In part 1, we began a meditation on the only words recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Mark that were spoken by Jesus from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, KJV). That seemingly desperate cry is the opening line of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist at first calls out in anguish but ends up praising God and summoning others in the congregation to do the same, envisioning the day in which all the nations will bow before the Lord in worship.
But what specific trouble is the psalmist suffering? That may be the wrong question to ask. Think of the psalm as a piece of liturgical music as opposed to a page ripped from someone’s diary. Thus the language trades individual details for poetic metaphor, portraying the psalmist as one about to be torn apart and devoured by wild beasts. Personally, I don’t live in fear of bulls, lions, or roving packs of vicious dogs (though our neighbors’ dogs get pretty snippy when we go in our backyard). If the psalm were to be written today, I imagine the metaphors would be different.
But the actual nature of the threat isn’t the point. The issue is the trustworthiness of God. The cry of forsakenness, after all, can only be given against the assumed background of God’s prior faithfulness. Listen to what the psalmist says immediately after complaining to God for not answering his persistent prayers:
You are the holy one, enthroned. You are Israel’s praise. Our ancestors trusted you—they trusted you and you rescued them; they cried out to you and they were saved; they trusted you and they weren’t ashamed. (vss. 3-5, CEB)
This isn’t just a matter of the psalmist’s individual belief, but of participation in the ongoing story of a people who tell of God’s mighty acts of salvation in the past. But now? Today? The psalmist’s complaint seems to be: Lord, I’m just not seeing it. You seem so very far away. Why won’t you answer me? And the struggle to remain faithful is exacerbated by the taunting of others:
All who see me make fun of me—they gape, shaking their heads: “He committed himself to the Lord, so let God rescue him; let God deliver him because God likes him so much.” (vss. 7-8, CEB)
This is, of course, exactly the kind of mocking Jesus had to endure on the cross, even while dying for the sins of those who made fun of him. But that doesn’t mean that the psalm is “really” about Jesus in some narrow sense of prophecy; those who suffer trouble while still declaring the goodness of God are likely to be misunderstood or mocked in any age.
Imagine: what would it be like to sing these words as a congregation, in a gathering of the faithful? We would participate in the trajectory of its implied story, in a movement that weaves back and forth between lamenting God’s absence in the midst of trouble on the one hand, and remembering his past mercies on the other.
Some of us, in those moments, would identify most deeply with the words that express confusion and abandonment; others would resonate with the words of trust and praise. But all would be called to worship God together, to sing of the God who “has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one” (vs. 24, NIV), and to look not only to our own day of rescue, but to the day of God’s full dominion:
Every part of the earth will remember and come back to the Lord; every family among all the nations will worship you. Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord, he rules all nations. Indeed, all the earth’s powerful will worship him; all who are descending to the dust will kneel before him; my being also lives for him. Future descendants will serve him; generations to come will be told about my Lord. They will proclaim God’s righteousness to those not yet born, telling them what God has done. (vss. 27-31, CEB)
Now we can come back to the question we raised last time: Why did Jesus cry Psalm 22:1 from the cross? What did it mean?
That will be the subject of the third and final post.