Commentary on Psalm 22:19-28
Many years ago, I was sitting in a lecture by a Jewish scholar who was explaining how Jewish children, before there were books, when literacy and scroll ownership were all but nonexistent, learned the Psalms. The child’s mother would recite one Psalm after another from memory, regularly, until the child knew the Psalms, and knew them well. I nodded appreciatively, and then felt a shudder rise up in me. Mary taught Jesus the Psalms. And then, during his hour of bitter agony, she watched helplessly as he uttered the very words she’d taught him as a boy, none more harrowing than “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some believe that in those days, if you voiced the opening of a Psalm, listeners would rummage ahead in their minds to the whole Psalm. If I say “The Lord is my shepherd,” you mentally continue into “I shall not want,” “Yea, though I walk through the valley,” et cetera. Today’s lectionary chunk of Psalm 22 begins deep into the thing, in verse 19. Did Jesus intend it all? Did his mother, and Jewish bystanders, hear the whole thing in their minds? Did Mary recollect verse 9, “It was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast … Since my mother bore me you have been my God”?
Verses 19-26 reveal to us that the God-forsaken one doesn’t stop talking with God—like Job, or like Jews in Nazi concentration camps. After shrill screams of abandonment, the Psalmist still asks for God to “come quickly,” and to deliver my life “from the mouth of the lion”. Did Jesus think of Daniel—who after all, did get out of that den unscathed? Are we off the hook with Christianity’s harsh critics if we say “Well, Jesus was saved, just in a different way,” in the face of horrific, unsaved suffering in our world, and among those to whom we preach?
The lament is part of the Good News. Not the prelude to the Good News, or the foil for the Good News. It is Good News that we have a God who abandons us, but not so radically as not to be able to hear our cries, or to be with us even though unseen, unfelt, not intervening. This is the appeal of our faith: God isn’t freaked out by suffering.
Can you hear and feel the Psalmist’s calmest assurance? “He has not despised the afflicted of the afflicted; he has heard when he cried to him.” Not “He has prevented affliction.” As Jesus, with only seconds of failing breath left in him, articulates this lament he’s learned as a child, we are awed by his agony. And if we look away, our eyes fall on Mary and her immense, unspeakable agony. If we blush or sigh in exasperation and look upward, in the distance we surely get a glimpse of God’s own agony in this moment.
Salvador Dali’s duly famous painting of the crucifixion, which hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, views Jesus’ last moment from above, the way God witnessed God’s hardest, most painful moment in all of created time. God’s heart, shattered, the expense of that love beyond any measure.
Our sliver of Psalm 22 has its resounding notes of praise. Nothing glib here, like the hairdresser Annelle trying to cheer up M’Lynn at the grave of her daughter Shelby in Steel Magnolias: “It should make you feel a lot better that Shelby is with her King … We should all be rejoicing.” God is more mortified than we are by such simplistic pablum. The God-forsaken Psalmist can praise because of something deeper, a humbled awareness that life is short and cruel, and the God who made the sun that just hid its face, who gave him such a mother, and a vocation that mattered, is listening in wretched agony with him, and her. The word “praise” can be spoken without a grin, more of a whisper, a sigh, a bit of a groan. Praise.
Did Jesus, with his fleeting breaths, get as far in his mind at verse 26? “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.” The night before, Philip had said “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8). He showed them, in this moment, the heart of the Father. He washed the disciples’ feet— and now his were covered in grime, sweat and blood. As Jesus broke the Passover bread he’d said “This is my Body.” And they ate, those poor ones. Did they understand? Of course not. The few left at the cross, who weren’t hiding, surely saw his broken flesh and pouring out blood and recalled his breaking the bread and pouring the wine just hours earlier.
Mary hadn’t been there. But she had been there when Jesus ate and drank as a child, meals she’d cooked, and before that from her breast, mentioned in this Psalm. As she saw his precious body she’d first washed after it emerged after grueling pain from her womb, broken, and bloodied, did she recall her own body at his birth? Rachel Marie Stone re-envisions the Christmas pains:
“A girl was in labor with God. She groaned and sweated and arched her back, crying out for her deliverance and finally delivering God, God’s head pressing on her cervix, emerging from her vagina, perhaps tearing her flesh a little; God the Son, her Son, covered in vernix and blood, the infant God’s first breath the close air of crowded quarters… God the Son, her Son, pressed to her bare breast… God the Son, her Son, drank deeply from his mother. Drink, my beloved. This is my body, broken for you.”1
Of course, not too many hours later, those poor disciples did eat once more—when the risen Christ cooked fish for them on the seashore. The afflicted did eat. Jesus was saved from the mouth of the lion. God heard him.
- Rachel Marie Stone, Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light (Downers Grove: IVP, 2018), 127.