Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 22 is a psalm of lament that expresses the poet’s anguish at his enemies’ relentless and ferocious attacks on him. It contains the kind of honesty with God that 21st century Christians seem sometimes reluctant to express. So how does such a lament fit into the season of Ordinary Time in which the Revised Common Lectionary places it?
Psalm 22 reminds worshipers that the shalom that the Holy Spirit brings doesn’t yet fully rest on all of creation and its creatures. What’s more, this psalm reminds worshipers that the grief that people sometimes cause is part of ordinary time, of life lived in the daily presence of not only God, but also sinners.
Of course, the gospel writers make extensive use of Psalm 22, particularly to describe Jesus’ suffering that culminates at Golgotha’s cross. As a result, the church has sometimes understood this psalm almost exclusively in terms of Jesus’ experiences. Yet as James Mays wisely points out, Psalm 22 invites worshipers to understand Jesus in terms of it. In fact, Jesus’ own extensive use of it teaches worshipers something about his relationship to both prayer and the psalms.
After all, with virtually his last breath, Jesus remembers and prays in ways that are so clearly shaped by the psalms. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 22 an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on their familiarity with the psalms. Clearly they’ve long been a source of rich comfort for those in trouble and walking through death’s dark valley. Will modern worshipers be equipped by their familiarity with the psalms to find the same comfort?
After all, even in Psalm 22’s poignant lament there’s a profession of the poet’s faith. God seems either far away from the poet or deaf to his prayers. Yet the psalmist speaks of God not just as “God,” but, three times, in fact, as “my God.”
Mays suggests verses 3-5 and 9-10 especially describe what it means for Yahweh to be the poet’s God. It means, according to verses 3-5, to be part of a group of people whom the sovereign Lord has redeemed. To have God as the poet’s God also means to be, according to verses 9-10, one for whom God has cared like a father cares for his child, taking him from his mother’s womb and laying at his mother’s breast.
Yet Psalm 22’s agonizing lament serves to remind worshipers that God’s children don’t always feel God’s nearness. In fact, those who preach and teach it might explore with worshipers how a profession of faith in God might almost heighten a Christian sufferer’s misery. After all, if God didn’t call people to himself, misery could be seen as just a bad break. If God weren’t sovereign, one might view the attacks of other people very differently. If God hadn’t intervened to save others from attacks similar to the ones Psalm 22 describes, the poet might not feel so anguished that God has done nothing to alleviate her own misery.
In fact, this points to a possible interpretive approach to Psalm 22, one that might, admittedly, be a bit “out there.” What if, as one worshiper posited, Psalm 22’s lament is less a profession of faith than the psalmist’s angry cry? What if the psalmist is trying to hold God accountable, first for drawing the poet into a relationship with the Lord, then basically abandoning the poet to his own devices? How might it shape preaching and teaching to suggest that the poet is angry that God saved her ancestors but refuses to do the same for her? What if the psalmist is saying she’ll “fulfill her vows” to God even though God hasn’t kept God’s end of the bargain? Of course the whole world, even those not yet unborn, will praise the Lord (26-31). But the psalmist wonders if he’ll survive to join them.
To the poet, after all, God feels far farther away than his misery. In fact, he speaks twice of God’s distance, a distance that doesn’t seem to fit well, as Brent Strawn notes, with the psalmist’s constant prayers, profession of faith or God’s kindness to his ancestors. The poet also describes God as being hard of hearing. He feels like someone who constantly makes phone calls throughout the day and night but gets only a busy signal. This feels in stark contrast to the experience of the poet’s ancestors to whose prayers God often quickly said “yes.” On top of that, while the poet speaks constantly to the Lord in prayer, God seems silent, quite simply, untrustworthy in the context of the poet’s current mess.
In fact, even her enemies feel far closer to the poet than God. After all, they don’t just mock and insult her; they also surround her. Mays notes that those enemies seem to fill in vacuum that God has left by going far away. The poet’s encircling enemies feel like wild animals to her. They’re like ravenous lions or rabid dogs that are just waiting to pounce on and kill her. As a result, the psalmist feels as if her enemies have reduced her to something less than human.
Yet the poet intersperses his shouts of anguish with cries of faith. So those who preach and teach Psalm 22 will want to note how often the psalmist makes use of the words “yet” or “but.” They’ll also want to explore how often life seems to pivot between the experiences the poet describes before and after them. So, for example, in verses 2-4 the poet says, “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 … In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them” [italics added].
So what’s going on with this and three more of Psalm 22’s similar roller coaster rides of anguish and faith? Is this psalm reminiscent of worshipers’ own daily experiences with a God who alternately feels close by and far away? Is the psalmist perhaps waffling in her faith? Or, as Brent Strawn posits, is the psalmist simply underlining the severity of his plight by weaving professions of faith together with complaint to make the complaint “extralong”?
The psalmist is clearly in some kind of deep trouble that she ascribes not just to her ravenous enemies, but also to the God to whom she cries. After all, in verse 15c the poet seems to address the Lord when she notes “you lay me in the dust of death” [italics added].
Yet the poet’s memories of God’s faithfulness are deep-seated. She remembers how God rescued her ancestors when they trustingly called to God for help. The poet also remembers how God has taken care of her throughout her life, right from the time she was born.
Perhaps that’s why the poet’s “extralong” (in Strawn’s words) description of his determination to praise God and the spread of that praise is so appropriate. He envisions a day when not just he, but also the whole world, including those not yet born, will join him in praising the Sovereign Lord – sometimes not because of God’s faithfulness, but in spite of God’s apparent abandonment.
In the 1920’s Thomas A. Dorsey was among the first writers of a genre that people eventually labeled “gospel songs.” In the 1930’s he travelled all over the United States to share his remarkable work. However, in August, 1932, Dorsey’s wife died very suddenly while the songwriter was on the road. The next day his newborn son also died.
Dorsey later lamented the injustice he felt that God had done him. He didn’t want to serve the Lord anymore by writing gospel songs. However, alone in a music room at Poro College, Dorsey recounts, “I began to browse over the keys like a gentle herd pasturing on tender turf… As my fingers began to manipulate over the keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock.”
Then and there Dorsey wrote the words that have provided a voice for so many people who feel God has forsaken them: “Precious Lord take my hand,/ lead me on, Let me stand,/ I am tired, I am weak, I am worn./ Through the storm, through the night,/ lead me on to the light./ Take my hand Precious Lord,/ lead me home.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 11, 2015
Psalm 22:1-15 Commentary