Most Bible students will recognize the words which Jesus cried out on the cross just prior to His death (Mt.27.46; Mk.15.34). And, many realize they are a quotation from Psalm 22. In fact, this psalm is so closely associated with the scenes of the crucifixion that it is hard to read it without the mind drifting to the cross. After all, there are no less than eight references to specific circumstances described in the crucifixion accounts. Thus, we can easily forget that this psalm had an original context, so much so that some esteemed scholars dismiss David’s cries altogether (“…he who sees Jesus will probably neither see nor care to see David” – C.H. Spurgeon, “The Treasury of David”). To dismiss this consideration, to me anyway, is a failure to fully appreciate the power and intent of the psalm.
It is not my intent to discuss the “technical/theological” issues surrounding Jesus’ quotation on the cross. According to the gospels, these are the only words from the Old Testament quoted on the cross, and there is no question that they are significant. I personally do not believe that Jesus was in some literal way deserted by the Father so that He could truly bear the sins of mankind. Volumes have been written on the subject, and my thoughts will not unmuddy the waters. I do, however, believe these words were chosen intentionally by our Lord, and that they serve two purposes.
First, Jesus was pointing those present, and those who would later read the gospels, to the prophetic nature of the psalm. It describes a man crying to God (v.1-2f). He is experiencing, in detail, many of the things that are transpiring at the foot of the cross (v.6-18). He appears forsaken, but he knows that he is not (v.21-24). He affirms that, in the end, God’s rule is exalted and that God has been active in the events of his life – “…that He has done this” (v.25-31). Those present at the cross, upon hearing these words, would surely recognize them, even though some mocked – “He is calling for Elijah” (Mk.16.35). And recognizing them, surely they could see the present events in David’s words and conclude that God was behind the cross. I believe that is what the Lord wants us to see.
Second, and equally significant, Jesus was expressing the anguish of a man experiencing life. It is easy to overlook this purpose. Jesus is suffering, and though the Father has sent Him reminders of His satisfaction and presence (Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration; the angels in the garden), the Lord feels deserted. As a Jewish man in Whom the Word of God was truly living, it would be natural to express such emotion with a familiar quotation. The Word is expressing His humanity with the Word. David had done the same, though we do not know the original circumstance. It seems reasonable that he composed it after his anointing but before his enthronement (like Jesus). Hunted by Saul; branded a usurper and rebel; living in the wilderness; at times surrounded by Saul’s men; at other times betrayed by the people he would eventually rule; hungry; perplexed; angry; despondent; fearful. He must have felt forsaken at times, and the fact that he had been anointed by Samuel must have made the confusion more poignant. He cries out to God, looking for answers, hoping for consolation, feeling rejected. His emotion is expressed in hyperbole – “You delivered others, but not me. Everyone ridicules me. I’m surrounded by wild animals. I’m starving to death. They’ve taken everything I own. They’re ripping me in pieces. I’m empty inside.” Franz Delitzsch in his commentary brilliantly observes that such “hyperbole becomes prophecy.” David is expressing the anguish of a man experiencing life. God used his words to point us to the Son as He did the same. And that’s important because we all feel the anguish of men experiencing life.
Psalm 22, like all of the psalms, reminds us that emotions are a part of our being and that, as people of God, it’s OK to express them, even if what we feel is frustration and fear and confusion and desertion. When life is hard, it is natural to cry out to God – “Where are You? Why aren’t You helping me? Don’t You see what’s happening to me?” Suffering raises questions in our mind about God – His love, His justice, His activity. Such drives the entire book of Job. And we often exaggerate our circumstances in our cry – “I’m cut to the quick.” “I’m all alone.” “No one understands/cares.” “I can’t take it anymore.” “The sky is falling.” It’s not unusual for David to so express himself. Anguish is real. Faithful men have felt such. Our Lord felt such. Our emotional reactions to life do not mean that we have lost our faith. It’s OK to have them and to express them.
The challenge, amid such angst, is to keep God on His throne. Jesus cries to God. David cries to God. “But you are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel” (Ps.22.3). This fundamental conviction is not defeated by the power of their emotions. Godly men may feel forsaken, but they continue to look to God in faith. True trust is not rooted in feeling, nor is it to be uprooted by feeling. This psalm reminds us of how powerful our feelings can be, and the thoughts to which they may drive us. “You listened and helped others…why not me?” (v.4-5). “There is no help for me.”(v.11) “I’m at the point of death” (v.15). Yet the psalm also reminds us that we are to turn to God in the midst of such despair. “Do not be far…hurry to help…deliver…save me” (v.19-21). Why? “For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from Him; but when he cried to Him, He heard” (v.24). The circumstances of my life do not determine the character of God.
This psalm never describes the deliverance David sought. But it does describe the reminder that David needed (v.22-31). God is still on His throne. He cares about His people. He provides for His people. His kingdom will prevail. Generation after generation will seek him and praise Him. And that is the reminder we all need in the midst of our anguish. “Where is God?” He is right where He has been since the day Jesus quoted this psalm – saving us.
– Russ Bowman
Many of David’s psalms begin as does Psalm 22. A man suffering emotionally cries to the Lord. But those psalms share a consistent pattern. As David expresses his emotions, he is made to focus upon God’s involvement in his life. Those thoughts always – always – turn his mind to the truth of God’s love and mercy and justice and care and provision. What begins in David as anguish almost always ends as praise. Jesus cries in anguish to God, but the end of the psalm looks to God’s provision and activity – “He has done this.” The bleakest moments of life remind us of the glory of His provision, sacrifice, love and mercy. Anguish ends in praise, for the man who trusts.