Some of the so-called Messianic prophecies in the Psalms actually speak of the psalmist’s sin and folly. How can you apply this to Jesus?
No one tries to apply every verse in each “prophetic” psalm to the Messiah. Rather, there is a simple principle behind the Messianic interpretation of these important psalms: As it was with David, so it is with the Messiah. In other words, there are striking parallels between the life of King David and the life of King Messiah, and it is these parallels that are highlighted in the New Testament’s quotation of certain psalms. For example, just as David was betrayed by one of his closest friends, so also the Messiah was betrayed by one of his closest friends, as noted by Jesus himself (see Psalm 41 and John 13:18). But it is obvious that the details of the betrayal don’t have to be the same (e.g., David was betrayed by Ahithopel, Jesus was betrayed by Judas; David’s betrayal led to his temporary exile, Yeshua’s betrayal led to his death).
If you are familiar at all with the Talmud and the Midrash, you will know that the rabbis applied all kinds of obscure verses to the Messiah and to the Messianic era, often taking them totally out of context (for a representative sampling, see below, 4.34). For the most part, these Jewish sages clearly were not looking at an entire portion of Scripture—a whole psalm or chapter—when they cited the verses in question. Rather, what got their attention was a word association, or an association of ideas, or an even more distant link connecting the given verse or phrase with the Messiah. This was quite common in Rabbinic interpretation during the first thousand years of this era, but it was not limited to the Rabbinic writings, especially two thousand years ago. At that time it was common in other, non-Rabbinic Jewish circles to cite verses atomistically (i.e., without relation to the larger context). This is especially common in the Talmudic and midrashic writings, and while the New Testament authors sometimes engage in this practice, for the most part their method was more sober and systematic than this. It should not surprise us, then, if the New Testament sometimes applies just one relevant verse from a larger context that is not relevant. This was normal Jewish interpretation for the day.253
At other times, there were specific principles that fueled the New Testament citations of passages from the Tanakh: As it was with David (or, more broadly, with the righteous psalmist), so it was with the Messiah. That explains why the New Testament can cite Psalm 41:9 with reference to Jesus (“Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me”), when several verses earlier the psalmist had exclaimed, “O Lord, have mercy on me; heal me, for I have sinned against you” (v. 4).
Anti-missionaries will point to this and say, “Either the New Testament quoted a psalm that cannot apply to Jesus or else Jesus must have sinned!” Not at all. Instead, we must remember that there were certain events in the life of David that stood out above the others, such as his betrayal by a close friend or his being hunted and treated like a criminal. When these striking events occurred again in the life of Yeshua, he was quick to point out these parallels (see, e.g., Matt. 21:33–42, quoting Ps. 118:22–33). In this very tangible sense, “the scripture was fulfilled” (e.g., John 19:36–37).
When you consider that David was the prototype of the Messiah, and the Tanakh was both the record of the past and the witness of the future, it is quite fitting that such an interpretative method was used, making us remember how wonderfully the Messiah’s life was laid out in advance in the Scriptures. Once he came to earth and died and then rose from the dead, opening the eyes of his followers to the truth of the biblical prophecies (Luke 24:44–45), it became very clear that (1) the Tanakh laid out the details of the Messiah’s coming, both in history and in prophecy, and (2) Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Let me close this discussion with a personal anecdote. In the early 1990s, I was teaching a course on Messianic prophecy in Maryland and an Orthodox rabbi from Israel, who had come to faith in Yeshua a few years earlier, sat in on the class one day. It was amazing to hear him explain how passage after passage in the Tanakh applied to Yeshua—including verses that I would never have thought of applying to him. I can still remember him sitting there, with his Hebrew Bible in hand, raising his hand enthusiastically and saying in Hebrew, “In my opinion, this is Yeshua.” Yes, it seemed he found Jesus everywhere in the Tanakh. This was because his Rabbinic upbringing led him to find references to Torah everywhere in the Tanakh—I literally mean everywhere—and now that he understood that Jesus was the Messiah, he began to find references to him everywhere in the text.254
In comparison with this rabbi’s passionate but unscientific approach to the Scriptures, the interpretation of the New Testament writers makes a lot of sense.
253 See the references cited above, n. 70; note also the Romans commentary of Shulam and LeCornu, cited below, n. 356.
254 For a typical example, see, conveniently, the footnotes to the Stone edition of Proverbs 5, following Rashi’s commentary.