Psalm 22 is a famous Davidic psalm of sadness and lament, powerfully conveying the agony of its writer. The content of this psalm challenges the modern understanding of Christian worship in this way: Psalm 22 emphasizes that although mournful lament can be excruciating to bear, the presence of sadness and lament is a vital aspect of a community’s interaction with God. The modern evangelical church often skips lament in lieu of praise and worship because lament is uncomfortable, but it is that very lament that draws the presence and rescue of God, out of which worship arises.
A clear understanding of the 22nd psalm can challenge modern paradigms of worship, but that interpretation must be proceeded by a close exegetical reading of the text. A healthy exegetical reading will include an understanding of the literary context, historical context, the syntactical construction of the writing, and then the Biblical-theological understandings emerge, and the implications for the modern church can be seen.
The Historical Context of Psalm 22
When a reader is interested in a text at their local bookstore, they will flip the text over, and will read the mini biography provided by the publisher. If Psalm 22 was extracted from its neighboring poetry and printed between hardcovers, it would make clear indication that it was authored by essentially the most famous of the kings of Israel: David. “The heading of Psalm 22…includes a Davidic superscription (“A psalm of David”), which at some point came to be understood as an indication of Davidic authorship, regardless of its original significance.”1
Although the psalm shares great torment and lament (which David is known to have suffered), Psalm 22 is not reflective of anything that happened to David.2 The mournful lament of this psalm could have been penned after David was persecuted by Saul in the Desert of Maon (1 Sam 23:25-26) or the earlier days when David was suffering at the hands of Saul or his flight from Absalom in 2 Samuel.3
It showcases great psychological torment, as opposed to a physical sickness.4
The more likely scenario is that David composed this psalm with the intent for it to be used liturgically.
Esther Menn agrees; “…the stereotypical metaphors and imagery of Psalm 22 also offer a means of connecting the idiosyncratic, personal distress of the individual with cultural archetypes of affliction and restoration.”5 John Calvin observed that “…from the tenor of the whole composition, it appears that David does not [in Psalm 22] refer merely to one persecution, but comprehends all the persecutions which he suffered under Saul.”6
What both the ancient and modern reader are both to understand is that the voice of the lamenter is “…not the voice of a particular historical person at a certain time, but one individual case of the typical.
F. Delitzsch agrees that in this psalm ‘David descends, with his complaint, into a depth that lies beyond the depth of his affliction, and rises, with his hopes, to a height that lies far beyond the height of the reward of his affliction.”7
David wrote this psalm certainly drawing from psychological torment in his own past, but draws universal imagery meant to connect with a larger reading audience.
It is clear that this psalm rises among its neighbors because of Jesus’ quoting it on the cross, drawing a clear connection between the sufferings of the lamenter, and that of the Christ. It is inconclusive whether David wrote this psalm as a direct prophecy of the sufferings the Messiah, but ignoring the connections does the reader a disservice. There are indeed aspects of the sufferings of Jesus that are clearly prefigured in the psalm, but that is partially due to modern translations taking more liberty with the text. The strongest argument for Psalm 22 being indicative of Jesus’ sufferings is verse 16, stating in English that “…a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.”8
The Hebrew actually renders the line, “Like a lion, my hands and feet.” Final determination as to the precise reading of the original text eludes us at present. Therefore, the text remains an exegetical problem.9 It is more likely is that Psalm 22 is “typico-prophetically Messianic,”10 which understands that that “…there is no evidence that in intertestimental Judaism ever understood or used Ps. 22 as messianic prophecy in a predictive sense…”11 but when studying the psalm, the messianic aspects of it must be kept in mind.12
The Literary Context of Psalm 22
David wrote Psalm 22 as a corporal, liturgical psalm of lament. Lament is much more than the expression of grief, it is a passionate outpouring of grief, where the lamenter is more than just expressing sadness about a particular situation, but is overwhelmed with loss. “Lament occurs when the dysfunction reaches an unacceptable level, when the injustice is intolerable and change is insisted upon.”13
Psalm 22 should be considered a corporate lament, as opposed to an individual one,14 and should be read in connection with Israel’s liturgy, and it may have been used as a liturgical reading for any person who was sick and threatened with death.1516 A close reading of Psalm 22 reveals that “…we have the various experiences of faith compressed and made archetypical. Private lament in the face of God’s hiddenness is caught up in a faithful, corporate cry to God for help.”17 Although David writes in first person, his description of God as being “his God” rests first of all on belonging to a community for whom the center of all reality is “the holy one” who is enthroned as king in heavenly and earthly temple (sic) …and whose acts of salvation are the content of Israel’s hymns of praise.18 Richard Patterson express this concisely when he writes:
In the Old Testament, God deals with the nations through the corporate entity of God’s people. The only individual through whose person God deals with the nation is the Davidic king, the messiah, the Son of God, and one must add the unidentified servant of the “songs” in Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; and 52:13-53:12. Psalm 22 cannot be the prayer and praise of just any afflicted Israelite . . . in its present form the figure in the psalm shares in the corporate vocation of Israel and the messianic role of David.19
For brevity’s sake, this blog post will not focus on the lament on a verse-by-verse level, but will focus on the over-arching themes. It is important to know what David is saying in the psalm as a whole, as his lament moves from grief to praise.
Part of the depth and meaning of this psalm is due to the fact that the language of the hymn “…reflects a group who without separating themselves from the national society in a social way are thinking and speaking about themselves and their relation to God in a way that is beginning to redefine what it means to be Israel.20
The redefining takes place in Israel’s interactions with God. God moves from an aloof, yet benevolent, God, to a God that allows Himself to be questioned by the lamenter. David seemingly reminds God of his past promises and work, 21 and even boldly raises the fundamental question of whether God does indeed answer prayer.”22
This type of question begs to be answered. Is God a good God? Is this God worthy of being praised, even though the lamenter is making the accusation of abandonment? The answer to this is an emphatic yes, but the answer can only be understood when the syntactical construction and the movement between the two halves of the psalm are taken into account.
The Syntactical Construction of Psalm 22
Theologian Mark Heinmann has argued that the psalm should actually be considered two separate psalms, as there are two halves that stand in stark contrast with each other23 and Esther Menn explains that “The clear division of Psalm 22 into discrete parts has led some scholars to argue that it is a composite of at least two liturgical forms originating in different ritual contexts…”24
I argue that the importance of leaving this psalm as it was written, in one piece, can not be understated. When the two opposing sections, verses 1 through 21, and verses 22 through 31, are placed together, an image of the overall movement of the psalm comes into focus. Allowing the psalm to remain un-bifurcated, gives “…an ascent from the depths of despair to the heights of praise, from the psalmist’s experience of utter abandonment by God and humanity to a vision of his inclusion in an ever-expanding chorus extolling the majestic King of all peoples, who, despite his grandeur, does not withhold himself from intimate involvement with the suffering of afflicted individuals.25
The first section reveals “…how completely the old mythos of salvation has broken down. There is a bitter irony to the picture of the Holy One comfortably but precariously ensconced upon antique praises, now dry and fragile as dust, while the faithful psalmist mouths vain cries for help.”26
The lamenter has been devastated and dehumanized,27 and God appears to be neglectful of His suffering servant. Rightly so, the lamenter has a growing suspicion “…of God’s culpable negligence here [which] deepens into an accusation that names the root cause of the suffering: ‘You (God) have laid me in the dust of death’ (v. 16).28 When the sections are kept together, it is clear that God has not abandoned his lamenter, and because this psalm was written as a corporate liturgy; it becomes clear that He has certainly not forsook His people.
The Biblical/Theological Context of Psalm 22
David writes a psalm that emphasizes that they serve a God who is Emmanuel, God With Us. “Having described his helplessness and total loss of strength, he now called on God, his Strength, to help him. On the brink of death (“come quickly”), he petitioned God to save him. David here exemplified praying with perseverance.”29
Sheldon Tostenguard, professor of homiletics at Luther Northwestern Seminary, rightly argues that it is important to not split the psalm into two sections, as the redemption from pain is a vital response to the initial lament, and the persevering cry for help.30
God is not infuriated by the accusation upon His goodness, but instead answers the lament, bringing about a saving response. “The cries of the lamenter begin negatively, asking God to “not be far away,” but when he changes his cries to ‘save me, deliver me,’ and finally to a perfect verb indicating ‘you have answered me’, (v. 22), [the author is] indicating that rescue is a certainty, if not already accomplished.”31
During the transition between the two sections, either the sitz im leben of the author has been changed, or the author’s attitude toward the situation has been transformed, “…and God is mobilized for the sake of the speaker. The intervention of God in some way permits the move from plea to praise… Indeed, the song of thanksgiving is in fact the lament restated after the crisis has been dealt with.32
Returning to the theme of praise, the psalmist shows that this joyful outburst is in no sense arbitrary, but that it is as deeply rooted in reality as the lament itself, for it derives from exactly the same source: ‘From you (God) is my praise in a great congregation’ (v. 26).1 That affirmation upholds the accusation against God in v. 16c and yet shows the other face of God’s all-determinative action. No longer does God sit idle on the praises of the past. This new act of mercy shows that God is indeed worthy of honor; but more than that, it creates the necessary condition for praise, which is to say, life itself. It is in giving life to the dead that God is revealed as both source and subject of this new language of praise.33
The Psalmist grasps an very important understanding of God’s response to those who call on His name. God is not threatened by the accusation of abandonment, but is fully present in the suffering- drawing the suffering closer to Himself, allowing them to express their anger and grief, and when asked, begins to heal in both seen and unseen ways.
Psalm 22’s Implications for Modern Worship
The theological implications the David’s lament offer a powerful paradigm shift for the modern church’s understanding of worship. The evangelical church often rushes into worship and praise, using the well-worn statement “The Lord abides in our praises.” This may not be how everyone sitting in the pew is feeling. It might not be how most of the people are feeling. This instructs the parishioner to have “…a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology… What is left for the believer then is a false narcissism which keeps hoping for a centered self, but which lacks the ego strength for a real self to emerge.”34
This psalm encourages the modern church to also understand that God abides in praises and in the cries of sadness, and the accusations of abandonment. A few short chapters later, the Psalmist again writes, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”35
The vigorous charge of neglect that the psalmist levels against God offends modern sensibilities, even the sensibilities of faith. A modern person might well ask what God is good for anyway if it is not to prevent trouble. Yet, it is clear to our psalmist that because there are forces aplenty that will only eventually be completely tamed by the creator—forces that can cause us illness, shame, or even worse—the hidden presence of God is actually God’s way of being with us when we are beset by difficulty.36
A lamenter’s questioning of God’s goodness does not mean the lamenter has lost trust in God. God has never forsaken the mourner, but even more so, abides in the suffering. Instead, “…when the lament form is censured, justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate.”37
The lamenter in Psalm 22 begins their journey feeling forsaken (v.2) but moves over time into praise, understanding that God abides in suffering as well. The Psalmist knew that God had never lost sight of his suffering, and the final words “Surely He has done it” emphasize that indeed God was answering the cries of the lamenter.
The message of the psalm can be simply summarized as this: God hears the cry of the afflicted.38 The psalm combines language of prayer and praise, and language of both suffering and celebration, in one arc of unity so as to say the one is not to be understood apart from the other.39
The church today must transition away from modern understanding of grief being a private affair, and should move lament into the public life of the church as an act of worship itself.40
It is a task of practical theology to find language through which pain and alienation from old hopes can be fully spoken, to lead us in the direction to which both the words of the lament and the symbol of the cross point to the place where, at the extreme point of suffering, our lives are brought into passionate intersection with God’s. And it is there, in the space empty of language, that praise is born.41
- Menn, E. (2000). No Ordinary Lament : Relecture and the Identity of the Distressed in Psalm 22. Harvard Theological Review, 93(4), 315 [↩]
- Menn, Writing that “ classic rabbinic commentary, such as that recorded in the medieval collection known as Midrash Tehillim, associates at least one verse of Psalm 22 with David’s early career as a shepherd. According to midrashic tradition, David petitioned God, saying “Save me from the lion’s mouth, for you have heard me from the horns of the reem” (Ps 22:22), when his life was threatened by these two dangerous animals. [↩]
- Mays, James Luther. “Prayer and christology : Psalm 22 as perspective on the passion.” Theology Today 42, no. 3 (October 1, 1985): 323 [↩]
- Collins, Terence. “Physiology of tears in the Old Testament.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 33, no. 2 (April 1, 1971): 186 “They are not a description of sickness at all (in our sense of the word) but are rather a reference to the man’s weeping, with stress on the physiological details of the process.” [↩]
- Menn, 309 [↩]
- John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Vol. I. (Edinburgh, 1845), p. 357. [↩]
- Mays, 323, 324 [↩]
- New international Version, Zondervan [↩]
- Patterson, Richard D. “Psalm 22: from trial to triumph.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 2 (June 1, 2004): 223 [↩]
- Heinemann, Mark H. “An exposition of Psalm 22.” Bibliotheca Sacra 147, no. 587 (July 1, 1990): 302, 303 Heinemann goes on to say that “…because David went beyond his own experience in Psalm 22, the typology there can be seen as blending into direct prophecy. …David, describing his outward and inward experiences—experiences even in themselves typical is carried beyond the limits of his individuality and present condition, and utters concerning himself that which, transcending human experience, is intended to become historically true only in Christ.” [↩]
- Lange, Harvey D. “Relationship between Psalm 22 and the Passion narrative.” Concordia Theological Monthly 43, no. 9 (October 1, 1972): 614 [↩]
- Patterson, 218 [↩]
- Brueggemann, Walter. “The costly loss of lament.” Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament no. 36 (October 1, 1986): 62 [↩]
- Davis, Ellen F. “Exploding the limits : form and function in Psalm 22.” Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament no. 53 (March 1, 1992): 96 Davis uses the term “individual lament,” and argues it as such, but I argue due to itʼs syntactical construction and overarching themes, it is a corporate lament, meant for liturgical readings read to and understood by a larger body. [↩]
- Patterson, 215 [↩]
- Menn, 307 Menn writes that …”a second proposal holds that Psalm 22 was performed by small groups as a ritual intended to promote the healing of community members who were suffering from serious ailments.” [↩]
- Tostengard, Sheldon. “Psalm 22.” Interpretation 46, no. 2 (April 1, 1992): 170 [↩]
- Mays, 325 [↩]
- Patterson, 219 [↩]
- Mays, 328 [↩]
- Heinmann, 292 [↩]
- Menn, 305 [↩]
- Heinmann, 289 “Later David added to this his own praise of God in Psalm 22:22-26 and celebrated the kingship of the Lord in the verses following that.” – Patterson rebuts this saying, “Although some have viewed Psalm 22 as originating from two different poetic pieces, the vast majority of exegetes treat the psalm as a unified product of a single author (or editor).” – Patterson, 215 [↩]
- Menn, 304 [↩]
- Menn, 305-306 [↩]
- Davis, 97 [↩]
- Referring to himself as a “worm” in verse 7. [↩]
- Davis, 98 [↩]
- Heinmann, 298 [↩]
- Tostengard, 170 [↩]
- Davis, 99 [↩]
- Brueggemann, 57 [↩]
- Davis, 100 [↩]
- Brueggemann, 60,61 [↩]
- Psalm 34:18 (New International Version) [↩]
- Tostenguard, 167-168 [↩]
- Brueggemann, 63 [↩]
- Patterson, 223 “His deliverance convinces David that as did he, all peoples of earth will one day experience the mighty goodness and righteousness of Israel’s God (vv. 27-31).” [↩]
- Mays, 330 [↩]
- Brueggemann, 58 “Indeed, the proper setting of praise is as lament resolved. In a sense, doxology and praise are best understood only in response to God’s salvific (sic) intervention which in turn is evoked by the lament.” [↩]
- Davis, 104-105 [↩]