Last Wednesday night I led the meditation for our community Lenten “meal and meditation” service. I chose Psalm 22 from the lectionary for the previous Sunday, but used the entire psalm rather than just the last portion. Here’s the study —
Psalm 22: A Lenten Study
During the Lenten season, Psalm 22 provides a wonderful narrative of the movement from despair to hope. This psalm is particularly appropriate for the Lenten-to-Easter season because Jesus quotes the first portion of verse one while he hangs on the cross (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46).
But, there might be more to Jesus’ quotation of this psalm than his lament over God’s abandonment. There might be something there both surprising and encouraging.
David, the psalmist to whom this song is attributed, begins in the depths of loneliness and despair in verses 1-2:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Here is the cry of one who feels utterly abandoned, and yet knows that his God is still somewhere within hearing. One commentator suggested that verse one is a contradiction, expressing abject abandonment by God, while at the same time addressing God as “my God.” Walter Brueggemann notes that this is classic lament — a cry from the heart in the midst of turmoil and loneliness.
However, in verses 3- 5, the psalmist begins to recount God’s history with Israel. Perhaps the psalmist thinks that by reminding God that in the past, Israel has a history of crying out to God and then being saved by God, that this history will move God to action this time.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
The psalmist speaks of God “enthroned” and as the “one Israel praises.” The psalmist’s ancestors “trusted and you delivered them,” he argues. Then, using parallelism, he repeats his argument that Israel “cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” In other words, the psalmist is saying, “I’m standing in the tradition of those before me, who cried out to you, and whom you then acted to save.” This passage exemplifies the Old Testament tradition of “contending with God” — which sounds much more respectful than arguing with God. Nonetheless, that is what is happening.
In verses 6-8, the psalmist reiterates not only his abandonment, but the ill-treatment and abuse he suffers at the hands of those who mock him and his God:
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.”
Of course, these words and phrases are echoed in the New Testament crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew 27:27-44. Jesus is scorned, mocked, despised, and ridiculed, along with his God’s reputation.
We don’t know exactly what difficulty David was experiencing when he wrote this psalm, but somehow these descriptions in Psalm 22 become prophetic indications of how Jesus will be treated. This is the lived personal experience of both David and Jesus.
In the midst of describing the insults he is enduring, David reminds God of their personal relationship. It’s not enough for God to be reminded that God has acted on Israel’s behalf in the past (v3-5). The psalmist now reminds God that:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
This is not an appeal to the general history of the nation of Israel, but a personal account of God’s action and David’s response. David says that God was instrumental in his birth — “Yet you brought me out of the womb.” But, God also created the circumstances for David to trust in God — “you made me trust in you,” David says, as if to further obligate God to help him in his present distress.
Again, David restates verse 9 in verse 10 by saying, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” This connection involves God’s presence and power before, during, and after David’s physical birth. This is David’s claim to God’s response.
In verses 11-18, David asks for God’s near presence — “Do not be far from me,” he pleads. David equates God’s proximity to him as the assurance of God’s action for him.
Then, as evidence of why David needs God, he details the threats surrounding him, and the weakened condition he is experiencing:
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
Bulls, lions, and dogs are incredibly strong and ferocious adversaries. These predatory images are metaphors for the real threats to David’s existence, and also reminiscent of similar threats faced by other Old Testament heroes.
Along with these descriptions of predatory threats, David describes his physical condition in verses 14-15 and 17. Being “poured out like water” could mean that his strength is ebbing and he is almost empty of reserves. Bones out of joint, heart melting, mouth dried up to the point of his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, and being laid in the dust of death, are all indicators of the low level to which he has sunk physically and spiritually.
Again, in these verses there are prophetic echoes of the treatment and condition of Jesus as described in the crucifixion scenes. Jesus’ thirst on the cross; his exposure to both the elements and the stares of onlookers; his humiliation as bystanders gloat about his fate; and, the scene where those who witness his suffering not only do nothing to intervene, but cast lots for his clothes are horrifying.
In verses 19-21, David again requests that God “not be far from me.” As David asks for God’s intervention, he again details the threats against him and asks God specifically to meet those threats. He asks, “Deliver me from the sword…the power of the dogs…the mouth of lions…the horns of wild oxen.” The implication is that God can defeat all of these threats, and David uses pleading petitions for God to “come…deliver…rescue…save” him from these impending calamities.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
Suddenly, the scene and tone shift dramatically beginning in verse 22. David is no longer alone, but in the presence of “my people” and “the assembly.” Perhaps this means a worship setting, possibly the Tabernacle. Not only does a worship setting imply that people are with David, but that God is also present, just as David has requested.
Because God is present, the tone of the psalm also shifts from lament to praise.
22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
David, to an ever-widening audience, sings the praises of God. He begins first with his people — perhaps his family and those closest to him — “I will declare your name to my people,” he says. Then, the circle widens to the “assembly” which is typically thought to be those assembled at the Temple for high holy days.
Then, the circle expands to include the descendants of Jacob, reiterated as the descendants of Israel — Jacob’s name having been changed to Israel. Verse 27 expands the circle to “the ends of the earth” and “all the families of nations.” Further, in verse 29, “All the rich” and even the dead — “all who go down to the dust.” All people in every circumstance from the best off (rich) to the worst off (the dead) will kneel before God!
But there is another aspect to these final verses 22-31. Previously, David recalled both God’s action in the nation’s history and his own person story. Here, however, he shifts from past tense to present to future tense. David says,
“For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.”
No longer pleading with God to act, David now proclaims that God has not done as the crowds did to him — God “has not despised or scorned” him. In addition, God “has not hidden his face, but has listened to his cry for help.”
Typically, the Bible links God’s presence and hearing with God’s acting. So, if God is present, then God acts. If God hears, then God acts. If God’s “face” is turned toward the petitioner, then that is a sign of God’s favor and action. God’s attention, in other words, means that God is acting.
But, there is a future component to God’s response as well. The poor will eat and be satisfied
…all the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord
…all the families of nations will bow down to him
…all the rich will feast and worship (feasting being a part of a holy day)
…all the dead will kneel before him
…posterity will serve him
…future generations will be told about him
And what will the future generations be told about God? He has done it!
In other words, God has saved David, his people, and his creation, again!
Now, imagine the crucifixion scene with me one more time: Jesus is hanging on the cross and has been for several hours. His strength is failing, his bodily systems are shutting down. He’s thirsty, wounded, bleeding.
But before he dies, Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, in Aramaic, his native language — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Of course, through the history of Christianity, those words have been interpreted as God’s abandonment of Christ as he bears the sins of the world.
But what if Jesus is really trying to communicate a message to those nearby, and to us today? What if all Jesus can manage is to utter the first words of Psalm 22, but he knows how that psalm ends? It’s like when someone utters the first part of a famous saying or song, and without thinking you fill in the rest of it. Suppose I said, “A stitch in time…” Those familiar with the maxims of Ben Franklin would add, “…saves nine.”
Or if I started singing, “O say can you see…” and immediately you and other Americans would know I was singing The Star-spangled Banner, our national anthem.
Jesus knows Psalm 22. His hearers know Psalm 22. So, perhaps by just beginning to utter this psalm, which says so much prophetically about Jesus, he knows that some will understand. Jesus knows that while Psalm 22 begins in lament, it ends in praise and rejoicing.
Suppose Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples, his mother, and those who are standing at the foot of the cross by reminding them of the meaning of the whole psalm.
Suppose Jesus is saying, “I’ve cried out to God for help, and things look bleak now. But God has always saved his people, and he will do so again. God has always responded. Like David, God has known me since before I was born and called me to this work. And, like David, God will come near, listen, and act. And, when this is all over, we will all know that God did it!”
Read Psalm 22 with that idea in mind. If you do, you might just hear the psalm’s lament, repeated by Jesus on the cross, as the beginning line of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Quite an appropriate and encouraging passage for this lenten season.