The lowest low to the highest height

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1987 swashbuckling parody, The Princess Bride (but you probably already knew that). The tongue-in-cheek adventure leads the characters up the Cliffs of Insanity, through the Fire Swamp (where they deal with the dreaded Rodents of Unusual Size), and into the Pit of Despair. Fans are apt to quote famous lines of dialogue at random moments: “Inconceivable!” “As you wish.” “Your friend is only mostly dead.” “Have fun stormin’ the castle!” “Anybody want a peanut?” Some have even memorized the entire script.

I once had an opportunity to test a group’s familiarity with the movie. The seminary where I teach hosts an annual meet-and-greet at which the incoming class of students is introduced to their faculty. Each professor is asked to say something about themselves. One year, I mentioned that I had read The Princess Bride (William Goldman’s novel, on which he based his screenplay) aloud to my wife that summer, and asked how many of the students had seen the movie. Everyone’s hand went up.

Spontaneously, I decided to do a pop quiz. ‘Allo! I said, imitating actor Mandy Patinkin. My name is Inigo Montoya… Then I paused and gestured to the students to complete the line. Dozens of voices responded in unison: You killed my father; prepare to die!

Everyone got a kick out of it.

Everyone, that is, except my dean, who had never seen the film. He looked at the students in bewilderment, with a facial expression that said, What the heck just happened here?

Just like you might be wondering, What does that have to do with the Psalms?

Well, imagine this: what if everyone knew the Psalms as well as the scripts from their favorite movies? What if I could quote you the first line of a psalm, and you automatically knew the rest by heart?

. . .

As we’ve seen previously, when Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he was quoting the first line of Psalm 22. We often take it as a cry of abandonment; the Father has turned away, leaving Jesus to suffer the curse of the world’s sin alone.

Perhaps. But there’s more to the story. Literally. Some scholars believe that when Jesus quoted the first line of the psalm, he meant his hearers to think of the entire psalm. It wasn’t a spontaneous outburst of emotion; it was, as one scholar has put it, a performance of the psalm and its meaning.

Read Psalm 22 straight through, from start to finish. Notice the way it cycles back and forth between despair and trust. The psalm opens on that famous note of lament: “Why have you forsaken me?” Though the psalmist calls out to God day and night, he gets no answer (vs. 2).

Still, he reaches out in hope, clinging to the stories of how his ancestors trusted God and were saved (vss. 3-5). But the moment of trust is short-lived, and he falls back into despair: he feels like a worm, not a human being, because everyone is mocking and taunting him for his supposed faith (vss. 6-8).

Pivoting, the psalm turns again in the direction of trust: wasn’t God the one who, like a loving father, has been with him since birth (vss. 9-10)? God is even portrayed as the one who receives the newly birthed infant and places him at his mother’s breast to nurse, a tender image of involvement and care. “Do not be far from me,” the psalmist cries, “for trouble is near and there is no one to help” (vs. 11).

The psalm then nosedives into its longest and deepest expression of despair yet (vss. 12-18). The psalmist’s enemies are likened to wild beasts: he is threatened from every side by mighty bulls, lions, packs of dogs. He suffers physically:

I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death
. (vss. 14-15)

The psalmist’s final plea is desperate:

But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
    O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
    my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
(vss. 19-21)

Down, then up. Then down and up again. Then down, and down, and down…

And then, suddenly, the psalm takes a final turn, not toward a tentative trust, but into a full-throated praise that soars and expands. God has heard the psalmist’s cry (vs. 24); salvation has come! The psalmist vows to praise God’s name to the whole worship community:

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
    stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
(vss. 22b-23)

The vision expands horizontally: God rules over all the nations, and the entire earth turns to him (vss. 27-28). It expands vertically: he will be revered not only by the living but by those who have gone “down to the dust” (vs. 29). It expands through time, across generations: the good news of his deliverance will be proclaimed to people who haven’t even been born yet (vss. 30-31).

Praise is the dominant and concluding note of the psalm, not abandonment. Jesus, who could quote the Psalms at the drop of a hat, knew this. And like Psalm 22 itself, his utterance from the cross expressed both the distress of the moment and his confidence in what the Father would do. To those who remembered what he said, who knew their psalms, news of Jesus’ resurrection would have evoked another layer of awe.

Would Jesus have cried out those first, despairing words of Psalm 22 without also having the rest of the psalm in mind?

Inconceivable.

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