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.