Psalm 22: The Psalm Of Calvary (Part 2)

As we noted last time, this psalm was written some three thousand years ago and some one thousand years before the life of Christ. According to Matthew 27:46, Jesus quotes a portion of these words as he is suffering and dying on the cross of Golgotha. In doing so, Jesus effectively adopts this prayer of King David for himself. The New Testament helps us see that this prayer of David was ultimately fulfilled by the experience of our Lord. Psalm 22, understood Christologically, is the Psalm of Calvary.

In looking at the contours of Psalm 22, we noted that it has two broad divisions, which bring together the themes associated with the days popularly called “Good Friday” and “Resurrection Sunday.” Last time we looked at verses 1–5 and began to consider the alternating expressions we find in this psalm—the back-and-forth expressions of woe and sustaining faith.

Depths of Woe: Inhumanity and Isolation

Now, in verses 6–8, the psalm pivots back again to focus on the sufferings of the cross. This time, our attention is fixed not on the spiritual anguish, but on Calvary’s dehumanizing effects. Verse 6 says, “I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”

Some of those phrases especially jump out at us. David, and later Jesus, feels like “a worm and not a man.” Despised by the people, he is treated by them like an animal—subhuman, worthy of ridicule.

It is impossible to know how many of our readers have undergone a traumatic experience and felt like their human dignity was being stripped away. Perhaps some have lived through the ravages of war or have undergone harrowing battles against cancer. Perhaps some have been on the receiving end of malicious treatment from the hands of people closest to them. Whatever miseries you have endured, I daresay that in many instances, one of the most awful parts of those situations is that it seems as if nobody understands your sorrow. Some sympathize, few truly understand, and some do not seem to evidence any kind of pity at all. Yet here in Psalm 22 is Christ, and he has traveled to the furthest extremity of human loss and pain, the depths of woe (Psalm 130:1). He did this so that he can say to you, “I know.”

Is not Hebrews 4:15 such a balm of comfort, such a gracious reassurance and consolation to the Christian’s heart? “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

There at the cross, Christ was alone, despised, scorned. The Pharisees standing around, their sneering mockery of him is foretold in Psalm 22:8: He trusted in the Lord; let him rescue him, let him deliver him since he delights in him, and fulfilled in Matthew 27:42: He saved others; let him save himself.

Christian reader, it may feel and seem when you are going through trials and seasons of misery that there is no one who understands or sympathizes. Take heart that it is never truly “no one.” You can go to the Lord Jesus, Christian. Psalm 22 reminds us that there is a man, a Savior, a great high priest, a God, who is familiar with sorrow and acquainted with grief. The Savior knows.

Sustaining Faith: Rehearsing God’s Faithfulness, Personally

In verses 9–11, the text again pivots away from descriptions of misery to once more rehearsing God’s faithfulness. From that recounting, the speaker draws spiritual strength. This time David—and ultimately the Lord Jesus—is supported, not by rehearsing God’s past faithfulness to the forefathers, but by rehearsing God’s past faithfulness in his own life.

Note verse 9: “But you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.”

Here is Jesus remembering himself as a covenant child. He can trace the ways that, from his earliest memories, Jehovah has been his God. Some of us have a testimony like this, I suspect. We might say, “I am a covenant child. I never remember a day apart from the love of the Lord. I grew up believing and trusting him, fleeing sin and clinging to Christ, not knowing a prodigal season of wild rebellion.”

It is not a dramatic testimony, not the kind of testimony that gets one invited to give a presentation at certain Christian events. We might be tempted to think this is an inferior testimony: “I did not live like the prodigal and come to a crisis moment, nor have a near-death experience only to be rescued by the grace of God. It is a boring testimony.”

Dear reader, no. Perish the thought. If that kind of upbringing and life experience is your story, that is a wonderful testimony. It is akin to Jesus’ testimony, which he rehearses here in Psalm 22. From infancy, from the womb, Jesus said, “I trusted in You. I never knew a time when I did not trust in You.” This is how we pray it will be in covenant households, as parents seek to faithfully rear their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. In this psalm, Jesus is recounting the covenant faithfulness of God in his own life and upbringing, and he is using it to sustain his faith in the pit of his most intense sufferings.

I realize that even using the word “testimony” might, for some folks, conjure up associations with revivalist emotionalism and heart-jerking stories intended to manipulate one’s affections. But whatever the flaws of the word, I wager the bigger flaw is with whom we deem the central character in our “testimony” or life story to be.

I suspect it would do our souls much good if we would look back on our life and re-read our life story, not with ourselves as the main character, but rather with our covenant-keeping God as the central character. If we would do so, even as King David and the Lord Jesus model for us in Psalm 22, I wonder if the memory of God’s faithfulness to us personally would not give abundant fuel for our faith even in the very worst of times.

Depths of Woe: Physical Agony

Even as Christ is bolstered by the memory of God’s faithfulness, the text pivots again to describe another angle of suffering in verses 12–18. This is an incredibly accurate account of the physiological effects of crucifixion. Almost one thousand years before the event, David gave quite an accurate account of Christ’s crucifixion experience at Golgotha.

King David, and later Jesus, says, “I am surrounded by many bulls of Bashan” (12), and that they are “like a ravening and roaring lion” (13), indicating that enemies of a monstrous size, power, and ferocity relentlessly oppose him. This miserable sensation is depicted as dogs snapping at him all around (16). Verse 16 further tells us that his enemies pierced his hands and his feet and then went on to “divide his garments and cast lots for his clothing” (18). Verses 14 and 15 give us perhaps the most vivid depiction of the bodily misery being endured: I am poured out like water. All my bones are out of joint; my heart is melted like wax. My strength is dried up . . . my tongue sticks to my jaws. John 19:28 reinforces the reality of Jesus’ physical extremity, telling us that he cried out, “I thirst!” Verses 12–18 are an extraordinary depiction of the lingering, agonizing death of the cross.

Sustaining Faith: Trusting for Future Grace

But then, to complete the three-fold pattern of woe and faith in this first section of the psalm, there is a final note of faith in verses 19–21. This time, David (and later Christ) does not look back to past faithfulness; this time he cries out to God in prayer for future grace. This section is a prayer that God would intervene and rescue him: “But you, O LORD, do not be far off! Come and deliver me.”

Notice how even our Lord asks to be rescued from suffering. Verses 19 and following show us it is possible to humbly submit to the sovereignty of God, to bend the knee in fealty and submission to God’s providence, while at the same time asking to be delivered from the very trials that he has ordained. Our Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane reinforces this. When Jesus prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39), he was crying out for deliverance, all the while submitting to the sovereign plan of Almighty God.

A faith that sustains us in our trials is also a faith that does not hold back from asking to be delivered from our trials. By Christ’s own example, we see that such a cry is a biblical and godly prayer.

Note especially verse 21, because this is the pivot on which the whole psalm turns. A woodenly literal translation from the Hebrew might read something like: “Save me from the mouth of the lion, from the horns of the wild oxen.” And then, instead of another request for help, David quite abruptly declares (notice the past tense), “You have answered me.”1 It is as though the anticipated request for salvation that would naturally follow in this verse has been interrupted by the answer itself! “O Lord, save me from the lion’s mouth; come and—Ah! You have answered me!”

From this point on, the tone of the whole psalm is radically different. Thus, having thought about the depths of woe that Christ endured and the grace of sustaining faith that Christ experienced, let us consider The Heights of Glory expressed in Psalm 22 when we return next time to Part 3 in our Saturday Psalm Series.

Notes

  1. Emphasis added.

©Sean Morris. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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Posted by Sean Morris | Saturday, April 6, 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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