Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 25, 2024

Psalm 22:23-31 Commentary

Considering that a portion of Psalm 22 is assigned to the Second Sunday in Lent, it seems odd that the Revised Common Lectionary would select for us not the first two-thirds of the psalm that is a whopping lament but instead the sunny-side-up concluding verses.  Psalm 22 almost seems like it’s two separate poems.  We begin famously with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then the poet goes on and on about being a lowly worm, about being despised and seemingly abandoned by God.

But then starting at verse 22 there is a major turnaround.  Suddenly God is described as never abandoning his people.  God is the target for worship and praise and feasting.  God is the One before whom all will kneel in utter humility.  It is as though the psalmist who cried out in dereliction initially now cannot find words sufficient to convey his effervescent enthusiasm for Israel’s glorious God.

Again, it is that glowing conclusion that the RCL carves out for us, not any of the darker earlier broodings of the psalmist.  But we cannot preach on even the final portion of Psalm 22 without being aware that all of this somehow follows—may somehow be connected to—all that lamenting from the first 21 verses.  Again, it almost feels like the change in tone in verses 22ff is so radical the two different parts of this poem very nearly seem like they cannot be contained inside the same single psalm.

But they are.  What do we make of that fact?  If you look over the whole psalm, there is no definitive explanation given for the shift in tone and sentiment.  The psalmist does not report that God came through for him in answer to his pleas for help and thus the shift from dereliction to adoration.  Things just change after verse 21.

21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!

Are we readers to imply that God did intervene somewhere between the mouths of hungry lions / the horns of angry oxen and verse 22?  Maybe.  With the exception of Psalm 88, basically all of the Lament Psalms (one-third of the Hebrew Psalter) either do report that God came through for them or they at least promise a boatload of praise for God on the assumption that at some point God will show back up and rescue the psalmist from his various woes and enemies.  Laments always make that move (again, Psalm 88 excepted).  We cry out, we ask God hard questions, we accuse God of letting us down and not keeping his own promises and then God returns, which then becomes the occasion for great worship and praise of this faithful-after-all God.

Since this portion of Psalm 22 is assigned for Lent, maybe this becomes an occasion to reflect on the purpose of this liturgical season.  Lent begins with Ash Wednesday which seems to be a combination of acknowledging our finitude and mortality as well as a beginning of wearing also the ashes of repentance for our sins.  Both are sobering realities, sobering things to ponder and pray about.  So also the first 21 verses of Psalm 22 are mighty sobering, sad, bracing.

But the conclusion of the psalm reminds us that all of the sobering stuff is always en route to something better.  Yes, our penitence in Lent is getting us ready to see the ultimate result of our human sinfulness when no less than the Son of God gets crucified, even crying out Psalm 22:1 as part of that grim execution.  But we are also on our way to Easter.  Our somber confessing of our sins, our somber reflection on our mortality are not the focus of Lent just to make anyone feel bad about themselves.  No, it’s on the way to the newness of life that Christ Jesus makes possible through his death but then most certainly through also his resurrection.

A colleague of mine has claimed that when Jesus cried out the dereliction of this psalm’s opening verse, he did not really mean it.  He did not really think he was being abandoned by the Father and the Spirit.  Since Jesus knew the whole of Psalm 22, when he cried out a sense of forsakenness, he was kind of winking at us.  Jesus wanted us to think about how Psalm 22 ends.  But many others disagree.  As another colleague of mine once said, you don’t do Bible memory work when you are hanging on a cross!  Jesus did feel abandoned.  His agony in that moment was as real as the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before.  John Calvin believed that when we say in the Apostles Creed “he descended into hell,” we are referring to that hellish moment on the cross.

Indeed, for the conclusion of Psalm 22 to have any real power, all of the prior material had to be meant fully and forcefully.  You cannot appreciate the beauty of worshiping the God who comes through for you without actually having passed through the valley of the shadow of death (which the very next psalm talks about).  The forcefulness of the worship that comes at the end of this psalm grows directly out of the genuine horror of the beginning of it all.  A lot of the color of Psalm 22:22-31 drains away if you water down the true struggles of verses 1-21.

Perhaps, then, Psalm 22, even the concluding part the Lectionary serves up, is a great fit for Lent after all.  It reminds us that, to quote another psalm, sorrow may last through the night but joy comes in the morning.

[Note: In addition to our weekly sermon commentaries, we have a special resource page for Lent and Easter for you to explore!]

Illustration Idea

In an article published a few years after the death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, we learned that although Teresa received a clarion call from God to become a nun and serve the poor, after that the phone line with God seemed to go dead.  She seems to have endured the proverbial “dark night of the soul” most of her long life.  She begged to hear more from God but mostly did not, apparently.

Yet those who knew her said that Mother Teresa radiated joy.  She was by no means a dour person to be around.  Something about that combination of a troubled soul and an outward joy expressed in testimony and work and service and worship seems to mirror Psalm 22.  Out of desperate struggle emerges the joy of the Lord.


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