Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 19, 2016
Psalm 22:19-28 Commentary
I can easily imagine a 21st century psychologist reading this Psalm for the first time and calling it “The Bi-Polar Psalm,” because of its sudden wild swings of mood. The Psalmist seems to have two totally different minds here. Are these the words of a person driven to mental instability by the clash between his faith and the awful facts of his life? Or are these the words of a perfectly normal believer, an everyman or woman struggling with the seeming absence of God in the midst of life’s intractable problems? Most of us preachers will undoubtedly opt for the latter interpretation, because of the way it anticipates the suffering of Jesus. But that psychological take on Psalm 22 should alert us to the deep agony of this Psalm.
Psalm 22 is the confession of a normal believer. It reminds us that the normal Christian life can be very difficult. Following Christ isn’t easy, as our other readings for this sixth Sunday after Pentecost show us. The alternate Psalm selections (42 and 43) have been called “the Depressive Psalms,” because of the Psalmist’s repeated question. “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?” In I Kings 19 we meet Elijah in a deep funk after his battle with evil. And in Luke 8 Jesus delivers a man who has been imprisoned by demonic forces so powerful that everyone is terrified of him. I can imagine how modern day psychologists would have diagnosed him. Life is full of dark moments that plunge us into psychological and spiritual distress, even if we are fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Psalm 22 is, in fact, the model prayer of a perfectly normal believer.
We can be more certain of that interpretation because Psalm 22 was the prayer of Jesus on the cross. Not only did he quote verse 1 in the depths of that supernatural darkness at noon, but also some scholars are convinced that he murmured the entire Psalm there in the darkness. That is very tough to prove, but the parallels between Psalm 22 and Jesus’ crucifixion are uncanny. Verses 7 and 8 anticipate the mockery of the crowd (Mt. 27:39-43). Verse 15 foreshadows his dehydration (Jn. 19:28). The NIV translation of verse 16 points ahead to his piercing by nails. Verse 18 was fulfilled in John 19:23, 24. And verse 22 is put on Jesus lips in Hebrews 2:11, 12.
Psalm 22 is quoted or alluded to in the New Testament more frequently than any other Psalm. The early church surely saw it as a Messianic Psalm. So does today’s church; the lectionary refers to it in Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, using it in combination with no less than 9 other passages. All of which is to say that this is not only the model prayer for a perfectly normal believer. It is also the prayer of The Perfect Man, our Model for and our Savior in the darkness. When we go to him in our dark times, we can use his prayer when he doesn’t seem to be anywhere close.
That is one half of the big problem in Psalm 22 and in our lives and on the cross of Christ. God doesn’t seem to be anywhere close. Thus, our reading for today begins with the impassioned plea, “But you, O Lord, be not far off.” The other half of the big problem in Psalm 22 is suggested by that “but.” It refers back to the previous verses, in which “they” are all too close. God seems far away and “they” are breathing down our necks. One of the problems in slicing and dicing up the Psalm for today’s reading is that we lose the flow of the Psalm. Not only do we not know who “they” are, but also we have no sense of the shocking juxtaposition of fear and faith that has preceded this reading.
So, before we proceed, let’s place our reading in the overall structure of Psalm 22. It begins in verses 1-2 with that invocation of dereliction we hear on the cross followed by a powerful complaint that God doesn’t answer the Psalmist’s prayers. Then in verses 3-5, there is an expression of deep trust, followed in verses 6-8 by another agonized complaint about his situation. Verses 9-10 contain another powerful confession of faith in God’s lifelong care for him, followed in verse 11 by a brief petition based on that care. But then verses 12-18 we hear one long and detailed complaint about the enemies that surround the Psalmist, as well as a painful description of his physical condition as a result of their attacks. He compares his enemies to animals—bulls, lions, dogs—and then speaks of being pierced (by their swords?).
Now, here in verses 19-31, the Psalmist turns decisively away from those enemies who surround him and toward the God who has seemed so far away for so long. For the first time in the Psalm the Psalmist refers to this distant God as Yahweh. His foes have used that name in mockery in verse 8, but here the Psalmist somehow comes back to his covenantal senses. (Cf. Lamentations 3:21, “yet this I call to mind.”) He calls Yahweh “my Strength,” using a word found nowhere else in the Old Testament. He begs God not only to come near, but also to make it snappy. “Come quickly to help me.”
In spite of his ordeal and his loud lamentation, he has not lost his faith in God. Indeed, a careful reading of the laments will reveal that they are born of faith—faith disappointed, but faith nevertheless. Now his faith cries out for deliverance, using multiple words—deliver, rescue, save—and reversing the order of the enemies—sword, dogs, lion, and bulls.
And just like that, it’s over and he is vowing to praise God in the great congregation and urging everyone to join him in praise. Some locate the shift in mood in verse 21, where the verb “save” is in the perfect tense, as opposed to the three imperatives that precede it in the prayer for deliverance. Noting this, some scholars translate that last clause of verse 21 as, “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” That’s a plausible reading, though it seems a very abrupt change in the flow of thought.
Even if we don’t accept that reading of verse 21b, there is an abrupt shift in verse 22. After multiple verses focused on his troubles, the Psalmist is now consumed with gratitude and praise. Indeed, some scholars maintain that the shift is so dramatic and unexplained that verses 22-31 must have been an independent psalm that somehow got appended to Psalm 22. Such a reading of our text robs it of its resonance with the perfectly normal life of a believer. What has happened here is what happens to us—grace has broken through suffering, unannounced, unexpected, unexplained. There’s an old scatological saying about the prevalence of trouble in life. I’ll give you the bowdlerized version. “Hey, stuff happens.” Well, Psalm 22 shows us the other side of the equation. “Hey, grace happens.”
When grace breaks into life, life changes dramatically. Psalm 22 shows us a couple of changes that we might not think of. First, the Psalmist makes a vow. “I will declare your name to my brothers (and sisters, of course); in the great congregation I will praise you.” The practice of making vows can be abused. We can use vows to bargain with God. “If you do this, then I promise to do that.” But that’s not what the Psalmist does here. “Because you have graciously broken into my misery, I will do this.” The grace of God prompts a promise. That’s something that will preach. How often do we experience sudden grace, breathe a sigh of relief, and walk away unchanged?
The Psalmist vows to do something that would make most Christians’ knees buckle. “I will go public with my praise.” In our age of individualistic spirituality, we keep our praise private. We have a right to privacy, and that extends to worship. “That’s between me and my God.” Well, no, says the Psalmist. If God has done this great thing for me, I have to share it with others in the great congregation. This Psalm filled with trouble so severe that it tests faith ends with a long vow and expansive praise.
Indeed, that’s the word scholars use to describe the last 23-31—expansive, or even explosive. Not only will the Psalmist praise God himself, but he also calls all Israel to join him in verse 23. His personal deliverance has national implications, because not only individual Israelites but also the nation has experienced the absence of God while surrounded by the presence of animalistic enemies. So they need to be reminded that Yahweh “has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” Israel needed to hear that and join the Psalmist in his praise.
So does the world. What has happened to the king of Israel happens around the world to all kinds of people. So the Psalmist turns outward, assumes a missionary posture, and calls upon the whole world to praise Yahweh– from the poor to the rich, from the Promised Land to the ends of the earth, from the children of Jacob to the families of the nations, from those who have gone down to the dust to those who are not yet born. This is extravagant, unprecedented praise. The nations are often “the Enemy.” Now they are invited into the choir. The “dead praise not the living God.” Here they join the praise. How can people not yet born praise God? But the Psalmist calls on fetuses to raise their voices. The poor are often oppressed by the rich. Now they join the rich at the banquet table of the Kingdom? That’s what the now delivered Psalmist calls for.
And that’s what the Perfect Man died for. His God forsakenness on the cross and his subsequent deliverance from all his enemies had not only personal significance, not only national significance, but also worldwide significance. The One who emptied himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, will one day be exalted. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus the Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2) Psalm 22 gives us a Christ-centered prayer for the darkest days of our lives, when there seems to be no hope for deliverance. It moves that huge distance from complaint and lament to deliverance and praise in the space of half a verse (21a), or in the space of three days. Grace can be sudden and unexpected.
I love the way Eric Mathis puts it. “Yes, even when we are faced with suffering—whether we find ourselves among the weak or the powerful—we will move from darkness to dawn and proclaim the deliverance that come from God to God’s people. This is the Psalmist’s story. This is Christ’s story. This is our story. And this is the story for generations to come. Thanks be to God.”
You probably won’t have to look very far to find examples of people who can voice the prayer of Psalm 22. But if you are looking for a particularly honest and godly example, look no further than J. Todd Billings. A theology professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, Billings was told at the young age of 39 that he has incurable cancer. In his wonderful book, Rejoicing in Lament, he wrestles with all the questions such a diagnosis raises in a man of faith. The big question is, of course, “why did God let this happen to me?” The issue at the heart of that question is the sovereignty of a good God. Here a few thoughts that might help you preach on Psalm 22.
“It is faith in a sovereign God that causes confusion in the Psalms of lament. Why does an all powerful King suddenly and inexplicably no longer bless, no longer order life, and no longer hold things together. If a person did not believe that God is sovereign, there would be no cause for lament. It is precisely out of trust that God is sovereign that the Psalmist repeatedly brings laments and petition to the Lord.”
“In what sense, exactly, does the Psalmist blame God amid crisis? The psalmist does not ‘blame’ God in the sense of a judge who blames a defendant as he delivers a verdict and dismisses the defendant from the courtroom. Instead the psalmists blame God in the interrogative, with raw, unanswered questions that cling to the hope of God’s covenant promise: Why am I in this crisis if the Lord’s covenant promise is true?”
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