“Psalm 22 isn’t about Jesus at all! Mark was familiar with the Psalm and deliberately fabricated stories about the mocking of the crowds and the distribution of his clothes. Not only that, Christians translators came in and changed the wording of one of the passages to make it say that the sufferer’s feet and hands were pierced. Plus, the Psalm was written by David or some other Jewish sufferer about their own suffering. Christians are just projecting Jesus backward into the Psalm to fit their own narrative. And there’s nothing about the resurrection in Psalm 22. Isn’t that the punchline of the whole story?”
That’s the skeptical interpretation of Psalm 22 in a nutshell. To that, I’d respond “oh…really?” I don’t think these objections carry much weight. In Luke, Jesus says “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” And I don’t think Jesus gets any more vividly portrayed in the Psalms than in Psalm 22, likely written a thousand years before he came on the scene.
Here are six different ways Jesus fits Psalm 22:
1. Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 on the cross, loudly enough for the crowd to hear him. From a medical perspective, breathing while being crucified is incredibly painful. The weight of the body pulls down on the diaphragm and the air moves into the lungs and stays there. In order to exhale, the crucified must push themselves upon nailed feet (ouch) to breathe out. Speaking loudly, therefore, would be horribly painful. Jesus cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. Mark and Matthew both record this. I don’t think they would have ever made up a story like this, because it’s rather difficult to explain to a non-Christian audience why Jesus would say such a thing. After all, don’t Christians believe that Jesus is God? How is God forsaking God?
There are two plausible explanations for this: For one, Christians believe that Jesus was bearing our sin and the judgment we deserve on the cross. He was taking our godforsaken condition so that we could have forgiveness and access to God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 10:10-19) Secondly, Jesus said this loud enough for the crowd to hear because he wanted to make it clear the Psalm applied to him. He wanted them to draw on their memories of the Psalm in order to make an obvious parallel.
2. Psalm 22:6-8 “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
If this Psalm applies to David, we know there was a time he was chased by Saul and then later his own son. At times he was despised.
If this applies to Jesus, him being scorned and despised would apply as well. Deuteronomy 21:23 says “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”. A Messiah that is cursed by God would be like a married bachelor or a squared circle in the minds of many Jews.
Mark 15:29-30 says the crowd scorned and mocked him: “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” Matthew also writes: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:43)
The charge against the gospel writers is that they added these details into the narratives to make it look more like Jesus was fulfilling scripture. But this just seems to be arguing in a circle. If prophecy isn’t possible, then, of course, these details have to be made up. But starting with that assumption just begs the question. Critics need to do better than reject these accounts because they fit the prophecy.
These details fit very plausibly into the narrative. Jesus was referring to the temple of his body, and his critics twisted it into him sounding like a terrorist. (John 2:19-21) He was accused of blasphemy because he said he was the divine Son of Man. (Mark 14:61-62, Daniel 7:13-14). To make these claims and then get crucified would invite some serious derision and scorn. Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that the gospels are based on eyewitness testimony.
3. Psalm 22:14-15: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”
Here the “David theory” totally breaks down. While the Psalmists are given to hyperbole, it takes a real stretch of the imagination to see the Psalmist applying this to his own sufferings and living to sing about it.
“I am poured out like water” – This is certainly one way to describe someone bleeding out.
“All my bones are out of joint” – In the crucifixion, physicians tell us that one’s full weight pulls down on their nailed wrists and both their shoulders and elbows dislocate. In this position, the victim’s arms stretch to a minimum of 6 inches longer than their original length.
“My heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast” – This could be metaphorical for the Psalmists’ emotions, but given the context of physical suffering it’s unlikely. Here’s one medical doctor’s description of what happens to the human heart of someone who has been crucified:
“The difficulty surrounding exhalation leads to a slow form of suffocation. Carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, resulting in a high level of carbonic acid in the blood. The body responds instinctively, triggering the desire to breathe. At the same time, the heart beats faster to circulate available oxygen. The decreased oxygen (due to the difficulty in exhaling) causes damage to the tissues and the capillaries begin leaking watery fluid from the blood into the tissues. This results in a build-up of fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion) and lungs (pleural effusion). The collapsing lungs, failing heart, dehydration, and the inability to get sufficient oxygen to the tissues essentially suffocate the victim. The decreased oxygen also damages the heart itself (myocardial infarction) which leads to cardiac arrest. In severe cases of cardiac stress, the heart can even burst, a process known as cardiac rupture. Jesus most likely died of a heart attack.”
“My strength is dried up…my tongue sticks to my jaws” – Medical science tells us that with great blood loss one’s thirst increases greatly. Drinking water increases blood volume.
“you lay me in the dust of death” – All of these verses sound like someone who is in great physical agony. They’re knocking on death’s door, not merely just having a really rough day. This doesn’t really fit David at all.
4. Psalm 22:16: “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet”. Now here we have some controversy. The charge is made that Christians changed a few letters in the Hebrew text to make it read “they pierced my hands and feet.” The Complete Jewish Bible reads “like a lion [at] my hands and feet”. I’m not going to spend a ton of time here because I think the debate over this passage makes a mountain out of a molehill.
For starters, the New Testament writers never quote this verse. Secondly, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint were both written before Jesus, and they both contain the word for pierced, or more accurately, bore through. And even if the original wording is “like a lion at my hands and feet”, what follows exactly? The writer talks about the sufferer surrounded by fierce beasts, a metaphor for human enemies who are acting like savage animals. Look at verse 13: “they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” Hungry lions attacking the hands and feet of their victim still describes something that sounds an awful lot like being nailed to a cross.
5. Psalm 22:18: “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” The psalmist says this to show how close he is to death. His enemies are expecting his death so much that they’ve already divided his clothes among themselves. All four gospels describe this event. John ratchets it up a notch by describing it as a fulfillment of Scripture (John 19:23–24, Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34).
In Justinian’s Digest 48.20.2, 6 (Rome’s civil law) we discover that clothes and other items of small value that a prisoner had on him were forfeit to his executioner or executioner’s assistants. This external evidence increases the plausibility of this story. John tells us that Jesus’ garment “was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.” A seamless coat in these times wasn’t like a t-shirt from Walmart, we’re talking about an expensive garment. It is no wonder his executioners didn’t want to tear it apart but gamble for it. (John 19:24) You might ask “where did Jesus get such a flashy coat?” I don’t know. Someone spent a year’s worth of salary to buy some perfume just for his feet. (Mark 14:3) He had financial supporters. (Luke 8:1-3) It’s not hard to imagine someone buying him a nice robe.
6. Psalm 22:21-31: “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him but has heard, when he cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”
Here’s a complaint from an atheist blogger regarding Psalm 22: “the biggest problem with shoehorning of Psalm 22 into the gospel story is that there’s no reference to the resurrection! How can this be the story of the sacrifice of Jesus without the punch line?” Huh? One has to wonder if he read the whole Psalm or just stopped at verse 20! Look what’s happening here:
1. The Psalmist apparently dies or is dying but is rescued.
2. He says that all of the offspring of Jacob should stand in awe of the deliverance that happened.
3. All the ends of the earth (the Gentiles) will remember this deliverance and turn to the Lord!
4. Future generations are told of this deliverance.
Psalm 22 can only describe Jesus
In light of these apparent facts, how can anyone rationally believe that David is simply talking about himself?
Let’s just do a simple recap here:
✅ Jesus cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, applying the Psalm to himself. (Psalm 22:1)
✅ He was publicly displayed as a failure, openly scorned and mocked. (Psalm 22:6-8)
✅ He was poured out like water. (Psalm 22:14-15)
✅ His bones were disjointed.
✅ His heart “melted like wax” on the cross.
✅ He suffered extreme exhaustion and thirst.
✅ His hands and feet were pierced. (Psalm 22:16)
✅ His executioners gambled over his garments. (Psalm 22:18)
✅ His deliverance from death led to the conversion of many Gentiles and future generations. (Psalm 22:27-31)
Who else but Jesus could this passage describe?
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.