Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

The Psalter lection includes portions of the two major components of an individual lament/complaint.

Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb
Volterra, Daniele da, ca. 1509-1566. Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source:

June 23, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 22:19-28

The Psalter lection includes portions of the two major components of an individual lament/complaint.

Verses 19-21a consist primarily of petition, along with embedded lament/complaint (see “the sword” and “the power of the dog” in verse 20, and “the mouth of the lion” in verse 21). Since verses 19-21a bring to a conclusion paired sections of extended lament/complaint and petition (verses 1-11, 12-21a), it is appropriate that the vocabulary of verses 19-21a recalls both of the prior sections.

  • “far” in verses 1, 11, 19;
  • “help” in verses 11, 19;
  • “deliver” in verses 8, 19;
  • “Save”/”helping” (which represent the same Hebrew root) in verses 1, 21;
  • “dog(s)” in verses 16, 20; and
  • “lion” in verses 14, 21a.

The transition to the second major component occurs in verse 21b, which introduces paired sections of assurance/praise (verses 21b-24, 25-28), thus providing a noticeable symmetry for the entire psalm.

It may seem somewhat unexpected or untidy that the lection cuts across major sections of the poem; but because the reading includes both the lament/complaint/petition and the assurance/praise, it provides a significant interpretive opportunity. To be sure, we do not know how the juxtaposition of these two components may have worked liturgically in the ancient Temple or synagogues; but what is clear is that the final form of Psalm 22 and all of the other individual laments/complaints (except Psalm 88) holds together lament/complaint/petition and assurance/praise. And precisely for this reason, these psalms are of profound theological significance.

As many Psalms commentators now conclude, while the Psalter may have originated as something like a hymnbook or prayer book, it was eventually received and transmitted as Scripture — that is, as a body of material from which we are invited and encouraged to learn about God, God’s will, and the faithful life lived under God’s claim. So, what do we stand to learn from Psalm 22:19-28 and from the regular juxtaposition of pain and praise in the laments/complaints?

James L. Mays sums up one of the major things to be learned in his comment on Psalm 13: “The agony and the ecstasy belong together as the secret of our identity.”[1] It was true for the ancient psalmists, who were regularly suffering and who were confronted with pervasive opposition (as in Psalm 22:12-21a). It is true for us as well, although we are hard pressed to appreciate this truth.

We are more apt to separate sharply times of pain and time to praise. We are inclined to wait to praise until things seem to be going well. To be sure, God is to be praised and thanked when things are going well; but things never seemed to be going completely well for the psalmists! As for us, if we wait to praise until everything is right with us and with the world, we will never get around to it!

Mays’s insight can be paraphrased in Christian terms as follows: The cross and the resurrection belong together as the secret of our identity (see Mark 8:34). Because this is true, Psalm 22 and the other laments/complaints invite us to locate our pain; to take it to God in prayer (as the psalmists always did); and to claim in the midst of our pain the assurance that God is with us, for which we appropriately praise God.

Not coincidentally in this regard, of course, Jesus himself is portrayed in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as quoting the opening line of Psalm 22 to claim and articulate his pain (see Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). But in keeping with the entirety of Psalm 22, Jesus also expressed the assurance of God’s presence with him on the cross (see verse 24), and so his death became an offering of praise that testified ultimately to God’s rule (see verse 28).

The invitation to locate our pain and the pain of the world also suggests another important learning from Psalm 22 and the other laments/complaints — that is, we ultimately learn to locate God with the suffering and victimized, not with the prosperous and the powerful (as many folk nowadays are inclined to do; consider the popularity of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel”). While the psalmist complains about God’s apparent absence, he or she finally (and seemingly simultaneously) claims God’s favor and presence (see especially verse 24).

The theological implications are crucial and far-reaching. Suffering cannot be construed as punishment, nor as evidence of divine disfavor, nor as evidence of alienation from God! The poor, for instance, cannot be blamed for being poor (again, as many contemporary folk are inclined to do). Instead, the poor are to be embraced as part of God’s worshipping community, and they are to be fed (verse 26). To put it most pointedly perhaps, the faithful psalmists suffered (as the faithful prophets suffered and as Jesus himself suffered) not because they were bad, but because they were good!

The mention of “vows” (verse 25) and of an apparent meal at which the poor are fed (verse 26) suggests the possibility that this portion of the psalm was originally related to a thanksgiving sacrifice (see Psalm 116:12-19). Thank offerings were not totally consumed by fire as were whole burnt offerings. Rather, the worshipper who brought the offering shared cooked portions of the animal with others that he had invited to the ceremony.

In this case, at least in the psalmist’s imagination, the whole world is invited — “the great congregation” (verse 25), “the poor” (verse 26), “all the families of the nations” (verse 27), and even the dead (verse 29) and “future generations” (verse 30). It is an extraordinary vision! And, of course, it is another anticipation of Jesus, whose ministry involved eating with anyone and everyone, as part of his proclamation and embodiment of a “dominion” (verse 28) or realm that, according to Jesus, was to be proclaimed “to all nations” (Luke 24:47).

This is not to say that Psalm 22 constitutes a prediction of Jesus. Rather, we should say that Jesus fully embodied the role of the righteous sufferer. Jesus suffered precisely because he fully embodied God’s unconditional love and compassion for the poor and victimized; and in the midst of pervasive opposition and pain, Jesus entrusted life and future to God. For Jesus, like the psalmist, the agony and the ecstasy belonged together. It is true for Jesus’ followers as well.

[1] James L. Mays, “Psalm 13,” Interpretation 37 (1983): 282.