in order to extract the precious bright red substance from Him, His sinless blood, which would be applied to men as a precious dye to cover their sin.
3. All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him. (Psalms 22:7-8).
This details the intense ridicule and humility He suffered on the Cross. This was literally fulfilled in Matthew 27:39-44.
4. But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly. (Psalms 22:9-10).
Jesus the Messiah is the only one who could say this rightfully. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, born a sinless child, always righteous, always perfect, always trusting in God the Father in perfect obedience.
5. Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help. Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. (Psalms 22:11-13).
The strong bulls of Bashan are spoken of because of the reputation of them in the Psalmist’s day as being the strongest, fiercest bulls. This is speaking of the Roman soldiers who crucified Him, who showed no mercy to their victims, but gouged them with their horns of power to pieces. Like wild beasts, they brutally tortured their victims.
6. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. (Psalms 22:15).
Fulfilled, as Messiah’s strength left His body. Just at the end of the horrific event, He shouted out, “I thirst” (John 19:28) just prior to His shout of victory, “It is finished!” He died and was buried.
7. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. (Psalms 22:16).
“Dogs” was a common Jewish term of insult when talking about Gentiles. The heathen Gentiles would be surrounding Messiah during such sufferings, fulfilled at the cross as the Roman soldiers crucified Him. And His hands and His feat were pierced through to the cross as the wicked gathered around Him in ridicule.
8. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. (Psalms 22:17).
Not a bone of His was broken, fulfilled in John 19:36. The Passover Lamb was not to have its bones broken (Exodus 12.46).
9. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture. (Psalms 22:18).
Fulfilled in all four Gospel accounts – see above.
There are a further three prophecies yet to be fulfilled in this Psalm which we will look at in the next section of this article.
4. The future glories of Messiah’s kingdom in Psalm 22.
The psalm does not end with humiliation and suffering, but with a triumphant vision of the ends of the earth turning to the Lord. Clearly neither David nor any figure found in the Tenach can claim that his sufferings have led to the events described in the latter part of the psalm (verses 22-31).
The psalm points to a day when the Lord will be worshipped by people from all nations and have dominion and rule over the nations (verse 27-28). As a result of his actions, David himself could never claim to have achieved what is described in these verses. Yet Jesus has those from all nations of the earth who believe in Him and worship God through Him. The New Testament says that the same Jesus will return, this time as King of kings, not as a Suffering Servant, to rule over the nations.
In the New Testament there are three fulfilments of these verses in view in relation to Jesus’ resurrection and second coming.
1. I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. (Psalms 22:22).
After Messiah was brought down to the dust of death, He was raised from the dead. He appeared to His Jewish brethren, the Apostles, after His resurrection. He declared the triumph of God over the works of Satan in the midst of the congregation.
2. All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. (Psalms 22:27).
This is a glorious prophecy that has been fulfilled as we look around and see all the ends of the world, with representatives from all the Gentile nations, remembering the death of the Son of God and believing in Him for the remission of sins. All the families of the nations will finally worship Him forever, as in Revelation 5:9.
3. For the kingdom is the LORD’s: and he is the governor among the nations. (Psalms 22:28).
This has seen partial fulfilment already, as God has proven that He indeed is the King and Ruler of all the earth. Yet, it will see a more literal fulfilment during the Millennial Kingdom of Messiah that will come when He returns to earth. This will be fulfilled completely when Jesus returns in power and glory and takes dominion over ‘all peoples, nations and languages’ (Daniel 7.14), and the ‘kingdoms of this world’ become the ‘kingdom of our God and of His Messiah’ (Revelation 11.15). For more on this go to our article Will there be a Millennium or Messianic Kingdom?