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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Psalm 22 and the Death of Jesus


Psalm 22 is among my favorite psalms, and I don’t say that lightly.  I am annoyed by people who tell me that that they love to read the psalms because they’re soooo encouraging and uplifting.  I really have to wonder what collection of psalms these people are reading.  Some of the psalms in our bible – many of the psalms in our scripture are ugly, fierce, and dark.  Many of them are quite troubling.  And some of them, let’s be honest, are a bit dull.  (Psalm 119, I’m looking at you…)So when I find a psalm that I like, I really like it.  And I like Psalm 22.

It is a powerful work. From a literary viewpoint it is a marvel of poetic expression.  From an emotional viewpoint it is a perceptive and accurate expression of those emotions we usually bottle up and hide from public display.  From a religious view it is a profound expression of faith in the face of adversities of life.  Psalm 22, in my opinion is just about perfect.

It divides neatly into two parts – 1) and individual’s lament and 2) a corporate expression of praise.  Though it is described as “a psalm of David” there is nothing in it that connects specifically to any event in David’s life (at least as recorded in the scriptures…) and it isn’t necessary to posit a Davidic authorship to understand it.  (In fact it’s probably easier to understand without getting it all mixed up with David.)

Some have suggested that the two parts (which don’t have any real connecting material between them) were written by two different authors.  Others have suggested that they were written by the same author at different times, and, of course, some maintain that the two parts were written by the same person at the same time.  Who’s to say? 

The first part – the individual’s lament is a bit bi-polar (though I don’t mean that in a clinical way). It swings (wildly, perhaps) between expressions of utter despair and misery and desperate expressions of hope in God.  I (vs. 1 – 2) You [God] (vs. 3 – 5) I (6 – 8) You (9 – 11) I (12 – 18) You (19 – 21 or 22 depending on how one translates vs. 22) These are some serious mood swings. The psalmist is enduring the worst sort of pain (physical is indicated, but it’s mostly mental, emotional, spiritual anguish…) and he (or she) is desperate for God’s attention and for God’s redemptive strength…. But God does not appear to be listening, or if he is, he’s not answering. 

Humanity is all but lost in the pain of this psalm.  The psalmist is a worm, not a man (6).  His enemies are bulls (12), lions (13, 21) dogs (16), and wild oxen (21) (or, as in the KJV, unicorns!).   They have already encircled him, trapped him.  He’s not dead yet, but he might as well be; they’re already dividing up his possessions among themselves (18). 

And the psalmist cries out for the same sort of salvation that God has provided in the past.  He saved and rescued our ancestors in the past – and unless he saves and rescues the psalmist now, there is only death and disgrace.  Save me, he says, “that I might proclaim your name to my brethren, [and] in the midst of the congregation praise you,” – as Mitchell Dahood translates vs. 22 in the Anchor Bible [i]

The second part of the psalm moves suddenly- without transition – from an individual’s lament to a corporate, communal expression of joy and praise.  The psalmist encourages those present to worship and praise God because he does hear and does answer the prayers of the afflicted.  (Which is why I think that the two parts were written by the same person - either at different times, or at the same time but after a long period of reflection.) 

And there is an ever expanding sphere of joy and worship in this part of the psalm; it grows from the those present in the assembly, to all of Israel, to all the families of the Nations (that is the gentiles) – to even the dead who’ve gone down into the netherworld, and larger still – to those who are not yet born.

This idea that the dead will praise God is an interesting divergence from other parts of the Hebrew bible / Old Testament.  Usually it is thought that the dead do not praise God, don’t do much of anything really.  “It is not the dead who praise the LORD, those who go down to the place of silence” Psalm 115:17

There isn’t much middle ground in this psalm.  It swings from the worst possible human misery to the exalted heights of praise in one verse.  But that only heightens the contrast between the two parts. 

Psalm 22 becomes especially important for the Christian during this week – holy week – as it comes into play in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. But there are wildly divergent understandings of how psalm 22 is related to the crucifixion.

Some treat the psalm as a predictive psalm.  Ray C. Stedman’s description of this psalm is representative of the way that I have heard many other Christians talk about psalm 22. 

“In many ways the twenty-second Psalm is the most amazing of the psalms.  In it we have a picture of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, painted by David the psalmist one thousand years before Jesus Christ was born.  It constitutes one of the most amazing predictions of all time.

“At least nine specific events or aspects of the Crucifixion are described here in minute detail.  All of them were fulfilled during the six hours in which Jesus hung on the cross… Moreover, the latter part of the psalm clearly depicts the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The probability that the prediction of these nine events would be fulfilled by chance in one person, on one afternoon, is inconceivably small.  The chance that all this could occur by accident is beyond any realm of possibility our minds could imagine.  Yet it was all fulfilled as predicted in this psalm (Stedman, 65)[ii]” (emphasis added by me….)

In this view, Psalm 22 is just another part of the checklist of prophecies that Jesus had to fulfill in order to prove that he was who we claim that he is.  And I think this really diminishes both the power of the psalm and the person of Jesus.  If the psalm is predictive in this way, then Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God why have you abandoned me?” becomes less an expression of despair and more of a going through the motions.  After all, if he already knows that the psalm “clearly” predicts his resurrection, then where is the fear? Where is the overwhelming sense of abandonment?  Where is his humanity?

And, I’m not sure that I should have to say it, but I will – it is not at all “clear” that there is a resurrection in mind in psalm 22.  That is shoehorn theology.

At the other extreme end of the spectrum are people like John Dominic Crossan who argues in his book, Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, abuse, crucifixion, and resurrection were not actual historical events that have been colored in the gospel accounts by reflection on Old Testament texts, but rather exegetical fabrications created whole-cloth from those OT texts.  In his words, “The passion narratives are not history remembered but prophecy historicized.”[iii]

While I understand (somewhat) how he gets to that conclusion, I don’t accept it.  I remain in the middle somewhere, believing that Jesus was crucified and buried and resurrected, but also that the gospel writers were not eye witnesses to the events.  And may not have had access to precise courtroom style transcripts of what occurred.  Instead they told the story of his death and resurrection as a theological story – using the scriptures as their template.  This allowed to be sparse and laconic in their description of the event – but to cram huge amounts of context and meaning into the few details they described.  Did Jesus scream out “My God, why have you abandoned me?”  Did the soldiers gamble for his clothes?  Maybe not – but in describing it this way, Jesus’ death is connected back to psalm 22 and there to a powerful expression of faith in the face of the worst of human misery.

Without having to spell it out explicitly – his death is linked to the ever expanding joy of the disciples taking the good news from the assembly, to all of Israel, and to the nations at the ends of the earth.






[i] Dahood, Mitchell, Psalms 1 – 50: Introduction, Translation and Notes, Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, NY, 1966.
[ii] Stedman, Ray C. Folk Psalms of Faith, G/L Regal Books, Glendale, CA, 1973.
[iii] Crossan, John Dominic, Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of
Jesus, Harper, San Francisco CA,  1995.

1 comment:

  1. This is also one of my favorite Psalms, simply because Psalms were there for someone to cry out their hearts, whether or not what they were thinking, believing, or feeling was right. This open dialogue with God is something I believe he wants, no matter what type of feelings we are going through. We should not be shy in telling God exactly what we feel, exactly how we are troubled, and exactly what we think about him.

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