Commentary on Psalm 22
I remember the conversation well, though it took place a number of years ago, in Germany.
My wife and I were renting an apartment from a retired couple who became not only our landlords, but also our friends. Each evening after coming back on the bus from the University of Tuebingen, I would stop upstairs and visit with Herr Jung, our friend, in German. He was a retired mechanic, very bright, and spoke excellent high German. When he offered to visit with me in German for an hour each day, I jumped at the chance immediately.
Our conversations ranged over a variety of subjects, from World War 2 to the Arab-Israeli conflict to the latest antics of the family next door. But one afternoon I could see that he was very worried about something. His dear wife had been diagnosed with cancer, and the prospect was not good. He knew I was a Lutheran pastor and was studying theology. And he put the question to me directly. “Herr Limburg, she is such a wonderful person. She has always helped people in trouble. But now this!” And then his question sank into my soul, “Warum, Herr Limburg, Warum?” (“Why … why?”)
I don’t remember what I said that evening. But I do remember the question. And it made me think of exactly the same question raised by the anguished writer of Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why … ?” And it was also the question raised by Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46).
The clue to understanding this psalm is in recognizing that it is made up of the typical elements of an individual lament, a prayer from a time of trouble. Those elements are most obvious in Psalm 13 which consists of a complaint (verses 1-3), a cry for help (verses 2-3), an affirmation of trust (verse 5) and a vow to praise (verse 6).
These parts are easily identifiable in Psalm 22. Verses 1-2 are a complaint beginning in verse 1 in the “you” form with a repeated “my God,” then continuing in the “I” form in verse 2.
With verses 3-5 the tone changes to an affirmation of trust. The psalmist looks back at his family’s history. To put it in modern terms, “My grandparents lost the farm but they never stopped going to church! And you, God, helped them through those times.”
Verses 6-8once again articulate a complaint, this time in the “I” (6a) and “they” forms (6b-8)
With verses 9-10 the psalmist swings back to affirming trust in God, this time recalling his own history. He says, in effect, “I’m 70 years old now, Lord. And you’ve been with me for all those years, ever since the time I was born!”
Verse 11 is the first expression of a cry for help. The psalmist asks, “Do not be far from me” (linking with the “far from” in verse 1) and then says that he is facing trouble alone.
Verses 12-18 clarify the nature of that trouble. Certain persons in the community are making life miserable (“bulls … lions”; read, “members of the church council?”). There is no doubt in the mind of the one praying whose fault it all is — “it’s your (God’s) fault!” (verse 15c).
The complaints continue with vivid metaphors. The enemies are like a pack of wild dogs (verse 16; see 1 Kings 22:38). And what are these people in the community doing? “Dividing up my clothes, “says the psalmist, “acting like I am already dead!” We can imagine the conversations that the sufferer picks up, perhaps hearing, “I’m a 42-long and I could certainly use that sport coat!”
The extended cry for help in verses 19-21 again picks up the “far off” words of verses 1 and 11 and uses the personal name ”Yahweh” for the first time (NRSV LORD), pleading for help.
With verse 21b the psalm modulates from a mournful minor key to a bright major. The psalmist has recalled God’s saving work in the past (verses 3-5, 9-10), has now experienced it in the present (verse 21b), and anticipates further stories of God’s deliverances in the future (verses 30-31).
What does this psalm mean for the “Good Fridays” in our own lives, when we are shaken by grief or almost destroyed by the circumstances of life?
First, the psalm points to the importance of community, a group of concerned fellow-believers who are more than a “support group” but who will sympathize and pray with and for us when we are suffering. The psalm assumes life in such a community, remembering the community of the past (verses 4-5), pointing to the community of the present (verses 22, 25), and anticipating the ongoing community of the future (verses 30-31).
Second, we notice that the “why” questions at the beginning of the psalm are never answered. Never is there a voice from heaven saying, “These things are happening to test you … ” or something similar. Or when the laments ask “How long, O Lord” (Psalm 13) there is never a voice coming out of the clouds saying, “In about two weeks it will all be over.”
Even for Jesus on the cross (Matthew 27:46), the questions remain questions.
I have heard the Jewish teacher Elie Wiesel tell on a number of occasions of a young man who was very disturbed because he had so many questions about God. Most disturbing was: “Why does God allow suffering?” A friend advised the young man to travel to another town to hear a particularly gifted rabbi speak. He did, and something happened. He returned and said “The questions remained questions. But somehow, I could go on.”
Finally, we remember that Jesus prayed this psalm on the cross. If Jesus believed himself forsaken and far from God, it should not be surprising that we ordinary believers feel that way at times. In such difficult times Jesus reached for this psalm.
The questions may remain questions. But somehow, we may be able to go on.