Thoughts of Jesus on the Cross, Psalm 22

It’s a Psalm of David according to the ancient superscription that introduces it. It’s written in the first person. It sounds like David is speaking of a time of severe trial and suffering in his life. But the apostles of Christ taught us a good interpretation principle for the Psalms that I think they learned from Jesus. They taught us this principle in the way that they dealt with Psalm 16. Psalm 16 was another Psalm written by David in the first person. But in Psalm 16:10 it says, “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol [that is You will not leave my soul to the realm of the dead]; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” Since David is the author and speaks in first person, it sounds like David is talking about his own soul not being left in the realm of the dead and his own body not undergoing decay. But in Acts 2 when Peter quoted that Psalm in his famous Pentecost sermon and in Acts 13 when Paul quoted it in a sermon, both those apostles explained that the Psalm cannot be talking about David because it doesn’t fit David. When David died his soul was left in Sheol and his body did undergo decay. The apostles told the Jews of their day, “You know that David’s tomb is still with us today. So it can’t be about David.” And they explained that David was a prophet, a spokesman for God, and he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah.

Like Psalm 16, Psalm 22, though written in the first person by David, is a hard Psalm to fit with David. The suffering of this individual in Psalm 22 exceeds any trail that we know of that David ever experienced. We know of some hard times that David went through, running for his life from King Saul and then later from his own son Absalom. But this individual has been horribly physically tortured by people who despise Him and He’s dying, He says He’s being laid in the dust of death, and there’s no one to help Him and His enemies are mocking Him and people are staring at Him and His hands and feet have been pierced and some are dividing His garments among themselves and casting lots for His clothing. There is no indication that David ever experienced something like that. And then the glories, the benefits, that the Psalm describes that will result from this individual’s suffering and then deliverance, how all the ends of the earth and all the families of the nations and generations to come will turn to the LORD, just doesn’t fit with the results of any suffering and deliverance of David. So I don’t think it’s about David.

It’s one of the most quoted Psalms in the New Testament (NT). The NT writers without a doubt saw Jesus in this Psalm. And Jesus wanted people to see Him as the speaker in this Psalm. One of the few statements He uttered from the cross was the opening words of this Psalm, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” which is Aramaic for, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” This was a popular song in the Jewish holy songbook back in that day. And you know when someone speaks the opening words of a song you’re familiar with you can’t help but continue to play the song in your mind. If I say, “Jesus loves me this know…” probably you can’t help but think “for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak but He is strong.” Or if I say, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound,” you probably can’t help but think, “That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” I think the dying Jesus wanted those at the foot of the cross to run through the rest of Psalm 22 in their minds. And if they did they would see the words of the Psalm playing out before their very eyes.

This Psalm is so remarkable for couple reasons. One is the fact that we can be sure that this Psalm was not written by, nor altered by, Christians trying to convince people that Jesus is the promised King and Savior of the world. Manuscripts fragments of this Psalm have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls that predate the time of Jesus. Among those fragments we have Psalm 22:3-8 and v14-20, which are the verses that especially sound like the crucifixion of Jesus. This really was written long before the time of Jesus. It’s remarkable confirmation that the Scriptures are inspired by God and that God had the death of Christ in mind long before it ever happened and was telling us about it because it really was the event in which our salvation was purchased.

And this Psalm is also remarkable because it grants us access into the mind of Jesus as He hung on the cross. We are allowed here to go backstage if you will and see what Jesus saw and hear Jesus’ thoughts as He suffered, access that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not give us. Only here do we get to see the crucifixion from Jesus’ own perspective.

So come with me and let’s go back 2 millenniums to a Friday morning on the hill of Golgotha just outside Jerusalem. It’s a horrifying scene but we need to see it. Soldiers are holding down His scourged tortured trembling body on the cross. Another is holding a iron spike, like a railroad spike, on one of His wrists at the spot between the bones. With one deft stroke He drives the spike through His quivering flesh. Screaming fills the air. A few more strokes sink the spike deep into the wood, and one last blow at an angle bends the spike so that He can’t pull His wrist off. Then they repeat the process with the other wrist. Then they bend His legs and place one foot on top of the other and drive a spike through both feet into the cross. Between His screams, the gospel of Luke tells us, He was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They pick up the head end of the cross. The base slides into the hole dug for it. They push the cross upright. His weight hangs on the nails. Now let’s go inside the mind of Jesus as He hung there on the cross.

The suffering of Christ (v1-21)

Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. 2 O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest.” It was worse than He had ever anticipated, sounds to me. He feels forsaken by His Father. He’s suffered so much the whole night before and all morning and now, if it’s past noon, it looks like night again. This strange uncanny darkness came over the land at high noon that Friday. And He’s still not being allowed relief in death. He asks, “God, why have You forsaken Me? Has it not been enough yet? Is the debt not paid yet?”

v3, “Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” He doesn’t charge God with wrong doing. He knows God is holy. He is so separate, so unlike all others. And the wrath of a holy God toward the sins of man is great. And so it’s not enough even yet.

v4, “In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.” He’s not being treated as those who trusted in God before. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Daniel, any other man of faith would have been shown mercy by now. Surely God would have given them relief in death or delivered them in some way by now. But He’s not being treated as other men.

v5, “But I am a worm and not a man.” He’s being treated as a disgusting worthless worm and not as a human being. Some believe Jesus may even have in mind there the crimson-grub. The Hebrew word here translated “worm,” towla’, occurs 42 times in the OT and only 8 of those times is it translated “worm.” The rest of the time it’s translated “scarlet” or “crimson” or “deep red.” The word could mean either worm or the color deep red, perhaps because they would obtain this brilliant scarlet, crimson, deep red dye from a certain kind of worm or grub. When the female crimson grub was ready to give birth to her young she would attach her body to the trunk of a tree, so firmly that you would tear her body apart pulling her off. There she deposited eggs under her body, and then she would begin to die and she would excrete a crimson fluid that would stain her body and the surrounding wood on the tree. Jesus is the crimson grub from which we get the precious red dye that covers our sin.

He looks out at the people watching Him. “A reproach of men and despised by the people.” He’s mindful of how they despise Him, though He made them and He’s loved them and He came to save them. “All who see me sneer at me [They’re mocking Him, “King of Israel, ha! Son of God, You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in 3 days, come down, save Yourself and then we’ll believe in You.”]; They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, ‘Commit yourself to the LORD; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.” He hears them saying that what’s happening to Him is proof that God does not delight in Him. They’re saying this proves He’s a liar and a fraud and a sinner. And yet He is the only man who has never been any of those.

v9-10, “Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother’s breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother’s womb.” He looks back on His entire earthly life and He says, “All My life I have trusted You. All My life You have been My God that I worship and serve. I know You delight in Me, despite what they say and what I’m going through.”

v11, “Be not far from me [Stay with me through this, Father.], for trouble is near [He knows He still has a ways to go]; For there is none to help.”

He looks out at the leaders of Sanhedrin, the scribes and Pharisees and chief priests, and the Roman soldiers, the powerful people, and He says. “Many bulls have surrounded me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me. 13 They open wide their mouth at me, As a ravening and a roaring lion.” They’re like fierce and merciless beasts that brutally torture their victims.

v14, perhaps He hangs His head and looks at His body. “I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me.” Perhaps figures for just how exhausted and debilitated He is, that He’s totally drained like water poured out, and unable to move as if His bones were all out of joint. Or it may be more literal. Perhaps He’s thinking of all the blood and sweat, all the fluids He’s lost, when He says “I’m poured out like water.” Perhaps His joints had been dislocated. Perhaps He sags on the cross with dislocated bones. Perhaps He was thinking of the deep pain in His chest when He says His heart is like melted wax. It’s struggling to continue to supply blood to the extremities of His body. Physicians who have studied what Jesus would have gone through say that likely due to the amount of blood lost in the scourging and His sustained rapid heartbeat, His pericardium, the membrane surrounding His heart, would have slowly filled with fluid and began to compress His heart. So when a spear would be thrust into His side it likely punctured that sac so that not only blood but also a watery fluid flowed out.

v15,  “My strength is dried up like a potsherd [He’s so dehydrated.], And my tongue cleaves to my jaws” You remember another statement He made from the cross according to the gospel of John, “I thirst.” “And You lay me in the dust of death.” YOU lay me in the dust of death. This was not just work of the Jewish leaders and Pilate and Romans soldiers. His Father did this to Him. His Father was offering Him for the sins of man.

He looks out at the crowd again. “For dogs [filthy savage merciless creatures] have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet.” Is that not remarkable? When did that ever happen to David? Some critics today say that Christian translators have twisted the Hebrew text to make it say “they have pierced my hands and feet.” They say that it should read “like a lion, my hands and feet.” There are many Hebrew manuscripts that date in the medieval times that read “like a lion” instead of “pierced.” “Like a lion” in Hebrew is ka’ari. “Pierced” in Hebrew is ka’aru. They’re similar. There’s only about one stroke of a pen difference between the words in the Hebrew. But guess how the oldest manuscripts of Psalm 22 read? They say “ka’aru” pierced. The Septuagint, the Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew that goes back to about 200 B.C., says “pierced.” It’s likely that later Jewish Scribes after the time of Jesus changed the word from ka’aru, pierced, to ka’ari, like a lion, to escape the obvious reference here to crucifixion. And “like a lion” doesn’t even really make sense. “Like a lion, my hands and feet.” You have to add words if that’s how it reads to make sense of it like, “like lion they gnawed my hands and feet,” or something like that. But “they pierced my hands and feet” makes good sense and is better supported by the manuscript evidence.

v17, “I can count all my bones.” He’s naked, and being a thin man and the way He was stretched out on the cross, His bones were visible. “They look, they stare at me;” People gazed in astonishment at how abused and disfigured and tortured He was (Lk 23:35).

v18, “They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.” The only possessions He had on earth. The word “garments” there is plural and refers to His outer garments, and the word translated “clothing” is singular and refers to the tunic He would wear underneath. John 19:23-24, Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments [plural] and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic [singular]; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be”; this was to fulfill the Scripture: “THEY DIVIDED MY OUTER GARMENTS AMONG THEM, AND FOR MY CLOTHING THEY CAST LOTS.

v19-21, “But You, O Lord, be not far off; O You my help, hasten to my assistance. 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, My only life from the power of the dog. 21 Save me from the lion’s mouth; From the horns of the wild oxen You answer me.” (Father, deliver Me from the jaws of death.)

The glories to follow (v22-31)

The mood of the Psalm shifts at v22. But I picture this as still Jesus’ thoughts from the cross. Here He thinks of what will result when this suffering is over and God answers His prayer and delivers Him from death and shows the world that He is the promised One in whom God is well pleased, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and King and Judge of all Creation. He knows God hears Him and He knows God will raise Him up when this is over. He thinks here of what will happen then.

v22, “I will tell of Your name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.” (I’m going to go to Peter and to John, Matthew, Thomas and the others, and to my brother James and to many others and tell them of what You have done, of Your love and power and the salvation You have accomplished.)

v23-24 He thinks of how this will save Israel, the true Israel, the true people of God, those who fear God, and He thinks of the praise and glory God should receive for this. “You who fear the Lord, praise Him; All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel. 24 For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” He knows He’s being heard. He knows God will raise Him. He knows this will save those who fear God. And He thinks of the praise and glory God should receive for this.

v25, “From You comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.” Often in the OT when someone prayed for deliverance they would also make vows. “Lord, if you will deliver me, I will do this and this.” Perhaps Jesus is thinking about doing all the things He promised He would do after His resurrection, send of the Holy Spirit, build His church, intercede for us, forgive us, rule the nations with righteousness and justice, prepare a place for us, come again, raise the dead, bring God and man together for eternity.

v26, “The afflicted [or it could be “the meek” or “humble,”] will eat and be satisfied;” I think He means all that their souls hunger for, truth about God, meaning, purpose in life, forgiveness, hope, they will be satisfied.

Those who seek Him will praise the LORD.” Do you hear the love of Christ? He’s dying on the cross, suffering like we cannot imagine, and He’s thinking about the salvation of souls and the glory of His Father!

Then He thinks this blessing. “Let your [it’s plural, “you all’s”] heart live forever!” This why He was suffering, that our hearts might live forever. He was thinking about our eternal life as He was dying on that cross!

v27-31 He thinks of the scope of people who will be benefited from this and drawn to God because of this. “All the ends will remember and turn to the LORD, And all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD’s And He rules over the nations.” God doesn’t just care about the Jews. He cares about every human being He has created. And this sacrifice is for all. He knows the news of this gift will spread to the ends of the earth and change the hearts men and women worldwide toward God. “All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship, All those who go down to the dust will bow before him, Even he who cannot keep his soul alive.” From those prospering on the earth to those on their death beds barely hanging on to life and everyone in between, this is for them. “Posterity will serve Him; It will be told of the Lord to the coming generation. They will come and will declare His righteousness To a people who will be born, that He has performed it.” For even people yet to be born, that is for even us, people who were yet to be born, this is for us.

Notice again how the Psalm ends. “He has performed it.” “He has done it.” “He has finished it,” the purchase of our redemption. I think that’s what Jesus’ final words on the cross were alluding to. John 19:30 He cried, “It is finished.” “It is done.”

God told us all about it hundreds of years before it happened so that we might know it’s true, that Jesus is the One sent for us, that Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. If we will embrace that, if we will trust Jesus and turn our hearts to follow Him, turn our hearts to reflect His love for God and His neighbor, we can be baptized in His name for the forgiveness of our sins, and then live in expectation of eternal life with God as we follow Him.

– James Williams

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