Psalmic poetry

Translating poetry from one language to another is tricky. So not surprisingly, translations of the Psalms often fail to capture wordplay.

Psalm 51:12 begins with the word “return”, often translated “restore.” The following verse ends with the same verb, making this nice little bookend:

Return to me the joy of your salvation and with a generous spirit support me.
Then I will teach the rebellious your ways and sinners to you will return.”

The Royal Shepherd

The familiarity of Psalm 23 is probably the greatest impediment to us hearing the psalm afresh. Somehow the psalm came to be associated with both children and funerals. Much of that is due to the pastoral imagery. The early verses bring to mind the images of the mild and gentle Jesus holding a lamb that many of us saw on the walls of our Sunday School classrooms as children.

However, the shepherd imagery would probably not have conjured such tranquil imagery for the original audience. Shepherds were not thought of as meek and mild, but rather necessarily rugged and tough to handle the difficulties of wilderness life and the demands of protecting the flock. Recall that even the young David had on his resume the defeat of a lion and a bear.

Furthermore, there is a tendency in the Old Testament to use the shepherd motif with reference to the king and other leaders (Ps. 77:20; Num. 27:17). The king is presented as the ultimate shepherd of his flock, the people (2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7). David is depicted as God’s chosen shepherd for Israel in Psalm 78:70-72. The shepherds of Israel, her spiritual and political leaders, are rebuked by Yahweh in Ezekiel 34.

In fact, it is probably such kingly imagery that holds the psalm together, since there is a clear shift away from the shepherd-sheep imagery in vv. 1-4 to royal host imagery in vv. 5-6. One hint is in the word usually translated “rod” in v. 4 and which calls to mind the shepherd’s cudgel. But the same word can be translated “scepter.”

So the psalm is probably intended to have a strong royal flavor to it. First, King Yahweh is presented using shepherd imagery as the one who provides for and protects his flock (1-4). Then the imagery becomes slightly more ‘literal’ and the King is presented as gracious host who invites his people to dwell with him and feast with him (5-6).

Of course, this makes connecting the psalm to Christ as the Good Shepherd-King very clear. But it should also protect us against sentimentalizing the psalm into a soft and fuzzy story for children or merely offering comfort for the bereaved. It is a strong statement of God’s rightful Lordship in our lives.

Psalm 22 and Jesus

Psalm 22 is among the most recognizable psalms because of Jesus’s memorable use of its opening line during the crucifixion as recorded in the gospels (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). John also makes reference to the psalm when speaking of the soldiers’ casting lots for Jesus’s garments (John 19:24, cf. Ps. 22:18). Accordingly, the psalm has come to be seen as prophetic and referring almost exclusively to Christ.1

However, the psalm was clearly in use before the time of Christ as a prayer for ‘normal’ people to use in times of suffering and there is nothing in the psalm that restricts its application to Christ. In today’s sermon we will look at the psalm as a model for all those enduring suffering.

While I don’t think that the psalm is prophecy in the strict sense, there is a way in which the suffering of God’s people finds its ultimate expression in the cross of Christ. We have spoken of this recently in our study of 1 Peter. Jesus Christ is the paramount example of one oppressed (unjustly!) by sin and sinners. So we should not find it surprising if a detailed expression of the suffering of the righteous from before the time of Christ resembles the suffering of Christ as Psalm 22 does.

But there is at least one difference between the psalmist and Christ. Whereas there is some evidence that the psalmist’s prayer was eventually heard and he was spared death (though the psalm is vague about this), Christ actually was abandoned by God in his moment of need. He suffered. He died. He was not ‘saved.’ And yet, as Psalm 16:10 declares, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”2 In the resurrection God showed that he did not despise the affliction of his son. God’s abandonment of Christ in his hour of need was real but not final.

This difference between the Psalmist and Christ is instructive to us. God has not promised us salvation in this life but rather the vindication of resurrection, the same vindication he gave his Son. As we read the psalmist’s forward-looking perspective in 22:22-31 we can see it with even more clarity than he since we see it through the lens of the resurrection of Christ. But that also means that in this life we may, like Christ, suffer the real but not ultimate abandonment of the Father.

1 The link to Christ was strengthened by the apparent reference to the piercing of hands and feet in v. 16. This reading, which most English Bibles follow, is based off of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. Most of the Hebrew texts of the psalm say, “Like a lion at my hands and feet,”—an arresting image of a lion nipping at one’s extremities and one that fits the context better. Later readers (and translators!) were all too eager to prefer the Greek reading.

2 See Acts 2:25ff for Peter’s use of this with reference to Christ.