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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 22

 

 

Verses 1-31

Psalms 22:1-31

WHO is the sufferer whose wail is the very voice of desolation and despair, and who yet dares to believe that the tale of his sorrow will be a gospel for the world? The usual answers are given. The title ascribes the authorship to David, and is accepted by Delitzsch and others. Hengstenberg and his followers see in the picture the ideal righteous man. Others think of Hezekiah, or Jeremiah, with whose prophecies and history there are many points of connection. The most recent critics find here "the personalised Genius of Israel, or more precisely the followers of Nehemiah, including the large-hearted psalmist" (Cheyne, "Orig. of Psalt.," 264). On any theory of authorship, the startling correspondence of the details of the psalmist’s sufferings with those of the Crucifixion has to be accounted for. How startling that correspondence is, both in the number and minuteness of its points, need not be insisted on. Not only does our Lord quote the first verse on the cross, and so show that the psalm was in his heart then, but the gestures and words of mockery were verbally reproduced, as Luke significantly indicates by using the LXX’s word for "laugh to scorn" (Psalms 22:7). Christ’s thirst is regarded by John as the fulfilment of "scripture," which can scarcely be other than Psalms 22:15. The physical effects of crucifixion are described in the ghastly picture of Psalms 22:14-15. Whatever difficulty exists in determining the true reading and meaning of the allusion to "my hands and my feet," some violence or indignity to them is intended. The peculiar detail of dividing the raiment was more than fulfilled, since the apparently parallel and synonymous clauses were resolved into two distinct acts. The recognition of these points in the psalm as prophecies is one thing; the determination of their relation to the psalmist’s own experience is quite another. It is taken for granted in many quarters that every such detail in prophecy must describe the writer’s own circumstances, and the supposition that they may transcend these is said to be "psychologically impossible." But it is somewhat hazardous for those who have not been subjects of prophetic inspiration to lay down canons of what is possible and impossible in it, and there are examples enough to prove that the relation of the prophets’ speech to their consciousness and circumstances was singularly complex, and not to be unravelled by any such obiter dicta as to psychological possibilities. They were recipients of messages, and did not always understand what the "Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify." Theories which neglect that aspect of the case do not front all the facts. Certainty as to the authorship of this psalm is probably unattainable. How far its words fitted the condition of the singer must therefore remain unsettled. But that these minute and numerous correspondences are more than coincidences, it seems perverse to deny. The present writer, for one, sees shining through the shadowy personality of the psalmist the figure of the Prince of Sufferers, and believes that whether the former’s plaints applied in all their particulars to him, or whether there is in them a certain "element of hyperbole" which becomes simple fact in Jesus’ sufferings, the psalm is a prophecy of Him and them. In the former case the psalmist’s experience, in the latter case his utterances, were divinely shaped so as to prefigure the sacred sorrows of the Man of Sorrows.

To a reader who shares in this understanding of the psalm, it must be holy ground, to be trodden reverently and with thoughts adoringly fixed on Jesus. Cold analysis is out of place. And yet there is a distinct order even in the groans, and a manifest contrast in the two halves of the psalm (Psalms 22:1-21 and Psalms 22:22-31). "Thou answerest not" is the keynote of the former; "Thou hast answered me," of the latter. The one paints the sufferings, the other the glory that should follow. Both point to Jesus: the former by the desolation which it breathes; the latter by the world wide consequences of these solitary sufferings which it foresees.

Surely opposites were never more startlingly blended in one gush of feeling than in that plaint of mingled faith and despair, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" which by its thus addressing God clings fast to Him, and by its wondering question discloses the dreary consciousness of separation from Him. The evidence to the psalmist that he was forsaken was the apparent rejection of his prayers for deliverance; and if David be the speaker, we may suppose that the pathetic fate of his predecessor hovered before his thoughts: "I am sore distressed. God is departed from me and answereth me no more. But, while lower degrees of this conflict of trust and despair belong to all deep religious life, and are experienced by saintly sufferers in all ages, the voice that rang through the darkness on Calvary was the cry of Him who experienced its force in supreme measure and in altogether unique manner. None but He can ask that question "Why?" with conscience void of offence. None but He have known the mortal agony of utter separation from God. None but He have clung to God with absolute trust even in the horror of great darkness. In Christ’s consciousness of being forsaken by God lie elements peculiar to it alone, for the separating agent was the gathered sins of the whole world, laid on Him and accepted by Him in the perfection of His loving identification of Himself with men. Unless in that dread hour He was bearing a world’s sin, there is no worthy explanation of His cry, and many a silent martyr has faced death for Him with more courage derived from Him than He manifested on His cross."

After the introductory strophe of two verses, there come seven strophes, of which three contain 3 verses each (Psalms 22:3-11) followed by two of 2 verses each (Psalms 22:12-15) and these again by two with 3 verses each. Can a soul agitated as this singer’s was regulate its sobs thus? Yes, if it is a singer’s, and still more if it is a saint’s. The fetters make the limbs move less violently, and there is soothing in the ordered expression of disordered emotion. The form is artistic, not artificial; and objections to the reality of the feelings on the ground of the regularity of the form ignore the witness of the masterpieces of literature in all tongues.

The desolation rising from unanswered prayer drives to the contemplation of God’s holiness and past responses to trusting men, which are in one aspect an aggravation and in another an alleviation. The psalmist partly answers his own question "Why?" and preaches to Himself that the reason cannot be in Jehovah, whose character and former deeds bind Him to answer trust by help. God’s holiness is primarily His separation from, by elevation above, the creature, both in regard of His freedom from limitations and of His perfect purity. If He is thus "holy," He will not break His promise, nor change His ways with those who trust. It takes some energy of faith to believe that a silent and apparently deaf God is "holy," and the effect of the belief may either be to crush or to lift the spirit. Its first result with this psalmist seems to have been to crush, as the next strophe shows, but the more blessed consequence is won before the end. Here it is partly a plea urged with God, as is that beautiful bold image of God enthroned "on the praises of Israel." These praises are evoked by former acts of grace answering prayers, and of them is built a yet nobler throne than the outstretched wings of the Cherubim. The daring metaphor penetrates deeply into God’s delight in men’s praise, and the power of Israel’s voice to exalt Him in the world. How could a God thus throned cease to give mercies like those which were perpetually commemorated thereby? The same half-wistful, half-confident retrospect is continued in the remaining verses of this strophe (Psalms 22:4-5), which look back to the "grey fathers" experience. Mark the plaintive reiteration of trust and "deliver," the two inseparables, as the days of old attested, which had now become so sadly parted. Not more certainly the flow of water in a pipe answers the application of thirsty lips to its opening than did God’s rescuing act respond to the father’s trust. And now!-

The use of "Our" in reference to the fathers has been laid hold of as favouring the hypothesis that the speaker is the personified nation; but no individual member of a nation would speak of the common ancestors as "My fathers." That would mean his own family progenitors, whereas the psalmist means the Patriarchs and the earlier generations. No argument for the national theory, then, can be drawn from the phrase. Can the reference to Jesus be carried into this strophe? Assuredly it may, and it shows us how truly He associated Himself with His nation, and fed His faith by the records of the past. "He also is a son of Abraham."

Such remembrances make the contrast of present sufferings and of a far-off God more bitter; and so a fresh wave of agony rolls over the psalmist’s soul. He feels himself crushed and as incapable of resistance as a worm bruised in all its soft length by an armed heel. The very semblance of manhood has faded. One can scarcely fail to recall "his visage was so marred more than any man," [Isaiah 52:14] and the designation of Jehovah’s servant Israel as "thou worm." [Isaiah 41:14] The taunts that wounded the psalmist so sorely have long since fallen dumb and the wounds are all healed; but the immortal words in which he wails the pain of misapprehension and rejection are engraved forever on the heart of the world. No suffering is more acute than that of a sensitive soul, brimming with love and eager ness to help, and met with scorn, rejection and ferocious mockery of its sacredest emotions. No man has ever felt that pang with the intensity with which Jesus felt it, for none has ever brought such wealth of longing love to be thrown back on itself, nor been so devoid of the callousness with which selfishness is shielded. His pure nature was tender as an infant’s hand, and felt the keen edge of the spear as none but He can have done. They are His sorrows that are painted here, so vividly and truly that the evangelist Luke takes the very word of the LXX version of the psalm to describe the rulers’ mockery. [Luke 23:35] "They draw open the lips," grinning with delight or contempt; "they nod the head" in mockery and assent to the suffering inflicted; and then the savage hate bursts into irony which defiles the sacredest emotions and comes near to blaspheming God in ridiculing trust in Him. The mockers thought it exquisite sarcasm to bid Jesus roll His troubles on Jehovah, and to bid God deliver Him since He delighted in Him. How little they knew that they were thereby proclaiming Him as the Christ of prophecy, and were giving the unimpeachable testimony of enemies to His life of devout trust and His consciousness of Divine favour! "Roll (it) on God," sneered they; and the answer was, "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit." "Let Him deliver Him, since He delighteth in Him," they impiously cried, and they knew not that God’s delight in Him was the very reason why He did not deliver Him. Because He was His Son in whom He was well pleased, "it pleased the Lord to bruise Him." The mockery of opponents brings into clear light the deepest secrets of that cross.

Another wave of feeling follows in the next strophe (Psalms 22:9-11). Backwards and forwards, from trust to complaint and from complaint to trust, rolls the troubled sea of thought, each mood evoking its opposite. Now reproach makes the psalmist tighten his grasp on God, and plead former help as a reason for present hearing. Faith turns taunts into prayers. This strophe begins with a "Yea," and, on the relationship with God which the enemies had ridiculed and which his heart knows to be true, pleads that God would not remain, as Psalms 22:1 had wailed that He was, far off from His help. It goes back to the beginning of life, and in the mystery of birth and the dependence of infancy, finds arguments with God. They are the personal application of the wide truth that God by His making us men gives us a claim on Him, that He has bound Himself by giving life to give what is needful for its development and well-being. He will not stultify Himself by making a man and then leaving him to struggle alone, as birds do with their young, as soon as they can fly’. He is "a faithful Creator." May we venture to find special reference here to the mystery of the Incarnation? It is noticeable that "my mother" is emphatically mentioned, while there is no reference to a father. No doubt the cast of the thought accounts for that, but still the special agency of Divine power in the birth of Jesus gives special force to His prayer for Divine help in the life so peculiarly the result of the Divine band. But while the plea had singular force on Christ’s lips, it is valid for all men.

The closing verse of this strophe takes the complaint of Psalms 22:1 and turns it into prayer. Faith does not rest with plaintively crying "Why art Thou so far?" but pleads "Be not far"; and makes the nearness of trouble and the absence of all other help its twofold pleas. So much the psalmist has already won by his communing with God. Now he can face environing sorrows and solitary defencelessness, and feel them to be reasons for God’s coming, not tokens of His distance.

We now come to two strophes of two verses each (Psalms 22:12-15), of which the former describes the encircling foes and the latter the psalmist’s failure of vital power. The metaphor of raging wild animals recurs in later verses, and is common to many psalms. Bashan was a land of pastures over which herds of half wild cattle roamed. They "have surrounded me" is a picturesque touch, drawn direct from life, as anyone knows who has ever found himself in the midst of such a herd. The gaping mouth is rather characteristic of the lion than of the bull. The open jaws emit the fierce roar which precedes the fatal spring and the "ravening" on its prey. The next short strophe passes from enemies around to paint inward feebleness. All vital force has melted away; the very bones are dislocated, raging thirst has supervened. These are capable of being construed as simply strong metaphors, parallels to which may be found in other psalms; but it must not be left unnoticed that they are accurate transcripts of the physical effects of crucifixion. That torture killed by exhaustion, it stretched the body as on a rack, it was attended with agonies of thirst. It requires considerable courage to brush aside such coincidences as accidental, in obedience to a theory of interpretation. But the picture is not completed when the bodily sufferings are set forth. A mysterious attribution of them all to God closes the strophe. "Thou hast brought me to the dust of death." Then, it is God’s hand that has laid all these on him. No doubt this may be, and probably was in the psalmist’s thought, only a devout recognition of Providence working through calamities; but the words receive full force only by being regarded as parallel with those of Isaiah 53:10, "He hath put Him to grief." In like manner the apostolic preaching regards Christ’s murderers as God’s instruments.

The next strophe returns to the three-verse arrangement, and blends the contents of the two preceding, dealing both with the assailing enemies and the enfeebled sufferer. The former metaphor of wild animals encircling him is repeated with variations. A baser order of foes than bulls and lions, namely, a troop of cowardly curs, are snarling and snapping round him. The contemptuous figure is explained in Psalms 22:16 b, as meaning a mob of evildoers, and is then resumed in the next clause, which has been the subject of so much dispute. It seems plain that the Masoretic text is corrupt. "Like a lion, my hands and my feet" can only be made into sense by violent methods. The difference between the letters which yield "like a lion "and those which give "they pierced" is only in the length of the upright stroke of the final one. LXX Vulg. Syr. translate they dug or pierced, and other ancient versions attest that they read the word as a verb. The spelling of the word is anomalous, if we take it to mean dig, but the irregularity is not without parallels, and may be smoothed away either by assuming an unusual form of a common verb or a rare root cognate with the more common one. The word would then mean "they dug" rather than pierced, but the shade of difference in meaning is not so great as to forbid the later rendering. In any case "it is the best attested reading. It is to be understood of the gaping wounds which are inflicted on the sufferer’s hands and feet, and which stare at him like holes" (Baethgen, "Hand Comment.," p. 65). "Behold my hands and my feet," said the risen Lord, and that calm word is sufficient proof that both bore the prints of nails. The words might be written over this psalm. Strange and sad that so many should look on it and not see Him!

The picture of bodily sufferings has one more touch in "I can count all my bones." Emaciation would produce that effect. But so would crucifixion which extended the frame and threw the bones of the thorax into prominence. Then the sufferer turns his eyes once more to his enemies, and describes the stony gaze, protracted and unfeeling, with which they feed upon his agonies. Crucifixion was a slow process, and we recall the long hours in which the crowd sated their hatred through their eyes.

It is extremely unlikely that the psalmist’s garments were literally parted among his foes, and the usual explanation of the singular details in Psalms 22:18 is that they are either a metaphor drawn from plundering the slain in battle or a proverbial expression. What reference the words had to the original speaker of them must, in our ignorance of his circumstances, remain uncertain. But they at all events depict his death as so sure that his enemies regard his dress as their perquisite. Surely this is a distinct instance of Divine guidance moulding a psalmist’s words so as to fill them with a deeper meaning than the speaker knew. He who so shaped them saw the soldiers dividing the rest of the garments and gambling for the seamless cloak; and He was "the Spirit of Christ which was in" the singer.

The next strophe closes the first part with petition which, in the last words, becomes thanksgiving, and realises the answer so fervently besought. The initial complaint of God’s distance is again turned into prayer, and the former metaphors of wild beasts are gathered into one long cry for deliverance from the dangerous weapons of each, the dog’s paw, the lion’s mouth, the wild oxen’s horns. The psalmist speaks of his "soul" or life as "my only one," referring not to his isolation, but to his life as that which, once lost, could never be regained. He has but one life, therefore he clings to it, and cannot but believe that it is precious in God’s eyes. And then, all at once, up shoots a clear light of joy, and he knows that he has not been speaking to a deaf or remote God, but that his cry is answered. He had been brought to the dust of death, but even thence he is heard and brought out with no soil of it upon him. Such suddenness and completeness of deliverance from such extremity of peril may, indeed, have been experienced by many, but receives its fullest meaning in its Messianic application. "From the horns of the wild oxen," says he, as if the phrase were still dependent, like the preceding ones, on the prayer, "deliver me." But, as he thus cries, the conviction that he is heard floods his soul, and he ends, not with a cry for help, but with that one rapturous word, "Thou hast answered me." It is like a parting burst of sunshine at the end of a day of tempest. A man already transfixed by a buffalo’s horns has little hope of escape, but even thence God delivers. The psalmist did not know, but the Christian reader should not forget that the Prince of sufferers was yet more wondrously delivered from death by passing through death, and that by His victory all who cleave to Him are, in like manner, saved from the horns even while these gore them, and are then victors over death when they fall beneath its dart.

The consequences of the psalmist’s deliverance are described in the last part (Psalms 22:22-31) in language so wide that it is hard to suppose that any man could think his personal experiences so important and far-reaching. The whole congregation of Israel are to share in his thanksgiving and to learn more of God’s name through him (Psalms 22:22-26). Nor does that bound his anticipations, for they traverse the whole world and embrace all lands and ages, and contemplate that the story of his sufferings and triumph will prove a true gospel, bringing every country and generation to remember and turn to Jehovah. The exuberant language becomes but one mouth. Such consequences, so widespread and age long, can follow from the story of but one life. If the sorrows of the preceding part can only be a description of the passion, the glories of the second can only be a vision of the universal and eternal kingdom of Christ. It is a gospel before the Gospels and an Apocalypse before Revelations.

In the first strophe (Psalms 22:22-26) the delivered singer vows to make God’s name known to His brethren. The epistle to the Hebrews quotes the vow as not only expressive of our Lord’s true manhood, but as specifying its purpose. Jesus became man that men might learn to know God; and the knowledge of His name streams most brightly from the cross. The death and resurrection, the sufferings and glory of Christ open deeper regions in the character of God than even His gracious life disclosed. Rising from the dead and exalted to the throne, He has "a new song" in His immortal lips, and more to teach concerning God than He had before.

The psalm calls Israel to praise with the singer, and tells the ground of their joyful songs (Psalms 22:23-24). Here the absence of any reference to the relation which the New Testament reveals between these sufferings and that praise is to be noted as an instance of the gradual development of prophecy. "We are not yet on the level of Isaiah 53:1-12." (Kirkpatrick, "Psalms," 152). The close of this part speaks of a sacrifice of which "the humble shall eat and be satisfied"-"I will pay my vows"-i.e. the thank offerings vowed when in trouble. The custom of feasting on the "sacrifices for peace offering for thanksgiving" [Leviticus 7:15] is here referred to, but the ceremonial garb covers spiritual truth. The condition of partaking in this feast is humility, that poverty of spirit which knows itself to be hungry and unable to find food for itself. The consequence of partaking is satisfaction-a deep truth reaching far beyond the ceremonial emblem. A further result is that "your heart shall live forever"-an unmeaning hyperbole, but in one application of the words. We penetrate to the core of the psalm in this part, when we read it in the light of Christ’s words, "My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed," and when we connect it with the central act of Christian worship, the Lord’s Supper.

The universal and perpetual diffusion of the kingdom and knowledge of God is the theme of the closing strain (Psalms 22:27-31). That diffusion is not definitely stated as the issue of the sufferings or deliverance, but the very fact that such a universal knowledge comes into view here requires that it should be so regarded, else the unity of the psalm is shattered. While, therefore, the ground alleged in Psalms 22:28 for this universal recognition of God is only His universal dominion we must suppose that the history of the singer as told to the world is the great fact which brings home to men the truth of God’s government over and care for them. True, men know God apart from revelation and from the gospel, but He is to them a forgotten God, and the great influence which helps them to "remember and turn to Jehovah" is the message of the Cross and the Throne of Jesus.

The psalm had just laid down the condition of partaking in the sacrificial meal as being lowliness, and (Psalms 22:29) it prophecies that the "fat" shall also share in it. That can only be, if they become "humble." Great and small, lofty and low must take the same place and accept the food of their souls as a meal of charity. The following words are very difficult, as the text stands. There would appear to be a contrast intended between the obese self-complacency; of the prosperous and proud, and the pauper-like misery of "those who are going down to the dust" and who "cannot keep their soul alive," that is, who are in such penury and wretchedness that they are all but dead. There is a place for ragged outcasts at the table side by side with the "fat on earth." Others take the words as referring to those already dead, and see here a hint that the dim regions of Sheol receive beams of the great light and some share in the great feast. The thought is beautiful, but too remote from anything else in the Old Testament to be adopted here. Various attempts at conjectural emendations and redivision of clauses have been made in order to lighten the difficulties of the verse. However attractive some of these are, the existing reading yields a not unworthy sense, and is best adhered to.

As universality in extent, so perpetuity in duration is anticipated for the story of the psalmist’s deliverance and for the praise to God thence accruing. "A seed shall serve Him." That is one generation of obedient worshippers. "It shall be told of Jehovah unto the [next] generation." That is, a second, who shall receive from their progenitors, the seed that serves, the blessed story. "They shall declare His righteousness unto a people that shall be born." That is, a third, which in its turn receives the good news from parents’ lips. And what is the word which thus maintains itself living amid dying generations, and blesses each, and impels each to bequeath it as their best treasure to their successors? "That He hath done." Done what? With eloquent silence the psalm omits to specify. What was it that was meant by that word on the cross which, with like reticence, forbore to tell of what it spoke? "He hath done." "It is finished." No one word can express all that was accomplished in that sacrifice. Eternity will not fully supply the missing word, for the consequences of that finished work go on unfolding forever, and are forever unfinished, because forever increasing.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 22:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-22.html.

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