I began (here) a series of posts on Biblical prophecies in order to show the major problems that accompany many of them. In fact, failed prophecies are some of the strongest evidence showing the fallibility of the Bible. But in this post I’d like to take a bit of a tangent and talk about two prophecies that don’t actually disprove the Bible.
Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 serve as good support for claiming that the Bible is inspired and Jesus was really the Son of God. They’re used frequently, and when I first started to consider that the Bible might not be from God I had to spend some time thinking about them. I faced the following two questions: If these prophecies are true, why would God allow the Bible to have all the other problems we’ve been looking at? And since the Bible contains these other problems, is it possible that these two prophecies are not as good as they seem to be? To address these questions, let’s look a little closer at the actual passages.
First of all, Psalm 22 is considered a Messianic prophecy for a couple of reasons. Jesus refers to it specifically when he’s being crucified (Matt 27:46; Mk 15:34). And verse 16 says “they have pierced my hands and feet.” This obviously conjures images of the crucifixion. The psalm also talks about being mocked and persecuted.
Isaiah 53 also has verses that stand out to those familiar with Jesus. The passage calls him a “man of sorrows” and says that he has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” It says he was “smitten by God” and “wounded for our transgressions.” He “poured out his soul unto death and was numbered with the transgressors.” We’re also told that he “bore the sins of many.”
Obviously, these two passages can be used to make connections to Christ. But does this mean that the Bible must be true? Does it mean these passages were really meant to be fulfilled in Jesus? If you read them carefully, it should be clear that no one prior to Christ’s death would have connected these passages to Christ. Psalm 22 is written from the viewpoint of one who is undergoing suffering, perhaps depression. If this is a psalm about David, it certainly fits. He had several tragedies in his life that could have left him feeling this way.
But these passages would not have been connected to the Messiah in the first century because people expected the Messiah to set up a mighty kingdom on this earth (Luke 19:11; John 18:33-36; Acts 1:6). So they didn’t seem to have a concept of a “suffering Messiah,” which is also why Paul said that Jews considered the idea of the Messiah being killed foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). Most Jews did not consider these two passages to refer to the Messiah.
That may sound surprising about Isaiah 53, since its reference to Christ is obvious to every Christian today. But in fact, the Jews viewed this passage as a reference to the nation of Israel, or the Jewish people in general. The “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah first seems to be referred to in chapter 42, and reading from there through chapter 53 shows that the servant is referred to as Israel several times. For instance, Isaiah 49:3 says, “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” In verses 5-6 we see that the servant’s purpose was not only to restore the nation of Israel, but also to be a light to the other nations (similar to Isaiah 53:11):
And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength—
he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Isaiah 53 refers to the servant as being one who is despised and abhorred. Verse 7 of chapter 49 uses the same language:
Thus says the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,
the servant of rulers:
“Kings shall see and arise;
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
It is obvious from those verses that the servant in Isaiah 49 is Israel, and many of the characteristics used to refer to Israel are also used with the servant of Isaiah 53. If the servant becomes someone else for chapter 53, we aren’t told who it is. So even if the passage really was meant to refer to Christ, no one would have seen it as such until Christ had died. I think that’s a significant point to consider. If people wouldn’t have come to the conclusion that Jesus and Isaiah 53 were related on their own, then were the details of his death told in a way to force that similarity? In other words, is there a real connection here, or did some unknown authors create certain details about Christ’s death that would enable them to use Isaiah 53 as a prophecy?
Psalm 22 speaks about someone undergoing suffering and ridicule. Again, Jews did not think that this represented their Messiah, who would be God’s great leader. They believed this psalm was about David. Admittedly, there are several verses in this psalm that remind us of Christ’s crucifixion. The most notable example is verse 16, which says:
For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet
But there is actually some disagreement about the translation of this passage. To make a long story short, the Hebrew word that has been translated “they have pierced” here is either the word ka’ari, which means “like a lion,” or it’s ka’aru, which means “they have dug.” The phrase “like a lion” obviously doesn’t make sense in this passage, unless it was an idiom in use at the time. More than likely, “they have dug” is the correct version, especially since dogs are referenced at the beginning of the verse. Dogs digging at someone’s hands and feet would obviously cut them, so the similarity to “pierced” is certainly there. But the actual Hebrew words for “pierced” are daqar, naqav, and ratsa, which are all used in other places in the Old Testament (Zech 12:10; 1 Sam 31:4; 2 Kings 18:21; Exodus 21:6). So the original intent of this passage seems to be the idea of someone being harassed by dogs and evil men, not someone having their hands and feet pierced by a sharp instrument.
But the small points I’ve made that call Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 into question are admittedly small points. Ultimately, there’s not too much I can say against these passages. If the Bible were filled with passages like these, I never would have begun to question it. But since there are many other inconsistencies – the failed prophecies, the contradictions, the problems in the canon, and difficulties with the doctrine – I have to come to the conclusion that any similarities between the New Testament and Old Testament passages like these is simply because the writers of the New Testament made it look that way. They certainly had the means to do it. And clues from comparing the Old and New Testaments lead us to that conclusion as well. After all, there was nothing in these two passages that tied them to the Messiah, until the New Testament portrayed Christ in a way to create the similarity. When I consider all the evidence, these two passages aren’t enough to make me think the Bible is really from God.
We’ll conclude our study of Bible prophecies in the next post.