Psalm 22: Moving From Despair to Hope!
“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” – Jesus cries from the cross, his lowest point, also his highest. This was what he had come here to do, to die so that we might live. In that moment he fulfilled all the Father had commanded.
Jesus last words in Mark’s gospel make up the first line of Psalm 22, a well-known psalm during Jesus’ time, as evidenced by its use in other parts of the gospel. Jesus chose these words for a reason. Mark 15:29 equals verse 7 of the psalm; Matthew 27:43 equals verse 8; Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, John 19:23-24 all equal verse 18.
Psalm 22 – Part One, Hymn of Despair
Psalm 22 has two parts, the first, verses 1-21, is a hymn of despair, the writer cries out to God in his pain and suffering; the second part, verses 22-31, is a hymn of thanksgiving and praise for deliverance. As is typical for laments, it doesn’t end on a note of despair but one of hope and thanksgiving. Some commentators believe that the hymn was written in two parts at different times, yet others state that it is one piece, that the hymn of praise was written either in anticipation of what God would do for the afflicted one or reflecting back on what God had done.
Suffering – Pain without Meaning
The psalm starts with the anguished cry, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” His physical sufferings are made worse by his feeling of abandonment by his God. He cries to God and God does not respond. One definition of suffering is pain without meaning. We can withstand a tremendous amount of pain if we know there is a reason for our pain. Women experience pain during childbirth but they don’t suffer because they know there is a reason for the pain. This makes the pain easier to endure.
The writer goes on in verses 3-5 to state that God is holy, our fathers trusted God and God delivered, indicating that even in his suffering, he remembers who God is, that God has proven trustworthy in the past. Even though he doesn’t feel God’s presence, he trusts.
In verses 6-8 we see further reason for his suffering, besides his physical pain, people are mocking him. Yet he remembers how God has been with him since his birth, how God has kept him safe, vs. 9-10. He asks, “be not far from me” now that trouble is near, vs. 11.
Verses 12-17 speak of his physical complaints, which are many. He is wasted by sickness and fever, poured out like water, bones out of joint, heart like wax (14) his strength is dried up, his mouth is so dry his tongue sticks to his jaws (15). He is so emaciated you can see his bones (17). His enemies encircle him, ready to pounce, much like vultures waiting to devour the carcass. They are like bulls (12), lions with mouths open to tear (13) and dogs (16) waiting for the kill. They don’t even wait for his death but have taken his clothes (18).
The only resource left to someone in such dire straits is prayer, and so he prays in verses 19-21.
Psalm 22 – Part 2, Hymn of Praise
At this point the psalm changes dramatically, the prayer has been heard, or the faith of the writer is so strong that he believes even in the face of so much suffering and tragedy that God will save – “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him.” (24)
Not only will the writer praise God (25), all the ends of the earth, all peoples, even all generations to come will praise God, “that he hath done this.” (31)
The similarities to Jesus’ sufferings during his last hours are very clear and would have been clear to his listeners. Just as the suffering servant songs of Isaiah came to be attributed to Jesus, so this psalm has become associated with Jesus.
Dark Night Experience
Worse than any physical pain or humiliation, is the experience of feeling abandoned by God. This truly is a dark night experience, this loss of the sense of God’s presence. Once you have experienced it, how painful to lose it. Mother Theresa, after an intense three-month period of feeling God’s presence, spent the rest of her life in that dark night because that intense presence was gone.
Most of us are lucky to get glimpses, brief moments of heightened awareness of God’s presence. For someone who had become accustomed to this, the loss must have been terribly painful. How much more so for Jesus who had such a close relationship with the Father that he said he and the Father were one. What a terrible loneliness at the time of your greatest need to feel abandoned, yet he remained faithful. Those hearing his words would also have known the rest of the words. How they were not ultimately words of despair but words of faith during a time of great trial.
Jesus Knows Our Suffering
Jesus in his humanity experienced all that it is to be human, even to the point of feeling abandoned by his God. Yet he remained faithful. Jesus knows what it is to suffer the pain of loneliness. No matter how well loved we are, no matter how close we might feel to our loved ones, they can’t understand us entirely. There are limits to our understanding of each other. Physical bodies that limit and provide boundaries encase our souls. No-one understands us like our God does for there are no limits on God’s understanding of us. We are the ones who are limited in our understanding of God. Ultimately, we all stand alone before our God at the time of our death.
In being fully human, Jesus experienced all of this. As long as he felt God’s presence, Jesus knew there was a reason for what he was enduring, but when in doubt, in the garden where he steeled his will to align it with the Father’s will, at this final moment, he suffered. Was this all vain? Was his suffering for nothing? Was it truly God’s will and if so, would it really make a difference or would people remain in their sin?
Hope in the Resurrection
Those questions remain to this day, a challenge to each of us. Those who know Psalm 22 know it does not end in despair. Rather it ends in triumph with all generations to come praising our God, saying “he hath done this!” Death is not the end. It wasn’t the end for Jesus and is not the end for us. We have hope because of the resurrection!
The questions behind Jesus’ suffering remain for each generation to answer. His death has meaning in that so many have changed their lives because he lived. We have our part to play in providing meaning, in the continued unfolding of salvation. It’s up to us to ask ourselves today and every day, is our life different because of Jesus’ death and resurrection? And if so, how? How do we respond to his gift of love?
This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of Dancing on a High Wire the first book in my Dancing through Life Series. click here to sign up
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