Messianic prophecy 5: Psalm 22

This post is part of my biblical prophecy series.

Context and Prophecy

Psalm 22 contains a series of events that some Christians regard as prophetic. These events have to do with Jesus’ arrest and death. In particular, we have the following two passages:

All who see me mock me;

they hurl insults, shaking their heads. (Psalm 22:7)

 

Dogs surround me,

a pack of villains encircles me;

they pierce my hands and my feet.

All my bones are on display;

people stare and gloat over me.

They divide my clothes among them

and cast lots for my garment. (Psalm 22:16-18)

The first passage – in which the author is being mocked – is held to be prophetic of the following passage in Luke, which concerns Jesus’ appearance before Herod:

Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. (Luke 23:11)

Later in Luke 23, we have

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:35-39)

The second passage from Psalm 22, meanwhile, is supposed to refer to Jesus’ crucifixion and the division of his clothes:

When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:33-34)

Note that the material in Psalm 22 appears in other gospels too.

There is not much useful to be found in the context of Psalm 22, since the psalms are mostly independent. A heading appears at the top of the psalm indicating that it is intended for the director of music, and should be set to the tune of “Morning Doe”.

Straightforward Interpretation

If one were to take Psalm 22 at face value, one would have to conclude that it is a lament sung from the perspective of almost any persecuted Israelite. It is written in the present tense, as if the events are occurring to the author as he speaks. The psalm does not mention Jesus by name, nor does it even mention a messiah. The straightforward interpretation, then, is that Psalm 22 is not a prophecy at all, let alone a messianic one.

Apologist Interpretation

Apologists point to the strong similarities between events portrayed in Psalm 22 and the death experience of Jesus. They argue that, despite the objections raised by the straightforward interpretation, the Psalm cannot plausibly be about anything other than the death of Jesus.

Explanation

Ex Eventu. The explanation of the prophecy is so embarrassingly obvious that I almost decided not to write a post about it in the first place. As with so many other prophecies, it is clear that the gospel authors, having not witnessed Jesus’ death themselves, were looking for details to fill out the narrative, and came upon Psalm 22 as a suitable source. In fact, we know very well that the author of the gospel of John made use of Psalm 22, because he tells us as much:

When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.

“Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”

This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said,

“They divided my clothes among them

and cast lots for my garment.”[a]

So this is what the soldiers did. (John 19:24)

The correlation between events in the Psalm and events surrounding Jesus’ death is far more plausibly explained as simple plagiarism than a man seeing into the future.

Vagueness. As with so many prophecies, Psalm 22 is exceedingly vague, mentioning neither Jesus nor a messiah. Indeed, as already noted, Psalm 22 is not even written as a prediction of future events. Add to this the common use of fictional events in songs, and an excellent case can be made that Psalm 22 is not even a prophecy, let alone a vague one.

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