Pointing forward, pointing back

By an unusual twist of the calendar this year, Passover coincided with Holy Week; it began on Palm Sunday and ended on Easter. Somehow, it felt oddly comforting, like an oasis of cosmic order in a year of disorder and disruption. And it was a perfect context for reflecting on Jesus’ final pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. This time, he would be the Passover sacrifice.

In some traditions, Palm Sunday is the day to read and meditate on Psalm 22. It’s obvious why. The opening line of the psalm is the one Jesus cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1, NRSV). Indeed, depending on how one translates the Hebrew, there are several verses in the psalm that seem to point directly to Jesus’ crucifixion. The psalmist speaks of being scorned and mocked (vss. 6-8), being “poured out like water” with his bones “out of joint” (vs. 14), having his hands and feet pierced (vs. 16—the Hebrew here is very uncertain), and having people divide up and cast lots for his clothing (vs. 18).

Sound like anyone you know?

For these reasons, the psalm is considered to be “prophetic.” Its purpose, some say, is to point to Jesus.

But it’s not that simple.

. . .

First, we need to remember that, at root, the word “prophecy” does not simply mean a prediction of the future. Such prediction may be involved, but more fundamentally, prophecy is a word from God for the edification or correction of his people. It’s not necessary for us to imagine that the psalmist somehow had a vision of Jesus hanging on the cross and sat down to write a poem about it. Rather, the psalmist wrote in his own situation for his own purposes—and in the mysterious and sovereign wisdom of God, the psalm was woven in a new way into a bigger picture that only becomes clear in hindsight.

Imagine, for example, Matthew writing his account of the life and death of Jesus. Of all the authors of the four gospels, he is the most keen to show how Jesus’ story fulfilled ancient prophecy. But this isn’t a matter of ransacking the Hebrew Scriptures, going on a treasure hunt for verses that can be interpreted as referring to Jesus (“Ooh, here’s another one!”), but a dawning, growing awareness of the depth and complex richness of the story overall.

Or think of the two dejected disciples walking back to Emmaus. They thought they knew what was happening in Jesus, and their hopes were shattered when he was crucified and buried. They had only nicked the surface of God’s story, and needed to be schooled in the Scriptures by the resurrected Jesus. And as Jesus revealed to them more and more of how it all fit together, their hearts burned with the wonder of it all.

. . .

Second, we need to look both backward and forward. It’s not simply a matter of the psalmist predicting the future, but of Jesus appropriating and giving additional meaning to the past. In a feelings-oriented culture, it’s easy to think of Jesus’ words as a spontaneous outburst of emotion. He and the Father have been inseparable, and when the Father turns away from the sin Jesus bears, the Son feels abandoned and cries out.

But even if that’s so, it doesn’t mean that the words aren’t consciously chosen. Jesus clearly knew the Scriptures. Throughout the gospels, he routinely quoted the Psalms and the prophets as the background to how he understood his identity and mission; the cross and its suffering didn’t catch him by surprise. Jesus, therefore, didn’t just quote Psalm 22:1 as a convenient way of expressing his feelings. For those who knew the psalm, he was sending the message that his death was the fulfillment of the will of God. It wasn’t the triumph of disorder, but of divine order.

And for those who knew the psalm well, the message was, Death and forsakenness aren’t the end of the story. We’ll explore that in the next post.