The Lord Jesus Christ is described as his people’s shepherd in three ways. In John 10:11 and 14 he is “the good shepherd,” who gives his life for his sheep. In Hebrews 13:20 he is “that great Shepherd,” who has risen from the dead and lives now to direct his people in every good work. In 1 Peter 5:4 he is “the Chief Shepherd,” who has ascended into heaven from whence he will one day return to reward the undershepherds of the church who have been faithful to him. It has been pointed out that Psalms 22, 23, and 24 show a progression similar to those passages. Psalm 22 is the song of the dying Shepherd, crying out to the Father from the cross. Psalm 23 is the song of the risen Shepherd, guiding his sheep through life’s dark wilderness. Psalm 24 is the song of the ascended Shepherd who will reward those who have served faithfully.
It is possible that some may find this pattern a bit forced, of course, particularly in regard to the last two psalms. But there can be no doubt that it applies strikingly to the twenty-second psalm. For Psalm 22 is the “Psalm of the Cross,” the best description in all the Bible of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.
The festival of Shavuot occurs in late spring, 50 days after the beginning of Passover. Literally meaning “weeks,” which reflects the seven weeks of the counting of the Omer that separate it from Passover, Shavuot is sometimes translated into English as “Pentecost” (the 50th day). It is observed on the Sixth of Sivan (plus the Seventh in the Diaspora). Coming at the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat crop, one biblical name for Shavuot is Hag ha-Katzir (Harvest Festival). The festival is also known as Yom ha-Bikkurim (Day of the First Fruits), when joyful pilgrims would march to Jerusalem to offer up baskets of their first ripe fruits and bread baked from the newly harvested wheat (Bik. 3:2–4).
In Temple times, two loaves of bread were “waved before the Lord” on Shavuot (Lev. 23:17–20), the only meal offering baked with leaven (hametz). Menachem Leibtag suggested that whereas unleavened bread (matzah) symbolizes the initial stage of a process, the fully risen hametz symbolizes its completion. Bringing the leavened loaves on Shavuot may indicate that the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai on that date should be understood as the culmination of the process of redemption from slavery that began on Passover, when only matzah could be consumed. Just as the two loaves marked the staple of our physical existence, so the historical process that began with the Exodus from Egypt and culminated with the giving of the Torah reflected the essence of our spiritual existence.
In the synagogue, it is traditional to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, because the story takes place at harvest time (Ruth 2:23). As a proselyte, Ruth accepted the Torah just as did the Israelites at Mount Sinai. This is evidenced in her name, which has a numerical value of 606—the difference between the commandments observed by Jews (613) and those incumbent on all nations of the world (the seven Noahide laws). Ruth also was the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:17), who is closely associated with the festival (see above). In Ashkenazic synagogues, Akdamut (see below), a long medieval Aramaic piyyut, is usually chanted after the first aliyah has been called but before the Torah reading begins. The Sephardic tradition is to recite a piyyut by ibn Gabirol called Azharot, which lists the 613 commandments in the Torah.
It is customary to adorn the synagogue with plants and flowers. In addition to Shavuot being a harvest festival, this practice may relate to the image of the Torah as a Tree of Life (Prov. 3:18); to the legend that Mount Sinai was once a “green mountain” with trees and shrubs, as implied by the phrase “neither shall the flocks and the herds graze” (Exod. 34:3);
Dairy foods are traditionally eaten during Shavuot. According to legend, upon learning the laws of kashrut at Sinai, the Israelites understood that their pots were not kosher and thus resolved to eat only uncooked dairy foods until they could get new ones. Some people eat dairy foods containing honey because the Torah is likened to milk and honey in the verse, “Honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song 4:11). In addition, in the Torah the law of the first fruits (offered at the Temple on Shavuot) is placed next to the biblical prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod. 23:19). Another explanation is that the Israelites exposed for the first time to the wondrous world of Torah were like newborns; just as babies drink only milk, so Jews commemorate the moment at Sinai by drinking and eating only dairy foods. In gematria, the numerical value of the Hebrew word “halav” (milk) equals 40, corresponding to the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah.
A popular Shavuot dish among Ashkenazim is because one of the names for Mount Sinai was Har Gavnunim, which is derived from the Hebrew word “gevinah” (cheese). In some communities, it is customary to eat triangular dumplings (kreplach) stuffed with cheese—because the Torah, which consists of three parts (Five Books of Moses, Prophets, and Writings), was given by God in the third month through Moses, who was the third child of his parents, to a people that is divided into three groups (Kohen, Levite, and Israelite). In some communities, the challot baked for Shavuot are long and have four corners, symbolizing the four methods of interpreting the Torah.
We can best profit from our study if we have the main events in mind. Jesus had been arrested the previous night and had been kept under guard in the house of the high priest in order to be tried formally by the Sanhedrin in the morning. When day dawned he was quickly tried, convicted of blasphemy, and then taken to Pilate’s Jerusalem residence for sentencing, since the Jewish court was unable to carry out the death penalty while Rome ruled Palestine. There were unexpected delays with Pilate. But at last his judgment was secured, and Jesus was led through the streets of the city to Golgotha bearing his cross.
What was he thinking of? He seems to have been thinking of other people. When Jesus saw the women weeping after him he said, “Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children,” and he prophesied of the terrible days to come (Luke 23:28–31). When the soldiers drove the nails through his hands and feet to affix him to the rough wooden cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He had words for the dying thief: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). He entrusted his mother to John’s safekeeping, saying, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26–27). In none of these sentences did Jesus seem to be thinking of himself at all. He was thinking entirely of others.
This changed at noon. At noon a great darkness came over the land which lasted until three o’clock. The darkness was sent by the Father to shield Jesus during the hours he was made sin for us. These were private hours. It is as if God had shut the bronze doors of heaven upon Jesus so that what transpired during those hours happened between himself and Jesus alone.
What was Jesus thinking of during these three hours? There is no reason why we should have to know this, of course. God could have kept silent about it. But there are three important clues in the New Testament accounts.