Summary of the Text
Psalm 22 is well known to Christians because our Savior used this psalm in his dying hours on the cross (Matt. 46), quoted in Aramaic, his native language. Yet, the reason for this final portion of the psalm as part of today’s lectionary texts is broader then that: it is a description of the kingdom of God to come.
When reading the Psalms, we need to pay close attention to the subjects and verbs, and that principle applies beautifully to Psalm 22. The psalm is dominated by the three personal pronouns: 1st person: I/me/my; 2nd person: you/your; and 3rd person: the Lord/he/they/etc. The first and second persons alternate throughout the psalm until the third person singular (“he” ([LORD]) and plural (“those who seek him,” etc.) conclude the psalm, laying out the general germs of the future kingdom of God:
1st person (I/me/my): 22:1-2, 6-8, 12-18
2nd person (you/your): 22:3-5, 9-11, 19-21
3rd person (he (LORD)/they (“the afflicted,” “all the families of the nations,” “posterity,” etc.: 22:26-31
All nations will worship the Lord who is the Ruler of the kingdom, and the poor/afflicted will eat and be satisfied, while the rich/proud will humble themselves before the majestic God. Derek Kidner sees the prefigurement of Calvary on this psalm, pointing to the lament that God had forsaken the psalmist in 22:1 and the final announcement that God has done this, “an announcement not far removed from our Lord’s great cry, ‘It is finished.’” (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 109) [note also 22:18, “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment,” quoted in Jn. 19:24/Matt. 2735/Mk. 15:24].
A beautiful feature of Psalm 22 is how it counterbalances praise over against lament. The first part of the psalm (vv. 1-18) is lament, and the last part (vv. 25-31) is praise, with a transition in the middle part (vv. 19-24), functioning as the fulcrum of the poem, and the psalmist anticipates the intermixture by his brief note in 22:3, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (NRSV). While lament certainly has a valid function in our lives, it should, like tears, continue for the night, with joy preempting the morning. It is of note that the psalmist speaks of God being “enthroned on the praises of Israel” (22:3), not on Israel’s laments. Praise is where God dwells.
We should also recognize that God does not answer the psalmist’s question directly. But the indirect answer, with a power all its own, arises out of the psalmist’s life circumstances, which obviously God directs. So when we feel forsaken, we might follow David’s strategy:
–begin to tell our story, even from birth, as David did—yes, there is power in telling our story;
–rehearse the fierce opposition we have faced (like charging bulls and ferocious dogs—yes, we need to review the obstacles and forces we have faced in life;
–invite our church and fellow believers to join us—yes, there is great strength in joining our voices together as Christ’s church ;
and we hopefully will begin to see
–that the God-forsaken time has passed, and that he has not in fact hidden his face from us;
–and tell our new story to our partners in faith;
–and get a renewed vision of the kingdom of God, present and future.
The psalmist’s new vision takes form in the various statements of the psalm, with the closest answer to the question of 22:1 expressed in v. 24: The Lord “has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
Further, the psalmist’s new vision can be seen in the names for God. In the first part he addresses the deity as “God” (El), that is, using the generic name for the deity—and here not a term of intimacy; and then when the change comes at verses 19-21 he addresses the deity as LORD (YaHWeH), God’s covenant name, to acknowledge that the Lord “has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one” (v. 24).
We have already gotten a hint of this relationship in verse 1 when he calls the deity My God. In so doing he lays claim on the deity, even though God, so far as the psalmist is concerned, does not lay claim on him. His widening perspective, however, as we have suggested, includes the congregation of believers and the wider vision of the kingdom of God. Our individual perspective that is closed to the wider congregation of believers is over-restrictive.
One last observation on Psalm 22 in general is that the major themes of the psalm are reinforced by other expressions in different words. It is like a symphony that continues to repeat the major tune in other musical settings, sometimes with a slight modification. The opening theme of Psalm 22 is God’s abandonment of the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In this case, the vacuous nature of God’s abandonment of the psalmist, mysterious and indescribable, is fortified by the negative expressions of his situation.
When David calls, there is no answer (22:2); when trouble comes, there is no one to help (22:11); when his physical strength is spent and he is thirsty, there is no water (22:14-15), and he has no strength (22:15). David’s life circumstances underscore the opening theme of the psalm. David’s question implies that his world, at least his personal world, was empty of God’s presence. But it is in the psalmist’s praises of God, especially in company with fellow-believers (v. 25), and in hope of the coming kingdom (vv. 26-31), that his god-forsaken life is restored in the midst of a changed world where all nations worship the Lord.
C. Hassell Bullock is the Franklin S. Dyrness Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College (IL) where he taught for 36 years. He is a graduate of Samford University (Birmingham, AL), Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Instiutute of Religion (Cincinnati, O).
Among his published works are An Introduction to
the OT Poetic Books (Moody), Encountering the Book of Psalms, and a two-volume commentary on the Psalms, Psalms 1-72, and Psalms 73-150 (Baker Academic).
In addition to forty years of teaching in the college classroom, he has served Presbyterian congregations as pastor in Alabama and Illinois. He is married to his college sweetheart, Rhonda, and they have a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.
“No passage provides the big picture of Christ’s sufferings the way Psalm 2 does. It begins in dark anguish but ends in soaring hope. It goes from ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ to ‘I will praise you in the great assembly. I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you’ (verse 36).”
Ben Patterson, God’s Prayer Book [Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008], 79).
Psalm 22:1 was on our Savior’s lips on the cross, and it is in that context a mystery: God forsaken by God! Christians have been trying to unravel this mystery for centuries, without reaching consensus. So Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “On Cowper’s Grave,” is only one of those efforts, but an intriguing one and quite in line with biblical theology. Her interpretation is that our Lord’s cry of dereliction on the cross was the ultimate and absolute cry of despair that had no echo in the universe so that no human being would ever have to make such a desperate cry again.
Deserted! God could separate from His
own essence rather;
And Adam’s sins have swept between
the righteous Son and Father;
Yea, once, Immanuel’s orphaned cry
His universe hath shaken—
It went up single, echoless, “My God, I
It went up from the Holy’s lips amid
His lost creation,
That, of the lost, no son should use
those words of desolation!
That earth’s worst phrensies, mar-
ring hope, should mar not hope’s
And I, on Cowper’s grave, should see
His rapture in a vision.
 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Cowper’s Grave,” The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: John Murray, 1914), 143. “Cowper” is the hymn writer, William Cowper (1731-1800), who wrote such hymns as “God Moves in A Mysterious Way His Wonders to Perform” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”