The Roman soldiers heard and kept in mind the great cry of Jesus, but it is likely that they did not understand anything of his sentence in Hebrew. Those who had a superficial knowledge of the Scriptures misunderstood “Eli” as Elijah, of whom it was said that he had to return (Mat 17:10; cf. Malachi 4:5). The most practising Jews, however, knew the Psalms by heart, also due to their habit of singing them, so in Jesus’ sentence they immediately recognized the beginning of Psalm 22, prompting them to recall it all to memory. We will try to understand something of the thoughts that Psalm 22 could arouse, in those who were witnessing the crucifixion and whom we will call Hearer.
First of all it was a Psalm of David, in which he apparently speaks of himself, as normally happens in his Psalms. Did it mean that Jesus was living something that David had already lived? Hearer: “But then the crucifixion shows that Jesus is a worthy son of David, so it does not deny his being Messiah!”.
The first words of the Psalm are: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (v.1). Even in those difficult moments, there was no interruption of the relationship between God and David, who continued to call him “my God” and to feel him present, although inexplicably inactive (“do not be far from me”, vv. 11 and 19).
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in Yahweh,’ they say, ‘let Yahweh rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’ ” (vv. 6-8). Hearer: “But then, by insulting Jesus we are repeating the words of the enemies of David and God!”.
“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death” (vv. 14-15). Hearer: “It was God who placed David in the dust of death, so it is possible that Jesus is dying because of a mysterious plan of God!”.
“Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me” (vv. 16-17). Hearer: “David has never been crucified, so this should be a prophecy… but it is exactly what is happening!”.
“Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen. I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you” (vv. 21-22). Hearer: “After a long and troubled period, David has become king anyway, but how is it possible for Jesus to become king? Will God come down to free him?”.
The resurrection of Jesus was understood after having observed it, but the quotation of Psalm 22 objectively put into crisis the interpretation of the person of Jesus given by the leaders. To reverse the situation we must wait for the resurrection, which will not be shown to everyone, but which will give certainty to many. In the meantime, as it is written in Luke 23:48, “When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away”. Starting to reflect that “Let him be crucified!” had been said too quickly.