“He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (Psalm 34:20 ESV).
This Messianic Psalm is unlike the previous four which were Messianic in their entirety (Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22). In Psalm 34 there is only a single verse which is prophetic of Christ.1 But this single verse should not be underestimated in its importance in the chain of messianic predictions. It is an amazing prophecy which strikingly reveals the details surrounding the crucifixion and death of Messiah!
The Passover – The Book of Exodus and the Gospel of John
The prophecy found in Psalm 34:20 has a strong link with both the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of John. The key to this prophecy is seen in connection with the feast of Passover. All of the features presented in the celebration of the Feast of Passover are richly suggestive of the Lord Jesus. The New Testament is very clear about this fact: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). Most Christians are familiar with the typical meaning of the blood of Passover lamb when it was placed on the lintels and doorposts of the Israelites’ houses on that first Passover night (Ex. 12:23).
Various details and ordinances connected with the Passover are described in Exodus 12–13. Many of these details speak of Christ and His work in wonderful ways. One of the most outstanding features (besides the blood of the lamb) is the fact that not a bone of the lamb was to be broken (Ex. 12:46). The lamb was to be roasted with fire and eaten with the specific instruction that none of the bones of the lamb were to be broken in that process. But what is the significance of this?
In our Psalm it is written of Messiah that Jehovah “keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (Ps. 34:20). This prophecy is quoted only once in the New Testament.
It is wonderfully significant that it is only in John’s Gospel that it occurs: John is the Gospel which presents Christ as the “Lamb of God” (Jn.1:29, 36)! It is in this Gospel that the Passover is given preeminence far above that given to it in any of the other three Gospels. In fact, it has been called the “Gospel of the Passover” and the “Gospel of the Lamb.” Unlike the Synoptic Gospels,2 much of the narrative in John’s Gospel occurs during several Passover seasons. The Passover is mentioned ten times (2:13;2:23; 6:4; 11:55 twice; 12:1; 13:1; 18:28; 18:39; 19:14) and is alluded to five times (4:45; 5:1; 11:56; 12:12; 12:20) without being specifically named, for a total of fifteen mentions! Again, much of the narrative in John’s Gospel revolves around the Passover Feast. This Gospel opens with John the Baptist declaring that Jesus was the Lamb (Jn. 1:29) and closes with Christ’s trial and crucifixion which is specifically stated as occurring during the Passover Feast (Jn. 19:14).
We read, “But coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead they did not break His legs … For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, Not a bone of him shall be broken” (John 19:33–36).
It was at the cross where Psalm 34:20 was fulfilled. The Roman soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves to hasten their death but not the legs of the Lord Jesus for they saw that Jesus was “already dead.” This is amazing for several reasons. First, it is an example of God’s sovereignty and power that this prophecy was fulfilled by pagan soldiers who knew nothing of this prophecy. We saw this in Psalm 22:16 where it was predicted that His hands and feet would be pierced by the Gentile “dogs.” So it is in our verse from Psalm 34. Sometimes it would take days for the victims of crucifixion to die. And on some occasions, the Roman soldiers, out of mercy, or because they had other matters to attend to, would hasten the death of the criminals. This practice was known as Crurifragium. They would use iron mallets or clubs and break the legs below the knees. Because the victim could no longer hold themselves up they would eventually suffocate or their circulatory system would gradually slow down and stop. This was unspeakably cruel but considered a mercy in contrast to the victims being pecked alive by carrion birds under the hot sun for days.
However, the Lord Jesus did not experience this at all. He was not a victim, He did not die by the hand of man. He laid down His life voluntarily (Jn. 10:17–18). When the soldiers noticed that Jesus was dead already they determined it was not necessary to break His legs just as Psalm 34:20 predicted and Exodus 12:46 typified! He was indeed the Passover Lamb! He dismissed His spirit when He had finished the work on the cross—no mere man could do this (Jn. 19:30; cf. Eccl. 8:8).
That these details should be recorded by the only Gospel which declares Him to be the Lamb of God is remarkable enough. But that it should be fulfilled by unbelieving pagan soldiers to satisfy Jewish religious scruples is beyond amazing! Because it was the high holy Sabbath day and the Jewish religious leaders insisted that Pilate order that Crurifragium be performed upon Jesus of Nazareth and the two thieves (Jn. 19:31). God overruled that in the case of the Lord Jesus.
Throughout John’s Gospel, as we have seen, Christ is viewed as the Lamb of God: in the first chapter as He gathered His disciples, and at the close, when His leg bones were preserved according to the Passover ordinance. But this is not all, there is another connection to the Passover which only occurs in John. We read: “When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out with His disciples over the Brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered” (Jn. 18:1).
After leaving the upper room, on the night before His crucifixion, the Lord and His disciples made their way out of the city eastward. It was His custom to stop in Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives to pray. At the bottom of the valley before Gethsemane, there was a brook in a ravine called the Kidron through which Jesus and His disciples would pass. Before passing over the Brook Kidron, Christ prayed with for His disciples (Jn. 17), how momentous, and how significant crossing this brook for the heart of the Lord Jesus!
It has been said that during the Passover week over 200,000 lambs were offered on the Temple Mount. This posed a problem because of the huge amount of blood which had nowhere to drain. Herod and his engineers found a solution by running water up to the temple through the Gihon spring and devising aqueducts and apertures to drain off the excess blood. This blood eventually found its way down the hill and drained into the Brook Kidron. When Christ and His disciples stepped into the brook, it was tinged red with the blood of lambs—clearly seen by the light of the Passover moon. The Lord knew the implication of this red-tinged water, what it would mean for Himself; His disciples, however, were oblivious to its import. The Lamb of God would be pierced! There would come out both “blood and water” for our cleansing and for our sins (Jn. 19:34).
Preserved By God
The inscription of Psalm 34 informs us that King David wrote the Psalm when he fled to the Philistine king in Gath (1 Sam. 21:10–14). This was a trying time in David’s life and the Psalm was written to extoll God for how He preserved and delivered him: “The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them” (Ps. 34:4). An application of this verse could be made to the Lord Jesus who had angels minister to Him throughout His life. Often, when surrounded by enemies, He would pass through them because His “time had not yet come.” No doubt, angels froze or otherwise incapacitated the angry mob.
Nevertheless, whatever the circumstances were that gave occasion for David to record the words of this Psalm, the Holy Spirit 3 uses it to speak about the Lord Jesus. God was sovereign in preserving and delivering David from the Philistines. And He guarded or kept the bones of Messiah from being broken. We may glean from this as followers of Christ that we can count on God as well. He may deliver us from the circumstances altogether, as He did for David, or He may sovereignly preserve us while going through the circumstances for His glory, as with the Lord Jesus Christ—not one of His bones was broken.
1. This feature of a limited application of the Psalm to Christ will be true also of many of the Messianic Psalms which follow.
2. Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
3. This is what Peter meant when he said that the interpretation of prophecy is not found in the local circumstances of how they were written but through the interpretation of the Holy Spirit, because they were divinely inspired. See 2 Peter 1:20-21 (JND – see JND footnote explanation).