Commentary on Psalm 22:23-31
A great debate (that nobody really cares about)
The psalm selection for the Second Sunday in Lent—nine verses that form the conclusion of Psalm 22—raises a question that became an intense debate among psalms scholars a few decades ago.
The question is whether these verses are spoken at the same moment in time as the desperate cries for help that form the rest of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), or whether these verses were spoken either later in time or after a priest spoke words of promise in between verses 22 and 23.
It was an intense debate. But I can’t find anybody in psalms studies who cares about that debate anymore. And I’ll admit the truth—I never cared.
So why bring it up? Well, because the sudden turn in Psalm 22 from the desperate cries for help in 22:1-21a and the words of thanksgiving and praise that comprise 22:21b-31 is both unexpected and confusing. So much so that the Revised Common Lectionary essentially treats these verses as a separate psalm by selecting only the praise section to be read this week. And in effect, if Psalm 22:23-31 was a separate psalm, we would approach it as a psalm of praise and thanksgiving:
verse 23 The Call to Praise (“Praise him!…)
verse 24 The Reason for Praise (“For he did not despise….”)
verses 25-31 Ongoing Praise of God
So here, we will treat this as a psalm of praise and thanksgiving following some dramatic experience of God’s saving help.
Typical of many praise psalms, this short section of praise begins by addressing a specific audience and inviting—even exhorting—them to praise the Lord.
Who is invited to praise? They are referred to in several interesting phrases, which form a compelling progression. Pay attention to how the “who” of the praise develops:
- “You who fear the Lord” (verse 23a—more literally, “O fearers of the Lord”)
- “All offspring of Jacob” (verse 23b—more literally, “Every seed of Jacob”)
- “All offspring of Israel” (verse 23c—“Every seed of Israel”)
- “The great congregation” (verse 25a)
- “Those who seek the Lord” (verse 26b)
- “All the ends of the earth” (verse 27a)
- “All the families of the nations” (verse 27b)
- “All who sleep in the earth” (verse 29a—more literally, “all the ashes of the earth”)
- “All who go down to the dust” (verse 29b)
- “Posterity” (verse 30a—literally, “seed”)
- “Future generations” (verse 30b)
- “A people yet unborn” (verse 31)
Notice how the choir swells and swells, grows and grows, expands exponentially. It starts internally with just a few—those who “fear the Lord.” I mean “internally” in two senses. First, that the emotion of “fearing the Lord” is a personal and internal matter. It is a squirrelly concept and its meaning is hard to pin down, but it is a decidedly personal and internal matter. Second, this is an internal group in the sense that it is a small group of insiders—the choir, quite literally.
The choir then expands to include “every seed [descendant] of Jacob” and “every seed of Israel.” One wonders whether the explicit reference to Jacob/Israel should conjure up for the reader any narrative allusions either to his story (stealing a blessing, tricking a trickster, ending up down in Egypt)—or to the stories of his “seed” (Joseph, Judah, Dinah, Tamar’s children, Benjamin). At the very least, the dual references to the people are inclusive in the sense that all of Jacob’s descendants are included in the praise—as the prophet Joel might have it, “your sons and your daughters, your old men and young boys, your male and your female servants.” All of them together form “the great congregation.” This growing choir is a big-tent choir. Conservatives, liberals, and moderates. Urban, rural, and wanderers. Teachers, students, and drop-outs. All God’s children.
But then, in the expansive rhetoric of the psalm’s poetry, the choir expands. It is not even just Israel, but “all who seek the Lord.” Some Old Testament scholars believe that the terms “those who fear the Lord” and “those who seek the Lord” may intentionally refer to non-Israelites who have joined the great congregation (see Psalm 118:1-4). That sense is certainly implied here, as the expansive terms “all the ends of the earth” and “all the families of the nations” confirm. It isn’t just descendants of Israel who are exhorted to praise the Lord; it is all living people from “every nation” (Hebrew: goyim).
Then, finally, in a flourish that as far as I know is unique to Psalm 22 in the Psalter, the psalmist says, “And it isn’t even just the living, but the dead and those who are not yet born, too!” In the words of the NRSV translation, the psalmist calls “all who sleep in the earth” and “all who go down to dust” to praise the Lord.1 That is, if the NRSV is right, the dead are called to join the eternal song. But not just the living and the dead, but also the not-yet-living: “posterity” and “future generations” and “a people yet unborn.” Thus, the eternal song of praise envelops not just everyone everywhere, but also everywhen.
And this, according to the psalm, is the ultimate purpose of praise—to bring the discordant and chaotic cacophony of a rebellious creation into relational harmony with the Lord, by bringing everyone’s voice into musical harmony with the eternal song of Israel’s praise. By praising God, we align our very selves with God. The song “trues” us to God.
And why is Israel’s Lord the one who deserves our praise? Why bring ourselves into harmony with this Lord? “Because 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).
Praise the Lord.
- The Hebrew text here is corrupt and difficult to translate. It quite literally says something like, “All the ashes of earth eat and worship before him, all those who go down to dust bow down.” Eugene Peterson renders the verse this way: “All the power-mongers are before him—worshiping! / All the poor and powerless, too—worshiping! / Along with those who never got it together—worshiping!” He takes the Hebrew as metaphorical language for the powerful and powerless. But in this rare case I disagree with Peterson. The wider context suggests that the psalmist is referring to both the living and the not-yet-living.