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March 29, 2013
Psalm 22

In Christian tradition this psalm has traditionally been associated with Good Friday and the passion and death of Jesus. The suffering of the individual psalmist is seen to prefigure that of Jesus. In fact, this psalm was one of the major interpretative tools for the early Christians as they sought to understand the passion of Jesus (cf. Matt. 27:32-46; Mark 15:21-34).

Before we look at the psalm in detail it is worth noting that in Jewish tradition some have understood the superscription to the psalm as a reference to David as psalmist looking ahead to the time of the Persian Empire and the suffering of the Jewish people in dispersion. In particular, the psalm has been associated with the story of Esther and the threat against her people. The phrase ‘deer of the dawn’ in the superscription is seen as a reference to Queen Esther and the suffering of the psalmist interpreted corporately in relation to the whole Jewish community.

The psalm is divided into two major sections, a lament in vv. 1-21a and a hymn of praise in vv. 21b-31. Each of these major sections can be further broken up into a pattern of two. The lament part is divided into two halves, vv. 1-11 and vv. 12-21a, each ending with a plea for God not to be far away (vv. 11 and 19-21a). Verses 1-11 contain two lament sections (vv. 1-2 and 6-8) each followed by a statement of trust grounded in a relationship which either goes back to the beginning of the nation (vv. 3-5), or to the beginning of the psalmist’s life (vv. 9-10). The second half of the lament also has a pattern of two where two descriptions of those who surround the psalmist (described as ravenous beasts, vv. 12-13 and 16) are each followed by a statement that the psalmist is close to death (vv. 14-15 and 17-18). The twofold prospect of death counters the twofold reference to birth and beginnings. All seems at an end.

The psalm begins with the most desperate of cries asking why God has abandoned the psalmist (v. 1). The psalmist still claims a strong relationship with God using the words ‘my God, my God’. It seems God can neither help nor hear the psalmist’s words. God’s honour is at stake when there is no answer to the psalmist’s cry (v. 2). If God does not answer, will the psalmist continue to praise God and will God be any longer enthroned? Three times in vv. 4-5 the psalmist refers to the trust placed in God by the ancestors and three times he recalls that God delivered them. This recall of an earlier, national experience of trust and deliverance serves as motivation for God’s response.

In vv. 6-8 the psalmist returns to lament describing himself in the most abject terms. The feeling of abandonment by God is matched by a sense of scorn and isolation within the community, the same community which has provided the psalmist with examples of trust and deliverance in the past. But here there seem to be no words of salvation, only the questioning of the mockers (v. 8). Their taunt is a direct challenge to the psalmist’s earlier words. The matter of trust and deliverance is the subject of this present lament. The mockers’ use of the psalmist’s own words makes the present situation all the more difficult. On the other hand, it is also a strong reminder that past trust has been vindicated in deliverance and the present struggle is worth pursuing.

The psalmist reflects again on the past in vv. 9-10, although this time it is his own past. In a carefully structured couple of verses God is described in terms of both a midwife at the psalmist’s birth and as nurse afterward. Since birth God has been ‘my God’ to the psalmist. The psalmist’s own past trust in God is now motivation for God to respond again. In the statement in v. 10 and in the plea in v. 11 the language of vv. 1-2 (‘my God’, ‘far’) is repeated tying the first section of the psalm together.

In the second half of the lament (vv. 12-21a) the complaint is more sustained as the psalmist describes their predicament in vivid terms. In a series of vivid animal and other metaphors and similes the psalmist alternates between the description of their enemies (‘bulls’, ‘ravening and roaring lion’, dogs’; vv. 12-13 and 16) and their own condition (‘poured out like water’, ‘heart is like wax’, a ‘potsherd’; vv. 14-15 and 17-18). The animal language especially has a number of effects. First, it conveys that the psalmist is absolutely helpless in their predicament. The enemies are like powerful beasts and the psalmist cannot resist them. Secondly, such animal imagery was used in the ancient Near East to describe powerful individuals. Its use in the psalm underlines the power of the psalmist’s enemies. Thirdly, in ancient Mesopotamia animal imagery was used to describe the demonic powers thought responsible for sickness and suffering. The effect of all this is to emphasise the psalmist’s inability to resist the powers, both human and cosmic, that are lined up against them. The need for assistance from God is clear. The language of death in vv. 15, 17-18 is hyperbole, describing the psalmist’s predicament in extreme terms.

The lament concludes with a longer plea for deliverance, vv. 19-21a. The repetition of the word ‘far’ ties this section back to the end of the first part of the lament (v. 11) as well as to its beginning (v. 1). The mention of the dog and lion reiterates the main images of this latter half of the lament. There is constant movement back and forth in the psalmist’s thought and expression.

The vagueness of the description of the sufferings of the psalmist allows the psalm to be associated with any one of a number of afflictions. Moreover, in spite of the connection of this psalm to David, it has been associated with many other biblical figures (Moses and the Israelites; Hezekiah and Isaiah in the Midrash) and in Christianity and Judaism in general with Jesus and Esther respectively. In each case the community takes up the prayer even as the latter half of the psalm suggests.

From v. 21b on the psalm turns from lament to praise. For comments on this section see the comments for Year B, Lent 2 and Easter 5.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

The first statement if trust (vv. 3-5) could be used as a call to worship:

You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
Verse 11 could be used a refrain in the prayers of confession:
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Other suggestion for the use of vv. 21b-31 can be found in relation to the comments in Year B noted above.

Old Testament reading: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

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