Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Psalm 22 and the New Testament

If I can't beat my nine year old at horse (whom, by the way, I can pulverize), then it stands to reason that I won't be able to beat Michael Jordan. If I can't beat my brother-in-law at golf (which is true), then it stands to reason that I won't be able to beat Tiger Woods. If I can't eat a double cheeseburger (depends on the day), I probably won't be able to eat a triple. This argument is an ancient Jewish interpretive technique (Qal Vahomer) and a main tenet of logic. If something is true in a lesser case, then it stands to reason that it will also be true in a greater case. So, if prophecy is difficult to figure out even when we have a prophecy AND its fulfillment (the lesser case), then it will surely be difficult to figure out when we just have the prophecy (the greater case).

Let's take a gander at Psalm 22 in order to highlight the difficulty of interpreting prophecy. It is messy even when we already know how it is fulfilled, and we expect to know how unfulfilled prophecy will come to fruition?

Psalm 22 is a lament psalm. After you get done reading it, you can feel the intensity of David's emotions. He is feeling a great deal of pain. David starts out in the first 12 verses of the psalm contrasting his present trouble with God's past mercy. He points out to God that he has helped others in the past who called on him, and he asks a simple question of God, "Why won't you help ME now!?" In the second part of the psalm (13-22), David focuses on his enemies. They have him surrounded and want him dragged away and killed. David calls on the Lord for deliverance and thanks him ahead of time for his salvation. In the last part of the psalm (28-31), David invites people to praise God for helping him and for all those who suffer and are mistreated.

If we just had Psalm 22 by itself without any New Testament reference to it, we would simply view it as any other lament psalm: a record of David's trouble and his request that God help him out of it. However, the New Testament quotes and alludes to the psalm a few times as prophecy. Most of them are implicit, but the one in the Gospel of John is very explicit. So, in what sense is Psalm 22 prophecy? It definitely is not written like prophecy. It is written like a record of David's trouble.

The church as a whole has long regarded Psalm 22 as a prophetic messianic psalm that details the agony of Jesus' suffering (22:1), the brutality of the crucifixion (22:16), and the joy of the resurrection (22). They cite John's use of the psalm to prove this theory. Let's take a look at this portion of John:

Now when the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and made four shares, one for each soldier, and the tunic remained. (Now the tunic was seamless, woven from top to bottom as a single piece.) So the soldiers said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but throw dice to see who will get it.” This took place to fulfill the scripture that says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they threw dice.” So the soldiers did these things.

The passage John refers to is none other than Psalm 22:18, "They are dividing up my clothes among themselves; they are rolling dice for my garments." It is clear that John believed this verse to be more than than just David recounting his escapades with bullies, but why? Does that mean that the entirety of the psalm is messianic? Is it possible that this entire psalm is solely about Jesus and has nothing to do with David? Would David's original readers have thought this a prophecy about a future Messiah? I doubt it. It wasn't interpreted this way between the testaments at all. So, are there two different meanings of this verse, a plain meaning and then a further prophetic meaning that was unknown until the New Testament? Was John putting David's words into a new context under the influence of the Spirit? I wish I could say that these are easy questions to answer, but they aren't. And, I am not going to satisfy your curiosity today, or give you an easy to digest way of looking at this. I want you to feel the tension, because there is tension.

Prophecy is difficult to understand EVEN when it has already been fulfilled. Now imagine saying with certainty that the beasts of the fifth trumpet (Rev. 9) are actually going to be Huey Helicopters! What are your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. Understanding prophetic utterances is indeed difficult. If anyone tells you differently, they're either lying to you or trying to sell you something. What has helped me over the years in keeping my feet firmly planted is the Chapter in Bernard Ramm's book, Protestant Biblical Interpretation entitled, The Interpreting of Prophecy. Much of what Ramm wrote in that chapter seems to conincide with many of the things you've been presenting here. What are your thoughts?