Study Guide: Psalm 22 (Part 1)
It is all but impossible for Christians to read Psalm 22 without reading it through the lens of the cross of Jesus. From the opening cry (‘My God, My God…) to the quotes and allusions used by the gospel writers to shape the story of the Lord’s Passion, the psalm all but saturates those narratives.
That is not a bad thing. After all, how can believers read anything from the Old Testament except through the lens of the cross and resurrection of Jesus? (Even better, how can we see or understand anything apart from the cross and resurrection of Jesus?) Although we are accustomed to reading the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. However, in may ways, we also do the opposite…we read the Old Testament in light of the New.
Having said that, I do think it is important to read the Psalm, as best we can, on its own terms. After having done that, we will think together about how the Psalm informs and shapes our understanding of the cross. We will also talk a bit about a major 20th-century theologian who used this Psalm as the basis for a paradigm shaking take on the place of the cross in understanding who God is and what God is like.
But first….just look at it.
The Flyover: Form
Old Testament scholar James Mays notes the complex form of the Psalm and notes the following:
(1) The Psalm makes use of doubling, a repetitive arrangement by twos. (I’ll try to make that plain as we go along but one example is the doubling in the address to God: ‘My God, my God…” )
- The first 21 verses is a Prayer for Help. Verses 22-31 is a Prayer of Praise for Help.
- The division of the Psalm into a plea for help and a prayer of praise for help given can be understood within themselves but the Psalmist likely intends that we keep them pressed together. Part of what invokes a plea for help is the awareness that God has answered and will answer the Psalmist’s plea. And, of course, there must be a response of praise and/or thanksgiving for help rendered
- The psalm moves through two cycles, verses 1-11 and verses 12-19. Each of those cycles ends with the phrase: ‘Do not be far from me” (11) and (19) The plea that God be not far away picks up on the plea in vs 1b: “Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”
- Each of the two cycles is accompanied by two assertions of confidence in God. (3-5 and (9-10) It is almost as if the Psalmist is at war with himself or with God. (“My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer/ by night, but I find no rest. (YET!) “You are enthroned as the Holy One, you are the one Israel praises.”) Also, see the similar structure in 5 -> 6.
- The second cycle is composed of two laments: (12-15) and (16-18) Each of them is made up of references to animal powers followed by references to the Psalmist’s physical references to his condition.
- The praise section is made up of two sections. First, (22-26) there is a call for Israel (the community) to rejoice and praise the Lord in light of the fact that the Psalmist’s prayers have been heard and answered. (“…he has listened to his (my) cry for help”).
Second, there is the call to the ‘ends of the earth” to remember and turn to the Lord because of the ways and character of God. The Psalm ends with a prophetic pronouncement: “”All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord…” (27) All of the rich of the earth will feast and worship…” (29)
A Whole-Person Psalm
Some of the striking features of the Psalm to watch for include:
- how it addresses every aspect of our existence: our relation to God, our relation to others, and our relation to ourselves.
- the change in value from the beginning to the end. The Psalm tells a story and, as with any good story, there is a change. In this case, the change is from a negative space to a positive one. e.g the change in the Psalmist, his relation to God and to others by the end (an important point when we come to discuss the cross in light of this Psalm)
- its use of powerful metaphors to describe physical pain. While that happens in other Psalms, none of them are this extensive
- The intermingling of the Psalmist’s praise with the accompanying sense of mission both to Israel and to the nations
Change of Focus
One of the things we’ve noted before is that any depth encounter with God leads naturally to a depth encounter with oneself and one’s condition. The more God-conscious we are the more self-conscious we become.
When I say God-conscious, I don’t mean to only draw attention to how people respond to the presence of God in scripture. Certainly, in those circumstances, people become self-conscious in the extreme. Consider Isaiah’s response to the presence of God in the Temple: “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6:1-5) Or, think of Peter’s similar words to Jesus when he first met him over the great catch of fish. (“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Luke 5:1-9)
But, we can also become more God-conscious by noting the absence of God as well. THAT is the circumstance at the beginning of this Psalm: the Psalmist is far more conscious of the absence of God than he is the presence of God. (But note, once again, that his awareness of the absence of God does nothing to prevent him from crying out to the ‘ABSENT GOD.’)
Just as the Presence of God throws light back on the one encountering the present God so the Absence of God throws light back on the one encountering the absent God.
So, the change of focus runs through the Psalm: awareness of God (present or absent) is accompanied by forms of self-awareness that reflect where the Psalmist is relative to God.
Question: In this Psalm does the type of God-awareness affect the Psalmist’s perception of others? How so?
What might all of this say about how a person is in the world (e.g. self-perception) relative to his understanding of God?
How is self-perception related, if at all, to one’s perception of neighbors?