THE BOOK OF PSALMS
The Cry of the Righteous Sufferer
Psalm 22 presents us with a question that in the Bible is a uniquely OT question. The question presented to us in this psalm (and in Job, Ecclesiastes, and other psalms dealing with the same question) is found only in the OT part of the Bible. The NT simply does not ask this question. It provides the answer to the question without actually asking the question. The question? Why do the innocent and righteous suffer?
Now some claim that the OT answers this question, but if it does, then its response is inadequate indeed. Basically, the last 3 chapters of Job claim that since God our creator is so much more brilliant than us, then we just need to trust Him that He knows what He is doing. Jeremiah states that if you can’t handle these difficulties, how in the world are you ever going to be able to handle more serious difficulties? Well, I personally don’t want to have to handle more difficult situations, much less the one I’m in right now. While some may find these responses comforting, others (like me) find these responses inadequate. Psalm 22, as we shall see, does not in and of itself answer the question; however, when this psalm is seen in light of the NT, then we do get a response which more than enables us to deal with the difficulties which beset Christians.
Two things we need to note before we look at the psalm. First, some want to interpret this psalm only in light of the crucifixion of Jesus. Whereas the crucifixion of Jesus is ultimately going to shed the brightest light on this psalm, the truth is that in its original setting this psalm was probably written by David when Saul was pursuing him. Before we look at how this relates to the cross, we will examine this psalm in light of the life of David.
Second, note the identity of the persecutors—both those of David and those of Jesus. The persecutors, those seeking David’s head and Jesus’ blood, are not evil pagans who worship the gods Baal, Zeus, etc. These are God’s people who are persecuting them—people who are part of the covenant family of God, whom God has chosen to be His people—people living out of fellowship with God, most definitely, but nevertheless God’s people. That makes the persecution all the more difficult. Most of us can understand when pagans persecute Christians; it is much more difficult to swallow when God’s people are the culprits. In this case, the one persecuted is forced to deal with the issue of whether or not s/he is in right relationship with God. It really strikes at the heart of our being. Only after intensive, careful soul-searching can that person come away from the persecution saying that s/he indeed is righteous and that no matter what they claim to be, those persecuting him/her are still doing the work of Satan.
CRY OF DESPAIR (22:1-3)
This psalm commences with one of the most heart-wrenching cries in the entire Bible: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Before we look at whether or not God had forsaken David, the truth is that while David was having to flee for his life because Saul was fast on his heels, he felt that God had totally and absolutely abandoned him.
“Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.
Oh my God, I cry by day, but Thou dost not answer.
No matter what the truth is, all circumstances seem to point to the fact that God has utterly abandoned David.
Yet look at the way David addresses God. He does not simply call Him “God”; rather, he calls Him “My God!” David is clinging to God even though appearances seem to say that God has dropped him. It conveys the image of the little child who is taken to the doctor and is in the process of receiving a shot. Does the child want to take the shot by himself? No. He clings to his mom. Why her though? Isn’t she the one who brought him to the doctor for this painful experience? Isn’t she ultimately to blame? Maybe so, but the child knows that no matter what the appearances may seem to be, he knows that his mom loves him and so turns to her. The same is true of our relationship to God. God ultimately may be the one allowing or bringing pain into our lives; yet we cling to Him because we know who ultimately loves us.
Note here also that David does not soften his words; he’s not trying to be “theologically correct.” He is in pain and utters the words of pain. You do not hear, “Thy will be done” so quickly in this psalm. David never accuses God like Job does; however, he nevertheless does question the way God is relating to him in this situation. He and God have a real relationship.
Notice the word which introduces v. 3: “Yet.” “Yet Thou are holy who art enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” The “yet” is an adversative meaning that the psalmist is about to change direction with his thought. In vv. 1-2 David seems to be saying that God has abandoned him, but the word “yet” means we need to stop and think a moment. It is not true. God is holy; no matter what he circumstances seem to indicate, God is not like others but is faithful to His people.
The same idea is operating in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter. She asks Jesus to come heal her daughter. Jesus responds, first, by ignoring her and remaining silent. When the woman persists, Jesus tells her that it is not right for Him to throw to the dogs the bread meant for the children at the table. By this, Jesus means that He was sent primarily to the Jews (the children) and not to the Gentiles (dogs). No matter what He meant by it, though, Jesus nevertheless called her a dog. This totally contradicts the way we think of Jesus. When the woman persists and replies that even dogs lap up the crumbs which fall from the table, Jesus blesses her faith and heals her daughter. What kind of faith did she possess? The kind that looked straight through the outward appearance of Jesus’ actions and right to the heart of Jesus. She knew that Jesus was love and acted only upon that knowledge, not upon the circumstances (see Matt. 15:21-28).
REMEMBER THE PAST (22:4-10)
The way David deals with God is by reminding Him of His past actions towards His people. In the past, God had rescued His people whenever danger befell them—at the Red Sea, in the wars with the Canaanites under Moses’ and Joshua’s leadership, in the wars under the leadership of the judges against their pagan neighbors. David argues that God is consistent (faithful). If God is faithful, then what He does in the past indicates what He will do in the future. Well, in the past, He rescued His people. Since David is one of God’s people, then God is obligated to rescue him if He is truly faithful (consistent). (See Paul’s comment in Rom. 15:4).
David goes on to question, though, whether there is a difference between the fathers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) and himself. Sure God rescued them! They were spiritual giants, great men of faith! I mean we’re talking Moses here. On the other hand, though, look at him: “But I am a worm!” (22:6). It’s one thing for God to save Moses, etc., and quite another to save him! In his opinion, it might even be blasphemy to utter His name in the same breath
Yet is he so unlike them? He can remember a time in his own life when God had come to his rescue: “Yet Thou art He who didst bring me forth from the womb. Thou didst make me trust when upon my mother’s breast” (22:9). Child-birth may not seem all that dangerous to you and me because of all the modern medical advances in this area; however, in the ancient world the mortality rates was so high that only God could bring a healthy baby into the world. When times of real difficulty come, we need to remember God’s faithfulness to us in the past: the times we were without a job and God provided for our family; the time when our children did not seem to turn out right and yet God’s past working in their lives guarantees that He will not let go of them but will one day return them to Him. God’s faithfulness to us in the past guarantees His faithfulness to us in the present (and in the future).
THE DANGER IS REAL (22:11-21)
At this point in the psalm, you would think that David would describe the wonderful salvation God brought to him. Not only does he not describe it here, he does not describe it at all during the psalm. David is writing this psalm during the fires of persecution, not after God has rescued him. In this section, he describes to God the awful situation in which he finds himself in to move God to compassion. The dangers he faces are real, not imagined. If he is to survive, the needs God’s deliverance.
The enemies who pursue him are like the “strong bulls of Bashan” (22:12)—wild animals who roam freely through the rich fertile pastures of Bashan. They are untamed and dangerous. They are like “dogs” and “lions” which tear at their prey. The dogs David mentions are not man’s best friend. Dogs in the orient run wild, eating at the garbage dumps, and in packs attacking people, especially children, even killing them. By describing the seriousness of the situation, David is hoping to move God to compassion so that He will save Him.
Where, though, is David’s faith and hope? Shouldn’t he be totally at peace with the situation? Isn’t he feeling the gravity of the situation just a little too much? Shouldn’t he lives by the old adage: “Don’t sweat the small stuff—everything is small stuff”? Was David just so totally unspiritual? Two responses: (1) God allows us to experience danger or troubles to a great degree (either physically or spiritually) so that when He does rescue us, we see that He is indeed a great and mighty God. The greater the danger, the greater the rescue and the greater the God.
(2) If we don’t experience danger, then we don’t experience salvation. You don’t try to save a person from the water if s/he is sunning on the beach. If we don’t experience the onslaught of Satan, then we don’t experience the salvation of God. How many of us would trade for a moment those times in our lives in which God proved Himself mighty? Yes, it might have meant physical, emotional, or spiritual danger; yet at the end of the situation, we experience God in such a dramatic fashion that we would not trade anything in the world for it. I’m sure the Israelites were stressed out when Pharaoh’s armies were approaching them and they had their backs to the wall of the sea, but it took precisely this situation for them to be able to see God’s mighty hand split the Red Sea and destroy the greatest army on earth at that time.
VOWS DAVID MAKES TO GOD (22:23-31)
At this point, David makes 2 vows to God. First, David vows that if God rescues him, then he will praise God in the midst of God’s people—the assembly or congregation (22:27). Now David vows that he will not only praise God in the midst of His people but that he will also declare to the Gentiles the glorious salvation God accomplished on his behalf (22:27). The first vow concerns the context of worship, whereas the second concerns evangelism. These 2 vows should impress themselves upon us as to some of the reasons God allows us to undergo sorrow—so that when He does rescue us, we will have something to share with God’s people and with those who do not know God.
The purpose of this first vow is that God’s people will then praise Him and trust Him during times of trouble. God’s servant does not go through sorrow just for his own sake but also for the sake of others. If we refuse to share with God’s people what God has done for us, then we keep them in the dark as to how God will deal with them whenever they experience suffering. The purpose of the second vow is that the lost will see God’s power in the life of the one He saved so that they too will want to come to God for salvation. Too often we have focused purely on the spoken Word in our relationship with non-Christians and to a certain extent with Christians too. This nation and the world to a great degree have been talked to death about Jesus. What this world needs, what the church needs is the power of God as seen in the transformed life of a Christian. Paul claims: “The kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power!” (1 Cor. 4:20).
THE PSALM IN RELATIONSHIP TO THE SUFFERINGS OF JESUS
Even the most unlearned Christian detects many similarities between Ps. 22 and the crucifixion of Jesus. For example, from the cross Jesus cries out verse 1 at the 9th hour. The Jewish religious leaders actually quoted v. 8 in derision of Jesus: “Trust in Jehovah; let him deliver him. Let Him rescue him, when He delights in him.” Verses 15-18 actually seem to describe the physical horrors of the crucifixion: “I am poured out . . . My heart is like wax. . . My tongue cleaves to my jaws . . . I can count all my bones.” Verse 19 finds fulfillment when the Roman soldiers divided Jesus’ garments among themselves. Hebrews 2:12 actually claims that Jesus fulfilled, or even spoke v. 23 as referring to Himself Some OT scholars claim that the last word of v. 31 (“finished”) is the last word Jesus spoke from the cross.
What is the significance of this psalm being related to Jesus and His sufferings? To show that our sufferings are related to His sufferings. We suffer because Jesus suffered (John 15:18, 19). The OT acknowledges that God’s people suffer—even at the hands of God’s people; it just doesn’t provide the reason. By linking this psalm with Jesus’ sufferings, we see that the suffering we experience is not really directed against us but against the Christ who lives in us. In fact, the Johannine verses claim that if we are truly followers of Jesus the Sufferer, then we too must experience suffering. Again, it may not be at the hands of a hostile political entity, it may even be at the hands of God’s people. Nevertheless, because of our relationship with Christ, suffering should be expected. When this is acknowledged, we then look at his psalm to help us through our sufferings.