Hello, friends. This is our sixth and final study of our Lenten Series on the Psalms. Hopefully, your Lent has been fruitful and you’ve had the opportunity to dive more into the Psalms. This week we have what’s arguably the most Lenten of all the psalms: Psalm 22. What makes it so Lenten is its clear connection to the cross. First, the psalm depicts a suffering servant of God whose rescue and vindication bring about the conversion of all the nations to YHWH. Sound familiar? Second, Jesus quotes the beginning of the psalm on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In doing so, Jesus appropriates the words of the psalm and applies them to himself. He is that suffering servant, the one we also see spoken about in our first reading from Isaiah: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting” (Is 50:6). So let’s walk through this psalm and draw out some of the theological nuggets it contains.
Our psalm can be divided up into four main parts. The first two parts (vv. 1-5 and 6-11) follow the same pattern. They each begin with an experience of suffering and God’s distance but end with an expression of trust based on God’s saving actions in the past. The third section (vv. 12-21) depicts at great length the suffering and isolation of the psalmist. The psalm then closes out in vv. 21-31 with the rescue of the psalmist and the effect this has on the world. Now that we have a bird’s-eye view of the psalm, let’s take a closer look at each of its parts.
1. “Why have you forsaken me?” (vv. 1-5)
The psalm begins with urgency: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The psalmist is suffering from a profound sense of God’s absence. In the Gospels of Mark and of Matthew, we hear Jesus make this cry from the cross. We shouldn’t be too quick to pass over this. Jesus is not simply quoting this psalm in a neutral, unimpassioned manner. He’s appropriating the psalm to himself, including the psalmist’s “roaring words” (v. 1: “Why are you so far… from my roaring words?”). Jesus is the one suffering a form of God-forsakenness in order to bring all nations to worship YHWH. His suffering is real, and for this reason, we can all now turn to him in our moments of suffering. In fact, some of the early Christians saw in this psalm Jesus not only speaking on his own behalf but also on behalf of his body, the Church. Jesus is taking on our pain and suffering, experiencing in some mysterious way our separation from God. Because of this, we can face our sufferings knowing that Christ is truly carrying them in us, and we can face death with hope because Christ has taken on our deserved separation from God.
Act of trust: God’s saving action toward Israel
After his cry of suffering, the psalmist turns (in vv. 3-5) to express his trust in God. The psalmist is experiencing pain and isolation but is choosing to trust in God’s saving presence. Now notice something interesting here. The psalmist’s trust is based on God’s saving action in the past for his ancestors: “they trusted and you delivered them.” He could be referring to any number of times God delivered the Israelites, but the Exodus from Egypt is paradigmatic.
The exodus from Egypt sets the tone – so to speak – for all the times God delivers Israel. It reveals something of the dynamics of sin and grace which becomes more explicit in the new exodus wrought by Jesus. The Israelites are in the state of exile from the land of Israel and are enslaved to their oppressors; they can’t free themselves; God intervenes and brings about their liberation. All pretty straightforward. But flip ahead to when they’re in the desert. Shortly after witnessing all of God’s wonders, being set free, and leaving the land of their oppression, many start complaining and longing to return to Egypt. The whole drama of the golden calf is Israel returning in their hearts to Egypt which they do by worshiping like the Egyptians. This is the drama of sin. Sin is nothing other than a choice for exile from God and enslavement to sin. It’s our longing to go to “Egypt,” whatever shape that takes in our lives. The physical oppression of the Israelites and subsequent exodus at the hands of Moses becomes a sign of the more significant oppression of sin and the salvation offered in Jesus. And so, with the psalmist, we can look back to the story of the exodus from Egypt – as well as all the other countless stories of God’s saving activity in the Old Testament – to strengthen our trust that as God did not abandon them, he will not abandon us.
2. “I am a worm and not a man” (vv. 6-11)
While the psalmist’s first expression of trust ends with “they were not ashamed” (v. 5), the verses in this next section here describe the shame that the psalmist is experiencing. He’s “a worm and not a man,” he’s “scorned,” “despised,” and mocked; the people “wag their heads” and ridicule the psalmist’s trust in YHWH. We’re given no other reason why the psalmist is so treated except for his suffering. This phenomenon is reminiscent of Job. Since Job was suffering, his friends assumed that he must have sinned. Bad things happen to bad people, or so they reasoned. The central point of that book is to show that the friends were terribly wrong. In fact, they have to make a huge sacrifice in the end in order to make amends for equating suffering with sinfulness (Job 42:7-9). Even so, their “bad things happen to bad people” philosophy is very much alive and active in those mocking the psalmist, in those who killed Jesus, and in our own day, as well. This psalm, then, can be a helpful reminder to us to be compassionate toward others who are suffering, to not be quick to judge or look down on them. Also, in making this prayer ourselves, we are invited into the experience of all those who are suffering. Even when we are not experiencing any particular pain or sorrow, we can make this prayer on behalf of all those throughout the word – especially members of the body of Christ – who are.
Act of trust: God’s life-giving action toward the psalmist (vv. 9-11)
In the first act of trust, the psalmist bases his hope on God’s activity in the past toward Israel. Here, the psalmist’s trust becomes more personal as he reflects on God’s active presence in his own life. Not only did God save Israel a long time ago, but the psalmist can also say, “You are the one who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.” It can be helpful in low moments to reflect back on memories of God’s active presence in our lives.
3. Bulls, lions, and dogs (vv. 12-21a)
Verse 11 ends with “there is none to help,” and this section depicts just how alone the psalmist is. He is friendless and surrounded by his enemies who are depicted as bulls, lions, and dogs. Note here how both the enemies and the psalmist himself (a worm) are dehumanized. There is a dimension to human evil and violence that goes beyond the physical damage inflicted. The ones committing the evil become like beasts and the victims can often feel – mistakenly but no less powerfully – as though they’ve been robbed of their dignity and degraded.
In the Ancient Near East, bulls and lions were frequently used as symbols of power and strength. Note the specific reference to the “horn of the ox” in v. 21. We see this imagery pop up in prophetic books of the bible depicting various political powers (e.g. Daniel 7, Revelation 13). So the psalmist may have had in mind specifically political enemies. This is definitely true, at least on one level, for Jesus. But as the psalm has been taken up into the liturgy of Israel and of the Church as well as into the Bible, its meaning has opened up beyond what specifically the original psalmist may have had in mind. It can now give voice to all of the various kinds of suffering we endure at the hands of political, physical, and spiritual forces. This comes to light especially in Jesus whose true enemy was not the relatively small crowd of Jews and Romans who put him to death; rather, his true enemy was the forces of evil and sin which he destroyed by his death.
“You lay me in the dust of the earth”
So the psalmist is suffering at the hand of these bulls, lions, and dogs, but that’s not all. Take a look at verse 15: “you lay me in the dust of the earth.” Now it is unclear who the “you” is, but since every other “you” refers to God, it’s likely the same here. This is powerful. The psalmist experiences God not only as allowing his sufferings but as actively participating in them. This touches on a painful mystery of the Christian life. Think back to the story of Job. Job was not simply a victim of a horrible accident; God gave his consent to all of Job’s afflictions. Of course, we can’t oversimplify our interpretation of Job since it was likely written as a drama to be performed rather than a strictly historical account. Nevertheless, we see this same theme in the death of Jesus. On the one hand, his death was the result of human sin (Mt 26:24) and ignorance (Lk 23:34). On the other hand, his death was the Father’s will (Mt 26:24; Lk 22:42). What are we to make of all of this? Does God will evil and suffering?
The answer is no. God who is all good and all loving cannot be implicated in evil. Scripture wants us to hold two truths together: God is fully in control and God is not responsible for evil. You can add to these a third: man is responsible for his actions. To hold these together, the biblical texts will speak variously of God and man as being behind an action. Take, for example, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the account of the Exodus. The text speaks of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:12) and of Pharaoh hardening his own heart (Ex 8:12). So who’s responsible, God or Pharaoh? Pharaoh is directly responsible for his own actions. He has that capacity for choice which God refers to when he says later: “I set before you life and death, so choose life” (cf. Dt 30:19). But ultimately God orchestrates all of our actions – the good, the bad, and those in between – according to his plan for our salvation. God is never surprised or foiled by our actions and he is always in control.
So is God actively causing the psalmist’s sufferings, or those of Jesus? No. God abhors evil and does not directly or indirectly will it. God, rather, allows the sufferings to happen, but in doing so, he is leading not only the psalmist to his own salvation, but he’s making the psalmist’s sufferings a source of blessing for others. This is most truly the case with Jesus. In Jesus, God himself is suffering, allowing men to inflict evil upon him, but in doing so he brings about our salvation. And these sufferings are vividly portrayed here in Psalm 22.
Psalm 22 and Jesus’ sufferings
Verses 12-21 of this psalm can be read as a meditation on the crucifixion of Jesus. Here we read about the psalmist’s sufferings and the piercing of his hands and feet. In the middle (vv. 14-17) the psalmist depicts his physical sufferings with various bodily imagery. He begins and ends with mention of his bones. In between, he refers to his heart, mouth, tongue, jaws, hand and feet. He’s depicting the complete failing of his physical health, beginning with his heart and moving out to his limbs. The bones – the structural support of his whole body – are visible and out of joint. What we get is a graphic portrayal of the extent of his sufferings: he’s utterly consumed by suffering; there is nothing left to give.
This is perhaps a good time to bring in our second reading this Sunday.
Psalm 22 and Philippians 2
A suffering messiah was a source of much scandal for the early Christians. The messiah was expected by some to conquer the Romans and re-establish David’s kingdom in Jerusalem. Others expected more of a religious reformer like Ezra a few hundred years earlier. But nobody expected a crucified messiah. What may seem plain to us Christians today reading Psalm 22 and Isaiah 50 was anything but plain to Christ’s contemporaries. Paul initially thought it was all nonsense. Once he encountered the risen Christ, though, Paul began to see everything as centered around the cross. The meaning of these and other biblical passages began to open up in light of the cross, but so, too, did the life of the Christian. This isn’t new with Paul, of course. Jesus himself said that his disciples would all have to take up their crosses and follow him (Mt 16:24-25), and that they would have to endure sufferings and persecutions (Mt 10:16-25). What we find with Paul is a theology of Christ crucified which is then applied paradigmatically to the lives of Christians. Let’s take a look.
Philippians 2 contains what likely was an earlier hymn or poem about Jesus recited in the liturgy: “Though Jesus Christ was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself even to the point of death, death on a cross. Because of this, God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name” (Phil 2:5-9). This poem is a theological treasure house, but Paul doesn’t bring it in primarily to teach something about Jesus. Rather, he brings it in as the paradigm for Christian living.
Bible scholar Michael Gorman has helpfully pointed out the threefold structure in this poem: 1) Jesus has a certain status with accompanying rights (“though he was in the form of God”), however 2) he seeks not his own interests (“he did not count equality with God something to be grasped”) but instead 3) renounces his rights in order to serve others (“emptied himself and took the form of a salve”). Paul takes this threefold pattern and applies it to all kinds of different situations throughout his letters. For example, in another letter Paul brings up the fact that he has the right to receive payment for his work for the church. But since doing so might put an obstacle in front of the gospel, he instead renounces that right and supports himself as a tent maker (see 1 Cor 9), even though doing so means tremendously more work for Paul. He applies the same cross-centered logic to other issues such as lawsuits (1 Cor 6:1-11), disputes about the law (1 Cor 10 and Rom 5), and even issues of social justice (Philemon 8-10, 14).
Though we may never be martyred or undergo sufferings quite like those depicted in Psalm 22, Paul wants us to see that all of Christian life is to be patterned off of Christ crucified. Am I seeking here only my own interests, rights, etc, or should I instead renounce my own interests for the sake of others? Even seemingly mundane decisions in our day to day lives can be tested by this question. Echoing Jesus, Paul will argue that being united to Christ crucified is the basis of our hope. This radically changes the way we approach self-denial and suffering. It is only in dying with Christ that we can hope to rise with him. And we catch a glimpse of this in the next section of our psalm.
God answers (vv. 21b-31)
Almost mid-sentence, the psalmist is finally rescued. His rescue is so abrupt and unexpected that it catches the reader off guard. The psalmist is now no longer surrounded by his enemies but by the worshiping community. In this we see a beautiful contrast between the new life found in communion and the death found in isolation. The latter two are really at heart the same. Sin works to isolate us from God and others by turning us inward. Taken to its extreme, sin can radically rupture our communion with God and others, and when this isolation is solidified in death, we call this hell. Hell is nothing other than the natural outworking of our choice of isolation. The new life offered in Christ, on the other hand, is the opposite. By becoming man, calling us friends, and enduring the cross, Christ has offered the remedy to our isolation and death. He has healed our hearts and invited us into the communion of his Body, the Church.
So the psalmist is saved and brought into the company of the worshiping community. We can note two further aspects of this worship: the how and the why of their worship. First, regarding the how, we see a close connection between eating and praising. Look at v. 26: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD!” For Israel, there was always an intimate relation between worship and eating. Their sacrifices, for one thing, were food items. They would offer bread, animals, and wine, and communal feasts often accompanied these acts of worship. This is no less the case for Christians. In the Mass we have not only the perfect act of worship but also the perfect feast. Christ offered himself in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine at the last supper, anticipating and presenting in a sacramental way the same act of worship he would offer in a bloody manner on the cross the next day. We participate in this same act of worship at the feast of the Eucharist. We eat and are satisfied and we praise the Lord.
That’s the how. There’s also something interesting about the why. Toward the beginning of the psalm, praise of God was connected with God’s saving acts towards Israel. At the end of the psalm here, everyone will praise God for his saving act toward the psalmist. This is a rather bold claim. It’s difficult to think that all of Israel will praise God for what he did for some ancient psalmist whose identity nobody knows for sure today. It’s as though the psalmist is signaling us to think of someone else. And, of course, the Church has always understood it as referring to Christ. Christ was “rescued” from death by rising from the dead. He conquered the grave. Therefore, all the ends of the earth will praise God for what he did in the death and resurrection of Christ.
This brings us to another important idea in this psalm. The effects of God’s saving work has implications beyond the restoration of the psalmist. The afflicted, all the ends of the earth, all the families of the nations will bow down before the Lord. And this applies not only to the living but also to the dying and those yet to be born. We read, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (v. 27). As mentioned in a past study in this series, to “turn to the LORD” is synonymous with conversion. And this conversion culminates with worship: “all the families of the nations shall worship before you.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone’s rescue being so efficacious and salvific. But the causal link between an individual’s suffering and resurrection and the conversion of all the nations is seen in Jesus.
Psalm 22 is a rather intense prayer of supplication and thanksgiving. Though we cannot fully appropriate every aspect of the psalm, the Church invites us to take up these words and pray them when we are suffering. Most importantly, she invites us to pray these words in the liturgy. This is profound. Praying this psalm takes our sufferings and unites them with Christ’s offering in the liturgy, thus charging our sufferings and our prayer with richer significance. On another level, even if we are not presently suffering, we offer this prayer with Christ, giving voice to the sufferings of all those in his Body throughout the world. Whether we speak on our own behalf, that of Christ, or that of his Body, we can pray – though always trusting in God’s faithfulness – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”