Commentary on Psalm 22:23-31
Psalm 22 is a familiar psalm to most of us.
It opens with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — words uttered by Jesus on the cross in the gospel narratives. It continues in verse 18 with, “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” But the first twenty-two verses of the psalm are not the focus of the lectionary reading for the second Sunday in Lent. Those verses will have to wait until Good Friday.
Verses 23-31 of Psalm 22 are less familiar to the reader. They form a distinct section of the psalm, and yet they are firmly tied to the first twenty-two verses. To understand the connection between the two portions of the psalm, let us first examine its structure. Psalm 22 is categorized as an individual lament, in which the psalm singer cries out to God for deliverance from some life-threatening situation. Laments typically consist of five major elements:
- the invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to hear and listen
- the complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong
- the petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do
- the expression of trust, in which the psalmist tells God why she or he knows that God can do what the psalmist asks
- the expression of praise and adoration, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God
Psalm 22 may be analyzed as follows:
Verses 1-2: Invocation and complaint
Verses 3-5: Expression of trust
Verses 6-8: Complaint
Verses 9-10: Expression of trust
Verse 11: Petition
Verses 12-18: Complaint
Verses 19-21: Petition
Verses 22-31: Expression of praise and adoration
Thus we see that the passage for this lectionary reading comes entirely from the portion of the psalm categorized as praise and adoration. But we must not isolate the words from their larger context. The lament psalms embody a human process of dealing with the harsh realities of life. We are confronted by things seemingly beyond our control. We cry out to God, detailing the hurt, the bitterness, the fear. We express our heartfelt desire for retribution or deliverance.
In the process, we often have to remind ourselves why we even bother to come to God with our sorrows and pain. God has been there to deliver us or to help us find a way through the pain in the past, so we fervently believe that God can once again meet us where we are. And, finally, on the other side of the darkness, we find voice to praise God for all that God does for us.
But the praise and adoration of God does not come quickly or easily. The lament psalms depict not a moment in time, but a process in time. The singer of Psalm 22 says, “My God, my God . . . I am a worm . . . I am poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint . . . my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws . . . I can count all my bones” (verses 1, 6, 14, 15, 17). Words of complaint dominate the first half of the psalm.
Interestingly, though, expressions of trust are interwoven with the words of complaint. “In you our ancestors trusted . . . 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 4, 9, 10). In the darkest night of the soul, we often find consolation in remembering the goodness of God to us and to those around us. God has helped us in the past; God will do so again. Thus the psalmist offers words of petition in verses 11 and 19-21: “Do not be far from me . . . O my help, come quickly to my aid! . . . Save me from the mouth of the lion!”
Crying out to God, telling God what’s wrong, telling God what you want God to do, remembering God’s deliverance in the past, and then praising God for all God has done or will do. A morning’s or afternoon’s work? No. A long work of the inner being. But finally, in days, weeks, months, the light shines again and we find our words of praise to God.
Try to imagine what the singer of Psalm 22 was enduring. The vivid imagery — worms, mockers, bulls, lions, out-of-joint bones, dried up tongues, dogs — suggests a tormented human being. But, eventually, in the end, the psalm singer finds voice for praise. “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters (verse 21) . . . for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted (verse 24) . . . all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (verse 27).
The heart of the words of praise is found in verse 24: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.” The word translated as “despise” comes from the Hebrew root bazah, and is the same word used in verse 6 to describe the plight of the psalm singer: “I am a worm, and not human, scorned by others, and despised (bazah) by the people.” The psalm singer praises God for not despising those who are afflicted, and, because of that, is able to lead the congregation — those who fear the LORD, the offspring of Jacob, the offspring of Israel, and all the ends of the earth, and all the families of the nations (verses 23, 27) — in worship.
A poignant element of Psalm 22 is verses 29-31. Not only will the living praise God, but all those “who sleep in the earth” (verse 29) and all future generations, “the yet to be born” (verse 31). The lament psalm is a powerful model for believers today; life confronts us with issues and happenings that sometimes feel unbearable. And so, we cry out to God; we tell God what is wrong; we tell God what we want God to do; we recall those past instances in our lives (or in the lives of those around us) when God has made a way for us to handle the situation; and, then, and only then, we can praise God for God’s goodness and tell others about it.
When Jesus uttered the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross, I think he was calling his hearers to remember the words of the whole psalm — “for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (verse 24). Thus, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (verse 27).