Friday, September 18, 2009

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22)

Psalm 22 is one of the major Old Testament passages that the early church saw as a testimony to the gospel facts or as disclosing the determined plan of God.[1] Matthew, Mark, John, Paul, and the author of Hebrews all referred to this psalm. Verses 1 and 18 are specifically quoted and verses 6, 21 and 22 are alluded to.

Hanging on the cross, knowing that His Father was not going to intervene on His behalf, Jesus ass reminded of a prayer He has known from childhood, an agonized cry wrenched from the heart of another servant of God in a time of trial.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? (22:1) [2]

Jesus' use of Psalm 22 is significant. We know that the Jews had regular, formalized worship three times daily, including readings from the Law and the Prophets and singing of Psalms. The Psalms constituted their hymn book, and most faithful Jews would have had the psalms memorized. “My God, my God,” is the beginning of Psalm 22 and the Jews at the foot of the Cross would have recognized this. Some of them would have remembered that Psalm 22 begins in apparent defeat or tragedy, but ends in triumph. Undoubtedly some would have asked, “How can He be quoting something that has a happy ending as the life drains from him – where is the hope of which the Psalm speaks?” Some, in Matthew’s account, mistakenly took the Aramaic “Eli, eli” to be a cry for Elijah to come and save him.

For those of His followers who stayed with Him, one wonders how much they would considered that this incident, like the psalmist's, would ultimately end happily. Given Matthew's account of the incident, it is obvious that some, like Jesus, recognized, as they looked around them, the prophecies in the middle section of Psalm 22 being fulfilled before their very eyes: “They gape upon me with their mouths…” “They pierced my hands and my feet…” “they stand staring and looking upon me…” “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” Hearing Jesus' words and seeing the events unfolding around them the word of this psalm must have been running through the minds of those faithful Jews who stayed at the cross when most of Jesus' other followers had fled. As John witnessed the soldiers dividing Jesus clothing as He hangs on the cross, he saw a parallel to the plight suffered by the psalmist in Psalm 22:18:[3]

they divide my garments among them,
   and for my clothing they cast lots.[4]

As recorded in the psalm, the wicked loot the righteous with callous indifference and ruthlessness. The innocent victim is left helpless in his nakedness.

The words of Psalm 22:6 (together with Isaiah 53:3), "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people" are alluded to by Mark in 9:12.[5] Mark refers to the fact that "it is written of the Son of the Man that He would suffer many things and be treated with contempt." Psalm 22, as a whole, would have been prime source material to support this.

Allen notes that Psalm 22:21 is likely what Paul is referring to in 2 Timothy 4:17, speaking of his first defence before Nero where he was acquitted.[6]

Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

Before and during his first legal hearing before Nero, apparently Paul prayed the lament section of Psalm 22 and upon receiving the favourable outcome, he "transformed the petition into an element of thanksgiving, namely the report of God's intervention."[7] Now, as he faces his second trial, which he does not expect will end with similar deliverance, he still remains confident of God's ability to deliver him from every evil attack and to bring him safely to God's eternal kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).

The words of verse 22, "I will tell of your name to my brothers’ in the midst of the congregation I will praise" are quoted in Hebrews 2:12. Because of the suffering that He endured, Jesus has been crowned with glory that is to be shared with all mankind. This is what is referred to in Psalm 22:22. The suffering that Christ endured, as seen throughout the psalm, resulted in glory that will be shared with all those whom He is not ashamed to call brothers (Heb. 2:11).

[1] C.H Dodd, According to the Scriptures. Fontana Books, 1965: 30 argues that when two or more separate authors cite the same passage from the Old Testament, unless there are definite reasons to the contrary, "they represent to that extent a common tradition."

[2] Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34

[3] John 19:24

[4] John 19:24

[5] Dodd: 92-93

[6] Leslie C. Allen, Psalm 101-150. Word Biblical Commentary. Word, 1983: 88.

[7] Ibid: 89.


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