Looking back on three recent discussions about Psalm 22 with three unbelieving Jewish people, I see that each occasion provided me with a different insight into an unbeliever’s response to Scripture.
Psalm 22 is a wonderfully unique passage of messianic Scripture. King David wrote in rich, symbolic language about an experience of suffering he had endured; yet having been inspired by the Holy Spirit, his description also foreshadowed the suffering and passion of Yeshua on the cross of Calvary . Though full of imagery, this psalm is so specific and detailed that anyone familiar with the New Testament cannot help but see the amazing parallel.
The pain the Psalmist experienced was akin to that of crucifixion, yet this form of execution was unknown in his time. The mockery and humiliation of being stripped of his clothing and having lots cast for his garment are as specific a messianic prophecy as any in the entire Bible. Yet what makes this prophecy even more amazing is the Lord’s quotation of the first verse while he actuated its fulfillment as he hung on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Yeshua’s direct quotation serves as the exclamation point to an amazing prediction precisely fulfilled.
Not all people have understood Yeshua’s words in this way. Some who were standing around at the cross and heard Yeshua’s words thought he was calling for Elijah to come and save him. They believed his words to be a cry of final desperation (Matthew 27:47).
When I met with Michael, his attitude was somewhat like those unbelievers at the cross. Michael, an intelligent young Jewish attorney, worked for a large firm in Chicago . He had read the New Testament and had developed his own opinions about Yeshua. They were rather unusual opinions at that. Michael said that as far as he was concerned Jesus was the Messiah, but he failed because he refused to lead a political revolt and gather the masses to himself. Thus he missed the opportunity to fulfill his calling. His words "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" were an admission of failure—a cry of defeat and despair. Michael believed that this statement proved his whole hypothesis of a failed Messiah.
Michael had never read Psalm 22. He had no idea that Jesus was quoting from Scripture while on the cross. It was interesting to watch Michael’s face as we opened the Bible to Psalm 22 together and read it. He was shocked, and for a moment I saw on his face the look of wonder at discovering new truth. Yet almost as quickly his eyes clouded over and his countenance fell. He told me that I was reading into the passage something that was not there. I pointed out to him that I was not reading anything into it. Jesus had quoted the psalm directly. Then without blinking an eye Michael told me that those words were probably never said by Jesus, but rather were attributed to him by some overzealous disciple after his death. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Just minutes earlier Michael had been telling me that Jesus had confessed his own failure by those words, and now he was denying that Jesus had ever said them. He was changing his tune rather than accepting the truth. When I pointed out his inconsistency, Michael only became angry.
Not long after my visit with Michael, I met Judy. She prided herself on being open-minded. She did not believe that the Bible was the Word of God, but she also admitted that she had never really read much of it. She did have a question for me, though. She wanted to know why Jesus had cried out when he was on the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Unlike Michael, Judy had not formulated any strong opinions about it. The statement merely puzzled her. I pointed out that there were essentially two reasons for Jesus’ uttering those words. First of all, he was expressing the reality of his own experience. While he was on the cross, God judged the sin of the world in Jesus. In that judgment God did turn away from the Messiah. It was that horrifying and crushing experience that provoked his cry. Yet in his death the Savior purchased freedom from judgment for all of us. "For he hath made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5:21). I didn’t think that Judy really understood this part, so l told her about the second reason Jesus said those words—their prophetic significance. Once again I opened my Bible to Psalm 22. As we read and I explained, Judy stopped me with a question. How did we know that Psalm 22 was not written after Jesus’ crucifixion? There had to be a catch somewhere! I explained to her why we knew that the psalm was written long before the events of the New Testament. This had really gotten her attention, yet now after my logical explanation, she began to be uncomfortable. As with Michael, the correlation between Jesus’ words and the psalm was obvious to Judy. Like Michael, she too immediately began searching for a convenient way to dismiss the evidence. Unlike Michael, however, at the end of our conversation Judy said that maybe one day she would believe that the Bible is the Word of God. For her, Psalm 22 was a compelling indication of the supernatural aspect of the Bible, if not immediate proof for the messiahship of Jesus.
For Rami, the third person with whom I spoke, it was a different matter altogether. An Israeli who had once confessed to being an atheist, Rami now had a growing interest in spiritual matters. After meeting with me several times Rami told me that if I could show him Yeshua in the Jewish Scriptures, he would believe. Concurrent with our looking into the Jewish Scriptures, Rami was reading the New Testament in Hebrew. We discussed both Testaments, looking together at the Hebrew and at the English translations. When we turned to Psalm 22 one Saturday morning and read the first verse, Rami looked up at me with amazement. "Those are the words of Yeshua!" he exclaimed.
As we read on through the detailed description of suffering, he kept on saying "Wow! Wow! This is exactly what happened to Yeshua." We discussed some of the intricacies of the Hebrew. For example, in verse 16 the English version reads "they pierced my hands and my feet," but there is some question in the Hebrew as to whether it might not be better translated "like a lion they are at my hands and feet." The difference is based on just one Hebrew letter. However, Rami was quick to point out that the passage did not depend only on the interpretation of that verse. He understood and accepted the significance of the prophecy. Although he was not yet ready to receive Yeshua as Messiah, his reaction was a response of faith.
Whereas Judy, who had claimed to be open-minded, had been quick to disbelieve, Rami, once a professed atheist, was now quick to believe. That, I suppose, is the mystery of faith. The evidence is there. God’s Word is clear. Passages like Psalm 22 echo down through the ages as a grand story to a great Redeemer God who has dramatically spoken in human history. How we respond to that voice is a choice we each must make.