22 To the choirmaster: according to The Doe of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? / Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? / 2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, / and by night, but I find no rest. / 3Yet you are holy, / enthroned on the praises of Israel. / 4In you our fathers trusted; / they trusted, and you delivered them. / 5To you they cried and were rescued; / in you they trusted and were not put to shame. / 6 But I am a worm and not a man, / scorned by mankind and despised by the people. / 7All who see me mock me; / they make mouths [“split open their lips] at me; they wag their heads; / 8“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; / let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” / 9Yet you are he who took me from the womb; / you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. / 10On you was I cast from my birth, / and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
/ 11Be not far from me, / for trouble is near, / and there is none to help.
/ 12 Many bulls encompass me; / strong bulls of Bashan surround me; / 13 they open wide their mouths at me, / like a ravening and roaring lion. / 14 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; / 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, / and my tongue sticks to my jaws; / you lay me in the dust of death. / 16 For dogs encompass me; / a company of evildoers encircles me; / they have pierced my hands and feet— / 17 I can count all my bones— / they stare and gloat over me; / 18 they divide my garments among them, / and for my clothing they cast lots. / 19But you, O Lord, do not be far off! / O you my help, come quickly to my aid! / 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, / my precious life from the power of the dog! / 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
/ You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! / 22I will tell of your name to my brothers; / in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: / 23 You who fear the Lord, praise him! / All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, / and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! / 2 4For he has not despised or abhorred / the affliction of the afflicted, / and he has not hidden his face from him, / but has heard, when he cried to him. / 25From you comes my praise in the great congregation; / my vows I will perform before those who fear him. / 26The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; / those who seek him shall praise the Lord! / May your hearts live forever! / 27All the ends of the earth shall remember / and turn to the Lord, / and all the families of the nations / shall worship before you. / 28For kingship belongs to the Lord, / and he rules over the nations. / 29All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; / before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, / even the one who could not keep himself alive. / 30Posterity shall serve him; / it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; / 31they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, / that he has done it. [i]
Scripture speaks directly to us all the Torah God wants us to know. But the Psalms not only speak TO us, they also speak FOR us in times of deep distress when our own words are stretched to the limit. The 22nd Psalm is like no other in the Psalter. There is no event in the recorded history of David’s life to which we can connect this psalm. This is “not a description of illness, but of an execution; and while David was once threatened with stoning (1 Sam. 30:6), this is a very different scene.”[ii]
All God’s prophets experienced great personal trauma. Their preaching so often came out of the deep pain of their personal lives as much as it came from the Holy Spirit as a Word from I AM. Whatever the psalmists’ great trauma that prompted him to describe his situation in terms of a death and resurrection, “the language of the psalm defies a naturalistic explanation; the best account is in the terms used by Peter concerning another psalm of David: ‘Being therefore a prophet … he foresaw and spoke of … the Christ’ (Acts 2:30f.).”[iii]
What makes this psalm so chilling is that the New Testament authors connect it directly to Messiah Jesus’ execution and that our Lord himself quotes its opening verse from the cross; and the gospel writers include several events at Calvary as fulfilled prophecies from Psalm 22. The psalm consists of three stanzas of ten verses each: 1–10, 12–21, 22–31, moving from torment to turmoil to triumph. Verse 11 is a transition verse linking together the 1st and 2nd stanzas.[iv] It is like a tragic symphony that ends on a strangely-victorious final movement. Whatever the tune “Doe of the Dawn” sounded like, we can imagine it to be mostly a lonely and plaintive composition. The symmetry of the poem reveals David’s spiritual composure even as he imagines himself enduring a cruel and unjust death.[v]
The psalm opens with the wail of divine desertion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [vi] This is the most excruciating experience any believer could ever have. God’s own anointed king found himself in a situation that led him to question God’s promises. He has no sense of God’s presence. But even more striking, he has a sense of God’s absence. What the psalmist wants is action, not an explanation, because according to Israel’s confession God is only far off from the wicked (Prov. 15:29).[vii]
It’s one thing to not be able to feel or sense that God is near. But it is far worse to believe God is absent altogether. The psalmist sings that God is both deaf and silent. The difficulty is that God is a covenant-making God who has given a specific promise to David as the anointed messiah. And he has given the blanket promise to all his people that he will take them to be his own and he will live with them as their God. The poet uses God’s transcendent name in these opening lines (‘El). Compare the beginning lines of the 22nd psalm to the opening of Psalm 23, “I AM is my shepherd; / I shall not want. … I will fear no evil, / for you are with me…” [viii]
As the psalms are arranged in our bible, we see in Psalm 22 a man who could not possibly sing Psalm 23. He cannot sing that I AM is with him. He sings the exact opposite. God has abandoned him. We have no clue in what order David wrote his psalms. Would it mess with your idea of the Christian life to consider the possibility that he wrote of the great personal protecting God BEFORE he sang of the remote, transcendent, silent God? But we can see the order that editors gave these two psalms, and it’s no accident the 22nd psalm ends on a note of victory and glory that carries us into a song about the nearness of our covenant God (Ps. 23).
In his valley of deep darkness, David questions why he has been abandoned by the same God who was faithful to Israel, delivering them from slavery and rescuing them from shame (vs. 3-5). He is still the same God who made David trust in him from infancy (vs. 9-10). But messiah David now finds himself despised, mocked and betrayed by even those closest to him. I don’t imagine you can live very long in this sin-cursed world without knowing the betrayal of a close friend, a spouse, a co-worker – someone who will sell you out for whatever their version of the proverbial 30 pieces of silver (not even gold!) looks like. And it always hurts to be betrayed, to be stabbed in the back.
Messiah David is experiencing this terrible pain of losing his reputation with his people. Everyone around him has sold him out like an unwanted animal. “I am a worm and not a man, / scorned by mankind and despised by the people” (22:6). [ix] No one is “there” for David, least of all God. He sees himself experiencing “divine desertion”[x] and human derision.
Following the linking verse 11, in which David begs for God’s nearness, the psalmist plunges even deeper into the darkness of tribulation. He descends from divine desertion and human derision into the peril of a figurative gruesome execution. The psalmist is no longer a human being, but a living corpse offered up as so much meat to the predators and scavengers.
Perhaps you’ve felt like a nobody. Maybe you have reached that certain age when an employer decides you are no longer needed. Suddenly you have a sign around your neck that says, “Unemployed.” And try as you might, no one wants to employ you. Maybe the business you run has tanked and everyone around you knows about it. You wear a sign that “Loser” and everyone around you whispers behind your back. It could be any situation that turns you from a public winner into a public loser: divorce, flunking out of school, getting dumped by your boyfriend or girlfriend or fiancé. Everywhere you go you must and shall wear the sign of failure. In my prosecutor days, when a person was convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to death, he was walked out of the courtroom with the bailiff’s loud warning to everyone in earshot, “Dead man walking!”
You cannot live long in this world without some sense of deep humiliation and hopelessness overtaking you like you are a dead person walking. There are countless ways to feel victimized in this broken world. David was being victimized because he had made an open profession of God’s blessing on his life. He was God’s anointed king. He was the messiah of Israel. And now people laughed at his public humiliation. “If he’s God’s anointed like he claims,” they laughed, “let’s see if God delivers him.” “17 …they stare and gloat over me; / 18 they divide my garments among them, / and for my clothing they cast lots.” [xi]
David pictures those around him jeering and spitting as animals: bulls, roaring lions, and dogs. The bulls are the powerful horned creatures surrounding him, cutting off any means of escape so that his situation is hopeless. Having been captured, the bulls are like roaring lions bearing their teeth as they devour their kill. And once the lions have killed and devoured all they care to eat, the dogs come. These are not your pets. These are the scavengers of the wild places come to chew up what’s left of the carcass. David is dead and what’s left of his body is fought over by dogs in the same way his royal robes become a prize for the gamblers.
Humans have become deadly animals; they have lost all that God intended them to be and David sees his murderers as the wild animals they have become.[xii] But the psalmist has further down to go. “14 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; / 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, / and my tongue sticks to my jaws; / you lay me in the dust of death.”
This is not the description of an illness, it’s the description of an unjust execution. David is being murdered. Remember Jesus teaches there is more than one way to murder a person (Matt. 5:21). Messiah David is being destroyed by the hatred, the derision, the gossip, the backstabbing, the betrayal, and the rejection of even those once closest to him. They roar about him. They devour him. They chew up the leftovers like wild dogs – and all with a sense of religious fever and false holiness as they reject God’s anointed king.
So, the psalmist cries, “/ 19But you, O Lord, do not be far off! / O you my help, come quickly to my aid!” Does David need his reputation restored? Does he need his friends to reconcile to him? No. That is NOT for what David begs. He begs to know that I AM is present with him in the valley of death to raise him up following this execution. Notice the shift in verse 21. He cries out, “Save me from the mouth of the lion!” But then, out of nowhere, comes the declaration of deliverance in verse 21b, “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!”
In that tiny space between 21a and 21b, there is no footnote to describe how the psalmist moved from death to life. He doesn’t give us a three-step process to follow. The reason is: DAVID DIDN’T DO IT. It was I AM that transformed David without any explanation of his reasons or any excuse for his delay. It seems this happened when David had hit rock bottom and had nothing left in himself. He was as dead as dead could be.[xiii]
If you need proof that the bad churchy phrase “God never gives you more than you can bare” is a lie from the pit of Hell, here it is! David had to die before he could be resurrected. He had to come to the end of himself to see that God’s purposes are perfect and that I AM has never for a moment been absent.
So, there is the torment of divine desertion in the first movement. There is the turmoil of human derision, rejection, betrayal, and execution in the second movement. Then there is the final movement of triumphant resurrection prompting praise in verses 22-31.
In verses 22-24 there is new adoration for God’s mercy. In verse 25, there is a fresh consecration to I AM. In verse 26, God is praised for his provision to his people. In verse 27, there is worldwide devotion and worship because God has shown himself faithful to raise his Messiah from death. In verse 28, this Messiahship becomes worldwide, encompassing even the Gentiles. Verses 29-31 close with a vision of all the earth serving God and proclaiming his righteousness and his salvation for people yet unborn.
But these three movements seem unresolved, as if there is a long-undiscovered fourth movement lost in some old chest in a musty basement. Then finally, hundreds of years later, the final movement is discovered and the symphony is played in its entirety. As the fourth movement begins, we hear the motifs of fear and grief from the first three movements – a solo voice crying out in lonely prayer, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”[xiv]
That voice is soon joined by other instruments as the opening line of Psalm 22 is repeated on a Roman cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We hear the voice in the final movement repeat the motif of 22:15, “my strength is dried up like a potsherd, / and my tongue sticks to my jaws…”[xv] slightly differently, “I thirst” (Jn. 19:28).
We hear the echoes of Psalm 22:7 again, “All who see me mock me; /they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; / 8 ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; / let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” [xvi] But now the motif is stronger and more detailed (Matt. 27:39-44):
39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “…If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. [xvii]
In the second movement of the symphony of the cross, we heard, “18 they divide my garments among them, / and for my clothing they cast lots.” [xviii] In the final movement, we hear:
23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, 24 so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture….[xix]
In the fourth movement, we hear the pounding of nails into the hands and feet of Messiah and recall the strains of the second movement, “they have pierced my hands and feet….”[xx] Such a powerful testimony to Messiah Jesus was this line, Hebrew manuscripts of Psalm 22 produced 2 centuries after Calvary changed the vowel marks to make the line read, “like a lion, [they are at] my hands and feet.”[xxi]
Outside of the Gospels, the New Testament’s most vivid references to the Lord’s Passion are found in Hebrews, which speaks of the Lord’s sharing our flesh and blood so that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death” (2:14). Quoting Psalm 21 in this context of the Passion, St Author tells us that Jesus “is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren; / In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You’” (2:11, 12).[xxii]
That’s been happening right here in this room this morning. Messiah Jesus is proclaiming the name of I AM to us as we assemble and worship him and hear his Word preached. Suddenly, the third movement of Psalm 22 takes on a new and powerful clarity as we see Messiah Jesus revealed as the perfect fulfillment of the sufferings and figurative “resurrection” of messiah David in the final movement of the NT scriptures. We understand that Jesus meditated and prayed through this Psalm in the dark hours of the garden of Gethsemane before he lived it on Calvary.
Everything the prophets had foretold was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He’s not just a great man who became filled with the highest sense of nearness to God, he is God who came near to us! He is the Man who experienced the ultimate separation from God as the full and final sacrifice for sin on Calvary. He is the God-Man who completed the final notes of Psalm 22:31, “they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, / that he has done it.”[xxiii] He completed them with a shout of triumph and glory and majesty that will echo throughout the ages until time is rolled up into eternity. He cried, “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30).
Lifted up was He to die;
It is finished! was His cry;
Now in Heav’n exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Savior![xxiv]
Psalm 22 is a love song. It’s a song for those who have come to believe, in their misery and pain, that God has turned his back on them. God turned his back to the Roman whip and gave his hands and feet to be pierced on a cross. All the suffering of Psalm 22 is a description of the God who loves you to death and to resurrection and ascension and glory.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. …37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [xxv]
[i] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ps 22:title–31.
[ii] Derek Kidner, quoting A. Bentzen, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 122.
[iv] Bruce et. al., 397.
[v] Id., 397–398.
[vi] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ps 22:1.
[vii] Waltke, et. al., 399.
[x] Sinclair Ferguson, The Gospel of God in the Psalms of David: Can This Be the Savior? Psalm 22. Accessed 4/26/17 at: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=229121117510
[xii] Ferguson, op. cit.
[xxii] Reardon, (Kindle Locations 1208-1212).
[xxiv] Philip P. Bliss (words and music), Hallelujah! What a Savior. International Lessons Monthly, 1875.