Psalm 22: The Psalm Of Calvary (Part 1)

Psalm 22 has been called “the Psalm of Calvary” or “the Good Friday Psalm,” for reasons which may be obvious and which I hope become more obvious by the end of this little devotional series.

This psalm was written some three thousand years ago and some one thousand years before the life of Christ. And yet, despite predating his life by centuries, Jesus himself quotes a portion of these words as he is suffering and dying on the cross of Golgotha. Matthew 27:46 tells us, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

In crying these words, Jesus effectively adopts this prayer of King David for himself. Later on, the New Testament Scriptures (e.g., Hebrews 2:12ff) show us how this prayer of David was ultimately fulfilled by the experience of our Lord. Psalm 22, understood Christologically, is the Psalm of Calvary.

Although authored by King David, the events of this psalm far surpass any experience of his life. This psalm reveals a remarkably prophetic glimpse into the sufferings of Jesus and the glories to follow. Psalm 22, in its original context, was written firsthand from David’s perspective. But under the inspiration and superintendence of the Holy Spirit, these words express the perspective of Christ Jesus.

It is extraordinary that in Psalm 22 we see the crucifixion experience from the vantage point, not of the apostles or the crowds, but of the One who hung there and later stepped forth from the grave in resurrection victory.

In looking at the broad contours of Psalm 22, we see two broad divisions which bring together the themes we associate with the days popularly called “Good Friday” and “Resurrection Sunday.”

In the first broad section of verses 1–21, we have the experience of the crucifixion. We might call this section The Depths of Woe, to borrow a phrase from another psalm (Ps 130).

And then in the second broad section of verses 21–31, there is a marvelous transition into a resurrection and post-resurrection vantage point. This section we might call The Heights of Glory.

Psalm 22 brings us to the foot of the cross, vividly showing us the horror of our Savior’s dying love for us. It also takes us to very early on the first day of the week to the empty tomb and beyond, where we are confronted with Christ’s resurrection glory.

In today’s article, we will begin considering The Depths of Woe, the depths of the sufferings of Christ in Psalm 22. We will return in a subsequent article to consider the remainder of the psalm as it highlights for us The Heights of Glory in Christ’s magnificent resurrection and beyond. 

Oscillating Between Agony and Confidence

Let us take note of the structure of this first section. It is arranged in a three-fold repetition of verses that expresses the nature of Christ’s suffering (1–2; 6–8; 12–18). Each of those units is followed by another unit of text that displays the unwavering faith of Christ in the midst of his misery. In other words, there are three alternating sections of text, each following the same pattern: a section of agony, followed by a section of determined faith.

Each section that deals with Christ’s confidence begins with what I like to call the defiant conjunctions of faith: “Yet you are holy” (3), “Yet you, O Lord” (9), and “But you, O Lord” (19).[1] The power of these declarations is highlighted by the descriptions of our Savior enduring the agony that is bearing down upon him. In the midst of his agony, the spiritual curtain is drawn back and we see his trust and his casting himself upon the goodness of God.

Note the first distress-and-response section of suffering and confidence in verses 1–5. If you are a familiar reader of the psalms, you may have noticed that oftentimes the psalmist will slowly and gradually build to a climax of misery, particularly in the psalms of lament. The writer will open with a general assessment of his situation, maybe an ascription of praise to God, and then he will start laying out his circumstances. Somewhere in the middle, he reaches a mountaintop expression of woe. And then, after that climactic expression of misery, the tone of the text will shift to a conclusion, resolving in faith and trusting confidence in the Lord and his promises.

Notice, however, that this psalm does not build up toward a climax of suffering. It begins with a climax of suffering. In considering verse 1, we could say a great deal about the physical pain of the crucifixion, the horrors of Roman torture, the custom of Roman criminal execution, etc. But as terrible as the physical sufferings of Jesus undoubtedly were, here in verse 1 is the true horror of the cross. Here is what makes the cross hell: not the nails in his hands and feet, but the cry of spiritual dereliction that come from his lips, “’Eli, Eli lama sabachthani?’ My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Depths of Woe: Hellish Dereliction

As dark and terrible as our circumstances and experiences and even our spiritual depressions may be—they are real, and we do not wish for a moment to minimize that—the fact is that no one has ever lived in the darkness into which our Savior plunged in this moment.

Here, the full fury of the divine curse fell on the God-Man. This is how the Heidelberg Catechism 44 explains the reality for us, as it exposits that sometimes-vexing clause in the Apostles’ Creed:

Q. Why does the creed add,
“He descended into hell”?
A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation
that Christ my Lord,
by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,
on the cross but also earlier,
has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.

Jesus was delivered up by the Father to condemnation (Rom 4:25; Matt 20:18–19; 26:45; Mark 14:41; Luke 24:7; John 18:30ff.). Ultimately, he was handed over not merely to Pilate’s judgment but to the judgment of the Father and to the wrath that our sin warranted.

Somehow, in the incomprehensible mystery of the Trinity, while never ceasing to love God the Son or to be one with God the Son, God the Father was at Calvary pouring out white-hot, unmitigated, unrestrained fury against sin upon the Son. Here is Christ Jesus bearing the condemnation we deserve.

Here, dear readers, is what you and I deserve on account of our wicked and cosmic treason against God Almighty. Here it is, paid for in the wounds of our Savior. Here is what our sin cost: the dereliction and giving over of Jesus Christ to the fury of the wrath of God. I wonder if Psalm 22 might drive us to see our sin in a different light?

Given our Christological hermeneutic, Psalm 22 depicts the wretched figure hanging on the cross. Thus, in this psalm, I daresay we have a perfect antidote to our far-too-casual view of sin. How often do we entertain such devilish excuses: It is just a little lie, just a minor fudging of the numbers, just a quick glance at that website every once in a while. I am only thinking about this desire, not acting upon it.

Friends, it is no trivial thing to rebel against the rule and the law of Almighty God. It cost the lifeblood of the Son and the terrible perception of God-forsakenness (Ps 22:1) to pay our debt. I love that stanza from Thomas Kelley’s “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” that so poetically captures the grace and horror of Golgotha:

Ye who think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly; here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load:
Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed; Son of Man and Son of God.2

And do note the question in Psalm 22:1 that Jesus cries to his Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” It is crucial for us to recognize that that question on the lips of Jesus is not a cry of unbelief; it is not an ungodly cry. Though he cries out in anguish, it is nonetheless a cry to “My God, my God.”3 This is a cry of faith amidst misery. And as he does so, what a grace it is, what a model for us when we find ourselves in a similar situation—looking for and crying to a God who does not seem near.

Sustaining Faith: Rehearsing God’s Faithfulness of Old

Notice in verses 3–5 how our Savior sustained his faith in these trials. The first thing he does is recite God’s faithfulness to his people of old, his forefathers. “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel; in you our fathers trusted. They trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and you delivered them. They trusted in you and were not put to shame” (3).

Jesus rehearses God’s past grace toward Israel in order to sustain his own faith in present woe. He sustains faith and looks for more help and grace by remembering the unfailing faithfulness of God in the past.

There it is, friends. It is simple and not flashy, but this is a biblical antidote you can bring with you when you are in the trenches of spiritual warfare, discouragement, and despondency. Remember the grace of God; rehearse his faithfulness; preach it to yourself.

He has been faithful to you and to your fathers before you, to his people throughout the generations. Recalling this was Christ’s method to sustain his faith in the anguish of Calvary. He remembered and preached to his own soul the past unfailing faithfulness of God.

There is more for us to consider in this splendid chapter of Scripture regarding the depths of woe that Christ endured and the grace of sustaining faith that Christ experienced, and we shall do that when we return to part 2 of this series.

Notes

  1. Emphasis added.
  2. Thomas Kelly, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” 1804.
  3. Emphasis added.

©Sean Morris. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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Posted by Sean Morris | Saturday, March 30, 2024 | Categorized Biblical Exposition, Biblical theology, Psalms, Saturday Psalm Series | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About Sean Morris

Sean was educated at Grove City College, Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), and the University of Glasgow (Scotland). He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and serves as a minister at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He also serves as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sean lives in Oak Ridge with his wife, Sarah, along with their children and useless beagle.

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