No Ordinary Worm

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” (Psalm 22:6, ESV)

Recently a friend of mine told me about a sermon he had heard on this passage in Psalm 22, he said that the Hebrew term used here for worm was not the normal word used for worm but had another meaning that I should look into. So the following is just a musing of what I have found so far…..

Psalm 22 is considered a Messianic Psalm, it is from this Psalm that Jesus quoted from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”

A person that was familiar with scripture would have recognized these words and possibly have pondered through the meaning of this Psalm in light of all that was happening both at that moment and most likely in the days that would follow.

Of particular interest is this statement in the Psalm “But I am a worm and not a man”. The word for worm in this verse is the Hebrew word “tola’at”. In most of the Bible dictionaries where I looked it up the word could be used as we see here “worm”, but it is also a word that is used to describe the color crimson or scarlet. How is it that this word could have both these meanings?

If you do a word search for the places this is used, you will find it used as a scarlet yarn that was used in the crafting of the High Priest’s garments to be worn for ministering in the Holy Place, the curtains and other fabrics of the tabernacle, it was also used in the coverings of things inside of the tabernacle.

It is thought that the word is a reference to the worm or grub know as (coccus ilicis or Kermes illicis) or more commonly called the crimson worm. The Encyclopedia Britannica has this as a definition…

 A species of scale insect in the family Kermesidae (order Homoptera), the common name of which also represents the red dye that is obtained from the dried bodies of these insects. The dye was often part of the tribute paid to conquering Roman armies, and, in the Middle Ages, landlords accepted it as payment for rent. The oldest known red dyestuff, resembling but inferior in color to cochineal, it was used by the early Egyptians.

Some commentaries on this passage refer to this worm and how it was used in the making of crimson dyes in the Mediterranean area. What most of the commentaries miss though is the fascinating life cycle of this bug.

The male coccus ilicis has wings and is able to fly. Though I have yet to verify the information, in my research I heard a presentation that said that the male hovers over the female during mating but never actually touches the female.

The female will only give birth one time and begins the journey by climbing onto a particular type of oak tree, or wooden post where she attaches herself permanently.

She then creates a hard-outer shell to protect the eggs she lays under her.

When the eggs hatch the babies feed on the flesh of the living mother who is now providing them life.

After a few days the mother dies and at that moment a scarlet liquid leaks out and colors the baby worms and the wood of the tree that it is on. This covering of red dye stains the babies for life.

Three days after the death of the mother, her body shrinks up into a heart like shape that is waxy and turns white. It has the look of wool and flakes off and looks like snow falling from the tree.

If the mother is harvested during the 3 days, the crushing of her body produces the dye that was used for the yarn and fabrics in the middle east and most likely the same process was used in the materials of the Tabernacle. The wax could also be harvested and was used to make shellac.

So, it has been suggested and it is hard to ignore the connections of the symbolism that is represented here. Let’s break it down….

  • Flying male hovering over the female to impregnate her.
    • Luke 1:35 – “And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.
  • The female climbing onto a tree voluntarily knowing that she would die.
    • Jesus died on a wooden cross that he voluntarily allowed Himself to be nailed.
    • John 10:16–18And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
  • The female worm secretes a hard shell to protect her offspring.
    • John 17:12 – “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
  • The larvae stay alive by eating the flesh of their living mother.
    • John 6:51 – “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
  • The larvae are permanently colored red by the death of the mother.
    • Eph 1:3-9 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ”
    • Heb 12:24 – “and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
  • After the death of the mother she turns white and has the texture of wool and flakes off and falls to the ground like snow.
    • Mark 9:2-3 “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.
    • Isaiah 1:18 ““Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

It is interesting to note that in Isaiah the word used for crimson is the same root used in the word worm in Psalm 22.

Is this coincidence? Maybe we are reading into the passage more than what is really there? Or maybe, our God is so infinitely majestic and powerful that he gave unique symbolism throughout His Creation to point us to the work of His Son. I will let you decide, but it is all very interesting.