Commentary on Psalm 22
Psalm 22 is a prayer of complaint that, perhaps more than any psalm, serves as a link between the Old Testament and the story of Jesus’ passion.
Indeed, this psalm is an appropriate lectionary reading for Good Friday because the Gospels cite and allude to it at least five times in the crucifixion account. It is important to recognize, however, that Psalm 22 is not important simply because it appears in the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament writers drew from it because of its profound expressions of suffering and faith.
Psalm 22 has “an intensity and a comprehensiveness” that is almost unequaled among psalms of this type.1 The psalm has two main parts: (1) a prayer for help in verses 1-21a; and (2) a song of praise in verses 21b-31. Both of these sections have two prominent divisions in which repetition of a main theme, sometimes with exact vocabulary, strengthens the psalm’s expression of both complaint and praise. Verses 1-11 has two complaints (verses 1-2, 6-8), each of which contains some of the most striking language in the Psalms. The psalm opens with the famous cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
At the other end of this section the psalmist complains, “I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people” (verse 6). In both cases, however, the complaint is followed by an extended confession of trust that recalls God’s protection in the past (verses 3-5, 9-11). The first confession of trust is corporate (“In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them,” verse 4) and second individual and personal (“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast,” verse 9).
The prayer for help in verses 12-21a focuses on the nature of the psalmist’s trouble. Verses 12-13 and 16a include images of animals that circle the psalmist waiting to devour and destroy (“bulls encircle me,” verse 12; “dogs are all around me,” verse 16a). These images are followed in both cases by complaints of physical weakness: “I am poured out like water” (verse 14); “my tongue sticks to my jaws” (verse 15a); “I can count all my bones” (verse 17). The section concludes with a concatenation of petitions for God to be near and to save from the sword, the dog, and the lion (verses 19-21a).
The second major portion of the psalm turns to praise and assurance that God has heard and answered. This section offers praise and thanksgiving that matches the repeated calls for help in verses 1-21a. Verse 21b responds tersely to the complaints of verses 1-18 by saying “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” The rest of the psalm then promises praise to God, promises that progress from the psalmist’s profession before worshippers (verses 22-25) to the praise of those who “sleep in the earth” (verse 29).
The psalmist’s promise of praise dominates verses 22-26. Twice the psalmist pledges to honor God by recalling God’s goodness (verse 22) and by making vows in the midst of the congregation (verse 25). After both promises of praise the psalmist then declares God’s past goodness to those in trouble and those of lowly estate (“the afflicted,” verse 24; “the poor” and “those who seek him,” verse 26; the word translated “afflicted” and the word translated “poor” are actually the same, ?an? ). Verses 27-31 then expand the promise of praise so that every person in human history is included: “all the families of the nations” (verse 27), “all who sleep in the earth” (verse 29), and “future generations” (verse 30).
The connection between Psalm 22 and the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is natural given the extensive description of suffering the psalm contains. Perhaps the most obvious connection between the passion story and Psalm 22 is Jesus’ cry of God-forsakenness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Other portions of the psalm provide an outline of the experience of Jesus on the cross.
Mark 15:29 (Matthew 27:39) implies the language of Psalm 22:7 in the description of passersby at the crucifixion:
“All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.”
Matthew 27:43 also frames the taunts of the religious leaders with an allusion to Psalm 22:8:
“Commit your cause to the LORD;
let him deliver —
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
In all four Gospels (Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) the description of the soldiers’ activity beneath the cross draws on Psalm 22:18:
“they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
In addition to these examples, John 19:28 probably has Psalm 22:15 in mind when reporting that Jesus says, “I am thirsty” in order “to fulfill scripture.” The scripture fulfilled is most likely Psalm 22:15.
Though the original setting of Psalm 22 had nothing to do with the passion of Jesus, a Messianic reading is a natural result of the psalm’s extensive expression of suffering and its far-reaching declaration of hope. The psalm “explodes the limits” of poetic expression and thus expands the Old Testament understanding of God, human life, and death.2
Not only does the psalmist cry out to God with unparalleled expressions of pain and loss (verse 1), but the writer also expresses hope in something close akin to resurrection (verses 29-30). Thus, Psalm 22 is appropriate for the hope that accompanies Jesus’ passion as well as the grief. It anticipates a vision of God who holds the believer even after death that will only be expressed fully centuries later.
1James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 107.
2Ellen F. Davis, “Exploding the Limits: Form and Function in Psalm 22,” JSOT 53 (1992), 102-103.