Psalm 22 - Messiah's Sufferings Foretold
Of all the prophecies concerning the suffering of the Messiah who was to come, none is clearer than Isaiah 53. It almost seems as though that chapter was written by someone who was sitting at the base of the cross. The chapter was difficult for the Old Testament believers to understand because their view of Messiah was one of unbroken glory and splendor. How can the prophet speak of His suffering?
Isaiah is not the only Old Testament writer dealing with this theme. Psalm 22 is perhaps just as clear and vivid as Isaiah 53. Our Lord quotes from this Psalm. The gospel writers realize that this Psalm is being fulfilled before their eyes when they see the suffering and crucifixion of our Lord. There is, therefore, no doubt that this is a Messianic Psalm. Questions do rise. How could this Psalm be applicable to anyone else but Christ? A messianic Psalm deals first of all with a believer in a particular historical situation, and then refers for fuller fulfillment to the Messiah who was to come.
Forsaken by God
The Psalm opens with the words of Christ in the fourth saying from the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" In the gospel account these words have a special place. They indicate the very deepest suffering which our Savior endured. He is speaking in the past tense. He has been forsaken of God during the three hours of darkness which rolled over Golgotha. How is it possible that God would forsake Christ? It shows how great our sin and misery are. The Son had to endure unspeakable torments, including the being forsaken of His Father, to achieve our redemption.
We do not know the exact time in David's life when these words were written or the exact time to which he refers. Many, and they may be right, believe that he refers to the early days when he was fleeing before Saul. Then, too, it seems to the Psalmist that he has been forsaken by his God. He seems so far away! He is so far from giving help in this time of need and seems to be so far away that the Psalmist's groanings and pleadings are not heard. The writer calls to God day and night and receives no answer. He is, therefore, calling to his God about things which are very important to him — they are things which are matters of life and death. He is unceasing in his prayers and cries, but God does not hear! He has forsaken him! But, why? That is Christ's question too so many centuries later: Why? There seems to be no answer to this question.
God is Holy
Yet, the writer must be careful! He is treading on dangerous ground when he calls God to give an account of His ways! So, he hastens to add: But thou art holy. God is not to be placed on the same plane as others. He is totally separated from all others and is "other than" anyone else. He is the One that "inhabiteth the praises of Israel." This, in my estimation, is one of the most beautiful statements found in the Old Testament. God dwells on the praises of His people. But, if this is true, then He cannot be as far away as the psalmist had supposed! Let the praises of God resound! That is the place of His dwelling! Praise Him and you are very close to Him! This passage has far-reaching import which cannot be explored here, but it certainly becomes evident that His people must be very careful how they praise! Let them praise Him with Psalms! He does not inhabit the praises of dittys! Christ, however, sang the true praises of His God and still had to complain: "My God ... why?"
When the psalmist allows his mind to dwell on a little more history than the present moment, he knows that the fathers trusted in this same God. They were also delivered by him and their trust in Him was never put to shame. In other words, this God is not like the One of whom he now complains that He has forsaken him. He didn't do that before! The patriarchs had put their trust in Him completely. Abraham didn't even know where he was going but God didn't forsake him. Joseph had gone through the depths, but was not forsaken. What has happened? The God of the fathers had always proved to be a covenant God who honored all the promises which He had made to His people. Has He changed? Is it no longer possible to put one's reliance on Him? That cannot be.
Christ Humbled, Despised, Mocked
Now the Psalmist again takes up his lament. He claims that he is but a worm and no man. He is the lowest of creatures. "Thou hast made Him a little lower than the angels...?" No, he is made so low he is a worm. He can no longer lay claim to the dignity of a man. He is reproached by men and is despised by the people. All this happened to the Messiah of Israel. That Messiah Who was their glory had to humble Himself to the extent of which this verse speaks. However, if Messiah is so debased, what happens to those who He represents. These must realize that He has been so maligned because of the people "to whom the stroke was due." Nowhere is the sin of man portrayed more clearly than in the suffering of the Savior. He became a worm for their sake. He was reproached for their sakes. He is despised for their sakes. What woes have been brought upon the Man of Sorrows by the sin of His people. How David suffered because of the sins of the people whom he sought to lead and defend!
The writer continues to speak of the indignities hurled at him and at the One Whom he represents. They laugh him to scorn. Mockery is their tool. They shoot out the lip — they make faces at him. They shake their heads as though to make it clear to everyone who sees what is going on that they cannot understand how he can be so evil! Now, in derision, they speak. Let him give himself into the safekeeping of God; let God deliver him because He delights in him. It is as though one is standing at the foot of the cross where these mocking words were heard in almost the exact order. Let Him come down! Let Him now show us that He is mighty! If He loves His God so much and if He is His Son, then come down from the cross and we will believe! This is hellish speech. Nothing is spared Him.
Prayer in Extremity
Now the Psalmist begins an entirely different section. He pleads with His God. That God has forsaken him for the moment, but He is nevertheless the only One to Whom he can turn. Remember, Thou art He that took me out of the womb. His God was responsible for his birth. From the earliest time has he put his trust in his God. David can honestly say that there was no time in his life when he did not love his Lord. His great Son can say that with even greater emphasis. David is, therefore, not a "late-comer" to the faith who doesn't know the ways of his God. This is precisely the thing which makes it so difficult for him now. Not only had the fathers trusted in Him and had not been put to shame — this is his own experience! And now He has forsaken him.
He pleads with God to be near to him because there is no other source of help. He describes his danger. He is surrounded by strong bulls who might turn on him any moment. The metaphor changes, and he sees these bulls as though they were lions ready to tear him to pieces. Words now tumble over each other. His whole being is poured out like water. It feels as though all his bones are out of joint. There is no courage left to face life. His heart is melted like wax inside of him. Courage is gone, and so is his strength. It is dried up like a potsherd. His strength is as brittle as a piece of a clay pot which has been covered by the dust of centuries. His tongue cleaves to his jaws — such thirst, such agony! I am brought into the dust of death. There is nothing left. All human dignity is long departed. Dogs compass me. These bands of scavenger dogs which have only one thing in mind — eat that which is still left of him! What a picture of complete agony! Of complete degradation! This was David. This was Jesus Christ!
A Prophecy of the Cross
When the Psalmist mentions the fact that they pierced his hands and his feet, it is very difficult to apply this in any way to the Psalmist himself. There are several fanciful explanations given but none of these satisfy. About the only thing that can be said on this score is that we are here dealing with a prophecy concerning the Messiah alone. But, how graphic is the description! This is most certainly the clearest indication found anywhere in the Old Testament concerning the manner of death Messiah will die — crucifixion is so clearly portrayed — they pierced my hands and my feet! David did not experience this! The Messianic Psalms have their own manner of bringing the truth of God to our attention.
Once more the Psalmist records the awful physical condition in which he has found himself while he was so afflicted. I may count all my bones — there is no flesh left on them — you can count them because they almost protrude through the skin. People look and stare at him. He looks like a cadaver! No wonder people stare. They wonder how long he can live in that kind of state.
Now the words switch again to the things seen only at Golgotha. There these words were quoted because they were literally fulfilled. They parted His garments because they were sure that He would not need them again. The prophecy goes into even greater detail. They cast lots on His vesture, on one of His garments. This one could not be divided. If it is divided it will be ruined — winner takes all! How perfectly everything is fulfilled! Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 lie next to each other at the foot of the cross. "Father, it is finished. I have done all that which Thou hast given me to do!" The Scriptures are fulfilled! Not one is broken!
The psalmist ends this section with a strong appeal to God for help. Even though he had begun the Psalm by complaining: "My God ... why hast Thou forsaken me?" God was still his God! He holds on to this God. "Don't be far off, O Lord. Help me. Deliver my soul — my most precious possession, my soul, my life, from the power of my enemies. Save me Lord — Thou hast answered me!"
This section of Psalm 22 cannot stand by itself. It becomes clear only in the light of the New Testament, in the light of the suffering of our Savior.
Questions for Discussion:
- What does it mean that Christ was forsaken of God? When did this happen?
- Can a mere man (whether David or others) ever suffer the way our Lord suffered? Does this make it more difficult to understand the Messianic Psalms?
- The Psalmist places considerable emphasis on the fact that the fathers had placed their trust in God and were not put to shame. Does it help one at all in the present time to know that God was faithful in the past?
- Does the Psalmist go too far when he says: But I am a worm and no man?
- Today many reject the idea of predictive prophecy. Is there really anything left of the Bible in that kind of view? The piercing of his hands and feet and the parting of his garments speak directly of those things which happened to Jesus Christ. Do you think the Psalmist had similar experiences?
- Is a Psalm such as this one also one of comfort? Explain.