Psalm 22—Jesus’ Description of His Crucifixion

Picture of James E. Croley III, M.D.

James E. Croley III, M.D.

Author and Ophthalmologist

Let’s look at the crucifixion, especially related to the 22nd Psalm. Psalm 22 is known as the Psalm of the Cross or the Crucifixion Psalm. This Psalm is not about the sufferings of King David. This is a Messianic Psalm giving a detailed prophetic account of Christ’s crucifixion nearly one thousand years before it occurred. These verses are about the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. This is a description of the darkness and glory of Jesus Christ on the cross. We should look at this Psalm reverently as if removing our sandals or shoes, as God instructed Moses in Exodus at the burning bush.

Let’s look at Psalm 22 from a different point of view, or dare I say a new paradigm. Psalm 22 is a description of the crucifixion of Jesus. This Psalm accurately and precisely describes the crucifixion better than any other place in the Bible, including the New Testament. It is amazing that in this Psalm, Jesus tells us about his crucifixion. Jesus gave David the words for Psalm 22. The details of this Psalm were not fulfilled until 1,000 years or so after it was written.

Psalm 22 is unique in that in it, Jesus describes or tells us about His thoughts and what he experienced on the cross, and reveals His innermost emotions about his crucifixion. Psalm 22 poignantly reveals to us the anguish of his passion. In Psalm 22, Jesus bares His soul and heart for all to see. Psalm 22 reveals what the world’s salvation cost Jesus.

In the Gospels of the New Testament, we see some of the historical facts of His death and some of the events surrounding His crucifixion. But it is only in Psalm 22 that we can see his thoughts about what He experienced. Many Bible scholars believe that while Jesus was on the cross, he actually quoted the whole 22nd Psalm. It makes sense as the last 7 statements by Jesus in the Gospels either appear in this Psalm or the underlying basis for them is found in Psalm 22. I believe that while he was being crucified, He let everyone there know that He was fulfilling the scriptures as written in the Old Testament. These were his last words telling the world who he was and the sacrifice He was making.

So, let’s go through the 22nd Psalm and Jesus’s seven statements on the cross found in the Gospels to see how they come together, relate to one another, and see the crucifixion from another vantage point.

Does everyone know the seven things Jesus said on the cross?

Seven Statements Jesus Said on the Cross

1. Mathew 27:46 NLT 
My God, My God, why hast thou abandoned me?    

2. Luke 23:34 NLT 
Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.  

3. John 19:26 NLT 
Dear woman, here is your son.

4. John 19:28 NLT 
I am thirsty.

5. Luke 23:43 NLT
I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.

6. Luke 23:46 NLT 
Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.

7. John 19:30 NLT 
It is finished.

Instead of looking at these statements superficially, just reading them, or imagining we are standing there watching and listening to Jesus, let’s instead look at the crucifixion from a different point of view. Let’s look through the eyes of Jesus and listen to his thoughts as he is enduring his crucifixion. As we see what Jesus was observing beneath the cross as He was hanging there, let’s look at what went on in His heart, soul, spirit, and mind. Psalm 22 tells us about what is happening in His soul as he has become the ultimate sacrifice for all the sins of the world. As He was suspended there between heaven and earth, he became the conduit or elevator let down from heaven to earth so that mankind might have a gateway or path back to God.

1 Peter 2:24 NLT

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed.

Hebrews 2:9-10 NLT

What we do see is Jesus, who for a little while was given a position “a little lower than angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone. God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation.

Jesus left the awesome beauty and majesty of heaven and became a man. He was willing to lower himself down to our level. He became a man so that he could reveal God to us and provide examples of how we should live our lives, but Jesus’ only true and real purpose was to redeem us.

Hebrews 2:14 NLT

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.

Jesus Christ was the only perfect man ever to live on earth. Jesus said, “I do always the things that please Him.”

1st Statement

Mathew 27:46 NLT

At about three o’clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Other translations say “forsaken me”).

In his first statement and the beginning of Psalm 22, we see the loud, plaintive, and desperate cry of Jesus. Many people try to downplay the reality and truth that he was forsaken or abandoned by God.

But in that predetermined time and despairing moment in eternity, Jesus is abandoned or left alone. Jesus Christ, the man carrying all of our sins, is forsaken. This is the most unimaginable and unfathomable mystery of the gospel!

Why did God have to abandon or forsake Him? Look back to:

Psalm 22:3-5 NLT

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. Our ancestors trusted you and you rescued them. They cried out to you and were saved. They trusted in you and were never disgraced.

God is holy and He cannot be connected to sin. He had to be abandoned or forsaken by God, because on the cross in those terrible three hours, in the impenetrable darkness like midnight in a coal mine, Jesus was made sin.

Luke 23:44-45 NLT

By this time it was about noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. The light from the sun was gone.

This darkness is described as the sun having no light. During this darkness, Jesus bore God’s curse for the world’s sin. Because God is holy, he was forced to turn his back upon his Son, during which Jesus bore all of mankind’s sins until that time and for all sins yet to be committed. For that brief moment in the history of the world, Jesus was alone. The interesting paradox is that while this was happening, God was with or in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.

John 16:32 NLT

But the time is coming – indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.

The Father was always with Jesus. The Father was with him when he was arrested and put in prison. The Father was with him when he was mercilessly flogged or beaten until he was nearly dead. The Father was with him when they were pounding the nails through his body onto the cross. But in those dark and dimmest three hours, from 12 noon until three o’clock, Jesus made his soul an offering for all sin. When Christ took all the world’s sin upon himself, he was forsaken or abandoned by God.

So why did Christ yell? My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?

It was not the cry of uncertainty or not knowing what was going to happen. It was not the “why is this happening” associated with this horrible despair. He knew exactly what was going to happen. He was there willingly. Remember the movie The Passion of Christ in 2004? There was a scene I feel was the most moving moment in the film. Jesus had been brutally flogged and beaten. He was carrying the cross to Calvary and he falls to the ground from the weight of the cross. The camera comes in for a closeup of Jesus’ face showing the agony he was going through. For a split second, he looks at the camera and gives a loving smile and then the agony returns to his face. He let everyone know he was lovingly going to sacrifice himself for us. He knew exactly what he had to endure.

Remember, Jesus has a human body and this was the human cry of intense pain and suffering. This was aggravated by the anguish of his innocent and holy life. This was the horrible and agonizing cry of the loneliness of his passion. He was abandoned. He was alone with all of mankind’s sins upon him.

Psalm 22:1 NLT

Why are you so far away when I groan for help?

Some translations say roar. Groaning or roaring? Yes. But at his trial, he was silent. He did not defend himself.

Isaiah 53:7 NLT

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.

When they brutally flogged him, he said nothing. When they hammered those large nails through his body to the cross, he said nothing. But when God abandoned him, he groaned or roared like a lion. It was the expression of his pain.

Let’s go on in Psalm 22 to verse 6.

Psalm 22:6 NLT

But I am a worm and not a man. I am scorned and despised by all!

In verse 6 we encounter an unusual description of Christ. I am a worm, not a man. What does he mean when he says, “I am a worm?” One obvious reason is that he has reached the very bottom. Jesus came to earth as a man and then became a lamb, and the lamb became a worm. If Jesus had not considered himself a worm, he could not have been trampled on as he allowed them to do. A worm has always been portrayed as depraved or a low-level life form. The people crucifying Jesus believed he was a bad man, a sabbath-breaker, a wino, a blasphemer, a false prophet, an enemy of Rome, a foolish man, and a confederate with the prince of devils.

But there is a deeper meaning or background in calling himself a worm. The worm in the text is unique in Scripture. The words in Hebrew are Tolaath Shani. It is the name for a particular female worm, which is called the crimson or scarlet worm, or literally, the worm of crimson. It’s not until you look into the life cycle of the crimson worm that you see the tremendous truth revealed by this Bible verse. Jesus did a lot of his teachings with parables. He wants us to think about a deeper truth or teaching. Like we say up in the Appalachia Mountains, he wants us to cogitate on it. Saying he was like the crimson worm had an underlying teaching or meaning, like in a parable. Let’s look at the life cycle of a crimson worm and see the similarities between the crimson worm and Christ’s death on the cross.

First, the crimson worm climbs onto a tree all by itself. Nobody forces it onto the tree. It searches out a Kermes oak tree which is symbolic of its destiny. By its own choice, it crawls onto the tree. Nobody forced Jesus to go on the cross. He did it of his own free will. At any moment he could have removed himself from the cross, the nails could have instantly vanished, or he could have called on the angels of heaven to release him. But no, he died alone on that cross or tree for us. The crimson worm knows that when it climbs the tree, it will not come back down alive. It is going to birth a family and to do it the worm has to die. Jesus went to the cross to die and rise again so that we can be members of his family.

Once on the tree, the crimson worm attaches itself to it. It makes sure it is secure because the body of the worm will eventually be the shelter for the young who are to be born. It wasn’t the nails that held Jesus onto the cross. It was love. As the young inside the mother mature, the body swells until it bursts, killing the mother. The eggs are provided shelter underneath her dead body. During the birthing process, a crimson fluid or gel is released. The crimson fluid covers the entire body of the worm and all the eggs as well. It also leaves a crimson stain on the tree which will never fade away with time. The blood of Jesus stained the cross. His blood permanently cleansed and marked those who believe in Him and became members of his family. The life-giving blood of Jesus Christ will never lose its power.

After giving birth and dying, something amazing happens. For three days, the worm can be scraped from the tree and the crimson gel can be used to make a dye. That dye was the same red dye that was used in the curtain in the Tabernacle and the garments of the High Priest. On the morning of the fourth day, the worm has pulled its head and tail together and is now the shape of a heart on the tree, but is no longer crimson red. It is now wax which is white as snow. As Jesus healed thousands of people as the Great Physician, the crushed worm is also used to make medicine. The crimson worm is very fragrant and sweet-smelling when crushed, just like our salvation from sin which is the sweetest gift we could ever receive.

The veil of the Tabernacle separated the Holy Place of the temple from the Holy of Holies. But the curtain is much more than a simple cloth barrier; it represents the suffering of Jesus and that through His blood we gain access to God our Heavenly Father. The Bible states that three colors are to be woven into the veil. Each of these colors has an underlying symbolic meaning. Blue is the color of the heavens. Purple is the color of royalty and kings. Crimson or scarlet is the color of blood, sacrifice, and death. We see in these three colors our Triune God represented. Blue represents the color of the Holy Spirit which is like the wind that blows wherever it wants. Purple represents God the Father as He sits on the throne over all creation. Crimson represents Jesus whose blood was shed for our sins.

No other life in history has sweetened the pathway of humanity like the crimson worm who was crushed for our sin, Jesus.

Jesus was not just a lowly worm but the Crimson Worm who died and was crushed for the world’s sins.

2nd Statement

Luke 23:34 NLT

Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.

Isaiah 53:3 NLT

He was despised and rejecteda man of sorrows, acquainted with the deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.

As we watch this take place through the eyes of Jesus, we can understand how his suffering would be intensified by the brutal mob of rambunctious and ridiculing spectators beneath him. In the next several verses of Psalm 22, Jesus describes what is happening while he is on the cross. Look down through his eyes and see what he sees.

Psalm 22: 6-8 NLT

I am scorned and despised by all! Everyone who sees me mocks me. They sneer and shake their heads, saying, “Is this the one who relies on the Lord? Then let the Lord save him! If the Lord loves him so much, let the Lord rescue him!”

The vulgar, depraved vileness of the heart of mankind was being exposed like a picture in an underworld tabloid you see at the checkout aisle. This depraved crowd is mocking Jesus. In the New Testament, it says the same thing: they shout, sneer, and shake their heads at him. If he is who he says he is, then let God save him. Even with all that spewing hatred, he tells the Father to forgive them.

3rd Statement

 John 19:26 NLT

When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.”

As Jesus is looking down at the crowd, he sees not only the people of hatred and evil but also the eyes of love. Jesus sees his mother with John. As Jesus looks at her, Jesus remembers back to the beginning of his life on Earth. He thinks back to Bethlehem at the time he was born. Jesus tells his Father.

Psalm 22:9-10 NLT

Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast. I was thrust into your arms at my birth. You have been my God from the moment I was born.

Now he says to his mother that John is to be his son and take care of her.

In the next verses of Psalm 22, Jesus turns his attention back to the crowd who are crucifying him.

Psalm 22:9-10 NLT

Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast. I was thrust into your arms at my birth. You have been my God from the moment I was born.

Psalm 22:11-12 NLT

Do not stay so far from me, for trouble is near, and no one else can help me. My enemies surround me like a herd of bulls; fierce bulls of Bashan have hemmed me in!

The bulls of Bashan were well-fed, fattened, haughty, and sour. They were known for their fierceness, rage, and fury. Bashan is now the Golan Heights. He is describing the chief priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, and many of the upper class of the Jewish people below him who were responsible for crucifying Him.

Psalm 22:13 NLT

Like lions they opened their jaws against me, roaring and tearing into their prey.

In verse 13 Jesus continues, as he is talking about Rome. The lion represents Rome. The Romans beat him and are crucifying him.

Psalm 22:14 NLT

My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me.

The crucifixion was not being done at the time of the writing of Psalms. But this is an amazingly accurate account of the crucifixion.

My life poured out like water—the excessive perspiration and dehydration of a man dying on the cross.

All my bones are out of joint—as a man dies on the cross, he becomes weaker and weaker to the point when his bones can come out of joint, especially the shoulders.

My heart is like wax—his heart most likely developed congestive heart failure, with the heart losing its strength and structure. When the Roman soldier pierced his side, blood and water poured out. His heart had melted and poured out of his body when pierced.

4th Statement

John 19:28

Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.” He is becoming dehydrated from the blood loss and lack of water.

Psalm 22:15 NLT

My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.

Psalm 22:16 NLT

My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs; an evil gang closes in on me. They have pierced my hands and feet.

Dog is a name for Gentiles. In verse 16, the piercing on his feet and hands is another accurate description of the crucifixion. There is no record of David having his feet and hands pierced.

The famous Dutch artist Rembrandt did a painting of the crucifixion. The focus of the painting is Jesus, obviously. But he also painted the crowd gathered around the cross. Standing there in the shadow at the edge of the picture, Rembrandt painted himself into the picture. Like all of us, Rembrandt considered himself a participant in the crucifixion.

Psalm 22:17-18 NLT

I can count all my bones. My enemies stare at me and gloat. They divide my garments among themselves and throw dice for my clothing.

His body was lean and emaciated from the three years of labor and fasting during his ministry. He was stripped. He was crucified naked. They gambled for his clothes as told in these verses. It is difficult for us to think about the unbelievable humiliation Jesus went through for us. Crucifixion was meant to be a totally humiliating and long painful death. It is rarely talked about but Jesus was willing to be completely humiliated and stripped of all decency. Jesus was crucified naked so that you and I might be clothed with the robe of his righteousness before God.

5th Statement

Luke 23:46 NLT

Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I trust my spirit into your hands!”

Psalm 22:19-21 NLT

O Lord, do not stay far away! You are my strength; come quickly to my aid! Save me from the sword; spare my precious life from these dogs. Snatch me from the lion’s jaws and from the horns of these wild oxen.

He is again describing the people crucifying him. Jesus is asking the Father to keep his spirit safe.

In the last portion of Psalm 22, Jesus radically changes what he was thinking about and wants to say to us. In the beginning, Jesus described his suffering and now we see the glory that is to follow.

Psalm 22:22-24 NLT

I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people. Praise the Lord, all you who fear him! Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob! Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy. He has not turned his back on them but has listened to their cries for help.

6th Statement

Luke 23:43 NLT

And Jesus replied, “I assure you today you will be with me in paradise.”

Psalm 22:25-28 NLT

I will praise you in the great assembly. I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you. The poor will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy. The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him. All the families of the nations will bow down before him. For the royal power belongs to the Lord. He rules all the nations.

The thief on the cross said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ says in these last verses that he will fulfill his vows and “you will be with Me in paradise.” Jesus accepts the thief’s repentance and promises the thief that he will be with Jesus in paradise. Many people have misunderstood the statement that the thief would be in paradise that same day. Jesus did not ascend into heaven until Sunday morning. Many Bible translators have placed a comma in the wrong part of the scripture. The original Greek language does not use punctuation marks. If you put the comma after today, it changes the total meaning of the verse. Jesus was telling the thief that he promises him today (comma) that “you will be in paradise” when I ascend to heaven. There is a story about a wealthy man whose wife sent him a text message asking if she could buy a very expensive item. He replied, “No (comma) price too high.” 

No, price too high

No price too high

Unfortunately, Auto-correct took out the comma. So the wife receives the message “No price too high.” A comma can make a huge difference in the meaning of a statement. If your wife ever texts you about buying something, make sure you put the punctuation where you want it. 

7th Statement

John 19:30 NLT

When Jesus had tasted it, He said, It is finished. Then He bowed his head and gave up his spirit.   

The 7th statement is the last.

Luke 23:44-48 NLT

By this time it was about noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words he breathed his last. When the Roman officer overseeing the execution saw what had happened, he worshiped God and said, “Surely this man was innocent.” And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow. 

Mathew says the Roman officer said, “This man truly is the Son of God.”

The crucifixion would have been a major event in the town of Jerusalem. Just a week earlier, Jesus entered Jerusalem with a huge crowd watching him ride a donkey into town, which is now called Palm Sunday. Luke says there was a crowd at the crucifixion. This would have been especially true since it was the Passover weekend and Jerusalem would have been full of people. The amazing and terrifying events around the crucifixion and the death of Jesus would have surely affected the people witnessing the crucifixion. Through the crucifixion, many people there must have been saved. We know that the centurion in charge of the execution was saved. So exactly what did the centurion observe? What made him change his mind and disagree with the rulers about Jesus being a criminal? Before the death of Jesus, the centurion had been in charge of the horrific flogging and beating of Jesus. 

Mathew 27:27-31 NLT

Some of the soldiers took Jesus into their headquarters and called out the entire regiment. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. They wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head, and they placed a reed stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery and taunted him and grabbed a stick and struck him on the head with it. When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him to be crucified.

Centurion is the highest rank a person could achieve in the Roman army. The centurion was in charge of one hundred men. The centurion observed Jesus’ actions during this beating, mocking, and crucifixion. Through all that, Jesus asks God to forgive them instead of asking God to free him. The centurion was shocked by the events unfolding before him. Centurions always lead the charge into battle. Centurions were noted for their daring, courage, intelligence, and loyalty.

Roman conquerors were brutal in their approach to any problems in the territories they occupied. The centurion had seen many brutal and horrible things. He had seen many people killed and probably had killed many people himself. But he had never witnessed anything like God’s reaction through his creation to the crucifixion. Mathew says in Chapter 27 that the Roman soldiers were terrified by the earthquake and all that had happened. Mathew says the earth shook, rocks split, and tombs broke open. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. They left the cemetery and went into Jerusalem where many people saw them.

Can you imagine it? I wonder what they may have looked like. Were they still wrapped in their burial material? What would that look like on the six o’clock news today, if there were dead people brought to life, those who might have been dead for 100 years leaving the cemetery and walking around town? Can you imagine the chaos this may have caused? The sun stopped producing light at noon. Whether it was an eclipse or the sun just stopped producing light, we do not know, but that would have been very frightening and eerie. The curtain in the temple, which is thought to be four inches thick, was torn in half. How did the people in the temple react to such a feat? There would not be any normal way in which the curtain could be torn in that manner. We could go on and on about how unbelievable things would have appeared on the day of the crucifixion.

But all these unusual, terrifying, and amazing events surrounding the crucifixion had to have an immense effect on everyone there. It is believed that several of the Pharisees were saved and most likely many other people were saved as well. Saul of Tarsus was probably there to witness the crucifixion as well. I wonder what he thought about what had happened.

Psalm 22 finishes with this.

Psalm 22:30-31 NLT

Our children will also serve him. Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord. His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born. They will hear about everything he has done.

Future generations will hear his message and serve him—the great news about this is that’s us. When Jesus said that one word, Tetelestai or “It is finished,” the world’s redemption was complete. He completed his mission on Earth. 

Psalm 22 of the Old Testament reveals to us the thoughts going on in Jesus’ mind, his heart, his emotions, and his soul as he became a sin offering on our behalf.

As I said before, I think he said the whole Psalm on the cross. He would let everyone there know that he is fulfilling the prophecy of the Old Testament. The certainty of the future gave Jesus great joy, which gave him a satisfactory answer to his prayers and turned his complaints in the beginning of Psalm 22 to praises. Jesus was bolstered in his suffering because through him mankind could be saved and be received into heaven. He did not die defeated. He died triumphantly. When he reached the very end, he said that this is the gospel that will be witnessed forever.

On Resurrection Sunday, you might want to read the 22nd Psalm again and get a new perspective on what Jesus wants you to know about his crucifixion.

Dr. James E. Croley III is a respected eye surgeon and a Christian. He is the author of two booksBelieving is Seeing and The Blinding of AmericaOrder copies for your family and friends today.

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