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Psalm 22 - King David

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Shema.

Christians frequently cite Psalms 22 as a prophecy about Jesus. In part, this is because Jesus quotes Psalms 22 in two of the Gospels. Let’s examine:

Psalm 22:2

Psalm 22:2 “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and my anguished roaring?” (JPS)

Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” (KJV)

Mark 15:34 “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (KJV)

Matthew 27:46 “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (KJV)

While it sounds slightly different when comparing the JPS and the KJV, less is lost in translation when comparing Psalm 22:1 in the KJV with the Gospel verses in the KJV. In either situation, it is evident that the Gospel authors cited Jesus as quoting the Psalm. However, Jesus citing a Psalm is not evidence that he fulfilled a prophecy, or that Psalms 22 was a prophecy for Jesus at all. The fact is, there is no way to conclude from the Psalm or from the Gospels that it is a messianic prophecy – Christians essentially made this up.

It also becomes evident from the almost exact wording in Mark and Matthew that the latter text was based on copying the former. This is what L. Michael White referred to as the two-source hypothesis. In From Jesus to Christianity he wrote, “Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke both used it as a source.” White added that this was, “The majority opinion among biblical scholars; first proposed in 1855.” Thus, rather than two independent first-hand accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and Jesus’ words, scholarly analysis has revealed that Matthew in fact copied Mark.

This becomes important when objectively analyzing this quote from the Psalms. Is not equally plausible that Mark copied Psalms 22, attributing this phrase to Jesus without firsthand knowledge, in the same fashion that Matthew copied Mark? Currently we are not even able to confirm that Jesus actually said such a thing; the evidence is starting to show otherwise. But I digress. Giving the Gospels the benefit of the doubt and assuming Jesus did quote Psalms 22, this still does not mean that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy any more than we fulfill prophecy when we quote Scripture. Nor does it mean that Psalms 22 was a prophecy to begin with.

If we do interpret it as a prophecy, it should be interpreted within its context. Parts of context include culture and history. Proper exegesis includes attempting to glean the author’s original intent rather than reading later meaning into it. Because this is Jewish Scripture, written by a Jew, the proper context to interpret it in is a Jewish one. Regarding the interpretation of Psalm 22 the JPS commentary stated, “Jewish tradition interprets this psalm as a lament by David over the future exile (Rashi), more specifically the threat against the Jews by Haman in the book of Esther (various Rabbis). For that reason there is a custom to read it on Purim (Sephardic custom reads it on the Fast of Esther and on Purim).” Thus, when read in context as a prophecy, it doesn’t appear to be a messianic prophecy at all, but a prophecy about the exile and Haman. To interpret it otherwise would be to engage in historical revisionism and eisegesis.

Psalm 22:17

The beginning of Psalms 22 is not the only part cited by Christians as a messianic prophecy. Christians also claim that Psalms 22:16 (or Psalms 22:17, depending on text) is a messianic prophecy. Let’s examine:

Psalms 22:17 “Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me, like lions [they maul] my hands and feet.” (JPS)

Psalms 22:16 “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.” (KJV)

The piercing of the hands and feet is referenced by Christians as being a prophecy about Jesus’ crucifixion, where his hands and feet were pierced by nails. However, contrasting the two verses in the JPS and KJV give radically different results – the former states that the Psalmist’s hands and feet are mauled by dogs or lions. The latter states that the assembly of the wicked has pierced the Psalmist’s hands and feet. This is a translation issue, specifically over the word ari, or lion.

In Hebrew, the verse reads karah ari yad regal. Literally, mauled lion hands feet. Or, the lion mauled my hands and feet. The KJV, and virtually all Christian translations, completely ignores the word ari. It’s easy to see why they do that – because it significantly alters the context of the verse. If we’re talking about lions mauling the Psalmist rather than the Psalmist being pierced by some unknown entity, then it’s clear it doesn’t refer to Jesus. Fabricating messianic prophecy via incorrect translation is a modus operandi of Christians today and has been throughout history.

On a final note, this Psalm, in the style of most Psalms, is metaphorical. We know David was never mauled by lions, just like Jesus was never mauled by lions. Christians may try to use that as an excuse for why it doesn’t refer to David. At the same time, they will selectively interpret verses as being literal that fit their agenda while interpreting verses that don’t as metaphorical. This is a fallacious double standard. If we interpret each verse as literal, there are quite a few that refute the belief that it is a prophecy about Jesus:

Psalms 22:13-14 “Many bulls surround me, mighty ones of Bashan encircle me. They open their mouths at me, like tearing, roaring lions.” (JPS)

Was Jesus surrounded by the strong cattle from Bashan? Did they attack Jesus? Interestingly we see another reference to lions as well, enforcing the metaphor throughout the Psalm.

Psalms 22:15 “My life ebbs away: all my bones are disjointed.” (JPS)

Were Jesus’ bones disjointed? This would actually contradict another common proof-text used by Christians, which claims a fulfilled prophecy on the belief that Jesus never had any broken bones.

Psalms 22:26 “Because of You I offer praise in the great congregation.” (JPS)

Jesus never did this. In fact, the Gospels portray Jesus as rejecting Temple life.

Psalms 22:31 “Offspring shall serve Him; the Lord’s fame shall be proclaimed to the generation to come.”

Jesus, according to Christian tradition, had no offspring.

So when reading through Psalms 22, remember a few things. It never states that it is a messianic prophecy. Rather, the historical and cultural contexts dictate that it was a lament for the future exile and Purim. The Gospels plagiarized one another to formulate the reference to Psalms 22. It does not refer to the Psalmist being pierced, but rather mauled by lions. A literal interpretation of Psalms 22 excludes the possibility it refers to Jesus. And the only way to make this Psalm sound as if it is a prophecy about Jesus is to engage in a fallacious double standard of metaphorical interpretation based on agenda.

Bibliography

White, L. Michael. From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith. San Fransisco: HarperCollins Publishers. 2004.

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