The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Psalm 22

Psalm 22

There were a number of Old Testament Psalms which were influential on early Christians (and the Gospel Tradition). Indeed, the Psalms were treated as a valid source of Messianic prophecies, often being counted among the Prophetic Scriptures, and with David, in particular, regarded as an inspired prophet (Mk 12:36; Acts 1:16; 4:25; Heb 4:7). As applied to the person of Jesus, understood to be the Davidic Messiah, the Messianic prophecies uttered by David (in the Psalms) has special resonance for early Christians.

Jesus’ identity as the royal (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) took on considerable prominence in the second half of the Synoptic narrative (the period in Judea/Jerusalem), and especially in the Passion narrative. It is thus not surprising that portions of the Psalms, along with other Davidic traditions, played a key role in shaping the Passion narrative. The most influential of the Psalms in this regard was unquestionably Psalm 22. I have discussed this Psalm at length in the “Sunday Psalm Studies” series (cf. Parts 1, 2, 3), and will be reproducing here only the most relevant portions.

Psalm 22 is a lengthy lament, which I would divide into three main sections:

    • Vv. 2-11 [1-10]—A lament to God by the Psalmist in regard to his suffering and the deplorable situation he faces
    • Vv. 12-23 [11-22]—This situation is described in terms of attacks by his adversaries
    • Vv. 24-32 [23-31]—Praise to YHWH for his power and goodness, anticipating that God will bring deliverance

The superscription includes the specific musical direction (in the MT) rj^V^h^ tl#Y#a^ lu^, which would mean “upon (the) hind/doe of the dawn”, though there is some uncertainty regarding the form tlya, which the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus) and Targums apparently understood as tWly`a$ (“strength, help”), as in verse 20 [19]. The expression then could mean something like “strength/help that comes with the dawn”, the implication being that the Psalmist is facing a ‘dark night of the soul’, but that the sunrise of deliverance from YHWH is coming.

Section 1: Psalm 22:2-11

As noted above, verses 2-11 [English 1-10] represent a lament to God. It is the opening verse (2 [1]) that is central to the Synoptic Passion narrative; however, in order to set this verse in its original context, I include here discussion on verses 1-3ff (from my earlier study).

Verse 2 [1]

“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what [i.e. why] have you left me,
(be)ing far removed from my (cry for) help, (the) words of my groaning?”

This opening couplet establishes the Psalm as a lament, in which the protagonist cries to God in the midst of his suffering. It is an example of synthetic parallelism, with the second line building upon the first. The verb bz~u* (“leave, [set] loose, abandon”) in line 1 is picked up by qojr* in line 2, which I parse as a verbal noun (from qj^r*, “be far [removed], distant”). Not only does the Psalmist feel that God has left him, but He has gone far away. The parallel suffixed nouns yt!u*Wvy+ (“my [cry for] help”) and yt!g`a&v^ (“my groaning”) in the second line further add to the intensity of the scene. The root ga^v* more properly denotes roaring—i.e., a roaring cry of suffering and distress.

Verse 3 [2]

“My Mightiest (One)—
I call by day and you do not answer (me),
and by night, and (there is) no calm for me.”

The initial address to God (“my Mightiest”, yh^ýa$), if original, rather distorts the meter of the verse, though it does provide a fitting parallel to the opening of v. 2 (“my Mighty [One]”, yl!a@, repeated). To preserve the clarity of the couplet, I have rendered the initial address as a partial line which adds a moment of tension and suspense to the rhythm of the two couplets of vv. 2-3 [1-2] when read together. The parallelism of the couplet here is obvious, being more conceptual than formal. The noun hY`m!Wd can specifically mean “silence”, emphasizing that the Psalmist cries out continually (and is not silent), or it could indicate that there is no calm or stillness for him (i.e. no rest or respite from his suffering); the latter sense is to be preferred.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“And (yet) you are sitting (in the) holy (place),
the shining (splendor) of Yisrael!
In you our Fathers trusted (for safety)—
they trusted, and you made escape (for) them;
to you they cried out and were rescued,
in you they trusted and were not disgraced!”

These three couplets provide a contrast with the Psalmist’s situation. Since YHWH rescued and delivered the people of Israel in times past, why will he not deliver the protagonist now? In some ways, this anticipates the praise section in vv. 24-32, but here the recollection of past action of God on behalf of his people only serves as a bitter irony. There is a hint of rebuke in the opening couplet, contrasting the Psalmist’s deplorable condition on earth with YHWH sitting in splendor on his throne in heaven; it could perhaps be rendered “…and yet, there you are, sitting in the holy place!” The contrast between God and the human condition is further developed, most vividly in the verses that follow.

The threefold use of the verb jf^B* in vv. 5-6 may seem overly repetitive, but effectively makes a theological point: God will deliver those who trust in him. The root jfb often connotes trusting in someone for safety and protection, and is occasionally rendered “seek refuge [in]” —i.e. God as a place of protection. In spite of this threefold affirmation, implying that the Psalmist, too, is trusting in YHWH, there is as yet no deliverance from suffering.

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

“And (here) I (am) a worm, and not a man,
(the) scorn of mankind, and contempt of (all) people!
All (those) seeing me bring derision to(ward) me,
they let out (laughter) with (the) lip and wag (their) head:
‘He circled (with joy) to YHWH, so let Him (now) bring escape!
let Him rescue him, (seeing) that he finds delight in Him!'”

The contrast of the Divine and human condition is a frequent theme in Old Testament poetry, the human side often expressed by the parallel “man…son of man”. Here, however, the contrast is made even more graphically—the Psalmist’s condition is that of a worm, something even less than a man! By this is meant, primarily, the disgrace that he experiences from the rest of humankind (or, so it seems to him). The first couplet provides a synthetic parallelism, where the idea of being a “worm” is defined specifically in terms of the scorn (hP*r=j#) and contempt (hz)B=) he experiences from other people.

Even allowing for poetic exaggeration, to be sure, it is interesting to consider just what it is which brings about such treatment by the people at large. The only evidence provided here is that the protagonist has been struck by severe misfortune, which seems to run contrary to his faithful devotion to YHWH. In other words, if he has been faithful and loyal to YHWH (i.e. trusting in Him, cf. above), then how is it that he is now trapped in such a deplorable situation? This is a natural religious sentiment, felt my many devout persons at various times, and was a frequent theme in the ancient Wisdom literature (indeed, it runs throughout the entire book of Job). His sense of disgrace is only heightened all the more by the mockery he receives from the faithless in society. This is presented most vividly in vv. 8-9 [7-8], including a representative taunt expressed by the populace; this taunt occurs in the climactic couplet of v. 9, with both synonymous and chiastic parallelism:

    • The Psalmist circles (with joy) unto YHWH
      • so let God bring escape for him
      • and let (God) deliver him
    • since he finds delight in (YHWH)

Section 2: Psalm 22:12-23 [11-22]

In this portion of the Psalm, the distress and misfortune experienced by the Psalmist (cf. above on vv. 2-11 [1-10]) is defined in terms of attacks by his adversaries and opponents. Often in the Psalms, this line of imagery relates to the royal background and theology of the ancient poems (i.e. referring to opponents of the king and his kingdom). Admittedly, this aspect is less prominent here in Psalm 22, but we must still take it into account. The adversaries of the protagonist are never specified, though they are characterized generally as wicked and faithless/disloyal to the covenant with YHWH.

Verse 12 [11]

“Do not be far away from me,
for distress is near (to me),
for there is no (one) helping (me)!”

The section begins with a tricolon, in which the Psalmist calls out urgently to God, as he faces “distress” (hr*x*), an abstract term which should be understood in the concrete sense of hostile opponents who are attacking (or who would attack). The substantive participle “(one) helping” (rz@ou) refers to human aid, perhaps in the practical sense of military assistance; since there is no one available, the Psalmist has to turn to YHWH for divine aid.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Many (strong) bulls surround me,
(the) mighty (one)s of Bashan enclose me;
they open their mouths upon me,
tearing and roaring (at me as) a lion!”

The two couplets in these verses describe the Psalmist’s enemies in the traditional imagery of fierce and powerful animals (bull / lion). They are compared with bulls (<yr!P*) in the first couplet, the parallelism filled in by the local idiom of cattle-herding in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan (“mighty ones of Bashan”). In the second couplet, the lion (hy@r=u^) is in view, with its deadly mouth that roars and tears at its prey.

Verses 15-16 [14-15]

“Like water, I am poured out,
all my bones are separated;
my heart is (become) like wax,
it melts in the midst of my tissues;
my strength is dried up like (baked) clay,
and my tongue has been stuck to my jaws—
and (all this) has set me toward the dust of death!”

In the face of such danger, the Psalmist can feel himself on the verge of death. The strength of his limbs (and his heart) dissolves, melting all over. This liquid metaphor is replaced (in v. 16 [15]) with the opposite idea of drying—his strength drying up like the tongue in his mouth. The figurative anatomical references give way to a climactic exclamation in the final line, an exclamation, however, which is a bit difficult to interpret. The verb form, yn]t@P=v=T!, appears to be a second person singular imperfect form, suggesting a sudden switch to a direct address to YHWH by the Psalmist, perhaps blaming God for the situation he now faces—i.e., “and (so) to the dust of death you have put me!”. Commentators have suggested instead that it should be read as a third person feminine (collective), perhaps in the sense that ‘all these things’ (“they”), together, have set me toward the dust of death. I have tentatively followed this interpretation above. The image of “dust” (rp*u*), of course, fits the motif of drying out in v. 16.

Verses 17-19 [16-18]

“For (these) dogs have surrounded me,
a pack of (those) doing evil has gone about me,
digging (into) my hands and my feet—
I count all my bones (that are left)!
They, they give a look,
they take sight at me;
they divide my clothes among them,
and upon my garment they cast a pebble.”

These difficult (and irregular) couplets represent the violence of the attack made upon the Psalmist. Perhaps it is what he envisions happening, rather than something which, whether real or figurative, has actually taken place. In any case, the animal imagery from the prior lines continues, with the adversaries now depicted as a pack of savage dogs. They are characterized as “(one)s doing evil” (<yu!r@m=), and, in keeping with the imagery of the couplet, I have rendered the common noun hd*u@ (“appointed [gathering], assembly”) colloquially as “pack”.

The second couplet (v. 17b/18a) is particularly difficult, evidenced by the misplaced verse division. With many commentators, I read the initial word yrak as a verbal form (infinitive) from the root hr*K* I (“dig”), with an ‘intrusive’ aleph [a]. It is often translated here as “pierce”, perhaps to give greater relevance to the subsequent (Christian) application to the crucifixion of Jesus (i.e., piercing his hands and feet, cf. below). However, the original context of the Psalm had nothing to do with crucifixion; rather, it would seem, the idea is of dogs digging their sharp teeth into the legs and arms (i.e. ‘hands and feet’) of the protagonist. It is a vicious attack that leaves the victim in a debilitated state; and, it is in this light that I understand the second line of the couplet, as a bit of grim irony—the Psalmist is able to count the few intact bones he has left!

Rhythmically, following this pair of 3-beat couplets, there is a terse 2-beat couplet in the remainder of verse 18. The sense is not entirely clear, but I believe that the idea involves the attackers pausing to look at the body of their victim. This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verse 19 (again a 3-beat couplet). Having left their victim dead (or near death), they strip him of his clothing, dividing the garments between them, casting lot to see who will receive the choicest garment (his robe/tunic).

Use of Psalm 22 in the Gospels

The role of this Psalm in the Gospel Tradition is relatively straightforward, being applied to the Passion and Death of Jesus—in particular, the scene of his crucifixion. The use of Psalm relates to the crucifixion scene in three ways:

    • The historical tradition of Jesus’ cry on the cross, which may have been the catalyst for drawing the attention of believers to the Psalm
    • The general parallels between the crucifixion scene and the details in vv. 2-19 [1-18] of the Psalm, which observers and subsequent witnesses would have noted
    • Those very portions of the Psalm were then used by early Christians (including the Gospel writer[s]) in the shaping of the narrative description of the crucifixion scene

There can be no doubt that this Psalm was especially significant for the shaping of the crucifixion account, with details from the poem effectively being enacted (fulfilled) in the narrative. In the Synoptic tradition (Mark-Matthew), Jesus quotes the opening line while fastened to the stake (Mk 15:34 par), and, as noted above, it may have been that historical tradition which prompted early believers to turn to the Psalm, where they recognized certain parallels with the events of his death. The Gospel writers clearly were aware of these details, and take care to highlight them, though the Psalm is cited directly only at Jn 19:24. In addition to the words uttered by Jesus, three elements of the Psalm were seen as related to the circumstances of his death:

On the significance of each of these details, in the original context of the Psalm, cf. the discussion above.

An interesting aspect of Psalm that is not particularly emphasized in the Gospel Tradition involves the third section (vv. 24-32 [23-31]), where the Psalmist’s lament is turned into a song of praise to YHWH for his power and goodness, anticipating that God will bring deliverance. This portion of the Psalm could easily have been applied to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, yet I am not aware of any significant early Christian use of the Psalm for that purpose. Other Psalms, however, were applied to the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus in the New Testament, the most notable of which being Psalm 16 and 110. These will be discussed in upcoming articles in this series.

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