From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 22 begins with the most anguished cry in human history: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These are the words that Jesus took on his lips at the depth of his suffering on the cross. His suffering was unique at that point as he offered himself up for the sins of his people. And so, we have tended to see this cry as unique to Jesus. But such an approach to these words is clearly wrong. Jesus was not inventing unique words to interpret his suffering. Rather, he was quoting Psalm 22:1. These words were first uttered by David, and David was speaking for all of God’s people. We need to reflect on these words and the whole psalm as they relate to Christ and to all his people in order to understand them fully.
The psalm begins with a section dominated by the agonized prayer of David, (vv. 1-21). David is expressing in the first place his own experience of feeling abandoned by God. Here is the most intense suffering God’s servant can know – not just that enemies surround him, (vv. 7, 12-13), and that his body is in dreadful pain, (vv. 14-16), but that he feels that God does not hear him and does not care about his suffering. And this is not just the experience of David. It is the experience of all God’s people in the face of terrible trouble. We wonder how our loving Heavenly Father can stand idly by when we are in such distress.
Yet, even in this extreme distress, David never loses faith, or falls into complete hopelessness. His anguish leads him to prayer, and the first words of the prayer are, “My God.” Even in his suffering and wondering about the ways of God, he does not let go of his knowledge that God is his God. In the midst of his anguish, he articulates that faith. He remembers God’s past faithfulness in Israel’s history: “In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame,” (vv. 4-5). Then, David remembers God’s past care in his own personal life: “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God,” (vv. 9-10). A recurring spiritual remedy in the psalms is to fill the mind with memories of God’s past faithfulness to assure us of his present faithfulness.
We see David’s hope also in the earnestness of his prayer for present relief. He knows that God can help, and he turns to God as the only one who will help: “But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!” (v. 19) We must never stop praying, even in our deepest distress.
John Calvin in his commentary concluded that a sense of being forsaken by God, far from being unique to Christ or rare for the believer, is a regular and frequent struggle for believers. He wrote, “There is not one of the Godly who does not daily experience in himself the same thing. According to the judgment of the flesh, he thinks he is cast off and forsaken by God, while yet he apprehends by faith the grace of God, which is hidden from the eye of sense and reason.” We must not think that living the Christian life is easy or that we will not daily have to bear the cross.
This psalm is not only the experience of every believer, but it is also a very remarkable and specific prophecy of the sufferings of Jesus. We see the scene of the crucifixion especially clearly in the words, “A company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divine my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots,” (vv. 16-18). Here we see that indeed this psalm comes to its fullest realization in Jesus.
Jesus knew this psalm and quoted its first words to identify with us in our suffering, since he bore on the cross our agony and suffering. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death,” (Hebrews 2:14). Jesus does deliver us by becoming our substitute and the sacrifice for our sins.
In the second part of this psalm, the mood and tone change dramatically. Agonized prayer turns to ardent praise. The psalmist comes to be filled with praise: “In the midst of the congregation I will praise you,” (v. 22). He calls on his brothers to join him in praise: “You who fear the Lord, praise him!” (v. 23)
This ardent praise is for the success of the cause of God. The failure that at the beginning of the psalm seemed certain is now swallowed up in victory. This success will not just be personal or individual but will be worldwide. The praise rests on the abundant promise: “All the ends of the Earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. All the prosperous of the Earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,” (vv. 27, 29). After suffering comes the glory of a worldwide kingdom.
God’s success will not only affect the whole world, but will also span the generations: “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation,” (v. 30). The picture here is not of a brief time of success for the cause of the Lord, but the assurance that the time of suffering will lead to a time of great spreading of the knowledge of God throughout the Earth. And surely, since the time of Pentecost, we have seen the fulfillment of this promise. All around the world today, Jesus is known and worshiped. Even while suffering continues in this world, we have seen Christ’s promise realized: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” (Matthew 16:18).
This success is the Lord’s doing, “for kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations,” (v. 28). He is the active One who ultimately gives victory to his cause. The Lord achieves his triumph through the instruments he uses. And David sees himself as an instrument especially in his proclaiming the goodness and mercy of his God: “I will tell of your name to my brothers,” (v. 22). Jesus also is the speaker in verse 22, as we are told in Hebrews 2:12: (this citation shows again how fully the New Testament sees Jesus speaking in the Psalter.)
The psalmist, indeed proclaims the name of God, particularly in terms of his saving mercy: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him,” (v. 24). Such proclamation is vital to the mission of God in the world. As Calvin wrote, “God begets and multiplies his church only by means of the word.” Those who have experienced God’s mercy must tell others about it.
While God uses instruments to accomplish his purposes, the glory is his alone, for it is he who acts through them and ensures their success. For that reason, this psalm ends with this firm certainty: “he has done it,” (v. 31). Our God hears our prayers, fulfills his promises, and fills us with praise. “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
As we seek to understand Psalm 22 so that we can appropriate it and use it, we need to see in it the direction of the history of the church: first suffering and then glory. We also need to see something of a pattern of piety for the church and for the individual Christian. The pattern is this: The real and inescapable problems of life in this fallen world should lead us to prayer. Prayer should lead us to remembering the meditation on the promises of God, both those fulfilled in the past and those that we trust will be fulfilled in the future. Remembering the promises of God will help us praise him as we ought. As we praise him, we can continue to face with grace and faith the problems that come daily into our lives.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What are some components of the agonized prayer in David in Psalm 22?
- The feeling of being forsaken by God is a struggle for all believers at some point. Name some Christians throughout history who have experienced a similar sense of forsakenness. Were they all victoriously delivered? Has there been a time when you felt forsaken by God? How were you delivered?
- How does this psalm illustrate agonized prayer that turns into ardent praise for the success of the cause of God? Why does suffering often precede glory? What role does prayer play in the midst of problems in this fallen world?