The Gospels record seven utterances of Jesus as He hung on the cross.
- "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
- "Verily, I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
- "Woman, behold thy son! . . . Behold thy mother!" (John 19:26-27).
- "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46).
- "I thirst" (John 19:28).
- "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
- "It is finished" (John 19:30).
The fourth utterance in sequence is a quotation from Psalm 22, the outcry of a righteous man who is suffering torments unto death. A verse-by-verse exposition demonstrates that the psalm points with great fullness and precision to Jesus' death on the cross.
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?
2 O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
The speaker is evidently a man going through extreme anguish made worse by God's refusal to help. Why did Jesus apply the opening words to His own case? He meant that because He bore our load of sin, God had indeed turned His back upon Him. A gulf of alienation divided the Father and the Son for the first time in all eternity. The painful rejection described by the psalmist is exactly what Jesus endured on the cross.
As His death approached, Jesus remembered the psalm that was prophetic of His own ordeal. He cried out the opening words for all to hear, then kept silent while the psalm continued to pass through His mind. His further meditation upon the psalm occasionally prompted Him to speak again. His fifth utterance on the cross, "I thirst" (John 19:28), perhaps followed His remembrance of verse 15, "My tongue cleaveth to my jaws." His sixth utterance, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46) may have been spoken in connection with verse 29, "And none can keep alive his own soul." His seventh and last saying, "It is finished" (John 19:30), was unquestionably His victorious restatement of the psalm's conclusion, "He hath done this." The saying and the psalm's conclusion are each a single word: in Greek, tetelestai , in Hebrew, asah (1). The former is a close Greek translation of the latter, which carries the sense, "He has acted with effect" (2). In other words, "He has accomplished the purpose of His action." What did Jesus mean by His last utterance? He meant that He had finished the work of our salvation.
3 But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.
4 Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
5 They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.
The speaker's confession of God as the God of His fathers (v. 4) reveals that He belongs to the nation of Israel. Jesus was, of course, a member of this nation.
6 But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
8 He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
The circumstances of the speaker now become clearer. He is a righteous man in distress, and His sufferings have made Him the reproach of evil men (v. 6). They have gathered to mock Him (v. 7). They taunt Him by saying, "He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him."
The plight of the speaker in Psalm 22 corresponds perfectly to Jesus' as He hung on the cross. He was a spectacle in the midst of many enemies, including the Jewish leaders who called out,
He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.
9 But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts.
10 I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother's belly.
Here we discover that the speaker is no ordinary man, for He can boast that He trusted in God when He was only a suckling infant (v. 9). Even before birth, He knew God (v. 10). The possession of God-consciousness so early in life is surely proof that the speaker has a uniquely exalted nature. Indeed, to have enjoyed such precocious fellowship with God, He must be God's specially anointed One, the Christ.
11 Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.
12 Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.
13 They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.
From these verses we learn that the speaker has no ordinary enemy. He sees some of the mockers around Him as "bulls of Bashan" (v. 12). Bashan, the high tableland east of Galilee, was famous for its rich fields and pastures (3). Its teeming herds of well-fed cattle no doubt supplied many of the bulls sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem. So, it is likely that the epithet "bulls of Bashan" expresses how the dying Jesus would perceive the chief priests who stood jeering Him as He hung on the cross (Matt. 27:41). The Temple where the priests worked was essentially a slaughterhouse. Perhaps their hands and clothes smelled like the blood and burning flesh of bulls. Jesus may have perceived them as bulls for another reason alsobecause like bulls they were dangerous, mean-tempered, and ignorant. Although He was dying for these wretched examples of humanity, and although he desired their repentance and salvation, He saw them realistically. As God, He knew what they were.
Yet the chief priests were not the principal movers behind the Crucifixion. They were simply pawns of another creature, "a ravening and a roaring lion" (v. 13). This expression refers to the devil, who appears under the figure of a lion in several other texts (Psa. 91:13; 1 Pet. 5:8). As Jesus was suffering on the cross, He saw the great predator of souls as the controlling intelligence behind the men who had brought Him to His death.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.
16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.
All the complaints here speak graphically of Jesus' crucifixion. The first two describe His chief sensations on the cross.
- "I am poured out like water." The dominant sensation was pain, especially the pain caused by the nails piercing His hands and feet. The continuing battle between the upward pull of the nails and the downward pull of gravity gave Him an unrelieved sense of falling, of being poured out. It was natural to compare Himself to water, because His ordeal had reduced Him to total exhaustion, and He felt watery. Yet the imagery is complex. The pouring of water is also a figure for the spilling of His blood.
- "All my bones are out of joint." "Out of joint" is better translated "spread apart" (4). The grotesque stretching of His arms and cramping of His legs as Jesus hung on the cross must truly have produced a sensation of extreme pressure on His joints. It is possible that in a typical crucifixion, the victim's arms were attached to the patibulum before it was lifted onto the stipes (5). Perhaps the pull on Jesus' arms as He was yanked off the ground actually dislocated His shoulders.
As the hours wore on, Jesus sensed approaching death. He perceived three threats to His vital functions.
- "My heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels." He became conscious that He was on the brink of heart failure. Overexertion and lack of oxygen had so weakened His heart that it had become more like soft wax than hard muscle. Moreover, the wax was melting. The wall of the heart had ruptured, and blood had begun to seep into the heart cavity.
- "My strength is dried up like a potsherd." The long hours of bleeding and unbearable pain had completely sapped His strength. He was now aware that His body was no longer stronger than death.
- "My tongue cleaveth to my jaws." From loss of blood and other causes of diminished blood flow in His upper body, He was suffering from acute physiological shock, a life-threatening condition. One symptom of the condition is a profound thirst. These words from Psalm 22 may have prompted Jesus to utter His fifth saying on the cross, "I thirst."
The next statement summarizes Jesus' condition as He neared the end of His ordeal. "Thou hast brought me into the dust of death." In other words, His body had reached a nonviable state. He continued to live only by His own divine power.
The next shows more of the scene about the cross. "Dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me." "Dogs" was a Jewish term of insult for gentiles, alluding to their habit of eating unclean food. Jesus Himself once compared gentiles to dogs (Matt. 15:26), although, with characteristic kindness, He turned insult into endearment by His choice of words. The label He put on gentiles is a diminutive signifying a family pet (6). The term "dogs" here in Psalm 22 probably refers to the Roman soldiers who gawked with pleasure upon the spectacle of Jesus' death. The "assembly of the wicked" comprehends all of the onlookers who hated Himthe soldiers and religious leaders, as well as the profane Jewish mob (Matt. 27:39-40; Luke 23:35). The speaker of the psalm evidently conceives of this hostile assembly as the antithesis of the "brethren," the "congregation," who would later rejoice at the deliverance of the righteous victim (v. 22).
The following are three proofs that Psalm 22 describes a crucifixion:
- "They pierced my hands and my feet." Could there be clearer proof that the psalm describes a crucifixion? In what other mode of execution does the victim suffer a piercing of his hands and feet?
- "I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me." "Tell" means "count exactly" (7). Another peculiar feature of crucifixion is that before the executioners hoisted the victim into the air, they confiscated at least his outer garments. Jesus also suffered this indignity (John 19:23). A further account of Jesus' garments comes next.
- "They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture." It was customary at a Roman crucifixion for the attending soldiers to divide the garments of the condemned man among themselves (8). Accordingly, the garments of Jesus were apportioned into four shares (John 19:23). The soldiers determined who would take His outer coat by casting lots (John 19:24).
19 But be not thou far from me, O Lord: O my strength, haste thee to help me.
20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
21 Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.
22 I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.
23 Ye that fear the Lord, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
24 For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.
25 My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.
26 The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the Lord that seek him: your heart shall live forever.
27 All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.
28 For the kingdom is the Lord's: and he is the governor among the nations.
29 All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.
30 A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
31 They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.
Jesus was doubtless on the threshold of death when He tacitly recited these verses at the conclusion of Psalm 22. They look forward to the time when Jesus will be "governor among the nations" (v. 28) and when "all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him" (v. 29; compare with Phil. 2:9-11). Everyone will then recognize that no man can live forever except through Jesus' power, for He is the Lord of life. Nevertheless, even though the sober reminder that "none can keep alive his own soul" speaks of ordinary men rather than of Christ, these words may have turned His thoughts to the imminent departure of His soul to Hades. He did not fear death, for He knew that the Father would soon deliver His soul from Hades and His body from corruption (Psa. 16:10). So perhaps now, at the prompting of such reflections, He uttered His sixth saying on the cross, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
Three main consequences would follow the ordeal of the righteous man.
- God would hear His cry and deliver Him from His enemies (vv. 22, 24), and amid the congregation of the righteous He would praise God for His deliverance (v. 25). Yet how can a man who descends to the "dust of death" (v. 15) act later as a living man unless He rises from the grave? Thus, by showing the righteous man progressing from death to life, the psalm foreshadows His resurrection.
- The righteousness displayed in His suffering unto death would be told throughout the world (v. 27) and throughout future generations (v. 31). Indeed, in fulfillment of this prophecy and in obedience to Jesus' own commission (Acts 1:8), the church has carried the news of His redemptive work to the "uttermost part of the earth."
- A righteous seed would be raised up to serve Him (v. 30). This seed would be drawn from all nations and kindreds (v. 27). Indeed, in all nations and kindreds there have been true believers in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus finally came to the end of the psalm, He shouted out the words, "It is finished" (Matt. 27:50; John 19:30). Then, after uttering His last saying, He died. His great suffering, colossal beyond our conception, was over. Eternal life for His followers was made sure. Even now, two thousand years later, let us rejoice in His victory and give Him unceasing praise for the salvation He has provided, as the psalmist says we should (v. 23).
Answer to an Objection
An uninformed reader of Psalm 22 might suspect that the writer is knowingly describing a crucifixion. The facts prove otherwise, however. This method of punishment was not widely used until the sixth century B.C. or later, long after any plausible date for Psalm 22 (9). So what we have in this psalm is supernatural knowledge of the futurereal prophecy, in other words.