|PSALM 22 AS THE
INTERPRETER OF THE SUFFERING MESSIAH
The Psalms often describe the trials a devout person suffers in partaking of the "birth pangs of the kingdom of God". When they relate to David they are often explained as "Messianic birth pangs". This is how the Targum expounds psalm 20, the beginning of which speaks of the "day of trouble", and the verse 6 says that "LORD will help his anointed". In the same way we have seen that the Targum speaks of the Messiah in the context of psalm 21, and that the Midrash adds a discussion of his "crown" and purple robe.
A still wider perspective is opened up by psalm 22, which in Christian exegesis is part of the picture of the Suffering Messiah. It has been said of this psalm as of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah that it was written at the foot of the cross. The beginning of the psalm speaks of the sufferings of the Messiah, and the end speaks of his covenant meal.
The psalm begins with a cry: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The psalmist relates how:
The psalm concludes with an outpouring of praise:
The Midrash on the Psalms relates the theme of psalm 22 to Esther, even though there is no direct link between the two. Professor M.D. Casutto, who is known for his commentaries on the whole Old Testament, says of this psalm that "it depicts a man tortured in both body and soul". The words of the introduction which say that the psalm is to be sung "to [the tune of] 'The Hind of the Dawn' " refer, in traditional accounts, to Esther -- although the strange word used for a particular musical instrument and way of singing mean in Hebrew "the radiance of the dawn". This radiance is surely more appropriate in reference to the Messiah, the "light of the world", and of whom the Messianically understood passage in Hosea (6:2--3) says that he will rise "on the third day" and that "his arising is as sure as the dawn" -- here we have the same Hebrew word shahar, 'dawn', as in the verses above.
Concerning v 16 "they have pierced my hands and feet", a footnote in some versions (eg. NIV and RSV) gives an alternative rendering:
If the mention in the psalms of the clothes for which lots are cast contains a "hidden reference", then also the meal which it describes raises many questions. According to RaSHI, it refers to the "time of deliverance, the days of the Messiah". But what kind of thoughts does this meal connected with the Messiah's coming raise?
The first sentiments which arise from the interpretation above relate to Holy Communion which the Lord instituted with the Paschal meal, and in which, at least in the high churches, "all kneel down before him". When we take Communion "in remembrance" of the death of Christ, the words of our psalm which say that "all the ends of the earth will remember" are fulfilled, and when we "proclaim the Lord's death" the psalm says that one day "his righteousness" will be proclaimed, "for he has done it". In the closing verses the word 'Lord' is four times used of the saintly sufferer, and to that is added that "posterity will serve him". The word 'serve' in the Hebrew of this verse, avad, means worship as to God.
Psalm 22 begins with a cry and ends in the words "he has done it". The Hebrew uses the word âsâh which according to some commentators is related to the last verse of the Creation account, Gen.2:3.23 It is as if our psalm were thus presenting the "accomplishment" of the atoning work. If Jesus spoke in Aramaic here, as in the first part of the psalm, then his cry kullah, 'it is finished', would correspond to the content of the Greek verb. In Hebrew and Aramaic this word is used in the context of sacrifices. In this way Jesus made a "total sacrifice" on our behalf, and it is this sacrifice we remember in Communion.
The most significant discussion relating to the "Messiah's meal" and to Communion is found in the Midrash for the book of Ruth. If truly "all the prophets have prophesied not but for the days of the Messiah" it will be appropriate alongside the Psalms to show something from the early Jewish literature of what Ruth says regarding the Messiah. Ruth 2:14 tells us of Boaz, who said to King David's grandmother Ruth, "Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar." Midrash Ruth in its exposition of this verse says four times that if anyone "partakes of the Messianic meal in this world he eats for the world which is to come". Four times the Midrash underlines that this bread is "the bread of the kingdom", and four times it is said that he who eats of this bread is "near the kingdom". Furthermore, three times it is stressed that this "wine vinegar" speaks of suffering, and certain Rabbis, speaking "in the Holy Spirit", say that "wine vinegar is one of the sufferings spoken of in Isaiah 53 when it is said that 'he was crushed for our iniquities' ".24 In the NT section we will speak in more detail about the background to the Holy Communion and that of some other "Messianic meals". In psalm 22, however, we already find this covenant meal of the "time of deliverance".
We have seen that psalm 22 is also connected with the sufferings of the Messiah in Jewish exegesis. It begins with Jesus' cry of pain and depicts his death on the cross, which terminated in the word kullah, 'it is finished'. Reference is also made to the "Messiah's meal," thus offering support to the understanding that the Lord's Supper is found in the Old Testament.
Psalm 118 and the "stone which the builders rejected"
We understand that a natural bridge to the Messianic interpretation of the psalms is formed particularly in those which refer to King David. Psalm 118, however, which, among the Jews, is traditionally associated with the inauguration of the Temple, gives additional information on the Rabbis' wide-ranging Messianic expectation. This well-known psalm was also one of Luther's favourites, as it had helped him "out of difficulties from which no king nor ruler" could have freed him. The first part of the psalm speaks of how the sons of Aaron, the priesthood, trust in the LORD:
The traditional Messianic interpretation is concerned primarily vv.20--26: "This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank thee that thou hast answered me and hast become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This is the LORD's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech thee, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech thee, give us success! Blessed be he who enters in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD. (RSV)
Rabbinic exposition of the Psalms makes Messianic inter-connections between passages in which Christian exegesis would not expect to find any relation. We have seen how RaSHI joins the passage in Micah chapter 5, about the ruler who is to be born in Bethlehem, with the "cornerstone" of psalm 118, and also with the "shoot" in psalm 72:17 which was before the sun, moon and course of the stars.
Most shocking is the fact that the Rabbis consider it possible that the Chosen People might not accept their Messiah, as we have seen in the exposition of Jacob's blessing. This idea, however, comes most clearly to the fore in the passage about the rejected cornerstone. But is it also connected in some other ways with the Messiah?
Both the Midrash on the Psalms and the Talmud describe how the verses above were customarily sung antiphonally: The inhabitants of Jerusalem said within the walls, "O LORD, hosanna" (that is, "save us"), and the men of Judah on the outside said "O LORD, grant us success", the inhabitants of Jerusalem, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD" etc.25 When Jesus, at the beginning of Passion Week, rode into Jerusalem we remember that people spread out their cloaks and palm fronds on to the road and sang: "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed be he who comes in the name of the LORD. Hosanna in the highest!" (Matt. 21:9, Mark. 11:9--10, Luke 19:37--38 and John 12:13--15)
Rabbi Aqiba explains in the Talmud that it was the Holy Spirit who gave this song, and that the Israelites sang it as they crossed the Red Sea.26 The tradition here is associated with the names of Rabbis Jehudah and Shmuel, who said that, "The prophets have commanded Israel that on the day of their salvation they are to sing this to their saviour."27
The Zohar connects the theme of psalm 118 to Israel's departure from Egypt. Exodus chapter 15 begins with the words "Then Moses sang", and describes the deliverance of Israel from the Red Sea. The Zohar explains that "there is a reference here to the 'One who is to come'... Therefore Israel is to sing this to Him who will come." And "God will once more extend his hand to save the remnant of his people." Then they "who died through the serpent's beguiling will arise and they will become the advisors of the Messiah-King." This song is a "royal" song and it speaks of "the community of faith and the coming of the Messiah". The Zohar repeatedly uses of the Messiah the name "The Holy and Most High King". In the future, "in the days of their Messiah-King, Israel will praise the fact that it is a joy for them to gather together at the house of the Holy One". "The words 'He has become my salvation' indicate the Messiah-King." When the Holy King comes we will "rejoice and be glad over his salvation; and his salvation means, of course, the LORD's salvation, which has come back to Zion."28 The Zohar's exposition, which has not suffered to any significant extent from the Synagogue's internal censorship, represents for orthodox Jews the normative, generally accepted stance.
RaSHI, who saw the Messianic nature of the psalm, also says of Isaiah 28:16 that it points to "the Messiah-King who is to be the touchstone of Zion". Indeed that verse states that God will
The Hebrew uses two words for 'cornerstone': even pinnah or rôsh pinnah, 'cornerstone' or 'head of the corner'. The Metsudat David says that, this rejected cornerstone "will thus be put in the most coveted place of all", for everyone to see.
Jesus spoke harsh words in Matthew 21 about the owner of the vineyard who sent his son to see what had happened to his servants. "They will respect my son", he said to himself. But they "took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him". Then Jesus spoke words which Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem considers the most severe in the New Testament. "They are so harsh", he once lectured, "that Jesus is hardly likely to have uttered them". But Jesus did indeed say:
But could Jesus have said so? There is a passage in the Talmud on Jeremiah 13:17, which speaks of the prophet's spirit "weeping in secret because of the pride" which will not give the glory to God, the result of which will be that "the LORD's flock will be taken captive". Rabbi Shmuel Bar Yits .hak says that this is the result of "the pride of Israel, which is why the Torah will be taken away from them and given to the Gentile nations".29 So we can understand that Jesus too was quite capable of using such severe language.
By "builders" the Jewish scholars generally mean "teachers". The New Testament too refers on several occasions to "building" in Christ. At the end of Ephesians chapter 2 we are told that we are:
The Christian is to be built up as a "living stone". But how can a stone live? In the games of our childhood we used to play a guessing game with old postcards. The pictures stood for either "animal, vegetable or mineral", and a correct guess earned the card to keep. All the dead objects were "minerals". In Arabic, however, it is possible to speak of both living and dead stones. An Arab pastor once explained to me as we went along the Bethlehem road that an unworked, shapeless stone which has not yet been in the hands of the master is always a dead stone, but on being shaped it comes to life. It thus has a form which will "support and carry others" and it "fits in to its own place". If the building should for some reason collapse or if it is abandoned, these "living stones" which have been fashioned by the mason can be used in another building. In this way a stone which has been rejected can become the capstone of a new building. From the time of Hammurabi, arches in the east have been built in such a way that their walls would burst inward if the keystone were to be taken away.
Since psalm 118 is expounded in the light of Isaiah 28:16 in both the Rabbinic literature and the New Testament, it is worth giving an example of how the Jewish scholars understand the Messiah to be the "touchstone of Zion":
A certain young student, while supervising the building of a high-tension electricity line on the slopes of Mount Carmel, chanced to find a torn New Testament which had been thrown into the undergrowth. His father was a teacher of the Talmud in a local college and so the son was also well acquainted with the Rabbinic literature. Straight away on his first reading he realised that Jesus was the Deliverer he had been searching for in the Old Testament and in his father's writings, and only two weeks later he confessed his faith to his father. The latter then offered him money, a house, and even a wife, if he would only give up his conviction. (In devout Jewish families the parents choose their children's partners; they do, after all, have more experience in the matter than their offspring!)
Our student had not yet left home at Passover time. After eating the Paschal meal, the seder, it was the custom to sing the Hallel psalms, and when they had sung psalm 118 the youngest member of the family, a boy of 19, asked his father, "What is this stone?" Father went completely silent. "Dad, what is the stone which the builders have rejected?" Once more the head of the family remained silent, even though he always answered the Passover evening questions. "Dad, what is the stone which has become the cornerstone?" the boy asked a third time. At that our believing student requested permission to reply, and his father nodded. The young man's answer was enigmatic: "It is what is between father and son!" Being accustomed to Qabbalistic riddles the rest of the family understood immediately who he was talking about. 'Stone' in Hebrew is even: reading the first part of this (in Hebrew characters) three-letter word gives the word âv, 'father', reading the latter part from the middle gives ben, 'son'. Of course everyone knew that Jesus had come between the father and his firstborn son. Before long the student had to leave his family and change his name. His new Hebrew name meaning 'independent', speaks of the great change which had taken place in him. As an authority on oriental languages and with his knowledge of Greek he was entrusted with the main responsibility for translating the New Testament into modern Hebrew.
Psalm 118 climaxes in a salutation addressed to the deliverer:
We have already seen that the Psalms draw a fairly sharp picture of the sufferings of the Messiah and of his glory at the right hand of God, and we have seen how his "righteousness" will be proclaimed to a people yet unborn. Psalms 89:4--5, 21--22 and 26--27 describe the Messianic fulfilment from the point of view of the covenant:
Psalm 102 and the return of the Messiah in his glory.
Despite the fashionable thesis of our time which states that it is not appropriate to build an artificial Messianic-fulfilment bridge between the Old and the New Testaments, we have already seen over what broad a span Jewish and Christian biblical exposition dovetail together. In the light of both psalm 2 and the Dead Sea Scrolls God will "beget" the Messiah, the Messiah was "before the sun" and even present at the Creation, his lot will be one of being "scorned by men and despised by the people" until he is exalted and set up at the right hand of God -- and even the Chosen People will one day accept him. But is there actually anything in the Psalms about the Last Days? Can we find there any reference to the second coming of Christ?
Rabbinic discussion of the End Times is mainly connected with the picture in the book of Ezekiel regarding the war of Gog and Magog and the prophecy of Joel regarding the Day of the Lord. When discussing the tribulation in the Last Days, however, the Rabbis cite the words of psalm 89:51 about the "steps of the anointed one" which will be heard at that time. These iqvôt ha-Mashiah or 'footsteps of the Messiah', are, it is true, in part a reflection of the preaching of the early Christian church, and we will look at them in more detail in the New Testament section.
We ought nevertheless to be aware of the fact that Professor Joseph Klausner, for one, sees a clear connection between the description of the End Times in the New Testament and the Messianic birth-pangs of which the Rabbis speak.32 The Talmudic scholars picture the Messiah arriving in the middle of a crisis for humanity. These birth-pangs connected with the last generation relate to individual morals, the history of the nations and the whole of creation. Just a short example of this:
It is worth keeping this symmetry in mind when studying Jewish scholars' expositions of psalm 102, which gives a description of the "last generation". Characteristically, Klausner devotes to the Psalms less than 4 pages of his 345 page book on the Messianic idea in Israel, his only four-verse quotation being from psalm 102.39 This work, the only one written by a Jew which deals exclusively with the Messianic idea, follows of course, all the historico-critical studies in western languages up to the second decade of this century, but its weakness is in the fact that the Midrash literature and the Targums are not much in evidence. Jonathan Ben Uzziel, for example, is mentioned only once. Klausner refers to the answer received by Rabbi Hillel's greatest pupil Jonathan when he began to translate into Aramaic the part of the Old Testament known as "the writings", to which the psalms belong:
In the 12th verse of our psalm the shevah or 'praise' section begins, which Klausner quoted as a prophecy of the Messianic restoration:
There is a direct line from the expressions of psalm 102 to the gospels. Our psalm uses a technical term found often in the Jewish literature dôr aharon, the 'last generation'. The Dead Sea Scrolls likewise use the same term in their descriptions of the generation of the crisis in the End Times. This appears in, for example, the Damascus fragment I,11 and 12, and also in the commentary on Habakkuk I,3; II,7; and VII,2. The Hebrew word a .haron means simply "last". Since the Jewish literature has another term dôr ha-Bâ, "future generation", which is often used, there is good reason to follow the specific meaning of the phrase dôr aharon in translating psalm 102, even if Western thought does not in general accept the Bible's eschatological point of view. This comment also holds good for the exposition of the New Testament.
It is often claimed that Jesus taught he would return in his glory during the lifetime of his own generation. Such claims, however, overlook the fact that, according to Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, he spoke a great deal about the "signs" of the End Times which would be fulfilled BEFORE his second coming. These include the fact that the "gospel must first be preached to all nations" and that "Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles [in other words, the age of the preaching of the Gospel] are fulfilled" -- and furthermore, the world will fall into a historic, even cosmic, chaos before his coming. So that his disciples would not be perplexed by the tarrying of their Master he gave in the three chapters mentioned the parable of the "fig tree", Israel, as a sign which was to be closely followed. All three first gospels display the same pattern, in which there is first the parable of the fig tree, then the words "this generation will not pass away" before his coming, and finally the affirmation that, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away". Psalm 102 speaks in verses 26--27 of the passing away of heaven and earth as a sequel to the picture of the tribulation of the "last generation". It adds, "They will perish, but you remain!" It is quite possible that Jesus in his eschatological description spoke of the tribulation in psalm 102 and of the event of his return in glory after the rebuilding of Zion. Zion is, after all, one of the affectionate names for Jerusalem. At any rate, the claim that Jesus himself expected a speedy return is both rash and unscholarly.
Psalm 102 offers an extremely valuable addition to biblical eschatological
expectation. RaSHI says of this psalm that its message should be "told
to the last generation. And the 'people who will be created' means that
God will make a new creation to release them from bondage to freedom and
from darkness to light".