"Persevering with Praise though Pierced"
September 21, 2008 Psalm 22
A Cry from the Heart when All Seems Lost
When the movie Flight 93 was aired recently on television about the fourth airplane that crashed on 9/11 without claiming a target like the World Trade Centre or Pentagon, one of the major elements that evoked sympathy for the passengers of the plane was their cell-phone communication with family members back on the ground. They found out what the other planes had done, and realized they were probably caught on a suicide mission. They knew all was lost; there was little chance they would come out of it alive. It was touching to hear them say goodbye to their loved ones for what they knew would likely be the last time. One man asked his friend, who worked at the airline, if she would pray the Lord's Prayer with him. And so they did. When all was said and done, the words most fitting for wrapping up their lives was a Biblical prayer.
Hopefully we will never find ourselves in that kind of a situation. But what if that were use? If we found ourselves in a situation that desperate, what would WE say? How could we sum up our hopes and fears, our dreams and deepest longings? How to give voice to faith that both knows God and needs Him NOW?
Apart from the Lord's Prayer, some might choose Psalm 23, another favourite - "The Lord is my Shepherd..." But when David and then centuries later our Lord Jesus were at death's door, they chose not Psalm 23 but Psalm 22. In fact Jesus on the cross is quoted in Mark's gospel (15:34) as calling out in a loud voice verse 1 of Psalm 22 in the Aramaic language: "'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?'-- which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'"
The NIV Study Bible comments, "No Psalm is quoted more frequently in the New Testament." It truly is a psalm which is visceral, gut-felt in crying out for help. David first of all detailed his extreme condition; he was faced by opponents so violent that his words could still be related to by somebody caught in gang conflict in some down-scale residential area in Toronto today. Or by a teen fleeing an abusive situation in a home dominated by an alcoholic parent off some gravel sideroad in Huron County.
But surprisingly the most complete application of Psalm 22 occurs at the cross of Jesus. He is no stranger to our pain and woes. Jesus experiences pain as a human in the profoundest way possible. Yet, praying it, He receives strength to persevere, and comes through it with a note of victory and praise, trusting in God's deliverance.
Fearful Foes & Faith's Re-framing
Since the 3rd or 4th centuries AD, the Christian church has been uttering short prayers known as 'collects' which recall God's attributes and covenantal faithfulness, and set that alongside our current earthly situation and need, asking for God's being and power to impact our circumstances. Acts1:24f would be one example, when the apostles pray about a replacement for Judas, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry..." Psalm 22 is similar in that it urgently details the author's need, but sets that in a Biblical context recognizing God's promises and pleading for His intervention.
How is the need described? Vv6-8, "I am a worm and not a man...scorned...despised;" he is mocked, people hurl insults at him; he is ridiculed for trusting in the Lord. Then in vv11-16,20-21 there are 4 main groups listed: bulls, lions, dogs, and the sword. "Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me." (12) Bashan was an area rich in pasturage east of the sea of Galilee, known for producing strong cattle. So for 'bulls of Bashan' picture a herd of well-built Texas longhorns pounding towards you! Surrounding you, encircling you - there's no way out; you feel overwhelmed by your troubles, over-powered.
V13, "Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me." Others have already fallen - you're next! They're ready to attack you, violate you, wound you. David knew what it was to rescue a lamb from his flock from the mouth of a lion. These aren't actual animals he's talking about - they're metaphors for violent people, as when Saul was out with his army on a manhunt to track David down and kill him.
V20, "Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me..." NLT, 'an evil gang closes in on me.' Substitute your least-favourite brand of guard dog, maybe like those used to guard unoccupied junk-yards - fangs bared, backing you up against the chain-link fence...In New Testament times, Gentiles (non-Jews) were sometimes referred to as 'dogs'. The parallelism with 'band of evil men' shows these are not actual animals, but word-pictures for human attackers. Sharp pointy weapons 'have pierced my hands and my feet'. Are you feeling cut open or slashed - perhaps by sharp words, biting comments, stinging sarcasm?
Vv20-21 rehearse the four attack agents in reverse order: "Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen." All in all, the psalmist is about to give up. He has nothing left. V14, "I am poured out like water...", his heart "has turned to wax; it has melted away within me." 15, his 'strength is dried up like a potsherd' - that's a piece of broken pottery; for an analogy today, imagine a paper Tim Horton's coffee cup thrown out onto the highway, rolling around as jettisoned trash, good for nothing, about to be run over. Totally useless and inadequate; he has nothing left inside, v15b "You lay me in the dust of death": feeling as good as dead. What's the point of going on living?
But the Psalm is a prayer, not just a list of woes. The author not only details their present pain, but re-frames it by faith in the sacred past and God's promised future. You can see the past mentioned in vv4-5: "In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed." Like Psalm 78 which recounts the story of God bringing the Hebrews out from slavery in the Exodus, sustaining them through their desert travels, triumphing by the plagues over Egyptian hostility and hard-heartedness, establishing the nation through David's military victories. Recall all that God has done for you in the past, how He has shown His goodness to Christians through the centuries.
Beyond the past, the psalmist claims the prophesied future as if already experiencing it. We find this from vv25 on: "before those who fear You will I fulfill my vows". All categories of people will savour the Lord's help: "the poor will eat and be satisfied;" the rich of the earth; 'all the ends of the earth' and 'all the families of the nations' will turn to the Lord. Posterity (that is, our children - NLT) and future generations will be told about the Lord; the line's not going to end here! Jews and Gentiles, those who feast - living it up - and those who go down to the dust, those at death's door. The Psalmist expresses faith that all types of folks have yet to experience God's help and praise Him for it.
Remember what a mess the psalmist is in - how he's threatened by the sword / dogs / lions / bulls etc.? Yet despite that mess - when he re-frames his exasperating hardship in the big context of God's proven deliverances in the past and God's promised vision for the future - the Psalmist can make the astounding assertion of faith in v28, an anchor in such tough times: "for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations." Wow! What a climactic statement! Though my world may be falling apart, God still has things under control. He is sovereign, 'royal power' belongs to Him (NLT). He's in charge though I am not. God's power and greatness are big enough to overcome my passing problems.
So, the dynamic of past and future pulls the Psalmist out of the despair of the present into praise, rejoicing in God's promised ultimate deliverance.
Our Hopes Pinned on Jesus at the Cross
Psalm 22 is written so bluntly, with such soul-desperation, that we can relate to it at our most terrified moments today. But fast-forward several hundred years from David, praying under the stars in the Judean wilderness with a 'wanted' poster out for him and a price on his head. Fast-forward to Jesus AD 33 at Gethsemane - then Golgotha. Here is where the Psalm really comes into its most startling fulfilment. There's an eery 1:1 correspondence between the phrases of Psalm 22 and what happened to Jesus at the cross. The NIV Study Bible notes, "No other psalm fitted quite so aptly the circumstances of Jesus at His crucifixion." By this identification with our human condition we start to understand Jesus seeks to come alongside us at our most painful, abandoned times.
We've already noted that Jesus quotes verse 1 in His abandonment: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" WHY indeed! He wasn't just asking it - like the visual symbols of the broken bread and poured-out wine, Jesus was pointing to the redemptive meaning of His innocent suffering on our behalf. Only the Gospel - the good news of how our sins are atoned for and we can have eternal life with God by receiving Jesus - only the Gospel makes sense of the historically attested events of Good Friday and Easter.
V7, hurling insults / shaking their heads: that's mentioned of Jesus at Calvary in Mark 15:29f. V8, "He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him" - compare what the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders say in Matthew 27:43, "He trusts in God.Let God rescue him now if he wants him..." V14 of the psalm, "all my bones are out of joint": the strain of the cross could do that to the shoulders, it's sort of a vertical 'rack' of torture with all your body weight hanging there. V16, 'they have pierced my hands and my feet' - the nails. Those holes after the Resurrection became proofs that Jesus really was the Saviour who had died. Convincing proofs that led Thomas to exclaim, "My Lord and my God!" when Jesus said to the doubter, "Put your finger here; see my hands.Reach out your hand and put it into my side.Stop doubting and believe." (Jn 20:27)
V18 of the psalm talks about someone dividing up garments and casting lots for the victim's clothing. The gambling-geared Roman soldiers unwittingly fulfilled that prophesy (Mt 27:35; Jn 19:23f).
Finally, v22 is quoted as applying specifically to Jesus in Hebrews 2:12, where the writer talks of Jesus tasting death for everyone in order to bring many 'sons' to glory, calling them His fellow family members: "I will declare Your name to my brothers..." Jesus 'pulled it off' - God's wonderful project of making many holy and bringing them to glory for ever.
God Brings Deliverance through Pain for His Glory
One of the central challenges for a religious system of any kind is to make sense of pain, to explain the existence of unjust suffering. When hard times are upon us, we may get so wrapped up in the experience at the time - closing in on our pain and aloneness - that we lose perspective of the good God may eventually bring as a result.
This week I went to store a second garbage can I'd been using for 'overflow' back on the pile where I'd originally been keeping it (normally one is enough for us). But when I turned it upside-down, I saw that about 10 slugs had attached themselves to the damp bottom. If I left it up-ended in 'store' position, the sun would soon hit them and probably kill them, drying them out. So I took my work-glove and brushed them off into the grass where they could stay shaded and moist.
Now, if you were to interview one of those slugs right after they landed on the ground, he or she (?) would likely have complained what rough treatment they'd just had when they were simply minding their own business. To be tossed down so roughly, and denied their cozy hiding place! 'Is there no justice in the universe?' But really my intentions were to save them, to preserve their lives, not destroy them. But they couldn't have grasped the big picture from their angle - they only felt inconvenience, pain, and discomfort.
The story of Joseph in the later chapters of Genesis is one that illustrates how God works through pain to bring deliverance for people, though it may take time, and they may not realize it when it's happening. Joseph, the young and favourite son of Jacob, was thrown into a well and sold as a slave by his jealous brothers, through no fault of his own. After becoming a responsible, hard-working servant in the household of Potiphar, an important official in Egypt, good-looking Joseph was preyed upon by Potiphar's lustful wife - but Joseph's resistance to misbehaviour landed him in the royal dungeon, accused falsely of attempted rape. Even there in the dungeon Joseph behaved and served well and was promoted to higher responsibilities (must have been one of those 'born' manager/administrators). He helped two other inmates, the royal baker and the royal cupbearer, interpret their dreams correctly. He implored the one released to mention him to Pharaoh and get him out of the prison. But the cupbearer was released, restored to his position at Pharaoh's side - and promptly forgot Joseph! For TWO WHOLE YEARS!
Now, imagine you're Joseph, there in the dungeon. You feel like you've suffered long enough. Rejected and sold as a slave by your brothers. Accused falsely by Mrs.Potiphar and incarcerated though you were completely innocent. Then along came a shining chance to get released - and the one bloke who could do something about you - the bloke who OWED you for interpreting his dream - forgot about you completely. So you're stuck there in that dark dank stinking dungeon another two years - cleaning latrines, delivering gruel, waking up to other prisoners' cries in the middle of the night: wouldn't you think you had a right to be angry with God? Wouldn't you have been tempted to ask, "God, why are you picking on me?!"
Yet it was Joseph who became the instrument to interpret Pharaoh's dreams and save all of Egypt AND the surrounding countries from starvation, after 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine. And when his brothers arrived seeking to buy food - those same brothers who had started it all off by treating him cruelly and selling him into slavery - Joseph wasn't eaten up by bitterness but could look back and see God's saving purpose through it all. He told them, "...do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you...to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt...You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Gen 45:5,7f, 50:20) See how clearly Joseph came to understand God's sovereign power, superintending all that happened? All those bad things - the brothers' betrayal, the undeserved imprisonment - God used them to get Joseph to the place he needed to be to save many. He turned even the bad events to His good purpose.
In the New Testament, Paul speaks this way of the Lord's dominion even over the pain: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose...Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." (Rom 8:28,35,37)
Trust in God - even when things don't make sense and the attack seems overwhelming. The Psalmist recalled how his ancestors trusted and God delivered them; "in You they trusted and were not disappointed" (4f). Even during the crisis, faith made the difference; vv9f, "You made me trust in you even at my mother's breast...from my mother's womb You have been my God." That trust prompted praise despite the pain. "In the congregation I will praise You...Revere Him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help." (Ps 22:22,24) The empty tomb is proof God cares through your darkest night.
A Quadriplegic Praising God and Telling Others
A diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson Tada a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, unable to use her hands. During two years of rehabilitation, she spent long months learning how to paint with a brush between her teeth. She wrote a best-selling biography, and founded Joni and Friends (JAF) in 1979 to accelerate Christian ministry in the disability community throughout the world. In 2002 her ministry "Wheels for the World" distributed more than 14,000 wheelchairs in more than 50 countries.
Joni is a living example of praise and trust overcoming crippling circumstances. She loves hymns, and singing them provides the background to all she does. Joni says, "Even though I'm confined to this chair, my heart can always sing - always leap for joy."
How does Joni's trust in God's sovereignty reflect that of the psalmist in his hardship? She says, "Difficulties, disappointments, afflictions, suffering - we'd love to erase these words from our dictionary.But God has a plan.It's no mistake that you got that bad medical report last week, that the economic downturn is affecting your retirement fund, that your children are not turning out the way you'd hoped they would, or that your grandchild was born with a disability. These are the very things that can draw families closer to Jesus Christ...We shouldn't view life's struggles as daunting obstacles to our happiness. They can be the very keys to our lasting happiness, true contentment, and godly joy." [Focus on the Family August/September 2003 pp.4f] Let's pray.