Psalm 22 is the story of David’s past suffering. There is nothing prophetic about it.
Actually, Psalm 22 is the prayer of a righteous sufferer, brought down to the jaws of death and then rescued and raised up by God in answer to prayer, a glorious testimony to be recounted through the ages. As such, it applies powerfully to Jesus the Messiah, the ideal righteous sufferer, surrounded by hostile crowds, beaten, mocked, crucified, and seemingly abandoned by man and God, but delivered from death itself and raised from the dead by the power of God, a story now celebrated around the globe. That’s why he quoted words from this psalm with reference to himself when he hung on the cross. How strikingly they apply to him! What is also interesting is that some of the great Rabbinic commentators—including Rashi—interpreted the psalm as a prophecy of Israel’s future suffering and exile, not as the story of David’s past suffering. Not only so, but a famous Rabbinic midrash composed about twelve hundred years ago said that David spoke of the Messiah’s sufferings in Psalm 22. We can therefore say with confidence that the application of this psalm to the death and resurrection of the Messiah is in keeping with the clear meaning of the text.
According to anti-missionary rabbi Tovia Singer,
missionaries are confronted with another remarkable problem as they seek to project the words of this Psalm into a first century crucifixion story. In the simplest terms, this text that Christians eagerly quote is not a prophecy, nor does it speak of any future event. This entire Psalm, as well as the celebrated Psalm that follows it, 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. Accordingly, the stirring monologue in this chapter is all in the first person. The author himself is crying out to God, and there is no doubt who the faithful speaker is in this Psalm; the very first verse in this chapter explicitly identifies this person as King David.230
Unfortunately, Rabbi Singer’s interpretation flies in the face of many traditional Jewish commentators who plainly say that Psalm 22 is prophetic. For example, at the outset of his comments on this psalm, Rashi says, “They [meaning the people of Israel] are destined to go into exile and David recited this prayer for the future.”231 Commenting on the words “I am a worm” in 22:6, Rashi notes that David “refers to all Israel as one man,” and he interprets specific verses with reference to later historical figures such as Nebuchadnezzar (22:14). How then can Rabbi Singer claim that the psalm does not “speak of any future event”? Jewish tradition says that it does!232 In fact, Rashi explains verse 26 with reference to “the time of our redemption in the days of our Messiah,” then interprets verses 27-29[28-30] with reference to the Gentile nations turning to the Lord, the end of the age, and the final judgment. These certainly are future events, also underscoring the worldwide redemptive implications of this psalm.233
There is no need, however, even to press this argument about the futuristic interpretation of Psalm 22, since it does not have to be prophetic to be applied to the Messiah, for two primary reasons: (1) Many events in the life of David were repeated in the life of the Messiah, since David, in many ways, was the prototype of the Messiah (see further, below, 4.26 and 4.29); and (2) as part of the canon of Scripture, Psalm 22 was the psalm of the righteous sufferer miraculously delivered from death, and without doubt, many righteous sufferers have recited the words of this psalm to the Lord in their times of distress. But none could recite it with as much meaning and application as could Jesus the Messiah, the ideal and ultimate righteous sufferer, resurrected from death itself, resulting in worldwide praise to God. Really, the psalm applies to him in many unique ways, and whereas the author of the psalm (according to tradition, David) may have spoken of his own situation with some poetic hyperbole, there was no hyperbole when applying the words to Yeshua. Just look at how aptly his death and resurrection are described in this psalm.
First is the picture of a public, agonizing, humiliating death—extraordinarily applicable to death by crucifixion:234
Many bulls surround me,
mighty ones of Bashan encircle me.
They open their mouths at me,
like tearing, roaring lions.
My life ebbs away:
all my bones are disjointed;
my heart is like wax,
melting within me;
my vigor dries up like a shard;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
You commit me to the dust of death.235
Dogs surround me;
a pack of evil ones closes in on me,
like lions [they maul] my hands and feet.
I take the count of all my bones
while they look on and gloat.
They divide my clothes among themselves,
casting lots for my garments.
Psalm 22:12-19[13-20] NJPSV236
Surrounded, hemmed in, with his life ebbing away, brought down to the dust of death, the psalmist then prays for a mighty deliverance:
But you, O Lord, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
Deliver my life from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
And God heard his cry, answering the anguished sufferer with a deliverance so extraordinary that it resulted in: (1) worldwide praise and adoration, (2) a lasting testimony of God’s saving power to be recounted through the generations of Israel, and (3) the turning of the Gentile nations to God, as Rashi himself noted, even associating this final event with the Messianic era (as we observed, above). As the text declares:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
they who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it.
Little wonder, then, that this was understood to be a Messianic psalm by the writers of the New Testament. What other individual’s deliverance from extreme suffering and death was worthy of being recounted again and again in the assembly of Israel? What other individual’s deliverance from extreme suffering and death was worthy of worldwide attention to the point that the nations actually turned to the God of Israel because of it? Only the death and resurrection of the Messiah, the perfectly righteous one, the ultimate fulfillment of Psalm 22.237
As expressed by James E. Smith,
No Old Testament person could have imagined that his personal deliverance from death could be the occasion for the world’s conversion. Such a hope must be restricted to the future Redeemer. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David in Psalm 22 saw his descendants resembling, but far surpassing, himself in suffering. Furthermore, the deliverance of this descendant would have meaning for all mankind.238
In light of all this, it is very interesting to see how Pesikta Rabbati, the famous 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), citing Psalm 22:8, 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 (Ps. 22:16).” Did you catch that? According to this respected Rabbinic homily, David described the Messiah’s sufferings in Psalm 22!
Let’s look at the key texts more fully:
During the seven-year period preceding the coming of the son of David, iron beams will be brought low and loaded upon his neck until the Messiah’s body is bent low. Then he will cry and weep, and his voice will rise to the very height of heaven, and he will say to God: Master of the universe, how much can my strength endure? How much can my spirit endure? How much my breath before it ceases? How much can my limbs suffer? Am I not flesh and blood?
It was because of the ordeal of the son of David that David wept, saying My strength is dried up like a potsherd (Ps. 22:16). During the ordeal of the son of David, the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to him: Ephraim, My true Messiah, long ago, ever since the six days of creation, thou didst take this ordeal upon thyself. At this moment, thy pain is like my pain.
At these words, the Messiah will reply: “Now I am reconciled. The servant is content to be like his Master” (Pesikta Rabbati 36:2).239
It is taught, moreover, that in the month of Nisan the Patriarchs will arise and say to the Messiah: Ephraim, our true Messiah, even though we are thy forbears, thou art greater than we because thou didst suffer for the iniquities of our children, and terrible ordeals befell thee… . For the sake of Israel thou didst become a laughingstock and a derision among the nations of the earth; and didst sit in darkness, in thick darkness, and thine eyes saw no light, and thy skin cleaved to thy bones, and thy body was as dry as a piece of wood; and thine eyes grew dim from fasting, and thy strength was dried up like a potsherd—all these afflictions on account of the iniquities of our children.
Pesikta Rabbati 37:1240
Ephraim is a darling son to Me… My heart yearneth for him, in mercy I will have mercy upon him, saith the Lord (Jer. 31:20). Why does the verse speak twice of mercy: In mercy I will have mercy upon him? One mercy refers to the time when he will be shut up in prison, a time when the nations of the world will gnash their teeth at him every day, wink their eyes at one another in derision of him, nod their heads at him in contempt, open wide their lips to guffaw, as is said All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head (Ps. 22:8); My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my throat; and thou layest me in the dust of death (Ps. 22:16). Moreover, they will roar over him like lions, as is said They open wide their mouth against me, as a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is become like wax; it is melted in mine inmost parts (Ps. 22:14–15).
Pesikta Rabbati 37:1241
How striking all this is, especially in light of the objection raised here, namely, that Psalm 22 has nothing to do with the Messiah. To the contrary, when Psalm 22 is rightly understood, and when the true Messiah is recognized—our suffering, dying, and rising Savior—the application of this psalm to him is totally appropriate, to say the least.
230 Tovia Singer, <http://www.outreachjudaism.org/like-a-lion.htm#1ret>
231 My emphasis. Remember that David was recognized as a prophet in the Scriptures and in Jewish tradition; see, e.g., 2 Samuel 23:1 with Rashi’s commentary.
232 After reviewing the various suggestions offered by Jewish scholars as to the identity of the sufferer in Psalm 22, Rozenberg and Zlotovitz then note, “Traditional Jewish scholarship sees this psalm as foretelling of the coming events surrounding Purim. The anguished cry, ‘My God, my God why have You abandoned me?,’ is ascribed to Esther. … Christian scholars have also understood this psalm as being predictive but have connected the psalm to the events surrounding their Messiah” (The Book of Psalms, 120–21, my emphasis).
233 I have observed through the years that anti-missionaries often ignore or betray ignorance of normative, traditional Jewish interpretations when those interpretations contradict the polemical point they are making, as is the case here. It is therefore fair to ask what their primary motivation is. Is it faithfulness to (traditional) Judaism, or is it pulling Jews away from other beliefs? If it is the former, why then contradict or ignore the very men whose teachings form the core of traditional Judaism?
234 As noted by Charles A. Briggs (Messianic Prophecy [New York: Scribner’s, 1889], 326), cited in Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 112–13, the sufferings described in Psalm 22 “find their exact counterpart in the sufferings on the cross. They are more vivid in their realization of that dreadful scene than the story of the Gospels. The most striking features of these sufferings are seen there, in the piercing of the hands and feet, the body stretched upon the cross, the intense thirst, and the division of the garments.”
235 Rashi explains this phrase to mean “to the crushing of death.”
236 On the crucifixion imagery in this psalm, see 4.25.
237 Again, one need not raise the question of whether or not the psalmist actually spoke of his own death and resurrection; it is sufficient that he spoke of his own extreme sufferings and deliverance in graphic, poetic terms that quite literally foreshadowed the Messiah’s death and subsequent deliverance from the grave.
238 Smith, The Promised Messiah, 146, cited in Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 113.
239 From the standard translation of William G. Braude, Pesikta Rabbati: Homiletical Discourses for Festal Days and Special Sabbaths, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale, 1968), 680–81.
240 Ibid., 685–86.
241 Ibid., 686–87. All of these citations can be found in the useful Internet article on Psalm 22 found on <http://www.messianicart.com/chazak/ps22.htm>
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (117). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.