Commentary on Psalm 22
Psalm 22 has been described rather glibly as “the fifth passion narrative” for the imagery it has contributed to the evangelists’ depictions of the closing events of Good Friday.
While this description does wrench the psalm out of its original context and ignore the plight of the psalmist who is seriously ill and either abandoned by all or imprisoned, one cannot hear this poignant psalm, in a church, on Good Friday, and not be reminded of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels. This is due to the following, generally agreed upon allusions:
- Jesus’ cry of dereliction quoting the opening words of the psalm (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46 in Aramaic)
- the derisive wagging of heads (verse 7 in Mark 15:29; Matthew 27:39)
- the sarcastic mocking of Jesus’ trust in God (verse 8 in Matthew 27:43)
- the division of Jesus’ garment (verse 18 in Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24)
- the allusions to thirst (verse 15 in John 19:28) and the conclusion, “he has done it” (verse 31 in John 19:30 “it is finished”)
At a basic structural level, the psalm juxtaposes a lament (verses 1-21, framed by “you do not answer” in verse 2 and “you have answered me” [NRSV “rescued,” but see the margin] in verse 21) and a thanksgiving (verses 22-31, framed by “I will tell” in verse 22 and “proclaim” in verse 31). James Luther Mays suggests that this lament “moves through two cycles (verses 1-11 and 12-19), each concluding in the petition, ‘be not far’ (verses 11, 19).”1
In addition, each cycle consists of two laments (verses 1-2, 6-8; and 12-15, 16-18, respectively) each followed by assertions of confidence in God (verses 3-5, 9-10); or descriptions of approaching death (verses 14-15, 17-18). The thanksgiving falls into two sections as well: the pray-er’s response in a hymn of praise (verses 22-26) and a (perhaps later) expansion of that individual’s praise to the nations and even the “ends of the earth” (verses 27-31).
I would suggest dwelling on the lament in the sermon. Here the psalmist shares his pain as an innocent sufferer who neither confesses sin nor lashes out at enemies, choosing to relate how suffering has rendered him subhuman, a worm beset by bulls, dogs, lions, and wild oxen (verses 6, 12-13, 16, 20-21). Various parts of his body testify to the lethal effects of his suffering as his disjointed skeleton, with heart melted like wax, is poured out like water; desiccated mouth, parched tongue, and all (verses 14-15). He is mocked and ridiculed by those who see him and who, like Job’s three “friends,” are convinced that his plight is indicative of grievous sin (verses 6-8).
As Mays has shown, alternating with these complaints are assertions of the psalmist’s trust in God. While both regularly appear in biblical laments, the alternation seen here is unusual, especially considering the curious absence of divine response. It’s as if the psalmist were saying, “Why have you abandoned me? . . . when our ancestors trusted you, you delivered them!” In fact, variations on “our ancestors trusted you” appear three times in verses 4-5. What’s the real problem here?
Carroll Stuhlmueller has stressed the importance of the three-fold inclusion in verses 1-2 and 19-21 for a proper appreciation of the lament.2
- In verse 1 God is “far from” the psalmist and far from “saving” (NRSV: “helping”) him. In verse 2 the psalmist complains “you do not answer.”
- At the end of the lament the psalmist prays that Yahweh “not be far away” (v. 19) and calls upon him to “save me” (v. 21); and this time the psalmist exclaims, “you have answered me!” (v. 21, again, NRSV has “rescued me”).
Since “Do not be far from me” also appears at the end of verse 11, its structural significance seems assured and suggests the following concentric arrangement:
A Lament: ‘You don’t answer’ verses 1-8
B Plea: ‘Do not be far from me’ verses 9-11
X Description of Situation verses 12-18
B’ Plea: ‘Do not be far from me’ verses 19-21
A’ Praise: ‘You have answered me!’ verses 22-31
“The key dilemma, then,” to quote Stuhlmueller, “is the absent, silent, deaf God!”3 The movement in the lament is from a deaf, unresponsive God in verses 1-8 to the answering God of verses 19-21. We can only admire the resolute faith expressed by the psalmist in the midst of his suffering, a suffering made almost unbearable by God’s perceived absence, or worse, lack of response. No wonder exuberant praise begins immediately following the assurance that God has answered.
This is a difficult word to preach. Only the dreadful Psalm 88 broaches the appalling notion of unanswered prayer and God’s absence more directly. Perhaps this is why the Church has always used this agonizing psalm in its attempts to understand the profound mystery of the cross. By taking upon himself the unbearable burden of our sin, Jesus, God’s Word incarnate, experienced the equally unbearable burden of absolute isolation from God, thereby bringing reconciliation and restoring our relationship. As Paul so aptly says, “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
If one has decided to concentrate on the poignant lament, or prayer for help found in verses 1-21 in the sermon for Good Friday (and speaking from experience, this can be a most rewarding approach), then one has the delightful option of preaching on the magnificent song of praise in verses 22-31 on Easter Sunday, thereby matching the differing moods of the text, so characteristic of this psalm, to the differing worship moods of the congregation.
1J. L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 107.
2C. Stuhlmueller, “Psalm 22: The Deaf and Silent God of Mysticism and Liturgy,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 (1982): 86-90.