READ : Psalm 22
Psalm 22 is the most haunting of all the references to Christ in the whole Old Testament, for its haunting opening words were the ones he spoke as he – the Savior of the world – died on the cross.
St. Athanasius, the great 4th-century champion of the Christian faith, was a big fan of the book of Psalms. He loved them for the way they expressed every mood or experience a believer goes through. Writing to a friend of his named Marcellinus, Athanasius said that a special virtue of the Psalms was that they represented all the great variety of movements within the soul. The Psalter, he wrote,
is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed . . . Elsewhere in the Bible you read . . . the Law . . . you listen to the Prophets . . . you . . . learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.
As Athanasius points out, the special glory of the Psalms is not only to show us who and what we are, but to help us pray as we ought, and even to give us the words to say, whatever our need or situation.
But there is another reason for Christians to pay particular attention to the Psalms, another thing that makes this book extra special for us. This is the book, of all the Old Testament, that speaks most often of Christ. St. Athanasius explains again.
When we come to the matters of which the Prophets speak—of the coming of the Savior and how, although he is God, He yet should dwell among us—we find that these occur in almost all [the Psalms] . . . Having thus shown that Christ should come in human form, the Psalter goes on to show that he can suffer in the flesh He has assumed.
The Suffering Savior
No Psalm points as clearly to the Savior or speaks as poignantly of his suffering as the 22nd Psalm. When we read the words of this Psalm it is as though we have left the Old Testament and find ourselves in the Gospels, reading their eyewitness description of Jesus’ crucifixion. Here is the taunting of the crowd on Golgotha.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (vv. 7-8)
Here’s the physical torment of a crucified man, the man who called out, “I thirst.”
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death. (vv. 14-15)
Here is the suffering – emotional as well as physical – of a man who is betrayed and abandoned to his enemies by those closest to him, and then nailed to a Roman cross by heartless soldiers.
For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet
—I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me. (vv. 16-17)
Finally, here is the victim whose only possession, a seamless robe, is tossed for by his executioners.
They divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots. (v.18)
All these verses, which describe in picture-perfect detail the passion of Jesus Christ, are taken verbatim from the 22nd Psalm.
But none of those verses speaks to the full depth of Christ’s suffering on the cross. For that we must turn to another verse of our psalm, the most haunting one of all, the words Jesus himself quoted as he hung on the cross, and a noonday darkness fell on Golgotha: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The Cry of Abandonment
So powerful was the impression those terrible words from Psalm 22:1 made upon the people who heard them as they stood by the cross that years later when they wrote down what happened, they transcribed these words exactly as they heard them, preserving even the sound of the original language (Aramaic) in which Jesus spoke:
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
But what do these words mean? This cry from the darkness has long troubled many people. Can Jesus’ cry of desertion really mean what it seems to? God would never desert or abandon or forsake his righteous Son, would he? Could he even do that? Jesus, as every Christian believes, was actually God himself, God in human form. How can God desert himself? How is it possible for God to forsake God?
In seeking to understand these words from Psalm 22, words that express the very heart of Christ’s suffering on the cross, scholars and biblical commentators have struggled to explain them. These words are what the biblical scholar F. F. Bruce called “the hardest of Jesus’ hard sayings.” Attempts have repeatedly been made to soften what Jesus seems to be expressing here. Some have argued that his cry of dereliction, as it’s sometimes called, doesn’t really mean what it sounds like. God could not, and would not, abandon his Son. So there are various alternate explanations: Perhaps here Christ is merely expressing his feelings of abandonment, not the reality. Or maybe he is wrestling with doubt, but nevertheless God is still there all the time. Some have suggested that he is really reciting the whole of Psalm 22, which ends on a note of faith and hope.
But I think we have to be careful of any attempts to psychologize Christ on the cross, or to make his terrible cry of abandonment mean something other than what it plainly says. After all, we can’t enter into Jesus’ mind. We can’t know know what was going on there. We don’t have the right to judge him against the standard of ourselves. It’s a mistake to project onto him our weaknesses and doubts and fears. It is false logic to argue that because my faith might have been broken on the cross, and Jesus is human like me, therefore his faith must have been broken too. No. We cannot claim to understand Christ’s experience better than he himself did. We must take Jesus’ words at face value, as expressing a true reality. He said what he did because in one infinite, earthshaking, awful moment God really had abandoned him.
The God-Forsaken God
I don’t think you can ever understand the depth of the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ without coming to grips with the mystery of these words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They do express the ultimate nature of Christ’s suffering. It was not just physical (the wounds, the weariness, the thirst), or psychological (the taunting of the crowd, the desertion by his friends). No. Christ’s deepest suffering was spiritual. Before he died physically, he died spiritually. He passed through the dreadful experience of being cut off from God. He was separated from the living God. He, who from all eternity had never known an instant without the conscious delight of perfect fellowship with God the Father, suffered the ultimate death, death in the final sense—the utter desolation of banishment from the presence of the God of love and life. He was cut off from God.
That does seem incredible. How can the Father abandon the Son? How can God forsake himself? This mystery is beyond our grasp, yet in it lies our salvation. Jesus our Savior so closely identified with sinners on the cross, that the Bible says, “he was made to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). He took our place and allowed sin’s ultimate punishment to fall upon himself. He absorbed all of God’s judgment and wrath against sin, and was cut off from him as we forever should have been.
God, you see, always takes sin seriously. You know how it is when children break something, they’ll sometimes say, “It doesn’t matter—just buy another one.” Yeah, easy for them to say. They don’t have to pay for it. So we sometimes make light of sin or try to laugh it off. But God never does, because he has to pay for it.
The truth, wonderful beyond the power of words to express, is that God has done just that. He has paid for sin, paid in full. There is nothing left for us to contribute; Jesus paid it all, as the song says. His cry of desertion and abandonment on the cross alerts us to the moment when he made this full and final payment. It reveals the lowest depths to which he went—because in order to save us Jesus literally went to hell. He went to hell for us. There was hell for him so that there wouldn’t have to be for any who believe in him.
People can and do abandon us. Even those whom we love the most, and who love us, will someday leave us. It will happen through death, if not before. But God never fails or forsakes us. If you believe in Jesus Christ the Savior, if you have put your faith in him, then he is with you forever. Because Christ the Savior was once abandoned by God, you never will be. Can you ever thank him enough?