A sermon on Psalm 22 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 31 January 2021
Psalm 22 has puzzled Bible readers for thousands of years. I mean, for one thing, is this a sad psalm or a happy psalm? The first 21 verses describe in excruciating detail, not only the writer’s suffering, but his spiritual struggle as well. He begins,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me? O God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought that people weren’t allowed to talk to God like that. Shouldn’t he just have more faith? Shouldn’t he just trust in Jesus more? And yet here it is in the Bible, as if God was saying, “If you need to, you can talk to me like that too.”
For 21 verses this psalm is so sad, but then it completely changes tune.
I will declare your name to my brothers. You who fear the Lord, praise him. For he has not despised the suffering of the afflicted one. All the rich of the earth will feast and worship. All who go down to the dust will kneel before him. Posterity will serve him. Future generations will be told about the Lord.
I suppose for all its sadness, it has a happy ending because the writer got what he was asking for. He was in trouble. The Lord saved him. Everything’s fine and praise the Lord. But isn’t the ending a bit over the top? The writer talks as if the end of his suffering will have these remarkable benefits. That will bring blessings not only to all the people of the earth, but to future generations as well. They are so extraordinary that they more than make up for whatever the writer went through. But what is the connection? How can the writer suffer like this and then his salvation causes so much good for so many people over so much time?
The nature of the writer’s problem has puzzled people as well. He talks about it in places like he is sick, like he is almost dying. He is poured out like water. His bones are out of joint. His heart has turned to melted wax. His strength has dried up like a shard of broken pottery. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. But at other times it’s like he is surrounded by enemies. They are like raging bulls. Or savage dogs. Or roaring lions. While at other times it seems that he is being executed. His hands and feet are pierced like with nails. And his guards are throwing dice for his clothes. And while they watch him suffer, they mock him. They make fun of him.
He trusts in the Lord. Let the Lord rescue him, since he delights in him.
It’s a puzzle. Parts of it, I admit, make sense just as they are. For example, I hear the writer’s pain. I respect the anguish of his suffering. I admire his wrestle with God. His refusal to let go of God. I hear his stubborn faith.
You are enthroned as the Holy One. You are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust. They cried to you and were saved.
But I also hear the depth of his disappointment. His confusion about how he can trust in the Lord and yet this terrible suffering is still happening to him.
You brought me out of the womb. You made me trust in you. From birth I was cast upon you. From my mother’s womb you have been my God. Do not be so far away from me. For trouble is near and there is no one to help.
It speaks to me, because if he can trust the Lord, when he feels so disappointed, if he refuses to let go when he is suffering so much and is feeling so let down, then I can too.
And I hear his joy at the end when his complaint gets through. When his cry for help is heard. When his prayer is answered. Who would not praise the Lord’s name in his people’s midst? Who would not fulfil the vow he made at the height of his distress that the Lord has taken away? Who would not organise a feast for the rich and poor for all to celebrate the salvation of the Lord?
Don’t get me wrong. Some psalms are just a sad story that have a happy ending. The writer cried out to God, and it teaches us that we can pour out our heart to him as well. God rescued him, and it teaches us that God is faithful and he can do what we ask him. It ends with praise and thanks, and it teaches us to remember to give thanks to God when he answers us.
But I believe that Psalm 22 is more, that all its different parts create such a puzzle that can only be explained if it is something more than that. Something more than just what it says it is, a psalm of David. That is, that it is also a psalm of Jesus, the great Son of David. Written hundreds of years before Jesus was born, before Jesus walked through the streets of Palestine, before Jesus was arrested in the garden, before Jesus was found guilty by his own people’s rulers and condemned to death on the cross. They pierced his hands and feet. They gambled for his clothes. As he died, his enemies made fun of him.
He saved others, but he cannot save himself. Let this Christ, this King of Israel come down now from the cross so that we may see and believe.
And as he hung there. Thirsty. Weakened. He cried out in his own language,
Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
This psalm, this ancient poem, written centuries BC, before Christ, is a prophesy of his coming, his suffering, his death, and the power and victory and joy of his resurrection. To me, it’s the only thing that makes sense. There is the scene of execution. His enemies surrounding him. His extraordinary pain and suffering. And his cry of anguish.
For on the cross we see the beloved Son of God, the heir of his kingdom, the personification of his goodness and love, crushed like a bug on the windscreen of jealousy and hate and corruption. Who deserved more of his Father’s blessing and joy than Jesus? And yet who experienced more of the horrors of earthly existence than Jesus? And his anguished cry on the cross illustrates how God his Father was never further from him as he stepped back to allow his precious Son to bear the full brunt of human sin, and yet was never closer to him than as his Son gave his gift of life for us unworthy sinners. The Scriptures say,
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them.
This is the love we submit to in baptism. This is the love we pledge ourselves to. And this is the love we celebrate in Holy Communion. Jesus Christ died our death so that we might live his life. And through it all, Jesus clung to his Father and never let him go. So that with his last breath he said,
Father into your hands I commit my spirit.
And yet this sad, sad story, this worst of all Fridays that we call Good Friday, has a happy ending. Death had claimed the Son of God. But death could not keep him. His tomb was empty and he showed himself alive. All the things his enemies said of him. All their slander. All their accusations were lies. They killed him because he called himself the Son of God. And his Father brought him back to life. His Father vindicated him and proved it by showing him alive.
And it is in Jesus’ life, his new life, the life of his resurrection, that the full joy of Psalm 22 can be fulfilled. Jesus is the Lord of all nations. Jesus is the Lord of all generations. Jesus is the one who has organised a feast in his Father’s kingdom for the rich and poor, for the old and young, for the wise and foolish, for all who cannot keep themselves alive. They will feast and worship and be satisfied, and all who seek the Lord will praise him. People from every nation. People from every generation. Even ours. Even you.
Psalm 22 has puzzled Bible readers for thousands of years. But the solution to the puzzle is found in the good news of Jesus Christ. It speaks of a love that not only humbles us before God and brings us to our knees so that we want to give our life for him. But it is a love that inspires and guides all our decisions and actions all our life long. And it speaks of a joy, yes a hard fought joy, a joy won at the cost of great pain and anguish, but still a joy that can be ours now as we know that God is not against us but for us. A joy that still waits for us despite all our tears and worries in the coming of the new creation.
For a table has been set at which all the rich of the earth will feast and worship as well as all who go down to the dust, those who cannot keep themselves alive. And the gospel says that there is a seat reserved for you. It may be a long and difficult journey. But the Christ who was forsaken on the cross will never forsake you. He will be with you all the way until you take your place. May his life and love and joy guide you and all that you do.