A psalm of the crucifixion
"To the Chief Musician. Set to 'The Deer of the Dawn.' A Psalm of David.
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent." (verses 1-2)
What do the "Alphabet Song," "Twinkle-Twinkle," and "Ba, Ba, Black Sheep" all have in common, besides being classic nursery fair? They all share the same tune. Go ahead... hum it. See?
David utilized a melody for the twenty-second psalm that was also used for a song known at the time as "The Deer of the Dawn." I'd like to hear this song someday, but not half as much as I 'd like to hear this incredible psalm of David sung with it's borrowed melody. Have you ever thought what it will be someday like to finally hear all the psalms sung with their original music? Wow.
With just the first words of this psalm, immediately many will recognize the words of Jesus uttered from the cross, "And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?""(Matthew 27:46)
David, the royal ancestor of Messiah the Prince, prophesies throughout this psalm of the suffering and death of Jesus, the root and offspring of David. Many of the things written in this psalm applied to David himself, but there is a line that is crossed in certain verses that make it clear that even in writing it, David knew that it was not only about him, but was a psalm of the eternal King of Israel yet to come: Messiah the Suffering Servant... Messiah the Saviour.
On the night that He was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, Jesus went to a garden to pray. Sweating blood, he cried out to His Father in agonizing groans and petitions. He fell on His face and prayed, saying, "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will."(Matthew 26:39) Although David could certainly sympathize with agonizing nights passed in fervent prayer and days spent in tears, crying out to God for deliverance, it is Jesus who ultimately fulfilled the words of this psalm in one day, the day of our redemption.
"But You are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in You; they trusted, and You delivered them. They cried to You, and were delivered; they trusted in You, and were not ashamed." (verses 3-5)
Recalling the past faithfulness of the LORD to answer the cries of His people, the psalmist glorifies God for the deliverance that belongs to all those who place their trust in God. We can stand upon that same confidence in our prayers today. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." (Hebrews 13:8) The Lord seeks out those who have an undivided trust in Him, and He answers their prayers in powerful ways. "For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him." (2 Chronicles 16:9)
He looks for weakness, not strength; dependence, not power. When a person throws themselves upon the mercy and grace of God, not hoping in any other source for deliverance, they will not be ashamed of their extravagant trust. God is enthroned in the praises of the countless men and women through all the ages who have known His faithfulness to deliver those who trust in Him with a whole heart.
"But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people. All those who see Me ridicule Me; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head saying, 'He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him, let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!'" (verses 6-8)
Jesus calls Himself a "worm, and no man," possibly the most self-deprecating words in any language. How do you get any lower than a worm? For the most holy God, enthroned on high, worthy of all majesty and honour, to humble Himself to the point of death... as a lowly man, wearing the sins of all humanity upon His naked body, we begin to see that the choice of language is a painfully fitting depiction of His utter humility.
Yet, even in this, there is a message of redemption for us to grasp. The word the psalmist used for worm was the Hebrew "towla", literally "scarlet" [ie. "Lac bug", Laccifer lacca], a particular species of insect that produced an extraordinary scarlet dye with which the temple linens were coloured (1). Furthermore, this "scarlet", as the Hebrews called it, had the most unusual method of reproduction. When it was time to deliver, the bright red lac bug would crawl up a tree to a high branch, and there affix itself with the resinous red substance it was named for (shellac comes from lac bugs). Underneath this shell, the lac bug, or towla, would lay it's eggs, dying in the process, (which, when hatched, would consume the body of the mother). The red shell would eventually crust over white, and out of this "cacoon" of death, it's offspring would emerge (2). Dying to give life: towla, scarlet. In one word, the psalmist prophesies of the deliverance that would spring forth from Jesus's ultimate sacrifice.
Incredible in it's accuracy, the words of verse eight call to mind a scene with which we are very familiar:
"And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, 'He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.'
The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine, and saying, 'If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.' And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, 'If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.'" (Luke 23:35-39)
Matthew records it this way, "And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, 'You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.'
Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, 'He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, 'I am the Son of God.' "(Matthew 27:39-43)
Indeed, what the psalmist foretold, happened just so.
Jesus, the LORD in the flesh, could have delivered Himself; He had the power to lay down His life and to take it up again. "Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father."(John 10:17-18)
For our sakes, He chose instead to hang upon the cross and bear the full penalty for our sins, that we might be delivered once and for all from sin and death! Did Jesus trust in the LORD? yes. Did the LORD delight in Jesus? yes. Did the LORD deliver Jesus from the cross? no. Jesus delivered us from the cross. Hallelujah!
"But You are He who took Me out of My mother's womb; You made Me trust while on My mother's breasts. I was cast upon You from birth. From My mother's womb You have been My God. Be not far from Me, for trouble is near; for there is none to help." (verses 9-11)
Trust begins in the womb, as the infant is fully reliant upon the body of his mother to sustain him. After birth, he continues in this dependence, as he looks to his mother’s body again to receive nourishment, comfort, warmth, and security. The first year of life is a crucial time in the life of a child as they form bonds of trust with their mother. They feel hunger pains and they cry out; mother lovingly draws them to her breast to meet their physical needs. They feel lonely, frightened, or bored, and they cry out; mother cradles them in her arms at her breast to meet their emotional needs. In the bosom of their mother, a child learns to trust.
Trust prepares a heart to obey. Nurture is directly linked to trust, and trust to obedience. When this simple concept is grasped in the heart of the parent, that parent possesses understanding of one of the most profound realities of the human soul. We only submit ourselves willingly to someone that we know and believe to have our best interests at heart.
We obey God because we genuinely trust Him; our children will only willingly obey us when they, too, trust us. Nurture is the foundation for that trust. To expect our children to obey Ephesians 6:1, without first establishing a relationship of nurture, is like trying to build a house without laying a foundation. It will be unstable and will eventually fall.
Jesus Himself, God in human flesh, went through the normal cycle of life every person on earth experiences, beginning in the womb. He was birthed in blood and water, suckled by Mary, and learned how to eat, crawl, walk, and speak as a young child. Having pre-existed as God the Word, He already trusted the Father, yet here we see how He experientially learned to trust Him as a dependent infant. Jesus, in His greatest trial, now cries out to the One whom He has trusted in since His earthly birth.
"Many bulls have surrounded Me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me. They gape at me with their mouths, like a raging and roaring lion. " (verses 12-13)
Bashan was an area of rich pastureland that in ancient days was a major producer of beef and dairy products. Known today as the Golan Heights, Bashan still raises cattle, but is now better known for it's wine exports. David uses the intense symbology of a herd of bulls menacingly gathered around him, apparently ready to charge and gore him. This behaviour is common of bulls and their infamous ferocity has resulted in the creation of dangerous sports like bull-fighting and bull-riding, which are still popular today. Prophetically describing the rejection of the Messiah by the Jewish people, and specifically of the religious and political leaders, David writes that Jesus would be encircled by those who hate Him and desire His destruction.
He also references a raging and roaring lion as descriptive of those who would crucify Jesus. Interestingly, in 1 Peter 5:8, Satan is described as a roaring lion. "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." Thus, the picture we have painted here by David is of a spiritual nature as well. The forces of darkness, Satan and his angels, have surrounded Jesus as the moment of their apparent triumph is at hand. Just as Judas was directly inspired by Satan (Luke 22:3) to betray Jesus, it would seem that the Jewish rulers, at the rejection of their Messiah, were likewise satanically influenced.
"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; it has melted within Me. My strength is dried up like the potsherd, and My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death." (verses 14-15)
One of the most powerful, and gruesome, articles I have read is one by Dr. C. Truman Davis, published in the March 1965 issue of Arizona Medicine, titled "The Anatomical and Physiological Details of Death by Crucifixion." Davis states, "It is the most painful death ever invented by man and is where we get our term 'excruciating.'" Perfected by the Romans about 100 years before Christ, crucifixion was reserved for the most vicious male criminals. In this psalm, David prophesies about a method of torture and death yet be be thought of, some 700 years prior to the first invention of it, and contrary to movie depictions, victims of crucifixion were extremely active, involuntarily moving up and down just to breath.
Highlighting just a few details from the article, the following is a brief medical commentary on of each of the prophetic descriptions of Christ's crucifixion in these two verses: within minutes of being nailed to a cross, Jesus' shoulders, arms, and wrists were pulled out of joint, elongating them by 9 inches. The position and process of crucifixion caused respiratory and heart failure, resulting in a pocket of plasma and blood to encase the heart; He would later die of a ruptured heart. His entire body would have been exhausted within minutes, yet forced by instinct to continue moving. Because of the loss of fluids [due to sweat from extreme physical activity, and blood loss from the beating and scourging], Jesus would have suffered acute dehydration. Davis states, "Physiologically, Jesus' body was undergoing a series of catastrophic and terminal events." In other words, He was dying a slow, painful, torturous death.
"For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots." (verses 16-18)
Again David writes of the wicked who have surrounded the crucified Messiah, this time using the term "dogs" to describe them. A "dog" in scripture is often a term used of an "unclean" person, whether we are talking about an uncircumcised Philistine of the Old Testament or an unclean spirit such as the demons that Jesus cast out of people. Again, a dual meaning can be implied, as both Gentiles and demons were present at His crucifixion, as well as those Jews who hated Jesus. David describes the humiliation of the Messiah, naked before a hostile crowd, (not to mention His own mother), His clothing the prize of a gambling game. It's incredible how many prophetic writings from the Bible were fulfilled in the most minute detail in the crucifixion of Jesus! The gospels describe the scene:
"Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: 'They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.'" (Matthew 27:35)
"They said therefore among themselves, 'Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,' that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: 'They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.' Therefore the soldiers did these things."(John 19:24)
"But You, O LORD, do not be far from Me; O My strength, hasten to help Me! Deliver Me from the sword, My precious life from the power of the dog. Save Me from the lion's mouth and from the horns of the wild oxen! You have answered Me." (verses 19-21)
In 2 Timothy 4:16-18 Paul describes his trial before Nero in Rome. This was Paul's last letter from prison. He was executed shortly after. In it he wrote, "At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen!"
Paul was certainly not speaking of deliverance from a physical lion, as he was sentenced to death by beheading (the privilege of a Roman citizen), but like Peter, is referring to Satan (1 Peter 5:8). Paul was on trial for his testimony of Jesus. If he repented of his faith and worshipped the emperor, he would have been acquitted. The great battle was for his faith, not his physical life. Paul gained the victory, and lost his life.
Here too, we see a spiritual battle in action. Surrounded by demonic forces, Christ faced the greatest temptation of His human life. Like in the wilderness, Satan came to Jesus [through His persecutors] to tempt Him to use His power to save Himself, with the words, "IF you are the Son of God, come down from the cross", reminiscent of his prior test, "IF you are the Son of God, command theses stones... throw Yourself down..."(Matthew 4:3-6).
But this was a battle already won, for in the garden, Jesus had gained the victory with these words, "Not My will but Yours be done." (Luke 22:42) Jesus had been delivered from the mouth of the lion, the sword, the power of the dog, and the horns of the wild oxen, and in His resurrection triumphed over all the powers of darkness. "Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it." (Colossians 2:15) Thus He says, "You have answered Me."
"I will declare Your Name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise You. You who fear the LORD, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, and fear Him, all you offspring of Israel! 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, He heard Him." (verses 22-24)
Psalm 22 begins with the psalmist's fear that he has been forsaken by God in his affliction, but here we have the conclusion of the matter. God was there all along, helping him, strengthening him, and giving him the victory. As this is a prophetic psalm, and as Jesus Himself quoted the first verse from the cross, we can gain understanding of what Jesus was enduring upon the cross. Surrounded by forces of darkness and the evil men held under their power, Jesus was facing the greatest test of His life. At any moment He could have rightfully called down the host of heaven, as He is the LORD of hosts, and delivered Himself from the cross. Yet, He remained.
Under excruciating physical torture, and bearing the torturous weight of mankind's sin, Jesus cried out in His sense of solitude. Only He, in all the universe, could accomplish this work, and in His humanity felt utterly alone. But He wasn't. God had not forsaken Him in His great affliction, nor hidden His face from Him in His greatest trial. No, the Father heard every cry, every groan, and every whisper of His Son from the cross.
The rest of the psalm is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for God's faithfulness to deliver, not only the Messiah Himself, but all of Israel, all of the world. As Jesus said with His last breath, "It is finished," it IS finished. Victorious over sin and death, Jesus rose from the grave, giving life to all who put their trust in Him, in His finished work on the cross.
"My praise shall be of You in the great assembly; I will pay My vows before those who fear Him. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek Him will praise the LORD. Let your heart live forever! All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD's, and He rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth shall eat and worship; all those who go down to the dust shall bow before Him, even he who cannot keep himself alive." (verses 25-29)
Like most prophesies, there is a near and far fulfilment. The fruit of Christ's victory on the cross has been experienced by believers all over the world for the past two thousand years, but this portion of psalm 22 actually finds it's total fulfilment in the thousand year reign of Christ, the millenium. In that day, all the nations of the earth will worship Jesus on His throne in Jerusalem, there will be peace and prosperity worldwide, and mankind will enjoy unprecedented good health and lengthy lifespans. The redemption of man that Jesus accomplished on the cross will one day be completed, and the earth restored to Eden-like conditions.
This is truly a wonderful reality for those who put their hope in Jesus! The praise and rejoicing the psalmist pours forth in these concluding verses are born out of the heart of the Lord who also looks to that Day with great joy and anticipation. As the Moravian missionaries cried, "May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward for His suffering!"
"A posterity shall serve Him. It will be recounted of the LORD to the next generation, they will come and declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has done this." (verses 30-31)
There has never been a time, since the cross, that there have been no believers in Jesus Christ. A posterity has always served Him, and will always continue to on into eternity. Even in the darkest eras, when the Bible was illegal and a false church reigned, there were those who kept the faith.
Have you ever thought about your family line, your ancestry, and wondered who you might have been related to down through the ages? If records were kept, we could all find our heritage in one of the three sons of Noah, and of course, we are all from Adam and Eve.
I occasionally like to think about my spiritual heritage, by which I mean those men and women who played a role in my salvation and sanctification... in my spiritual formation. Surely my parents and relatives, my sunday school teachers and pastors, the books I have read and the people who have prayed for me, all played a role in my spiritual growth. There are certain men, fathers in the faith, whose lives have so greatly impacted my own, that when they pass on to glory, my soul yearns as deeply for them as for an earthly father.
I am so excited to someday meet my heroes, whom I have but read about, but who have greatly changed my life through their own. I would love to be able to do an ancestry chart of those people who spiritually ministered to me all the way back to Jesus Himself. Which first generation Christian, I wonder, am I spiritually related to? I will find out someday soon in heaven, and oh, the stories we will tell one another!
I love the last verse of this psalm, because I find myself in it! You are in it, too! Look... the next generation will declare the righteousness of the Saviour (available to us through His death and resurrection)... "to a people who will be born, that He has done this!" That's us! Written three thousand years ago, a thousand before Christ, David through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit prophesied of the death and triumph of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, he foretold the spread of the gospel of Jesus to all future generations... all the way to us, here today, reading this psalm! Amen and amen.
(1) Lac Insect Dye
(2) Henry Morris. Biblical Basis for Modern Science, Baker Book House, 1985, p. 73