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The Agony and the Ecstasy (Psalm 22)


If you've never given much thought to Psalm 22, there's no better place to begin than with the following comment of Charles Spurgeon:

"For plaintive expressions uprising from unutterable depths of woe we may say of this Psalm, there is none like it. It is the photograph of our Lord's saddest hours, the record of his dying words, the lachrymatory of his last tears, the memorial of his expiring joys. David and his afflictions may be here in a very modified sense, but, as the star is concealed by the light of the sun, he who sees Jesus will probably neither see nor care to see David. . . . We should read reverently, putting off our shoes from off our feet, as Moses did at the burning bush, for if there be holy ground anywhere in Scripture, it is in this Psalm" (I:324).

I agree with Spurgeon that this psalm, however much it may speak of David's personal experience, is primarily Messianic. The opening words of the psalm (v. 1) are found on the lips of Jesus as he hung on the cross (cf. Matt. 27:46). The taunt of the scorners ("And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads", Matt. 27:39) is from v. 7. They also challenged him (Matt. 27:43) with the very words of v. 8. And Jesus cried out from the cross, "I thirst" (John 19:28), in fulfillment of v. 15. Finally, his garments were parted among those who pierced his hands and feet, even as vv. 16-18 describe.

There is great wealth in this psalm, but I'll restrict myself to a few important observations.

In the opening section (vv. 1-10) we see an unusual wave-like movement, almost a vacillation between the utter dregs of wretchedness and the sparkle of hope and confidence.

In vv. 1-2 the wrath of God enshrouds him, and is thus absorbed, never to be borne by those for whom he died. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is a cry of utter distress, but not of distrust. It expresses the agony of grief, but not the misery of doubt. The "why" implies a conscious innocence as far as his moral life is concerned (see 2 Cor. 5:21).

Confidence is restored when the suffering One reflects upon the holiness of God (vv. 3-5). Does it strike you as odd that he would find comfort in, of all things, the holiness of God?

His "formal complaint" is found in vv. 6-8. "I am a worm," literally, a grub, such as devours the dead (see Isa. 14:11). "This verse," writes Spurgeon, "is a miracle in language. How could the Lord of glory be brought to such abasement as to be not only lower than the angels, but even lower than men? What a contrast between 'I am' and 'I am a worm'" (I:326; emphasis mine).

This one, before whom the angels hid their faces in praise, adoration and fear (cf. Isa. 6), is now the target of facial mockery from those he created. They are not merely so arrogant as to look upon him, but do so with derision.

Consider this paraphrase of v. 8: "This Jesus was always telling others to trust in God. Let him now taste his own medicine. Surely the one whom he has trusted and in whom he exhorted others to put their faith will deliver him quickly!" (cf. Matt. 27:41-43). In a remarkable display of spiritual blindness and tragic irony, they taunt him with the very words that would fulfill the ancient prophecy and demonstrate that he was, indeed, the Messiah who he claimed to be.

We now move from complaint in vv. 6-8 to remarkable confidence in vv. 9-10, where faith and hope begin to reassert themselves. The Lutheran commentator Leupold put it best:

"At the same time the poor sufferer does exactly what his opponents have just recommended to him to do, to commit all issues to God. He recounts what God has meant to him in the past, and what He has done for him from earliest infancy, . . . 'During every moment of my life till now Thou hast been my God and hast sustained me'" (199-200).

The lament returns in vv. 11-18. After describing his enemies (they are like unthinking beasts, wild bulls of Bashan, encircling him; vv. 11-13), he turns to a portrayal of himself in vv. 14-15. He compares his utter lack of strength and feeling of helplessness to water poured out upon the ground. The torment of the sin he bears has reduced him to a most feeble and pitiful state. His physical frame is tortured as one distended upon a rack. His heart has been so greatly burdened as to feel like melting wax. His resistance is nil. He is as destitute of vigor as a broken piece of earthenware is of moisture.

Note well, however, that it is ultimately God's will that he suffer: "You lay me in the dust of death" (v. 15b; cf. Isa. 53:4, "smitten by God", and 53:10, "it was the will of the Lord to crush him"; see also Acts 2:23). Never let the emotion stirred by the reality of the cross obscure the fact that it was no accident.

In v. 16 he again vividly describes his enemies (they are "dogs"). In the ancient near east, dogs roamed in large bands as scavengers. They were totally undomesticated, wild, filthy, objects of abhorrence. The description of his hands and feet being pierced is especially instructive when we remember that crucifixion was unknown at this time in Israel's history!

The culmination of his suffering is not so much physical as spiritual and emotional, as he bears the shame of sin (vv. 17-18). All four gospels record this incident (Mt. 27:35; Mk. 15:24; Lk. 23:34; Jn. 19:23-24). Calvin writes,

"The Evangelists portray the Son of God as stripped of His clothes that we may know the wealth gained for us by this nakedness, for it shall dress us in God's sight. God willed His Son to be stripped that we should appear freely, with the angels, in the garments of his righteousness and fullness of all good things, whereas formerly, foul disgrace, in torn clothes, kept us away from the approach to the heavens" (194).

The first Adam, originally created in the righteousness of God, by his sin stripped us naked. The last Adam, suffering the shame of nakedness, by his obedience clothes us in the righteousness of God.

His prayers (vv. 19-21) are answered, but in accordance with the will and timing of the Father. Was he delivered before death? No. Was he delivered out of death? Yes. Was he delivered on Good Friday? No. Was he delivered on Easter Sunday? Yes. It was a better time and a better way.

There comes a time, when reading certain passages of God's Word, that commentary must yield to contemplation. May God impress deeply on your heart the profound reality that the Son did this for you!