A Prophecy, a Donkey, a Psalm – the Messiah

Zechariah’s Messiah prophecy about a donkey is one of those prophetic rarities that is so specific, there is no way to explain it away – it either happens or it doesn’t.[1] It could only be seconded by Micah’s prophecy that the future Ruler of Israel would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah.[2]

Zech 9:9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”(NKJV) 

Riding on a lowly donkey, not just any donkey – a colt which is a male; a foal which is under a year old – that was unridden, unbroken. Donkeys are known for their unruly and difficult behavior especially in unfamiliar and frightening scenarios, yet the King bringing salvation to Jerusalem was prophesied to ride one such unbroken donkey colt.[3]

Written between 520 – 518 BC, the prophecy was issued about 80 years after the last king of Israel, Jeconiah, sat on the Throne of David that ended when he was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 597 BC.[4] The king was deported to Babylon along with “the most distinguished men of the land, and the most valuable treasures of the Temple and the palace.”[5]

Decrees  issued by Persian rulers Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem is the Hebrew history backdrop when the prophecy was issued by Zachariah.[6] His prophecy, based on the timing, could only be referencing a future King who would bring salvation to Israel.

Scrolling forward 550 years sets the stage when Jesus of Nazareth was reaching the end of his 3-year ministry. Outside of Jerusalem, oddly some Pharisees warned Jesus that Tetrarch Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus brushed off the warning saying that surely no prophet is killed outside of Jerusalem referring to its historical reputation for killing or trying to kill prophets of God.[7]

Telling the Pharisees to send a message back to Herod implying he wasn’t worried, Jesus said he would be busy for the next three days healing and casting out demons, but then…  Jesus predicted the next time they would see him, it would be under special circumstances:[8]

LK 13:35 “… I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’”(NKJV)

If Jesus was to fulfill Zechariah’s specific Messiah prophecy saying the King would arrive on a male donkey foal, he just made the prophetic event even more specific and challenging to fulfill. Quoting from Psalms 118:26, Jesus prophesied the next time he came to Jerusalem the people would be rejoicing:

PS .118:26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We have blessed you from the house of the LORD.”(NKJV)

Psalms 118 is one of several referencing salvation.[9] Jewish sage Rabbi Rashi’s commentary of Micah’s Bethlehem prophecy refers to the Psalm saying it is written about: “the Messiah, son of David, and so Scripture says (Ps. 118:22): ‘The stone the builders had rejected became a cornerstone.’”[10] Ironically, the Rabbi omits the Messiah reference in his direct commentary of Psalms 118.[11]

A few days later before entering Jerusalem while approaching the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples into the village ahead telling them they would find a tethered donkey colt with its mother that had never been ridden and to bring it back to him.[12] If anyone were to ask why they were taking the donkeys, they were to say “the Lord has need of it.”[13] Not knowing where to look nor the owner’s identify, they found the colt with its mother and its owner who asked the question just as predicted.

Sunday beginning Passover week, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time. Matthew and Luke wrote about Jesus riding on the donkey colt. All four Gospel authors write about that day, known as Palm Sunday, of which the eyewitness, John, wrote:[14]

JN 12:12-13  “The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out:

“Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ The King of Israel!””(NKJV)

Shouting “Hosanna!” people of the crowd quoted Psalms 118:26 praising Jesus, laying down their outer garments and placed palm branches in his path.[15] In its reference article entitled “Hosanna,” the JewishEncyclopedia.com cites the Gospel of John and references Matthew 21:42 which quotes Psalms 118:22-23: 

“According to John xii. 13…which has the story preserved in its original form, the same cry was raised by the multitude on the occasion of Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem. They “took branches of palm-trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord”—that is, the verse following “Anna Adonai hoshi’ah-nna” in the Hallel psalm— and then called him “the King of Israel.” … The Psalm verses recited have been interpreted by the Rabbis also as referring to the advent of the Messiah (see Midr. Teh. to Ps. cxviii. 17, 21, 22; comp. Matt. xxi. 42).”[16]

“Hosanna” is a shortened version of the Hebrew saying “Anna Adonai hoshi-‘ah-nna.” The word is a customary cry of joyful celebration tracing to ancient times when a marching procession would wave branches of palm, myrtle and willow each day of the Sukkot festival.[17]

Last of the three annual Hebrew pilgrimage feasts, Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths – is a dual celebration of the harvest festival and the Hebrews emerging from 40 years in the wilderness after Sinai when God temporarily dwelled in the Tabernacle tent.[18] Seventh day of the festival called “Hoshaana Rabbah” meaning “Great Salvation” closes the period of judgment which began during the festival on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.[19]

Coming full circle back to the prophecies of Zechariah and by Jesus days earlier, riding into Jerusalem on the back of an unbroken male donkey foal, people hailed Jesus as their King of salvation quoting from Psalms 118. Was this no more than a multi-faceted coincidence – or was Palm Sunday the multiple fulfillment of Messiah prophecies?

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[1]  Bugg, Michael. “Types of Prophecy and Prophetic Types.”  Hebrew Root. n.d.  <http://www.hebrewroot.com/Articles/prophetic_types.htm
Brooks, Carol. “Prophecy.” InPlainSite.org. <http://www.inplainsite.org/html/old_testament_prophecy.html
> Micah 5:2 (Jewish Bible Michah v.1).
[3] “Understanding Donkey Behavior.” The Donkey Sanctuary. 2018. <https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/sites/sanctuary/files/document/142-1404405754-donkey_health_and_welfare_19.pdf>
[4] Ryrie Study Bible.  Ed. Ryrie Charles C.  Trans. New American Standard. 1978. “Introduction to the Book of Zechariah.”
[5] Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.  “Captivity, or Exile, Babylonian.” <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4012-captivity
[6] Ezra 1:1-3, 4:4-6, 6:14-15; Nehemiah 6:15; 12:45. Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. 1850. Book XI, Chapter II. The Complete Works of Josephus. Trans. & commentary by William Whitson.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Cyrus the Great.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018.  <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cyrus-the-Great> “Darius I.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018.  <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Darius-I>
[7] Matthew 23:19-39. Luke 13:31-35.  I Kings 18:13-15; 19:14. 2 Chronicles 24:19-22; Jeremiah 26:7-16, 18-19, 20-23; 38:1-13.
[8] Matthew 23:37-39. Luke 13:31-35.
[9] “Salvation.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13051-salvation>
[10] The Complete Jewish Bible – with Rashi Commentary. “Michah – Micah – Chapter 5.” v1. <https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16191#showrashi=true>
[11] The Complete Jewish Bible – with Rashi Commentary. “Tehillim – Psalms – Chapter 118.” v122. <https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16339#showrashi=true>
[12] Luke 19:28-37. CR Matthew 21:1-7.
[13] NASB, NKJV.
[14] Matthew 21:2-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-16.
[15] Matthew 21:8; Luke 19.36.
[16] “Hosanna.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7893-hosanna>
[17] “Hosanna.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. 
[18] Rich, Tracey R. “Sukkot.”  JewFAQ.org. n.d.  <http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday5.htm>
[19] “What is Sukkot.”  Chabad.org. 2014. <http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/4784/jewish/What-is-Sukkot.htm>

The Catch 22 of Psalms 22 – Crucifixion Prophecy?

Is Psalms 22 a prophecy depicting a crucifixion, even that of the Messiah? 

Typically not straightforward nor easy to understand, a prophecy is often not fully or clearly understood until full realization after a future event has transpired or is clarified by other prophecies.[1]

Christians retrospectively see Psalms 22 as a foreshadowing prophecy consistent with Isaiah’s and Zechariah’s prophecies of a Messiah who is pierced. Judaism does not consider the Psalms to be a book of prophecy like Isaiah or Zechariah. Jewish sage Rabbi Rashi; however, did twice see prophetic characteristics tied to David and the Messiah.

“Why have you forsaken me?” Rashi commented, “David recited this prayer for the future.” Later in verse 27 commenting on the phrase “The humble shall eat,” the Rabbi said this meant “at the time of our redemption in the days of our Messiah.”[2]

Psalm 22 was written at a time when the Roman Empire did not yet exist meaning any specific prophecy about a “Roman-style crucifixion” would need to rely on prophetic details precise enough to avoid conjecture. Challenging, given Rome’s well-honed crucifixion process designed to extend death as long as possible while inflicting maximum pain and humiliation. 

Josephus described an occasion where he was traveling with the Roman military and came upon three Jewish acquaintances among many being crucified along the road to Thecoa, not far from Bethlehem.[3] Struck with compassion, he pleaded personally to Titus Caesar to have mercy on them. Titus commanded them to be take down from their crosses and treated by Roman physicians, but still only one survived.

“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.  My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.  Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.  I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.” (NIV)

Quoted not by Josephus nor was it quoted by any other Roman historians who documented Roman crucifixions. It was written by King David in Psalms 22:14-17 centuries before the Romans perfected this tortuous form of execution, yet the depiction matches in precise detail that of a Roman-style crucifixion.[4]  Coincidence?

If the portrayal of suffering were to include the specific actions taken by those at the scene inflicting the suffering, would this additional detail decrease the likelihood of a coincidence if both sets of circumstances were to come true? Ramp it to a factor of five – three actions already described where the men are gathered around the victim, laid him on the ground and pierced his hands and feet, then two more very unusual actions:

Ps 22:18 “They divide my clothes among themselves and throw dice for my garments.” (NIV)

Now, if the Psalms 22 scenario added the actual words spoken by those at the scene, would the bar be raised to the highest degree of complexity thereby all but eliminating the possibility of coincidence?

PS 22:7-8 “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:  “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”” (NIV)

Inflicted extreme suffering, specific and unusual actions, and spoken words in Psalms 22 are amazingly similar to the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. A montage of Gospel verses reflects the close similarities:

MT 27:36 “And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.”

MK15:24 “And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.”

LK 23:35-36 “The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One. The soldiers also came up and mocked him.”

JN19:28 “…Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”” (NIV)

One more quote, word-for-word, from the opening of Psalms 22 might tip the scales. Shortly before he died on the cross, Jesus cried out these words:

Ps 22:1 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (NIV)

MT 27:45-46, MK 15:33-34 “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land.  And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (NIV)

By the time Jesus wailed out these words he had already endured severe flogging, exposed raw flesh, severe blood loss, acute dehydration, exposure to the weather, hanging by nails from the cross, labored and painful breathing and in a state of shock. In his excruciating misery and naked humiliation, he would have seen and heard the gawking and sneering crowd with their taunts and insults.    

Near death, if Jesus was a fraud who still had the presence of mind in the face of his enemies to seize the moment by quoting from Psalms 22 to advance a false Messiah legacy, to do so would have been fully dependent on the prophetic nature of Psalms 22. 

Catch 22.

If Psalms 22 is not a Messiah prophecy, then these words quoted by Jesus in his dying moments on the cross were no more than happenstance. But there is more to consider than just these words…

Could a mortal man plan ahead to perpetrate such a fraud without any foreknowledge of the lethal circumstances about to happen to him by forces outside of his control – Jews in the most unlikely collusion with their hated Roman enemies – covering 18 hours from his arrest, trial, flogging, and crucifixion up to the point of breathing his last on the cross?

Was it merely the probability of chance that the three sets of circumstances in Psalms 22 – multiple points of suffering, five separate actions taken by those present and the words spoken by the mockers as well as by Jesus – all matched the documented details in the four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth?

Or is it easier to believe that the circumstances of Psalms 22 matching the four Gospel accounts were a Messiah prophecy fulfilled by the crucifixion of Jesus?

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[1] Bugg, Michael.  “Types of Prophecy and Prophetic Types.” Hebrew Root. n.d.    <http://www.hebrewroot.com/Articles/prophetic_types.htm>  Brooks, Carol. “Prophecy.” InPlainSite.org. <http://www.inplainsite.org/html/old_testament_prophecy.html>

[2] The Compete Jewish Bible – with Rashi Commentary. K’tuvim – Scriptures | Tehillim – Psalms, Chapter 22.  <http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/63255/jewish/The-Bible-with-Rashi.htm

[3] Josephus, Flavius. The Life of Flavius Josephus. #75. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Thecoa.” Bible History Online. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/thecoa.html>

[4] Hotznagel, Fritz and Hehn, Paul. “King David Biography.” Who2.com. 2014.  <http://www.who2.com/kingdavid.html>    

Micah’s Unique Messiah Requirement

Micah the prophet is known for a single Messiah prophecy, one that is unique. Specific prophecies about the Messiah are rarely as clear as Micah’s.

Rarer still perhaps is anything that is common ground to those of great religious opposition. Strange bedfellows agree both on who the prophecy is about and the exact place where it is to be fulfilled. Image, a preeminent Jewish Rabbi sage; a powerful and ruthless King; Jewish scriptural experts from the era of Jesus; a Jewish religious academy of antiquity; and both Jewish and Christian Bible translations, all of one accord on this prophecy:

Micah 5:2 ( 5:1 in Jewish Bibles):

But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from ancient days.– Jewish Publication Society[1]

And thou, Bethleem, house of Ephratha, art few in number to be reckoned among the thousands of Juda; yet out of thee shall one come forth to me, to be a ruler of Israel; and his goings forth were from the beginning, even from eternity.– Septuagint LXX[2]

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.– New King James Version[3]

Not appearing in either Christian or Jewish Bible translations is the word “Messiah.” That is because Mashiach, the word for Messiah, does not appear in the Hebrew text.

One exception is Targum Jonathan, the Aramaic Talmud translation once recited side-by-side with the actual Hebrew text to the Jewish synagogue congregations.[4]  Mashiach is used in the translation based on the context of the prophecy (as translated into English): [5]

“Out of thee Bethlehem shall Mashiach go forth before me, to exercise dominion over Israel. Whose name has been spoken of Old from the day of Eternity.”

Translators rely on context during the translation process, especially with ancient Hebrew.[6] Who is the identity of the future Ruler of Israel to be sent by God “Whose name has been spoken of Old from the day of Eternity”? Answering a question with a question – is this a characteristic of a mortal?

Renowned Jewish sage Rabbi Rashi is greatly revered for his commentaries on the Talmud and its Mishnah. Rashi’s phrase-by-phrase breakdown of Micah 5:1 (5:2) is quoted from The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary: [7]

And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah”: [Rashi:] whence David emanated, as it is stated (I Sam. 17:58): “The son of your bondsman, Jesse the Bethlehemite.” And Bethlehem is called Ephrath, as it is said (Gen. 48:7): “On the road to Ephrath, that is Bethlehem.”  

“you should have been the lowest of the clans of Judah”: [Rashi:] You should have been the lowest of the clans of Judah because of the stigma of Ruth the Moabitess in you.  

“from you shall emerge for Me”: [Rashi:] the Messiah, son of David, and so Scripture says (Ps. 118:22): “The stone the builders had rejected became a cornerstone.”  

“and his origin is from of old”: [Rashi:] “Before the sun his name is Yinnon” (Ps. 72:17).

Rabbi Rashi said the Messiah would come from Bethlehem Ephrathah, the home town of Jesse, King David’s father.[8] The Rabbi took the opportunity to reflect his distaste of Ruth, a Gentile from Bethlehem. Rashi identified the future ruler of Israel to be “the Messiah, Son of David” named “Yinnon,” a Hebrew epithet meaning “be continued.”[9]

After the Magi appeared at King Herod’s palace in search of the newborn King of the Jews saying they had seen his star, Herod immediately consulted all the Jewish religious experts asking where Christos (Greek for Messiah) was to be born. The chief priests and scribes told the King of Micah’s prophecy saying the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah.[10]

Herod not only believed the prophecy, he believed it had been fulfilled sending the Magi to Bethlehem to find the newborn King of the Jews. He believed it so much, according to Matthew, that when the Magi didn’t return to tell him where to find the child, Herod slaughtered the children 2 years and younger in the Bethlehem district in an attempt to eliminate the threat to his throne.

As a contemporary of the more famous prophet Isaiah, lesser known is Micah’s preceding judgment prophecies of utter destruction against Samaria and Jerusalem predicting they would be taken away by Babylon and the Temple would be destroyed. Corroborating his Bethlehem prophecy, he singled out 10 towns and cities by name, including Jerusalem, that would experience God’s wrath – Bethlehem was not one of them.[11]

Bethlehem Ephrathah, instead, was to be an exception. After the judgement of Israel, God promised to restore Jerusalem and the Temple where the little town of Bethlehem would play a prominent role. It is in that context the very first word in the Hebrew text of the Micah 5:2 prophecy, is ‘attah, meaning “you.”[12]

Micah exclaims “you, Bethlehem Ephrathah” emphasized as if pointing a finger at Bethlehem. He then sets the magnitude of his prophecy saying that, although insignificant in the land of Judah, from you a future Ruler of Israel shall come forth “Whose name has been spoken of Old from the day of Eternity.”

Micah’s Messiah requirement prophecy is used as a litmus test by Jews and Christians alike to rule in or out anyone thought to be the Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. No other person purporting to be the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem. What is the probability that Jesus is the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy? 

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[1] Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation. 1917. “Micah.” <http://www.breslov.com/bible/Micah5.htm#3>
[2] English Translation of the Greek Septuagint Bible. Trans. Brenton, Lancelot C. L. 1851.  “Michaeas (Micah).” <http://www.ecmarsh.com/lxx/Michaeas/index.htm>
[3] Net.bible.org. “Micah 5:2.” <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mic&chapter=5&verse=2>
[4] “Targum.”  Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14248-targum>Targum Jonathan to the Prophets. n.d. “The Historical Background of the Targm Jonathan,” #47, #79. <https://archive.org/stream/targumjonathant00churgoog/targumjonathant00churgoog_djvu.txt>
[5] Prasch, Jacob. “Jesus in the Talmud.”  Moriel.org. 2015. <https://www.moriel.org/sermons-in-english/5952-jesus-in-the-talmud.html>   “Prophecies of the Messiah – His Birthplace.” Israelite. 2012. <http://www.israelight.org.au/~israelig/?page_id=676>
Deem, Rich.  “Jesus Christ – Messiah of the Rabbinical Writer.” 2011. <http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/messiah.html> Book of Matthew Study.  “Matthew 2:1-23.”  Yasha Net Studies.  3 Mar. 2000. <http://www.yashanet.com/studies/matstudy/mat5.htm>   Killian, Greg (Hillel ben David).  “Bethlehem – Beit Lechem – The House of Bread.”  Betemunah.org.  n.d. <http://www.betemunah.org/bethlehem.html>  “Targum.”  Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.  “Historical Jewish Sources.” The Preterist Archive. “Overview:  About Targums.”  n.d. <http://www.preteristarchive.com/BibleStudies/JewishSources/Targums/index.html>
[6] Benner, Jeff A.  “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.” Ancient Hebrew Research Center.  2013.  <http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/2_bible.html
[7] Bolding and brackets added by author.  The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi’s Commentary.  Micah – Chapter 5. http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16191>
[8] Yinon (Yinnon).”  eTeacherHebrew.com.  2014.  <http://eteacherhebrew.com/Hebrew-Names/yinon-yinnonInterlinear Bible.  Psalms 72:17. Hebrew text. BibleHub.com. 2017. <http://biblehub.com/interlinear>
[9] CR Genesis 48:7.
[10] Matthew 2.
[11] Micah 1. Gath, Beth Leaphrah, Shaphir, Aaanan, Beth Ezel, Maroth, Jerusalem, Lachish, Achzib, and Mareshah.
[12] Net.bible.org. Micah 5:2, Hebrew text.