The Context – Psalm 22
The bulls of Bashan has been an interesting and much discussed topic. It is a phrase is found in the rich text of Psalm 22:
Many bulls have surrounded me;
Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.
They open wide their mouth at me,
As a ravening and a roaring lion.Psalm 22:12-13
This psalm contains strong prophetic elements and describes some amazing details of the cross of Christ.
As such, it connects the events of the New Testament to the eternal, overarching plan of God. As David expresses his agony in his current context, he is foreshadowing the depth of agony on the cross.
The Purpose of the Passage
Like a lot of Biblical prophetic writing, this passage had a present and a future implication. David wrote to describe his circumstance.
Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we see past David to Christ. We are given an advance glimpse into His suffering and glorification.
The death of Jesus on the cross is in full view throughout Psalm 22.
The Importance of Bashan
As you read the Bible, it is important to note that from the heavenly perspective, it is one integrated message. God has something to say to us and He used the scope of history to convey it.
When we read it as a whole, we will see familiar locations appear consistently in the text and Bashan is one of those locations.
It is referenced many times throughout the Old Testament and is usually talked about it a negative context.
From malevolent kings to pagan practices, Bashan is consistently linked to wickedness.
It is even linked in other extra-biblical texts to the gates of Sheol or Hell.
This influences the way we view the phrase “bulls of Bashan.” The phrase is using imagery of living things from a notoriously evil place.
Let us explore four views of what these bulls of Bashan can be.
Four Views on the Meaning of the Bulls of Bashan
Bulls of Bashan as Actual Livestock
The first view strips the poetic imagery of the text and leave the literal meaning of the phrase itself. In this, the phrase would just be describing the scene as if painting the backdrop to the focus of the passage.
In an agrarian culture, it would make sense for there to be livestock within view of both David and the cross.
If you take verse 12 in isolation, this seems plausible. Combined with verse 13, however, it seems less likely.
As the imagery shifts to give further detail on what is being described, the bulls are also given the characteristics of lions. The hungry, roaring mouths would be out of place on typical bovine.
Instead, I think it is clear that David is using conventional poetic imagery. He combining these two images to describe one thing, which would be consistent with the other poetic devices found in the passage.
Figurative Language Speaking of the People Involved
In this second view, the phrase becomes descriptive of the people that surround David and those that surrounded the cross.
The cross drew a crowd and this view would say that verses 12 and 13 show the demeanor and disposition of that group.
Early listeners to these words would have made the connection to the incredible stubbornness and unmatched strength of the bulls that came from Bashan. Combined with the description of the mouths in verse 13, you get a picture of people so steeped in stubbornness that they refuse to see the truth in front of them.
This is accurate to the New Testament picture of the crowd that shouted, “Crucify Him.”
One potential criticism of this view is the application of the concept of strength to this group.
The group would have contained some Romans who could be characterized by incredible strength, since Rome was the most powerful country in the world.
However, a majority would have been comprised of the people who lived in and around Jerusalem as well as other Jews traveling to the city. It is hard to say that this group of subjected people would be embodied by a symbol of strength.
Figurative Language Speaking of the Spiritual Entities Involved
The third view incorporates the reality of the spiritual realm. All around us is an unseen realm with beings that interact to a certain extent with our world. Ii Kings 6:16-17 give us a small glimpse of this from the Biblical perspective:
So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.Ii Kings 6:16-17
The cross of Christ and subsequent resurrection was the most important event in human history. It rationally follows that the spiritual realm was present in some fashion.
With that in view, the bulls of Bashan can be describing the malevolent beings that surrounded the cross, but were unseen to the crowd.
This would give us a picture of pride-filled beings of incredible strength conceptually connected to a place of evil.
One thing to consider is the distinction presented between verses 12-13 and verse 16. This can be a distinction between the Jews and the Romans or it can be a distinction between the physical and the spiritual.
A Combination View – Can the Bulls of Bashan be both?
Our last view is really a concession to the previous two. It is that this phrase describes both parties, man and spiritual being.
It is plausible that both groups are spoken of with this descriptive phrase, however, I am less likely to accept this view.
With this, you introduce three levels of prophetic intent: the current context of David, the physical people surrounding the cross, and the spiritual realm present at the event.
While not impossible, I believe you will have to settle on either view two or three without combining them.