We have already encountered Psalm 22 three times so far this year. It is a well-known psalm in Christian circles. The whole psalm is set for Good Friday. It is one of the psalms by which the Church from its earliest days has interpreted the death of Jesus. In addition, the last part of the psalm was set for Lent 2 and Easter 5 this year.
Psalm 22 is an individual lament psalm, where an individual cries out in anguish. It contains both complaints against others who mock and oppress the psalmist (e.g. vv. 6-8, 12-13) and a complaint against God who, in the psalmist’s view, has abandoned them (e.g. vv. 1-2). It is a more complex lament than others such as Psalm 13 in that its structure is far more developed. This is especially so in the first half of the psalm, today’s reading, where there is an alternation between complaint and confessions of trust. It is also unusual in that even though the psalmist suffers bitterly they do not have express any vengeance against the evildoers.
The psalm begins (vv. 1-2) with the bitterest of complaints about 'my God' who appears to have abandoned the psalmist. The psalmist feels only distance and silence. The basic question of theodicy is raised, why do people suffer innocently. One thing we should note, however, even at this early stage is that the question about God is asked in the context of faith. The psalmist knows a larger story than just the one of their own suffering and seeks resolution of the two.
In vv. 3-5 there is a sudden change of tone. We meet now a statement of confidence. The larger story known by the psalmist includes the accounts of the trust placed in God by their forebears (possibly meaning the ancestors of Genesis) and their deliverance. In the larger story of faith God responded to cries for help and delivered those who cried out. If, in the psalmist’s present circumstance where help is needed, God remains silent then God denies his own nature and past actions. Three times in vv. 4-5 the psalmist uses the word ‘trust’ in relation to the ancestors as if to remind God of the need for a response, as God has done in the past.
In vv. 9-11 the psalmist will again confess their trust, but this time not going back to the stories of the beginnings of the community’s faith but to the beginnings of their own faith. From birth the psalmist has depended on God and God has taken care of them. So now the psalmist seems to be justified in calling for some response from God.
In vv. 6-8 the abandonment by God is reflected in the abandonment by the people around the psalmist. God’s silence is matched by human derision. This is precisely the point in so much of the book of Job where Job cries out to be heard by God as the initial empathy of his ‘friends’ turns to critique and brutal character examination. The beginning of v. 6 with its ‘But I’ stands in sharp contrast to the situation of the ancestors (v. 4). The contrasts go even further in the language for in each of the sections in which the psalmist expresses earlier acts of trust (vv. 3-5 and 9-11) the passage starts with ‘Yet you…’ in reference to God. The language itself sets the psalmist apart from both divine and human companions, just as the individual feels in life.
The psalmist suffers greatly both externally, bearing the shaming, scorn and abuse of those about them (vv. 6b-8, 12-13), as well as internally feeling less than human, ‘poured out’ and ‘dried up’ (vv. 6a, 14-15). At each stage of the psalm they draw God into the context, even though God would seem to want to absent himself from the scene. The statements of trust function as motivation clauses. Whereas the psalmist addressed God as ‘my God’ in v. 1, an expression of close relationship, now in v. 10 they use the same phrase but really to implore God to act on that relationship. God seems far away (v. 1) while trouble is near (v. 11).
Today’s reading cuts the psalm off in the middle of the third cycle of complaints by the psalmist (vv. 12-18). With each cycle the psalmist’s complaints get longer. The imagery becomes more vivid. At the end of our reading for today we hear the psalmist say, ‘You lay me in the dust of death’ (v. 15c) or maybe more literally, ‘You cast me to the dust of death’. Has God joined the enemies from the psalmist’s perspective? Or does the psalmist mean that whenever one person suffers, God cannot remain neutral. Silence on God’s part is tantamount to participation in the death of the sufferer.
These are hard matters that the psalmist addresses to God. They are the issues Job puts before God. They are the matters that Job’s ‘friends’ cannot bear to face, and which they avoid by seeking to probe Job’s life for some sin that has caused the suffering. The psalm goes on in the section not set for today to speak of a change in the psalmist’s circumstances (vv. 21b-31). This change results in the psalmist renewing their praise of God in response to an answer God gives to their plight. We should not be too quick, however, to read on to that conclusion for while it may give us hope, to reach that point too quickly is to ignore both the suffering of the psalmist earlier and the difficulty of the matters such suffering poses. It is like looking forward to celebrating Easter Sunday and ignoring the horror of Good Friday. Praise of God does not, cannot ignore suffering in the world. That is the message of Job today. It is the point made in the beginning of Psalm 22.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
The portion of the psalm set for today is limited in its use in worship. The confessions of trust (vv. 3-5, 9-11) could form the basis for a prayer of adoration:
You are holy, Lord, enthroned on the praises of your people.The prayer of intercession might incorporate in the section where we pray for others in need reference to:
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.
You took us from birth; and kept us safe on our mothers’ breasts.
On you we were cast from birth, and since my mothers bore us you have been our God.
Do not be far from us, when trouble is near and there is no one to help.
those who feel abandoned by both friend and God,Old Testament reading: Job 23:1-9, 16-17
those who bear the mocking and scorn of others,
those who feel encircled and oppressed,
those who feel washed out, out of joint and afraid,
those who feel totally worn out, lain in the dust of death.
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