Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 1, 2015
Psalm 22:23-31 Commentary
Notes and Observations
Christians who read this psalm, particularly during the season of Lent, can hardly do so without hearing Jesus’ groan as he dangles between heaven and earth on the cross. After all, both Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 quote him as praying verse 1’s, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Of course, that’s not the only part of Psalm 22 the gospel writers employ in their descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ words in Mark 15:29 reflects verse 7’s, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.” Matthew 27:43 indicates the witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion take verse 8’s cry, “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him,” on their lips.
Christians who read verse 16’s lament, “They have pierced my hands and feet” can imagine that the anguished Jesus murmuring something similar. Mark 15:24 also seems to make use of verse 18’s “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” All of this makes the words of Psalm 22 some of the most familiar of the sometimes otherwise largely ignored psalms of lament.
Yet Christian preachers and teachers are wise not to step over Psalm 22’s Old Testament context on their trip to the cross. After all, Jesus was not God’s first child to pray both its anguish and praise. Nor are we wise to race too quickly past Psalm 22’s lament in order to land on the section of praise the Lectionary appoints for the second Sunday in Lent. Nearly 2/3’s of Psalm 22 is spoken in an anguished voice with which all too many of our hearers are familiar. However, this article focuses largely on verses’ 23-31’s praise, not because lament is unimportant or uncomfortable, but because the Lectionary focuses on Psalm 22:1-15’s lament later in the church year.
Certainly verses’ 23-31’s tone’s shift from that of lament to praise is noticeable. In fact those verses begin with an explicit to call to those who fear to the Lord to praise the Lord. The beauty of that praise is heightened by its contrast to verse 21 that ends Psalm 22’s section of lament: “Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild ox.” Clearly God has graciously moved the psalmist from a place of grief and anguish to a place of praise. In fact, in verse 24 the psalmist celebrates how God “has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
Yet even before she switches from lament to praise, the psalmist weaves expressions of confidence in God’s generosity into some of the psalm’s first 22 verses’ prayers of lament. So in verses 2-3 we hear her pray, “O God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night and am not silent. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel.” (Italics added). In verses 7-9 the psalmist cries, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’ Yet you brought me out of the womb, you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast.” (Italics added).
Biblical scholar Brent Strawn calls verses’ 23-31 section of praise and vows “extralong.” He suggests it may reflect the psalmist’s desire to balance out the complaint section that he also labels “extralong.” Yet, as Strawn goes on to note, that match between the complaint and praise’s length also imitates the life experiences of God’s adopted sons and daughters. After all, seasons of trouble and blessing sometimes seem to dominate our lives. Times of petition and salvation sometimes feel relatively short in comparison. Yet even short-lived seasons of blessings serve as what Strawn calls the “fulcrum” that shifts God’s children from complaint to praise that is, in the end, the goal of both the psalm and our lives.
Certainly such praise has a strong communal element in Psalm 22, just as it does in many of the psalms. After all, in verse 22 the poet sings to God, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.” The psalmist recognizes that praise is not just a private exercise. God’s sons and daughters don’t just praise the Lord with our IPods or in the car or shower. We also offer God praise in the presence of and with other people.
After all, those to whose cries for help God listens recognize the appropriateness of calling others to join in praise and service to God. In verse 23 the psalmist says, “You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him all you descendants of Israel!” This takes on special poignancy in light of its call to all of Israel to join the psalmist in praising God. After all, the psalmist already probably sees examples of Jacob’s descendants failing to join him in praising God.
One attribute of God for which those who fear the Lord praise God is God’s provision for society’s most vulnerable members. In verse 24 the psalmist praises God that God “has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has … listened to his cry for help.” In verse 26 the psalmist adds, “The poor will eat and be satisfied.” These verses offer those who preach and teach Psalm 22 opportunities to help their hearers reflect on whether they’ve joined the Lord in hearing the cries of the afflicted. They may also open opportunities to challenge God’s children to come alongside the Lord in feeding the poor.
However, perhaps the most striking feature of Psalm 22:23-31 is what we might call the “ripple effect” of the psalmist’s praise. When you drop a stone into the middle of a pond, you can watch its affects spread in concentric waves across the water. In a similar way we watch the praise the psalmist offers as an individual spread to everyone.
After all, what begins in verse 22 with the psalmist’s determination to praise the Lord spreads to in verse 23 to “those who fear the Lord … all you descendants of Jacob [and] … Israel.” That praise, however, also ripples out from the Middle East to “they who seek the Lord” (26) to, in fact, “all the ends of the earth … and all the families of the nations.” (27) And while verse 29 is admittedly difficult to translate, it suggests that praise to God encompasses both “all the rich of the earth … [and] those who go down to the dust.” That praise’s ripples even extend into the future, as the psalmist predicts that “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn” (30).
Those who preach and teach Psalm 22:23-31 may want to invite hearers to reflect on the way God’s praise has spread across the world and down through the generations. Jews and Gentiles from every nation on earth praise the Lord today in countless languages. God has graciously drawn rich and poor, strong and weak, famous and anonymous people into God’s church so that the voice of prayer and praise is never silent.
Mrs. Turpin is a central figure in Flannery O’Connor’s powerful short story, Revelation. She’s a white Christian who seems very pleasant and gentle, but spends her nights mentally categorizing peoples’ worth. At the bottom of her heap are black people, with “white trash” just a step above them. She thinks of people like her husband and her as at the top of the heap.
However, as Mrs. Turpin is washing down her hogs she has a vision that in some ways reflects Psalm 22:23-31’s group of people who praise the Lord. She sees a streak “as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” Those souls include what she thinks of as “white trash,” as well as black people in white robes and what she refers to as “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”
“And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right … They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that that even their virtues were being burned away…what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward in the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!