Failed Prophecy: Psalm 22

Psalm 22 is one of the most popular places to look for the supposed Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by the life of Jesus. Apologists claim that it closely parallels the crucifixion story but was written roughly 1000 years earlier.

The very first verse of this chapter is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which are the last words of Jesus according to Matthew and Mark.

Verse 7: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘Let the Lord rescue him.’” Sure enough, Mark records the onlookers insulting Jesus and mocking his inability to free himself.

Verse 16: “they have pierced my hands and my feet” sounds like the crucifixion. This form of execution was practiced by many cultures in the Ancient Near East for centuries before the time of Jesus, but it probably didn’t go back as far as the writing of this psalm. In that case, this verse looks prophetic.

Verse 18: “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing,” as noted in Mark.

A skeptical interpretation 

These are some clear parallels, but what best explains this—that this ancient psalm really did predict the crucifixion or that the gospel story was deliberately written to mimic a prophecy? The author of Mark was surely familiar with this psalm and could’ve added the distribution of the clothes, the mocking from the crowd, and the last words.

But what about the piercing of the hands and feet? It may not say that. A better translation may be, “like a lion they pin my hands and feet.” The NET Bible’s comment:

The psalmist may envision a lion pinning the hands and feet of its victim to the ground with its paws (a scene depicted in ancient Near Eastern art), or a lion biting the hands and feet.

Make that change and see what verse 16 says:

wild dogs surround me—
a gang of evil men crowd around me;
like a lion they pin my hands and feet.

No longer do we have a good parallel to the crucifixion story. (Let me note, however, that there are arguments for each interpretation of the verse.)

Let’s reconsider those last words: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Does forsaking Jesus sound like part of God’s plan? This doesn’t sound like the cool-headed, in-control Jesus written about in Luke and John.

What it sounds like is Gnosticism (not in the Psalm, but when transplanted into the gospels). The Gnostic Gospel of Philip (third century) explains it this way, “‘My God, My God, why, lord, have you forsaken me?’ [Jesus] spoke these words on the cross, for he had left that place.” That is, Christ the god entered Jesus the man at baptism (remember the dove?) but then abandoned Jesus at the crucifixion.

What about the skipped verses?

Now consider the entire chapter. The apologetic claim rests on picking intriguing little fragments out of context, but taken as a whole this looks even less like the crucifixion story.

Verse 9: “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you”—again, this sounds like an ordinary man. The first person of the Trinity wouldn’t need to make the second person of the Trinity trust him.

Verse 12: “Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan [a place known for its cattle] encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.” Bulls and lions? That sounds like martyrdom in an arena, not crucifixion.

Verse 17: “I can count all my bones.” This unfortunate guy is clearly mistreated, but (again) this isn’t the gospel story.

Verse 20: “Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen.” Ditto.

And 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?

See also: Failed Prophecy: Isaiah 53

To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason
is like administering medicine to the dead.
—  Thomas Paine

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Debunking 10 Popular Christian Principles for Reading the Bible (2 of 3)
Debunking 10 Popular Christian Principles for Reading the Bible
A Crazy Natural Explanation Or a Supernatural One: Which One Wins?
The Design Argument (Fiction)
About Bob Seidensticker
  • DrewL

    Bob Bob Bob, have you ever heard of a metaphor?
    Next on your to-do list: debunking “Amazing Grace”–let’s see some empirical evidence for this alleged “blindness” that was overcome! Then you could show us the REAL truth behind figurative language in patriotic songs: where are these purple mountain majesties exactly?
    Just because fundamentalists read the Bible poorly doesn’t mean you have to.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      I’m missing your concern. Sounds like we both agree that it’s not a prophecy. Just declare victory and move on? No, quite a few fundamentalists think that it is a prophecy. They’re the ones who need to be encouraged to see things more clearly.

      • DrewL

        What if it’s both a prophecy AND a metaphor?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Drew: I’m not seeing it as prophecy–at least not as prophecy of Jesus’s crucifixion. As for metaphor, I haven’t read up on what the original meaning was. There could be metaphor in there.

    • Nox

      Psalm 22 does not purport itself to be a prophecy. It makes no predictions and is written in past/present tense. Your point about debunking poems would apply if Bob had just randomly chosen this poem as something to debunk. But christians (for example the person who wrote Matthew 27:35) have claimed that it is not just a poem, but a prediction of the crucifixion of Jesus. An objectively false claim which is subject to debunking.

  • Karl Udy

    “I can count all my bones” is often referred to as a prophecy that Jesus’ legs were not broken. But this was not the meaning of “I can count all my bones”, the meaning was probably closer to “I can feel every muscle”. There is a verse in Psalm 34:20 that matches Jesus’ unbroken bones much better

    Given that, I do believe that Psalm 22 is prophetic in terms of anticipating the suffering of the Messiah.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Karl: From the standpoint of the gospel of John, I see the importance of Jesus paralleling the sacrificial lambs (the lambs had to be perfect, with no broken bones). But, of course, the other gospels don’t support this parallel.

      My read of “I can count all my bones” was that he was starving, so his bones were visible.

      I’m not seeing why you see Ps. 22 as prophetic. What in my post didn’t work for you?

      • DrewL

        Bob, you should take a look at the definition of prophecy, which can be predictive or non-predictive. It is oftentimes commentary on contemporary events…that’s what many of the Hebrew prophets saw themselves doing.
        So you’re misusing the term. Again, might want to refocus your “hours of daily research” and try the ol’ wikipedia every once in a while.

        Even more interesting: most biblical scholars agree the New Testament writers were pretty fast and loose about assigning completely new interpretations to Old Testament statements, interpretations far from the original authors’ intentions. For instance, Jonah and Noah and Melchizedek were not “prophetic” stories, yet New Testament writers freely draw them in to affirm things about Jesus or the atonement. So I’m not sure what you get out of arguing Psalms 22 doesn’t LOOK like future-telling prophecy, except me questioning where you got your degree in Hebrew literary studies.

        Again, just because fundamentalists read the Bible poorly doesn’t mean you have to.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I’m using “prophecy” as it’s defined in the dictionary. No, I don’t think I’m misusing the term.

          But this biblical use of the word is news to me–I appreciate the link.

          That fundamentalists read the Bible poorly doesn’t mean that I have to as well; it means that I need to point out the error. Don’t you agree? Isn’t pointing out the error a useful exercise?

          If we agree so much, I’m wondering where I’ve missed the “Amen, brother!” (Not that I’m grasping for compliments, just that I’m confused by the complaints.)

  • Karl Udy

    I’m not seeing why you see Ps. 22 as prophetic. What in my post didn’t work for you?

    As DrewL said, you appear to not have a deep understanding of what prophecy means in the Biblical sense. It’s not fortune telling.

    A simple phrase that’s used often to describe prophecy is “forth-telling, not foretelling”, and if you read the books labelled “prophets” in the Old Testament, you will see that many of them make no predictions at all.

    In the Bible, there are many events and writings that foreshadow future events, and in particular anticipate Jesus coming as Messiah. Psalm 22 is one of those.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      you appear to not have a deep understanding of what prophecy means in the Biblical sense. It’s not fortune telling.

      Matthew is full of “as was foretold in the scriptures.” Was that actually foretold? No, I don’t think so. And I’ve outlined why. Tell me what’s wrong.

  • smrnda

    I’ve encountered a number of Bibles which, in their notes, point to this psalm as an explicit prophecy in terms of a prediction of the future which is fulfilled in the NT, so there are Christians who are taking this to be prophecy in that sense.

    I think a problem is we’re looking at a translation, along with some stuff that maps more easily to the Jesus story and others that don’t.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks, smrnda.

      Some commenters have chided me for, I think, attacking a Christianity that isn’t their own. “That’s not how I do it,” they seem to be saying. OK–agree with me then. It seems that, as you point out, this belief is widespread.

      Where are you on this question? Do you reject the idea that Psalm 22 is a prophecy?

      • smrnda

        I am not a Christian and my take is that people who translated the Bible believed there were prophecies in the OT, and it influenced their translations. For example, in the story of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego thrown into the burning fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzer says that the fourth being is “like the Son of God” in the King James translation but more recent translations say “an angel” or something to that effect. My thinking is translators found things that sounded kind of like prophecies, and because they believed very strongly that they would find explicit prophecies in the OT, it influenced how readily they took something to be a prophecy, and that made them more likely to translate it to fit what it was supposed to predict.

        If the question is whether the person who originally wrote psalm 22 thought they were writing a prophecy of Jesus in the NT, I’d say not.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Not the translators so much, I think, but the original authors. Matthew has a number of “as told in the scriptures” (or words to that effect).

          Still, you could be right in that translators have agendas. For example, the Seventh Day Adventist Bible changes John 1:1 so that it says “and the Word was a god” (article added).

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  • smrnda

    I think that both NT authors and translators read prophecies into the OT. This is totally believable to me since people take older literary works and read new meanings into them all the time, mostly built around the idea that everyone wants to believe that all great writers were forward thinking and enlightened.

  • R.C.

    There is prophecy, and there is type-antitype.

    Christians read this to be an example of the latter. Or, if that’s too picky, put it this way: The best authors tend to have recurrent themes in their works, and the central themes are often heavily foreshadowed.

    But God is the Author of History. Actual historical events are the “words” of the novel He is writing, so those events themselves (along with the commentary and poetry and song-lyrics of inspired writers meditating on those events) will constitute the words in which foreshadowing takes place.

    Then, when you get an event in which dozens of historical events and hundreds of otherwise disparate-seeming quotations from the aforementioned commentary and poetry and song-lyrics suddenly coalesce and all seem to have foreshadowed the same single climactic event, you say to yourself, “Ah, this is what the Author was hinting at all along. He was preparing my imagination and setting my expectations so that I could, when the time came, see this one thing for its full significance.”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      No, I think that’s fitting the facts to your preconception. It’s not evaluating the evidence dispassionately and going wherever they point.

  • Wry Mouth

    That Jesus is recorded at all quoting the first line of Psalm 22 is of itself remarkable. I remember the shock when I put 2+2 together (which had not been done for me by the churches I was raised within) and realized he was not despairing, so much as riffing on the Torah — using the opening of Ps 22 to bring the passage to mind, perhaps for himself, perhaps for those watching him die. It is not, at first blush, a triumphant message.

    Until you get to the end of the Psalm, which the Jesus of the NT leaves implied and unstated.

    His quoting of Ps 22, like a jazz musician referencing “Sweet Georgia Brown” in passing during a solo, is one of the “truer” passages of the gospels. I don’t know if it rises to the level of “prophecy,” but it surely rises to the level of narrative climax, and I have often wondered why the NT uses literary devices that are so startlingly anachronistic as this. At times, they read like the best modern character-driven novels, at other times, like histories or narratives meant to be memorized by the illiterate, et cetera.

    But it is the modern narrative bits that attract me the most, since I am at heart a novelist and story-teller.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      That Jesus is recorded at all quoting the first line of Psalm 22 is of itself remarkable.

      And was it remarkable that Dorothy’s house landed squarely on the Witch of the East? It was a story.

      realized he was not despairing

      Or, look up Adoptionism to see another interpretation.

      it surely rises to the level of narrative climax

      I’m happy to give the authors credit for a good story, but let’s not call it history.

    • Barry

      I’ve described Psalm 22 as a blues song and not a prophecy – - so I thought your observation was on point.

  • Scott

    basically, later (Jewish) translations interpret this verse as ‘lions’, while the majority of earlier translations read this psalm as ‘pierced’. Specifically the dead sea scrolls. Now, I wonder why post resurrection Jewish accounts of this verse would read it as lion?

    New to your blog. Former atheist (not in category 2 – definitely was in group 3)

    • Bob Seidensticker

      It’s interesting that the difference between “lion” and “pierced” is the length of one stroke. Easy thing to get confused.

  • LeadPipe

    15 Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attent unto the prayer that is made in this place.
    16 For now have I chosen and sanctified this house, that my name may be there for ever: and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.
    17 And as for thee, if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, and do according to all that I have commanded thee, and shalt observe my statutes and my judgments;
    18 Then will I stablish the throne of thy kingdom, according as I have covenanted with David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man to be ruler in Israel………..
    …….When I read this the ask myself the question, “Where is the mention of a Human Temple is this prophetic verse?” God did say, “Forever will a man sit on the throne of David and I (God) will occupy this temple always if they are obedient to me.” Seems to me that if the Israelites stayed obedient then there would be this constant state of “Israelism” and there would be no need for any other temple. Yes this is obviously after the fall of Adam.

    • LeadPipe

      Btw, this is referenced in Chronicles 7

  • Jeff

    This article’s credibility is questionable at best. Seems like a stretch for anything to disprove the story of Christ. Even the most prominent secular historians agree that a man named Jesus was crucified in this way on Golgotha.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Bob Price and Richard Carrier, with three relevant doctorates between them, disagree.

      But that’s a tangent. I’m simply pointing to one very popular claim of fulfilled prophecy and pointing out that, no, it’s not what we’ve been told. If you have specific observations about errors that I’ve made, point them out.

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  • Isaac

    you didnt even mention verse 1,7-8, 15, or 18. The “prophetic” verses that you outlined are not widely accepted as prophetic. Demount the main prophetic verses before the lessers. then your argument will be better

    • BobSeidensticker

      Isaac: You need to read a post thoroughly before making specific accusations. I think those verses are pretty much covered.

  • Jibby

    Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1 are claimed as prophetic by most fundamentalists. The meaning of Hosea 11:1 isn’t prophetic but it is simply telling a history lesson of Israel deliverance from Egypt. Matthew tries to tie it in with Jesus leaving Egypt while as Hosea continues, Hosea writes that Israel worshipped idols in verse 2 or 3. If this is so that means Jesus supposedly worshipped idols, as it appears. Mathew 2:15 can’t be a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1.

  • Mark

    as also in all his epistles, speaking in
    them of these things, in which are some
    things hard to understand, which
    untaught and unstable people twist to
    their own destruction, as they do also the
    rest of the Scriptures.

  • J.hop

    Make that change and see what verse 16 says:

    wild dogs surround me—
    a gang of evil men crowd around me;
    like a lion they pin my hands and feet.

    No longer do we have a good parallel to the crucifixion story.

    Really??? I’m pretty sure if a lion pins your feet (or mauls/bites your feet) your skin is going to be pierced. A gang of evil men (Roman soldiers) surround me and like a lion they pin (instead of actual lion claws they use nails) my hands and feet. Sounds prophetic to me. It is always interesting to hear another “intellectual” try to disprove the Bible and fail like so many others over the past few thousand years. I wonder if the Bible was really just a book of tall tales and folk lore, would people put so much energy into trying to disprove it… probably not. The Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. It is 100% true, accurate, and complete.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      How bad does a “prophecy” have to be before you agree that it’s not a prophecy? I imagine that we’re equally skeptical of non-Christian prophecies. That God needs you to prop up these texts as prophecies doesn’t say much for the truth of Christianity.

      Why is it so hard to imagine a good prophecy? Write down yourself a paragraph summarizing the crucifixion and resurrection. That is what a prophecy would look like (along with unambiguous indications of the date). Not hard for an omniscient god, right?

      As for your bafflement at why non-Christians care about Christianity, Christianity has an impact on the world, and no always for good.

    • Kidder

      If this is prophetic and is referring to Jesus then it needs to be a direct unambiguous claim so that we don’t get confused by everyone’s opinion. Since there isn’t any, you have to take it at face value. So if it’s David writing the psalm then the psalm is referring the one who wrote it. David was a poet, so of course he’s wasn’t, literally, meaning every word he said. There’s no claim of a prophecy, therefore, it isn’t a prophecy.

  • Dr Jon

    Atheism has left you a bitter, purposeless man. Oh, you do have purpose, to make everyone else as bitter as you. Guess we’ll all find out after we die. Good luck with that one!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I don’t have an absolute purpose (do you?) but I have plenty of purpose. I assign it myself.

      What happens after we die? And how do you know?

  • Lesli Spice

    Actually the Hebrew could be interpreted eithey way – both valid “like a lion” is a possible choice but it is not the better choice because it does not make sense in the context and your opinion that it is “better” does not make it so.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I didn’t say that it was better. I say that it may be better.

      And why reject the lion interpretation? The translators at the NET Bible have no problem with it. They say that a lion standing on someone’s hands and feet was depicted in art. Sounds like a scary image.

      Anyway, your points are quibbles. The conclusion remains: Ps. 22 is no prophecy of the crucifixion and resurrection.

  • Lesli Spice

    The lion interpretion makes less sense in the context. It is also just your opinion on whether or not Ps. 22 is a prophecy of the crucifixion and resurrection. You are free to be an unbeliever. But you spend energy to try to convice others of your opinion. Why not just accept it as a valid possibility? You hurt yourself.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      The lion interpretion makes less sense in the context.

      Oh? And what’s the context?

      If you say that it’s the premonition of the crucifixion of Jesus, then you’ve revealed your biases.

      It is also just your opinion on whether or not Ps. 22 is a prophecy of the crucifixion and resurrection.

      Well, it’s my evaluation of the evidence. You have a different evaluation? Show me, but address the point that if a “prophecy” this vague and nonspecific and off-target from another religion were shown to you, you’d reject it just like I do in the Christian case.

      Why not just accept it as a valid possibility?

      Accept what? That Ps. 22 is a prophecy or that Jesus is the son of God?

      • Lesli Spice

        I believe in Jesus Christ. I am a sinner, I believe in the salvation of Jesus Christ, and that he willingly came to earth to die for our sins and to show us there is eternal life. I am a believer. I have bias. However, unless I am incorrect, you portray youself as someone who is objective without bias. You deceive yourself.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          We all have biases, but we don’t correct for those biases in the same way.

          Did you have more to say about the questions in my previous comment?

      • Lesli Spice

        Acknowledge that there are two acceptable interpretations in Psalm 22 according to the Hebrew language. It is correct to say “like a lion” my hands and feet and it is correct to say “They have pierced my hands and feet”

        As for evidence, see

        Isaiah 53:5 But he was wounded because of our crimes,crushed because of our sins;the disciplining that makes us whole fell on him,and by his bruises we are healed.

        see Zechariah 12:10 and I will pour out on the house of
        David and on those living in Yerushalayim a spirit of grace and
        prayer;and they will look to me, whom they pierced.”

        They will mourn for him as one mourns for an only son;
        they will be in bitterness on his behalf like the bitterness for a
        firstborn son.

        Matthew 27:35 – After they had nailed him to the stake, they divided his clothes among them by throwing dice.

        Luke 23:34 – Yeshua said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t
        understand what they are doing.”

        John 3:16

        For God so loved the world that he gave his only and unique Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may have eternal life, instead of being utterly destroyed.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Acknowledge that there are two acceptable interpretations in Psalm 22 according to the Hebrew language

          Can’t do that. I’m not aware enough of the scholarship. I’m happy to go with the consensus on this one.

          As for evidence, see
          Isaiah 53:5

          Huh? How is Isaiah evidence in support of a psalm?

          As for that chapter, I didn’t think much of that “prophecy” either. See my smackdown here.

          You’d laugh at someone else giving you “prophecies” from their religion that were equally shallow.

  • Mickadilly

    “they will come and tell about his saving deeds; they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.” This is at the end of Psalm 22. The Psalmist is talking of what God has accomplished of course. This seems to hint at the salvation offered through Christ to me. You may say that there is not a hint at the Resurrection but I think this is. The Psalmist says in his suffering, God answered him and then he talks about this amazing plan that will be rejoiced about for generations to come. That is a hint to me that this is prophetic. Not to mention, when Jesus uttered those last words, he and every religious scholar knew them…it was a well known scripture. Jesus was saying the title of psalm as though to fulfill the prophesy and affirm that what David wrote has indeed taken place just now. These guys talk about references to the “Lion” translation too—>>>

  • Mickadilly

    Also, it mentions how “all the nations will join in the celebration…” So…gentiles too? The saving grace for the world is mentioned. The Jews were the chosen ones….they stayed away from gentiles and abhorred them…but if all the earth is to join in the celebration….it just doesn’t add up to the cultural view of gentiles at the time. For all they knew, gentiles were damned forever. That also makes this Psalm seem to hint at Christ. Christ came for us all. Gentile and Jew.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      You’re saying that, taken as a whole, the evidence points unambiguously to this being a prophecy of Jesus?

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