By Larry Short
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the LORD,” they say,
“let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
“But I am a worm and not a man …” Shocking words, considering the fact that Psalm 22 is a Messianic psalm, or one that foretells the advent, life, and death of the Messiah. I always wondered, Why would Jesus say, “I am a worm, and not a man?”
The Hebrew word for worm in this verse is “Tow-lah” (or “Tolah”). This word, and variations of it, appear in numerous places throughout the Old Testament, and refer not to worms in general, but to a specific flying moth-like insect: Coccus illicis in the Latin.
These Latin words bear the unusual meaning: “Crimson — it is finished.” It refers to a specific worm (also known as Kermes) which infests a certain variety of oak tree (the Kermes Oak) in the Middle East. This infestation (by female members of the species, or cochineal) had a specific benefit to Middle Eastern culture. Pregnant cochineal cement their bodies to the wood of the Kermes oak, with a protective shell on the outside and the eggs of their young on the inside. Cochineal are bright crimson in color, so these shells would be scraped off the wood in large quantities and crushed into a brilliant crimson dye for dying wool garments.
This crimson substance was also used in ancient Middle Eastern societies as an antibacterial agent, as a cleansing agent to purify those ceremonially unclean (because, for instance, they came in contact with a dead body).
The male Tolah is a rather unremarkable moth; but there are two other interesting things to note about the female member of the species:
- Unlike the male, she does not fly. Her grub-like body is not attractive in any way (to any but the male Kermes, to be sure) and so non-insect-like that the ancients actually thought the cochineals were plant matter rather than insects.
- She sacrifices herself for her children. As the eggs hatch inside that protective shell, they consume their mother then burst forth through the shell to escape. The brilliant crimson fluid runs down and stains the wood of the tree.
- After the cochineal has accomplished her objective, her body dries to a white husk. These husks eventually float down off the wood of the oaks, filling the groves with the appearance of snow.
So Christ, in the Messianic Psalm focusing on His suffering, His passion, compares himself to one of these worms. Affixed to the wood of the cross, His blood ran down and stained it crimson. But the result of his sacrifice was that our sins were washed “white as snow.” In so doing, He secured for His children new and eternal life.
“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
Follow this link for a very interesting Jewish site documenting a modern-day revival of the practice of gathering crimson from Coccus illicis.
Coming up: We will examine what can be learned from other appearances of the crimson worm throughout Scripture.