The Messiah Would be Forsaken and Pierced, but Vindicated
Psalms 22:1-31 [Hebrew, 1-32]
The Messiah would be forsaken and pierced, but vindicated
Matthew 27:35, 39, 43-44, 46; Mark 15:34; John 19:23-24, 30; Heb. 2:11-12
The first half Psalm 22 is the psalm of a righteous sufferer, derided by his enemies and feeling forsaken by God. From verse 22 (Hebrew, 23) on, the tone changes radically as the sufferer is vindicated by God and the Lord reigns over all the earth. Beginning with a despondent tone, the psalm ends on a note of triumph.
The New Testament shows Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of this psalm. In Matthew 27:46 we read, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (See also Mark 15:34.) Jesus is not crying out spontaneously in despair, nor was he calling out for Elijah to come and rescue him, as some bystanders thought; he is actually quoting the beginning of Psalm 22. This is for several reasons: (1) many understand that on the cross, as Jesus took on the sins of all humanity, he was momentarily abandoned by God, who cannot look on sin. This is possible, though the text does not say so directly. (2) He was identifying as the righteous sufferer of Psalm 22. It was typical in quoting a verse or two of Scripture to imply the entire passage; and so though Jesus quotes the beginning of the psalm, it implies the end as well, when the sufferer is vindicated by God. Jesus, then, was drawing attention to the entirety of Psalm 22 — suffering, but ultimately vindicated, as was seen shortly after at the Resurrection.
Matthew 27:39 and 43 also uses the language of Psalm 22 to describe the reactions of those standing around:
And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads… (Matthew 27:39)
All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads… (Psalm 22:7 [Hebrew, 8])
“He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:43)
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (Psalm 22:8 [Hebrew, 9])
The Psalm goes on to describe graphically the sufferings of this righteous person:
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. For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; (Psalm 22:14-17 [Hebrew, 15-18]
Commentators have noted the resemblance of this description of what takes place during crucifixion: the perspiration, the bones being pulled out of joint as the body fatigues on the cross; the possible rupture of the heart; the extreme dehydration. Verse 16 [Hebrew, 17] has been controversial: Most English translations say, “they have pierced my hands and feet,” while the Jewish Publication Society translation reads, “Like a lion, [they maul] my hands and feet”—literally, “like a lion, my hands and feet.” However, the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament made in the first few centuries before Jesus—has “pierced.” And the Hebrew words for “they have pierced” (kaaru) and “like a lion” (kaari) differ by one letter, both similar to the other, so that a scribe could easily have made a mistake in copying the passage.
Psalm 22:18 (Hebrew, 19), includes this: “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
Matthew 27:35 says about the Roman soldiers, “And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots.” Similarly, John 19:23-24 reads:
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.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So the soldiers did these things…
The correspondences between Jesus’ crucifixion and Psalm 22 are remarkable. Either this was a direct prophetic inspiration on the part of David, or if he was referring in an exaggerated way to his own sufferings, his words went far beyond his own situation to be fulfill in a very literal and exact way in the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion.
Moving to the second part of the psalm showing how God vindicated the sufferer, in verse 22 (Hebrew, 23) the psalmist says, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you…” Hebrews 2:11-12 refers this to Jesus: “That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’” In Hebrews 2:9-10 he refers to Jesus’ suffering and death; now he uses the vindication portion of the psalm to explain that Jesus shares our humanity, calls us his brothers, and stands vindicated by God. As verses 14-15 of Hebrews says, Jesus took on our humanity “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” It is the same story as Psalm 22—suffering and death, then vindication and victory.
Finally, in John 19:30 we read, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” This could allude to the final verse of Psalm 22: “They shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.” He has done it — it is finished — the crucifixion gives way to the victory of the Resurrection!