Marc Chagall, Solitude (1933)
<To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.>
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver– let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 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;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
19 But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
Psalm 22 echoes heavily in the gospel writer’s telling of the crucifixion of Jesus and it forms a central part of the liturgy of holy week (closing the Maundy Thursday service and serving as the pivot into Good Friday). For both Jewish and Christian readers this Psalm of suffering and lament has been a place that can reflect the reality of the faithful life when God seems absent and God’s promises not to forsake seem far away. Many people are troubled when they read the language of the Psalms of Lament, particularly the vivid language of Psalm 22 because it seems unlike the language of faith. Yet, here in the place of suffering where the faithful one calls out to God and questions God’s seeming lack of intervention is a faithful (even if difficult) place. As Beth Tanner can state, “Crying out in pain and expressing trust are not incompatible.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 233) There will always be those, like Job’s friends in the book of Job, who want to equate suffering as proof of the suffering one’s unfaithfulness and demand a rigidly ordered world where the righteous prosper and the unrighteous are punished but the real world is seldom that tidy. My experience as well as my reading of the story of many of the saints of the church and the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish story reveal a very different dynamic: frequently those saints and ancestors in the faith do suffer, and often in ways that seem unreasonable, yet they can hold their suffering within the framework of a world where God still remains sovereign even if the world is often incomprehensible.
The Psalm begins with a cry to a known God, the one the sufferer calls out to is their God who they have known in the past, who has been present and active throughout their lives and who now seems absent. It is this absence of God’s presence that makes a space for the crisis of the sufferer and allows their oppressors to have their way. For the petitioner who cries out to God they trust that God is a God who hears, much as in the Exodus when God heard the cries of the Israelites, and the Psalmist calls upon this history of God’s action in the past on their behalf and on behalf of the people. The Psalmist contrasts the position of their ancestors ‘who trusted in you and were not put to shame’ and their own experience of being despised and scorned. The Psalmist oscillates between the ways in which God has acted in the past and their own experience of abandonment, terror and shame. The poetic language of this Psalm is particularly rich in representing their opponents as wild bulls, ravening lions, a pack of vicious dogs and their experience takes a toll on their own body in vivid ways: mouth dried up like a potsherd, being poured out like water and bones being out of joint with a heart that has melted like wax, and they are dying of hunger to the point where their bones stand out against their skin. The person places their petition to God in the direst terms possible, their petition is a matter of life and death and their only hope is for God to hear and act like God has heard and acted in the past and to honor God’s promise not to forsake.
As with most of the Psalms of Lament, Psalm 22 allows us to see the reversal of the petitioner’s condition. In the middle of verse 21 the situation changes and the tone changes. The verse begins ‘save me from the mouth of the lions’ but then abruptly switches ‘from the horns of wild oxen you have rescued me’. We don’t know the time that elapses in this transition but the deliverance occurs and the prayer switches to one of praise. Since God has not despised or disdained, there is a hope for tomorrow. Those who sought the LORD now become those who praise, the poor whose bones could be counted can finally eat and be satisfied and the God who seemed to forsake has become the LORD who reigns over the nations. God’s action in the speaker’s generation ensures that another generation will be told about the God who watches over God’s faithful people and hears their complaints and prayers.
For the first tellers of the story of Jesus the resonant images of Psalm 22 probably helped to make sense of their experience of the crucifixion. For both Matthew and Mark the words Jesus speaks from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi lema sebachthani, my God, my God why have you forsaken me” would resonate with the beginning of this Psalm and the question of the righteous suffer. Even within the experience of that day where the soldiers cast lots for the garments of Jesus, the Psalm provides an easy connection for followers trying to make sense of the senseless suffering. The Psalms provided a language for their experience and words for their pain.
As important as Psalm 22 is for Christians in telling the story of the crucifixion both in scriptures and in the liturgy of Holy Week we cannot leave it only there. Psalm 22, and the psalms of lament more generally, are rich and powerful words that for generations of Jewish and Christians followers of God have given voice to a cry for deliverance. Whether it was the Jewish people in exile in Babylon, slaves crying out in suffering, or the person dealing with a devastating injury or illness that has robbed them of their sense of belonging we need to hear again that the God who we perceive has forsaken us can indeed hear our cry. We need to be able to claim that the experience of suffering and isolation need not be read as an implication of our own unfaithfulness or unrighteousness, but that indeed crying out to God in that time of suffering and isolation is itself a mighty cry of faith. Groaning words can indeed be powerful words when they reach the ears of the LORD who rules over the nations.