Commentary on Psalm 22:23-31
The final verses of Psalm 22 provide us with a wonderful hymn of praise.
The psalmist is inviting—no, compelling—the whole community to join her in standing in awe of the Lord. One wonders what type of occasion would call for such praise. We need not look any further than the hymn itself to discover the occasion. God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted” (verse 24). God heard the cries of the psalmist, and for that God deserves great praise.
Although the assigned pericope can serve as a story in and of itself, God’s praiseworthiness is intensified when one looks at the entire psalm. But before doing so, it is valuable to attend to the given verses.
What we have before us is no ordinary description of who is invited to praise God. The psalmist’s expanded sense of time and space in relation to God’s worthiness to be praised is striking. First, the psalmist invites brothers and sisters in her presence to join both future generations and those yet unborn, challenging our ideas of time.
The psalmist also challenges our ideas of space. Remembering that she was not familiar with Google Earth, we note that her ability to broaden our sense of space is remarkable. All the ends of the earth, all the families of the nations, and all who sleep in the earth are summoned to respond to God’s greatness. Even those “who go down to the dust” (verse 29) shall bow before God.
This phrase in particular is worth your time and energy to explore. Is the psalmist suggesting that even those who have died have an opportunity to praise God? How do God and those who have died relate to one another? In other words, all people in all times and places will remember, turn to the Lord (repent), worship before the Lord, bow down, and live for the Lord. The psalmist is serious about the breadth and depth of the Lord’s praiseworthiness.
Though verses 23–31 of Psalm 22 would hardly suggest it, Psalm 22 is actually a lament psalm. The danger of moving too quickly to the whole psalm, particularly in the season of Lent, is the image rendered by the very first verse, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Immediately, we imagine our Lord crying out these words as he hangs from the cross. Not surprisingly, this image has the tendency to shape our entire interpretation of the psalm.
Just as it is important to temporarily resist looking at the whole psalm, it is important to temporarily resist exploring the entire psalm in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we are able to resist this, we encounter invaluable discoveries.
Considering the psalm as a whole, we discover one who is in great distress. Dogs are all around her, evildoers encircle her, her hands and feet are shriveled, her bones can be counted. Imagine this level of desolation and desperation. The self-deprecation in the psalm is also difficult to handle: “I am a worm, and not human” (verse 6). When taken in light of this heart-breaking beginning, the testimony and summons to praise at the end of the psalm are even more profound.
The breadth of the praise makes the lament all the more palpable. The depth of the lament makes the praise all the more stunning.
Surprisingly, the psalmist is connected to God even in the lament. The initial cries do not come from a lack of connection with God, but rather out of a knowledge of who God is, a conviction that God can help, and a desire to praise rather than disparage God. If the psalmist did not care about or recognize God, she would not bother to pray.
Even when the psalmist is declaring that God has forsaken her, there are the “yets.” “Yet, you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (verse 3). Although those around her mock and “make mouths” at her, yet, God kept her safe on her mother’s breast (verse 9). The confidence in God’s ability to save, help, and redeem is remarkable. These “yets” foreshadow the great hymn of praise at the end of the psalm. Where in our Lenten journey do we encounter the occasional “yet”?
As already mentioned, the preacher cannot completely avoid that Psalm 22 is a major resource appropriated by the gospel writers to interpret Jesus’ suffering on the cross. What the preacher can do, however, is consider what difference it would make to understand Jesus in terms of the psalm, rather than understanding the psalm in terms of what we know about Jesus. For example, we discover from Psalm 22 that:
- lament includes hints of praise or, at the very least, some connection to hope.
- praise is integrally connected to lament.
- there is no limit to either God’s praiseworthiness or the invitation to join in the celebration of praising God.
Lent moves back and forth between petitioning and praising, realistically describing the situation of life and foreshadowing hope in God until, finally, there is a grand finale of praise by all people in all times and places.
Consider bringing these particular considerations into your exegesis of the Gospel text for this Sunday (Mark 8:31–38).