Psalm 22 – Now With Less Jesus!

Alongside Isaiah 53, Psalm 22 is one of the favorite and best known Old Testament passages for Christian apologists. According to Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and many others, Psalm 22 prophesied the crucifixion of Jesus Christ before crucifixion as a torture method had even been invented. Christians often point to the mention of pierced hands and feet in verse 16, the casting of lots and dividing of garments referred to in verse 18, and the words in verse one that Jesus echoes in the gospels, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, as allegedly predicting the death of Christ centuries in advance. These may seem like powerful lines of evidence in favor of the Christian interpretation, but what do we know of Psalm 22 and what can we learn from the full text that might give us a greater perspective?

I. David the Sufferer

The Psalms are all attributed to King David: warrior, poet, musician, and ruler of Israel during the united monarchy. A note at the beginning of this chapter even states as much, “For the director of music. To the tune of ‘The Doe of the Morning.’ A psalm of David.” It is no surprise, then, that throughout the Psalms there are numerous references to events and persons in David’s own life. In 2 Samuel 22, David delivers Psalm 18 after being saved from his enemies and Saul. So given this context, it would make much more sense for Psalm 22 to relate an experience of David instead of the experience of Jesus. This is not just a rule of thumb either, there is good evidence that the passage is not about Christ.

First of all, how might this chapter relate to David? Obviously Psalm 22 describes an experience of great suffering on the part of the narrator, and David was certainly acquainted with suffering. A young David incurred the wrath of King Saul after God withdrew his approval from the king and selected David as his replacement. Tensions only mounted as David’s popularity as a great military leader grew among the Israelite kingdom. Several times Saul tries to murder David (2 Samuel 19), eventually driving him into hiding. Saul later dies in battle and David is made king, but then Saul’s son Ish-bosheth goes to war with the house of David for “a long time” (2 Sam. 3:1). Later on, as punishment for committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband killed, God promises to have David’s wives raped in broad daylight (2 Sam. 12:11-12), and the child he bears with Bathsheba dies after seven days (2 Sam. 12:14-18). To add insult to injury, David’s own son Absalom rebels against him, attempts to take the throne, and winds up being the one that rapes his wives in broad daylight. David’s closest advisor, Ahitophel, also turns from him and joins Absalom.

Did David feel abandoned by God at some point? Were his enemies encircling him and mocking him? Did he need to be delivered from the sword, and did he perhaps feel afflicted? From what we’ve just discussed, there were many moments in David’s life when all these emotions and experiences would have applied. Psalm 22 depicts a person struggling with suffering by reassuring himself that God is in control and will deliver those who remain faithful. While this would be perfectly suitable for David, it’s a little puzzling why Jesus would be speaking of God in such a way if, according to most Christians, Jesus and God are one and the same. Some references are more ambiguous, like the dividing of garments and attacking lions, but these are most likely metaphor. Apologists often object at this point, as if it gives their Christian theory more credibility, but when was Jesus ever surrounded by “strong bulls of Bashan” (verse 12)? Clearly there is metaphor in Psalm 22, but it should be unsurprising to find from a poet like David.

This brings up another problem with the Christian interpretation as well, that the Psalms are not prophetic books.

II. Psalms and Secondary Meaning

The Hebrew scriptures are divided into three sections: the Torah (meaning “law”), the Nevi’im (“prophets”), and the Ketuvim (“writings”). This division is extremely old and is represented by the word Tanakh, used for the whole of Hebrew scripture and abbreviated TNK, as the first letter in each of the sections. The book of Psalms is part of the Kevutim, or writings, and has never been included among the prophets in any Jewish tradition. Even Christian bibles rightly place Psalms along with other books of poetry like Proverbs and Job. The traditional Hebrew title for Psalms, Tehillim, also reflects this, as the word means “praises”. Thus we see that the book of Psalms, and Psalm 22 by extension, has an original context as poetry of David.

In arguing that the passage prophesies Jesus, Christian apologists propose a secondary meaning for the text. Why is this significant? To suggest a secondary meaning for something necessarily means subtlety, and a prime example of this is double entendre, as used in many of Shakespeare’s plays. The primary meaning is always the most apparent interpretation seen on the surface and communicated explicitly, but a secondary meaning is not often stated explicitly so much as it is implied. The New Testament author Paul believed that passages in the Hebrew scriptures had secondary meanings, calling them ‘hidden mysteries’ (Romans 16:25-26), emphasizing their subtlety. Because something like double entendre is not always readily apparent, we sometimes mistakenly believe we spot secondary meaning where none actually exists, and for this reason it is absolutely vital that proponents of a second interpretation support their claim with plenty of evidence.

What is the evidence they introduce? Let’s take one example of a ‘challenge’ to skeptics of Psalm 22, as addressed by the website AllAboutTheTruth.org. The author asks, “if someone tells me the particular way I might die, and all the possible ways it could happen, and then it came to pass; would it not be prophetic?”1 This is a great question, because it brings up three important issues. First of all, prophecy is – in the sense the author is talking about – the foreknowledge of future events. That part about foreknowledge is crucial, because if a person simply makes a guess that happens to be correct, that does not make their guess a prophecy, it only makes it dumb luck. Secondly, self-fulfilling prophecy needs to be considered too. If the person tells you that you will die from being shot and then later they corner you in an alley and shoot you dead, it does not qualify for prophecy in the divine sense. If it did, religious believers would have to include every killer who said, ‘I’m going to kill you’ to their victim in the list of holy prophets.

Lastly, if there is no indication or proclamation of a prophetic statement, I do not think it can rightly be called a fulfillment of prophecy. The simple resemblance of something in the past to something in the future does not automatically mean prophecy has been fulfilled. It seems ridiculous to have to say this, but if someone happens to state something, without predicting, prophesying, or guessing about it, and their statement comes true, this is not prophecy. It is coincidence, just like the person who makes a lucky guess, except that there is no guess involved, only an observer who has put two similar things together in his/her mind and assumed divine intervention. This last issue is especially relevant to Psalm 22.

III. How to Spot Prophecy and Fallacy

As already mentioned, Psalms is a book of poetry, not prophecy, but are there signs of prophecy here? Christians believe Psalm 22 prophesies the messiah, and messianic prophecies typically are accompanied by several signs. A sense of finality is expressed in the future tense, using phrases like “the days are coming” (Jeremiah 23:5), “in that day” (Isaiah 10:20), and “it shall come to pass” (Isaiah 66:23). Messianic prophecies also usually reference the “branch of David”, “root of Jesse”, or the general kingdom of David (Jeremiah 23:5, 30:8-9, Isaiah 11:1,10). The messianic age is prophesied as one with total peace between nations and animals, when all Jews will return to Israel (Hosea 3:4-5, Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 11:6-9). Psalm 22 has none of these signs connected to it.

The apologist behind AllAboutTheTruth.org knows there are reasonable objections to treating Psalm 22 as prophecy, because he admits it himself:

Nowhere in the psalm do the verses indicate a prediction of a future event, on the face of it, since it appeared like another prayer for deliverance. And yet, the recounting of distress, the plea for help, the song of rejoicing, and finally praise to God bare witness with the steps Jesus took to the cross, and victory prevailed.

According to this author, the similarities are so persuasive that all the problems of context and lacking signs of prophecy do not matter. This goes back to my three criticisms of his analogy. I do not believe the author of Psalms made a lucky guess that was fulfilled in Jesus, because there is no evidence of a guess. As I explained, the simple resemblance of something in the past to something in the future does not automatically mean prophecy has been fulfilled. However, Psalm 22 could be somewhat of a self-fulfilled prophecy, as brought up in my second criticism. Christians often seem to ignore the fact that the New Testament authors were very familiar with Hebrew scripture. They may not like to think of it, but it is possible that the authors of the New Testament simply embellished what they wrote of Jesus to resemble passages like Psalm 22:1. In fact, I would say that it’s likely, considering the convenient ‘misquoting’ of passages like Isaiah 28:16 by Paul, in Romans 10:11, where “in him” is added.

The lack of prophetic language is a big issue too. Without that foreknowledge and without a clear declaration of prophecy, it is merely speculation to label something like Psalm 22 prophecy. This is no problem for many Christians, who are used to taking things on faith more than evidence, but they will often also dismiss Nostradamus and other non-Christian ‘prophets’ for the lack of specifics that makes their predictions so open to interpretation. The Christian interpretation of Psalm 22 suffers from exactly the same problem though.

IV. Much Ado About Nothing

Apologists and believers have made Psalm 22 out to be a miraculously convincing prophecy, when there’s really little of substance in it. Jesus’ cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” may be easily chalked up to the gospel authors having read Psalm 22. The mention of being scorned and despised by men can apply to David just as well as to Jesus. The dividing of garments and casting of lots can also be a metaphor for David’s feeling of loss and loneliness, while incorporated literally by the gospel authors into their narratives. The piercing of the hands and feet referenced in verse 16 is one further example of the overblown attention to this passage, as AllAboutTheTruth.org once again illustrates:

…skeptics emphasize the fact that this psalm does not actually mention the act of crucifixion. This isn’t surprising since execution of this type was not known in David’s time, yet the Scripture tells of a time when this will take place.

Is this really evidence? Claiming that it doesn’t come out and say crucifixion, but still means it anyway? Depending on what translation or bible you read, Psalm 22:16 may be translated as “they have pierced my hands and feet”, “like a lion they are at my hands and feet”, “my hands and feet are shriveled”, etc. A very thorough examination of the verse is available at Rejection of Pascal’s Wager, suffice it to say that the reference to pierced hands and feet is quite disputable. And with that goes the only vestige of resemblance to crucifixion, which was not a very good one to begin with. If prophecy is inspired by God, couldn’t God just have said crucifixion when he meant it?

Nonetheless, the argument over what Hebrew word is used in Psalm 22:16 is making much ado about nothing. As we’ve seen, there is no reason to think Psalm 22 is prophecy at all, let alone that it speaks of Jesus. The passage has a very obvious original meaning, and apologists consistently fail to provide substantial evidence for their suggested secondary meaning. Admittedly, Psalm 22 does have striking similarities to the gospels, at face value, but it also has inconsistencies that are glossed over or dismissed as heavy metaphor whenever convenient to the apologist. It’s always important to dig a little deeper than the surface, to make sure appearances are not deceiving. In the case of Psalm 22, it seems we have a mixed bag of misunderstanding and foul play.

 

Sources:
1. Anonymous. Psalm 22 Is Not A Prophecy. AllAboutTheTruth.org. Retrieved May 28, 2010.