Commentary on Psalm 22
Borne out of a gut-wrenching anguish, Psalm 22 is the cry of one who knows what it is to be bullied by his enemies, rejected by his community, and abandoned by God.
The threat for the psalmist is imminent as a “company of evildoers” surrounds him like bulls ready to attack and lions eager to devour. Bystanders despise and mock him. Even God seems to have forsaken him. The one in whom his ancestors trusted, the one who he has worshiped since his birth, this one has also seemingly cast him aside. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the psalmist cries. “O Lord, do not be far away! … Come quickly to my aid! (verse 19).” Yet in his time of trouble, God remains agonizingly silent.
The distress of the psalmist is palpable. With no one to help, the psalmist is consumed with a fear that debilitates him, exacting a physical and emotional toll. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax (verse 14),” the psalmist murmurs. For twenty-one verses, the psalmist voices his agonizing pain, his loneliness, his feelings of abandonment. God, where are you? “Deliver my soul from the sword … save me from the mouth of the lion! (verse 20a, 21a),” the psalmist pleads.
Then rather abruptly, the threat is gone. The enemies who once circled around the psalmist have been replaced by a worshiping community. The psalmist’s fear of affliction has been redirected into fear of the Lord. Lament has turned to praise. The world, which was once a place of danger for the psalmist, has become a place of joy and blessing — not just for the psalmist but for the wider community as well to whom blessings now flow. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord (verse 26a).” All this, the psalmist tells us, is God’s doing. In the end, God did not despise the affliction of the afflicted but heard his cry, his desperate plea for help. God turned his face toward him. God answered and acted for his sake, one whom the community had stigmatized, marginalized, and cast off. The holy God, enthroned on the praises of Israel, stooped down and attended to the needs of one despised and rejected.
For those familiar with the Christian Scriptures, it is almost impossible to read this psalm without calling to mind the events of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. “Eli, eli, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” Jesus cried (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Certainly the gospel writers understood Jesus as taking on the experience of the psalmist and all who would pray this prayer, embodying the sorrow, the loneliness, and the abuse reflected in this psalm. Soldiers gambled for his clothes (cf. Psalm 22:18 and John 19:23-24). Passersby jeered at him (cf. Psalm 22:7-8; Mark 15:29, Matthew 27:39). Enemies sought his life. And God remained silent.
The associations between this psalm and the passion of Christ highlight how fully and completely Jesus entered into the suffering of humanity, taking the sorrow and anguish of those who are afflicted upon himself. So the writer of Hebrews can speak of Jesus as one who became like his sisters and brothers in every respect and who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness and suffering as he intercedes for God’s mercy on our behalf (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15). But Jesus’ suffering is not just about solidarity and sympathy. Jesus not only suffered like us or with us, he suffered and even died for our sake. His is a redemptive suffering, a vicarious suffering, a suffering that marked the beginning of the end of all senseless and gratuitous suffering caused by human sin and evil. Jesus’ suffering brings about the new day described in verses 22-32 when all the families of the nations shall worship the Lord and the poor shall eat and be satisfied and the Lord will reign with justice and righteous and suffering and sorrow shall flee away.
As we consider this psalm on Good Friday, at least two avenues for reflection open themselves up to us. First, Psalm 22 reminds us that our faith is not rooted in a facile triumphalism. Christ’s was a hard-won anguish-filled victory against all that the forces of evil could muster. He stared sin and evil in the face and put them to death in his own body. This psalm, then, gives us a glimpse of what our redemption cost God, the Son submitting to the excruciating journey of the Via Dolorosa all the way to his brutal death on the cross. The father, tormented by Jesus’ cries for help and overcome by grief at his last breath all for the sake of our redemption. What wondrous love is this? What greater demonstration of love can there be than that God would lay down his life for us?
Second, it is not difficult to imagine those in our society who would pray this prayer, those who are the target of prejudice and injustice, those who suffer gratuitously on account of laws, policies, and social norms which fail to make space for them, those whom our society has pushed to margins. Good Friday is a day to join with Jesus in his fierce grief and sorrow over the sin of the world, to lament the forces of evil and cry out to God to bring healing to our sin-sick world. Through the cries of Psalm 22, we are reminded the evil that still plagues our world and even resides in our own hearts and so we lift up our voices in lament, awaiting the day when God will finally bring an end to all evil and pain.
“Come quickly, Lord. Do not be far away!”