Commentary on Psalm 22:19-28
If we follow the lectionary reading for this Sunday, we enter Psalm 22 right in the middle of an anguished scream.
The psalmist has begun the psalm with a desolate cry of abandonment (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), and then has detailed his troubles, using vivid metaphors. He is a “worm, and not human” (verse 6). He is surrounded by “bulls,” “lions,” and “dogs” (verses 12-13, 16). He is “poured out like water” (verse 14). And he is not afraid to place blame where blame is due: “You [God] lay me in the dust of death” (verse 15).
And yet, the psalmist also knows where his help lies; strangely enough, from the same source he has just accused of foul play. As we enter the psalm, the psalmist cries, “But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!” (verse 19).
Such direct address to God in both complaint and cry for help is typical, of course, of a lament. The psalmist shakes his fist at God while at the same time holding on to God in faith, knowing that his help can come from no other source. The psalmist accuses God while at the same time holding God to God’s promises. “Since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help” (verses 10-11).
As we enter the psalm, then, the psalmist has shifted from complaint to cry for help, always addressing God directly. Even more dramatically, a few verses later, the psalmist moves from lament to praise. Lament ending in praise is, again, typical of the lament form (see Psalm 13:5-6, for instance). The movement from lament to praise in Psalm 22, however, is so abrupt as to cause whiplash. The psalmist cries out to God for salvation from ravenous enemies: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me!” (22:20-21).
In the middle of verse 21, his mouth open for another cry of anguish, the psalmist inexplicably turns to praise: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me!” The NRSV translates the verse, “you have rescued me,” but that is not what the Hebrew says, and it is more, perhaps, than the psalmist experiences. The psalmist may or may not be rescued, but he is answered, and the fact of God answering is enough for the psalmist. It is exactly what he first sought, after all: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer” (verse 2). Now that God has answered, the psalmist is moved from the depths of despair to the heights of praise.
He begins with a vow to praise (again, typical of a lament): “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (verse 22). He moves quickly, then, to calling on various groups to join him in that praise: all who fear the LORD, offspring of Jacob/Israel, all the ends of the earth, all the families of the nations, all who are dying as well as those yet to be born: “proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (verse 31).
The praise moves out like ripples from a stone tossed into a still pond. The faithfulness of God to this one who has been sorely afflicted, and the fact of God’s hearing and answering (verse. 24) leads to witness. The psalmist cannot help but tell of God’s work. And witness does its work. God’s faithfulness and loving kindness to this one individual leads to worship of the LORD, not just in the psalmist’s immediate family or community, but in the whole world, across space and time. This psalm, which began with an appeal to God’s faithfulness to the ancestors (verse 4), ends by witnessing to coming generations and to a people yet unborn.
As I hope this brief exposition has shown, this psalm provides much rich material for preaching.1 The lectionary reading, unfortunately, gives us only a taste of the psalm. To get the full effect of the movement from lament to praise, the preacher must include the first half of the psalm, as well as the last few verses which are inexplicably left out. (Granted, it is a long reading, but if one chooses to preach on this text, it is well worth the time to read the whole psalm in the congregation.)
Most parishioners, of course, will recognize the opening lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22 is traditionally read on Good Friday, and was used by both Mark and Matthew as a lens through which to view the Crucifixion. But used as it is this Sunday, in the middle of the summer, perhaps the psalm can speak to the suffering that attends every life, in every season of the year, not just in Lent. The psalm teaches us often-overly-pious Christians how to lament–honestly, passionately, which still holding on to God and God’s promises.
Just as importantly, Psalm 22 teaches us how to praise. The praise that ends the psalm neither negates the lament nor denies the pain of the petitioner. Indeed, the praise is made more robust by the psalmist’s journey through hell. God has answered him, and that has made all the difference.
Note that there is no mention of a change of outward circumstances in the psalmist’s life. He may still have enemies surrounding him, but he knows now that God has heard his cry and has answered him, and that is enough to lead to praise. Surely such a situation is true in many of our lives; when outward circumstances (illness, economic troubles) remain the same, but somehow we know that God has heard us. That knowledge, the assurance of God’s presence, is enough to move us to praise.
Psalm 22 can teach us to lament honestly, to praise in the midst of hard circumstances, and to witness to the faithfulness of the God who hears and answers, from generation to generation.
1To read an exemplary sermon on Psalm 22, see Ellen F. Davis’s Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2005), 152-158.