3 Old Testament Prophecies Predicting the Crucifixion of the Messiah

man on a Roman cross with his hands stretched out and a lightning bolt in the background

Since it is Easter season, and Christians around the world are commemorating the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, I thought it would be good to take a look at three prophecies from the Old Testament which foretold the crucifixion of the Messiah of Israel.

Of course, the New Testament appeals to dozens and dozens of passages from the Hebrew scriptures to confirm belief in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel (verses predicting His genealogy, birth, teaching ministry, and miracles). Christians, for the past two thousand years, look at these verses (penned hundreds of years before Jesus) as being specifically fulfilled in His death by crucifixion.

1. Psalm 22:16-18.

The psalmist writes, "They have pierced my hands and my feet." Both Jewish and Christian tradition ascribes this psalm to King David, roughly 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Those who deny prophecy say that this psalm has nothing to do with Jesus at all, but that David himself is speaking solely of his own torment while being pursued by his enemies. The afflictions are merely poetic exaggerations for the kinds of suffering David experienced.

However, the Bible knows of no instance in which David experienced the detailed violence of this song. If David is speaking in some degree of his own troubles, he is also speaking as a prophet about a greater fulfillment of humiliation and pain in God's Messiah much later in the history of Israel.

David sees the mocking crowd in verses 12 and 13, the exhaustion and raging thirst of Christ (verses 14-15), and the piercing of His hands and feet in verse 16. Messiah's death by crucifixion in Psalm 22 is all the more remarkable when one realizes that David wrote in 1,000 B.C. The Romans did not even invent this type of execution until around 200 B.C.

How could David know about crucifixion 800 years ahead of time? Those who realize that God knows the future as well as the past and present have no problem with Him predicting a specific event hundreds of years ahead of time.

There is a peculiar problem with one of our favorite verses, however. In verse 16, our English Bibles read "... they pierced my hands and my feet." This seems to point to Messiah's death by crucifixion. However, the Hebrew text actually reads "... like a lion are my hands and my feet." Some critics point out this discrepancy to prove that Psalm 22 has nothing at all to do with a crucified Messiah. How do we confuse "they pierced" with "like a lion"? And if the text actually says "like a lion," what in the world does that mean?

First of all, the difference between "like a lion" (Hebrew: ka'eri) and "they pierced" (ka'eru) is little more than a difference in the final consonant. In handwritten Hebrew manuscripts the final consonant in ka'eri (the letter "yodh") and the final consonant in ka'eru (the letter "waw") were so similar that they were frequently confused for one another. A few Hebrew manuscripts have ka'eru ("they pierced" or "they bored through") and two manuscripts have karu ("they dug" or "gouged out").

Therefore, there is the possibility of a scribal error in the transmission of the Hebrew text. If the correct reading is actually "like a lion," then that would make no sense grammatically, poetically, or theologically. However, "they pierced" would perfectly match up with the parallel statement about a sword in verses 19-20. Just as statements about bulls (verses 11,12), lions (verses 13-15), and dogs (verse 16), match up perfectly with bulls (verse 21), lions (verse 21), and dogs (verse 20) later in the song.

Conclusive evidence for the correct reading being "they pierced" is found in the Septuagint. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament some 200 years before Christ. Jewish scholars translated their Hebrew scriptures into Greek, and the Greek word they used in this passage is "horuxan" — meaning "they pierced."

So, a Jewish understanding of this passage some 200 years before Christ was "they pierced my hands and my feet." It is clear that somebody in this psalm is dying a gruesome death by being stretched out on something and nailed in His hands and feet.

2. Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

Today most people of the Jewish faith do not believe in a suffering Messiah who personally bore the sins of humanity. They generally believe that He is merely a human being of heroic proportion who will restore Israel and bring in an era of perfect peace for all the earth (I believe He will indeed do both of those things, but that He is much more than a mere mortal). In contrast to this idea, the standard interpretation of Isaiah 53 before, during, and after the time of Jesus was that of a suffering servant dying for the sins of the world.

The Targum (a first century Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Old Testament) clearly states that a suffering Messiah is the subject of Isaiah 53 ("The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish Interpreters"). The Jewish book of mysticism (the Zohar) and the Jewish prayer book for Yom Kippur (the Mahzor) likewise show Isaiah 53 as a messianic song of a suffering Savior.

It was not until the Middle Ages that a shift occurred in the Jewish understanding of this passage. The rabbis under the leadership of Solomon Yitzchaki (also known as Rashi, one of the greatest of medieval rabbis) began teaching that the subject of Isaiah 53 is not an individual Messiah, but rather the nation of Israel.

The first reason may seem to have some exegetical reasoning behind it. Isaiah 49 begins with an individual speaking, but in verse three the subject calls himself "Israel." This is the only time in any of the four servant songs (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 52:13-53:12; 61:1-3) the subject is called "Israel." We should have no difficulty in calling the Messiah "Israel," because He is the personification of all that Israel should be.

For example, the Gospels portray Jesus as perfectly obeying God's will wherever Israel failed. Also, Isaiah 49:5-6 shows this "Israel" restoring the nation back to God. Only the Messiah can do such a thing. As we look at Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in a verse-by-verse manner, we will see that none of this fits the nation of Israel as a whole, but it does perfectly fit one (and only one) person from history.

When we look at the last few verses of Isaiah 52 we see someone who is "prosperous," "high," "lifted up," and "greatly exalted." Yet His disfigured face amazes the crowds (verse 14). His sacrificial work is alluded to in verse 15 where the prophet says the Servant will "sprinkle many nations." This is similar to the priestly cleansing of sin found in Leviticus 4:6 and 14:7, but probably refers to the permanent cleansing of the New Covenant (Ezekiel 36:25).

Chapter 53 opens up with a startling description of the Messiah. He is parched, despised, and forsaken. The Messiah's purpose is explained in verses 4 and 5: substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the mankind. Here Isaiah compares our sins with disease. The Messiah will bear our infirmities (Hebrew: halayenu — "our sicknesses"). He will be stricken (naga — "stricken with a plague or disease") and smitten by God.

Just as lepers were cursed and separated from the people because of their disease, so the Messiah would be cursed and separated from God on our behalf. He would be "crushed" under the physical weight of the cross and the spiritual weight of our sin. Isaiah clearly states in verse 5 that He was "pierced through for our transgressions." This piercing certainly parallels the piercing we see in Psalm 22:16.

 

Verses 6-9 show that without protest the Messiah went to the death we all deserve. Surely the details of this portion could not fit with an entire nation. When did Israel suffer oppression without protest? (Even in World War II, numerous Jewish partisan groups fought the Nazis.) When was Israel buried in the borrowed tomb of a rich man? Israel (or any other nation) could never call itself sinless (verse 9), and in no way could that nation (or any other) qualify to die for a sinful human race.

Some day, just read this passage by Isaiah to some unsuspecting, unbelieving friends. Ask them who in history do they think this is talking about. More than likely they will answer "Jesus." Then tell them it was written some 700 years before He was born, and see how they respond.

3. Zechariah 12:10.

In this passage from the sixth century before Christ, Yahweh is speaking through His prophet Zechariah about a future day in which He will break into human history, judge the world, rescue His people Israel, and bring in everlasting righteousness. He is predicting a future earth-shattering event known throughout the Old Testament as "the day of the LORD." This day is a time of great tribulation, a time of rescue, and a time of restoration.

In the middle of this lengthy prophecy, in verse 10, Yahweh tells Israel, "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication, and they will look upon Me, the One whom they have pierced, and they will mourn for Him, as One mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over Him as one weeps over a firstborn."

Let's look at this one thing at a time. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is speaking, and He tells His people that at some great cataclysmic moment, His people in Jerusalem will look up to Him and begin mourning. He actually says that they will look upon Him "the One whom they have pierced." Yahweh is pierced? Yes.

The Hebrew word here is "dakar" and clearly means "pierce" as with a weapon ("Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon," p. 201). How can you pierce Yahweh? He is a spirit! You cannot pierce Him ... unless He becomes a man. And that is exactly what happened at Bethlehem — Yahweh, God the Son, left heaven and was incarnate as a sinless human being on this earth.

And this sinless God-man, Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, went to a cruel Roman cross to pay the debt we could never pay. His death perfectly satisfied the righteous demands of a holy God, and forever atoned for the sins of all who would believe in Him. The apostle John, standing at the foot of the cross, paraphrases this Zechariah 12:10 and applies it directly to the crucifixion of Jesus (John 19:37).

Zechariah 12:10 ends with the curious phrase, "and they will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only son." In the first half of the passage, Yahweh says "they will pierce Me." Then it seems to refer to someone else. Why the switch in pronouns?

This is not uncommon in the Old Testament. Take a look at Isaiah 48: 15-16. There you will see Yahweh, referring to Himself in the first person, then quickly switching and referring to Himself in the third person. The New Testament revelation that God is a Trinity helps us understand that within the one true God there are three eternal Persons who all work together to bring about the salvation of His people.

The death of Jesus was not a cosmic accident. It was not just another death of some mystical martyr from the Roman world. It was the fulfillment of very specific prophecies given by God, recorded by His faithful prophets, and believed on as the only hope of salvation by millions for the past 20 centuries.