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The Crimson Worm

“But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men and despised by the people.” (Psalm 22:6)

Psalm 22 is a messianic psalm, that is, a psalm which speaks prophetically of the Messiah. Written nearly a thousand years before the birth of Christ, this psalm vividly describes His death on the cross: the ridicule He endured, verses 7-8; His dislocated bones, verses 14-15; His pierced hands and feet, verse 16; and His garments divided by lot, verse 18. Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 while dying on the cross, saying, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

In Psalm 22:6 the Messiah also says, “But I am a worm, and no man; A reproach of men, and despised by the people.” These words clearly describe the Savior’s abject humility; His willingness to endure the shame of crucifixion, a form of execution reserved for only the vilest criminals and lowest slaves. And Jesus was a reproach to many, treated as if He were nothing more than a lowly worm or repulsive maggot.

Yet, more may be intended by “I am a worm” than lowliness or loathsomeness. The Hebrew word for “worm” in Psalm 22:6 refers to a specific kind of worm: the Coccus ilicis, more commonly called the Crimson Worm.

The Crimson Worm is a remarkable insect. The female gives birth only once. When preparing to do so, she attaches herself firmly to a tree, then spins a crimson-colored cocoon. Once her young are born, they begin to feed on her body. Shortly afterwards, she dies. At the moment of her death, the mother releases a crimson dye that stains the tree and her offspring. Incredibly, three days later, her body turns white and falls from the tree.

Some have referred to the Crimson Worm as “the Gospel in a Bug.” And it is easy to understand why. Consider the parallels. First, as the Crimson Worm attaches herself to a tree; so, in the truest sense, Jesus Christ attached Himself to the cross. No one forced Him there; not the clamor of the crowd nor the schemes of the religious leaders nor the injustice of Pilate. He went to that tree willingly—fastened by love, not nails.

Second, as the Crimson Worm reproduces or gives life only once; so also, Jesus Christ died once-for-all to give life to the world. As stated in 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.”

Third, at death, the Crimson Worm stains her young with crimson dye. So also, when Jesus died on the cross, His blood atoned for the sins of the world. His bloodstains washed away our sin-stains—in the words of the hymnist: “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” (TLH 157:1)

Fourth, as the offspring of the Crimson Worm feed on her body for nourishment; so also, in a spiritual sense, through faith, we “Seed” on the Lord’s body and blood in His Holy Supper—receiving along with the bread and wine the very body and blood, given and shed, for the forgiveness of our sins.

Fifth, after three days, the dead body of the Crimson Worm turns white and falls from the tree. So also, according to the unanimous testimony of the Scriptures, Jesus Christ rose triumphantly from the dead three days after His crucifixion.

Here truly lies an Old Testament Gem—to realize that in the Hebrew of Psalm 22:6 the Messiah is not only saying “I am a worm,” but “I am like the Crimson Worm.”

Mark Weis is Professor and Dean of Students at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.