Prophecy Part 7: Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22

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.

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11 thoughts on “Prophecy Part 7: Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22

  1. Jim Owens

    Tose of the old Testament times did not understand all the prophecies or thing revealed. This point is made often in the New Testament. Many of these prophecies were given for the benefit of those who came later, who upon reflection after having all of God’s plan revealed, could see how it all ties together.

    Your problem in understanding has to do with your approach to the Bible, not the Bible itself.

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  2. Nate, I appreciate your honesty and thoroughness in approaching this question. But again, I think you start with wrong assumptions.

    One thing I discovered years ago just from reading the NT, is that the NT writers didn’t treat the OT like modern christians (and atheists!) do. We quote precisely like the OT is a reference book, to prove a point. They quoted less precisely to illustrate a point. They applied the OT in news ways, often. I think they saw the OT as a treasure to be mined for whatever they were looking for.

    So of course they took passages in Isaiah like the virgin and the suffering servant and re-applied them out of their original context. Some scholars say that part of Jesus’ genius was his putting together of a number of separate (until then) OT concepts – the Messiah, the son of man and the suffering servant.

    I never use OT prophecy fulfilment as an argument for christianity for this reason. But it also makes arguments against the OT futile. Much more important is to see that Jesus fulfilled these roles, and to understand what this tells us.

    There are some wonderful things to learn about Jesus if only we (you, me, other christians) can get past this focus on proof – the ‘proof’ of christianity lies elsewhere.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. I do agree that the NT writers shouldn’t be demonized for the way they portray OT passages (though I might be guilty of demonizing them in places), because it shows us a lot about the culture of the time. However, I do still feel that the way these passages are handled makes it seem very unlikely that there was any divine interaction there. Perhaps if I ever experience any of the other proofs of Christianity I’ll change my opinion of it.

    Let me also add that I honestly do appreciate your perspective. Even though we don’t agree on some of these issues, I have a great deal of admiration for you. I’m not very familiar with your brand of Christianity, but there’s a lot that I like about it. I wish more Christians were like you and shared your views.

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  4. Thanks Nate. Although I may be a persistent and annoying so-and-so, I keep commenting because I appreciate your honesty and courtesy. Moral: if you want to get rid of me, be nasty! : ) But better would be to simply say so!!!

    Obviously there is a wide range of christian belief, from the sort of fundamentalism that you are undoubtedly familiar with, through to much more liberal approaches. I simply try to understand, be true to the evidence, be willing to think outside of the square, and still be true to Jesus. I think there are a growing number of christians who think more or less as I do.

    Tim Keller is a new style evangelical – still pretty conservative, but with a sensitive style. Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are the new, and much maligned (unjustifiably, in my view) more liberal “emerging church”. NT Wright is the scholar who most reflects new ways of thinking. And in the middle of that lot somewhere is me. I believe the landscape will be very different in one or two decades, as these thinkers start to carry the day more and more.

    Anyway, enough raving, thanks for the opportunity to comment and challenge and question. Best wishes.

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  5. Ian

    You quote Isaiah 49, which is one of the “Suffering Servant” passages in which God says to his servant Israel, that he was made to bring back Jacob to himself (God). But I think you overlook the fact that the servant says he failed to do so (v.4). Then God replies that it is too small a thing for him to bring back the tribes to Himself. Therefore God was giving him as a light to the Gentiles. If there is only one servant – the nation Israel, then how can Israel fail to bring back Israel and then be given as a light to the Gentiles instead? – Ian

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  6. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the comment and question. Honestly, I haven’t studied this issue for a while, so let me look into it and get back to you.

    Thanks!

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  7. Jarred McCleese

    Hello,

    This is the only post I have read in your series so forgive me if I misrepresent your position. These prophecies are by far what strengthen my faith the most. I want to respond to your theory that the new testament Authors may have altered Jesus death in a way so that these prophecies could refer to him. I highly doubt this is possible because it involves bringing so much of the old testament together. For example, Jesus died on the eve of the Passover. When you read in Exodus, they were not allowed to break any of the bones of the Passover lamb, and we know from history that to quicken death on the cross Romans would break the criminals legs. Can you attribute that to coincidence? Or Abrahams near sacrifice of Isaac at Gods command, Or the whole sacrificial system itself for that matter. Or Gods curse on anyone hung on a tree in Deuteronomy 21:23 as Paul points out in Galatians 3:13. Could all of these and many more be brought together in a made up story about the death of one man? I say Not possible. I will be honest, you could bring up a million problems with the Bible and I would still put my complete hope in Jesus based solely on these prophecies.

    Thank you for your time brother

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  8. Hi Jarred,

    I appreciate your comment. As I said in the post, there’s nothing in these two passages that makes me skeptical of the Bible. However, if you’ll read the other posts I wrote, you’ll see that the Bible does have some very real problems, including a discrepancy on Jesus’ death. You said that Jesus died on the eve of Passover, but that’s only in John’s account. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus dies on the day of Passover. It’s problems like those that lead me to the conclusion that the Bible had no divine influence whatsoever. If you’re interested in the various issues, I recommend taking a deeper look.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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  9. Pingback: A Collection of Failed and Discrepant Bible Prophecy | The BitterSweet End

  10. these two passages have come to mind lately. There are parts that do seem to match jesus very well, while simultaneously containing parts that dont quite seem to match or even make much sense.

    it could be that that’s all from god, and that even if no one would have jesus in them until the gosel writers brought it to light, so I suppose the parts that still dont quite make sense could possibly point to another divine event and writers that will bring light to them.

    But as you wrote, my suspicion is that when considering other biblical problems, these passages seem to related more by coincidence than by design.

    Usually when i hear preachers of other believers cite these passages they choose their verses carefully, omitting the ones that do not align with Christ.

    Your point about the pierced hands and feet was good, I thought. when looking at the original Hebrew, it is something how many words (as well as which ones) have been translated into something else, seemingly with the intention of matching the NT claim of jesus.

    it’s also interesting to think that if these really were prophecies, they could have been in a much more specific way as to make this entire question moot. like so many other issues it could have been cleared up so easily, and avoid question so easily, but it wasnt… so it seems the suggestion is that god knew people would have questions and issues regarding this stuff, could have worded it differently to avoid that, but he just didnt… that would be working in mysterious ways, although it would seem like an author of confusion, no?

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  11. Again, we do not really know what ancient, pre-Christian Jews thought of these passages because all the Jewish commentaries are after the Christian era, and with all the animosity over the centuries, I do not trust modern Jewish commentaries to give me ancient Jewish views.

    While not exactly to your point, nevertheless these two posts speak to these passages, showing the fullfillment:

    https://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/prophecy-demonstrates-the-accuracy-of-the-bible/

    https://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/jesus-fulfilled-prophesy-of-isaiah-53/

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