Commentary on Psalm 22:25-31
How odd is it, during Easter, to return to the Psalm of Good Friday, the chilling scream of the crucifixion?
We would prefer to move on, to get over it, to sound the resurrection trumpet and roll the stone back to erase the unhappy memory of Good Friday.
But the crucifixion is always the Gospel. You can’t get to Easter without Good Friday, and the resurrected Jesus still bears the wounds in his hands and side (John 20:27). The triumphant hymn by Matthew Bridges proclaims the eternal union of not just the Psalm but the salvific act in Christ: “Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.”1
And the fact is, Jesus the Messiah came, but the Messianic era has not exactly dawned. The ache persists, sin grows like kudzu, and we still cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Much has been written about the need for the Church to recover the “lament.” We have forgotten how to lay our sorrows down before the Lord — or have we? Perhaps too many of our prayers are half-hearted laments; we plead to God for help and express our discomforts. What we then do not have is patience. We lack an understanding that in this realm, on this side of eternity, God does not swiftly reply, righting all wrongs and smoothing our paths. We want to piece together a brief lament, a quick prayer request, even strengthened by a prayer chain from friends — and God should intervene now and give us what we ask for. We would really prefer to skip right over the lament, but God lets us stay with the pain, God invites us to meet God in the darkness.
The Psalms are indeed, as Christoph Barth put it, a “School of Prayer.” They are not a primer in how to make your prayers effective but a lesson in how to find God and live in union with God. Psalm 22 illustrates the wide range of emotions, yearnings, and destinies in our life with God. If we read past its rightly famous first verse, we are jostled by the rich language of the Psalm and the grand reversal that arrives late in the day but just in time.
In Preaching the Psalms, Clint McCann and I recommend two approaches to preaching a Psalm.2
First, one can explore an image, which is not taken literally, but fruitfully probed as evocative. Or second, one can explore the movement within the Psalm, a shift in the mood of the one praying. In Psalm 22, both approaches are fruitful.
The images are startling and hyperbolic. Graphically and poetically, they elicit a deep emotional resonance within us. The Psalmist moves from a child on its mother’s breast to being surrounded by bulls, from being poured out like water to feeling like hot wax, from a broken old piece of pottery to growling dogs.
In addition, we not only preach the images of the Psalm, we might imitate the Psalmist and deploy a few imaginative metaphors ourselves.
Lament to Praise
Like most Psalms, the 22nd is not a still life, portraying only the agony of an ancient Psalmist or Christ breathing his last. Instead, the Psalm exhibits a drama, an inner movement that transports the reader to a new place, an unanticipated destination. The reader is taken on a pilgrimage from sorrow to joy, from desolation to hope, from cross to glory.
Psalm 22 is a lament, and like virtually all laments, there is an inevitable miracle of grace, a mind-boggling shift from lament to praise.
Here we see that the lament is not about me expressing my inner angst or pouring out my soul. Rather, the lament is about God who knows my grief but does not leave me alone and perhaps even joins me in the pit. God lifts the poor from the ash heap. Indeed, God feeds the poor, and with an explosion of scope, all nations come around to worshipping God!
When Jesus, in his hour of dereliction, recalled the 22nd Psalm, was it simply to utter the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Had he not memorized the entire Psalm, as good Jewish boys would?
Did he, even on the cross, fast forward in his mind to that turn to praise, the dawn of the new day pledged in its closing verses which we read now, appropriately, during Easter?
The praise and hope in the face of darkness is no utopian fantasy. What the Psalm voices will happen! And it will happen because of the cry at the beginning of the Psalm.
Once Christ was forsaken, we never will be. God’s plan for humanity, for the very earth itself and the universe, will be fulfilled because God forsook Jesus and let him suffer in order to embody the wondrous love of God. So great was that victory hinted at in Psalm 22, even those “who sleep in the earth” shall bow down! Perhaps Paul had this Psalm in mind when he languished in prison, bearing much physical pain, when he spoke of Christ emptying himself, humbling himself, obedient unto death on a cross (cf. Philippians 2:7-11).
Notice that the raging “Why?” is never fully answered. Our query, “Why do bad things happen?” is not resolved. But we hope. For we have sung the Psalm with God’s people, who have borne every conceivable agony over countless centuries. And we find ourselves carried forward on the tide of their faith, on the surging wave of the powerful grace of God.
1“Crown Him with Many Crowns,” verse three in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #855.
2James C. Howell and J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Preaching the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon press, 2001).
May 10, 2009