Psalm 22 should be familiar to everybody — or at least the first verse. When I was at Barclay, one of my teachers told our class that he believed that Jesus didn’t stop at “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”, but instead prayed the whole of Psalm 22. Certainly, Psalm 22 is a very fitting prayer for Jesus to pray on the cross — it is so fitting that it is traditional to read this Psalm the Thursday before Easter; It is so fitting that if we read from a Christian pre-modern sermon or commentary, it will be called a prophecy of what Jesus was to suffer.
It is very easy to see Jesus praying: “All who see me mock me, they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; Commit your cause to the Lord, let Him deliver — Let him rescue the one in whom he delights” (Psalm 22:7-8). If you recall, Jesus was dressed in a robe — a crown of thorns was put on his head, and he was blindfolded, beat, and people called to him saying “Prophecy, tell who hit you.” When Jesus was put on the cross, people mocked him, calling for him to come down from the cross, to save himself if he could save anybody at all. He was even mocked by others who were crucified at the same time, according to Mark’s gospel.
Those who see this as prophecy see that Jesus, on the cross, was “Poured out like water” and that his bones would be “out of joint”. One of the things that we remember Jesus saying on the cross was “I thirst”, so it is not a huge surprise that the description would be: “my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, my tongue sticks to my jaws.” (Psalm 22:14-15). In fact, many translations of Psalm 22:16 read: “My hands and feet are pierced.” — and the version that we are reading has a footnote saying that the translation is not certain.
When we read Psalm 22, and the various accounts of the crucifixion, it likely stands out that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes, and cast lots — and we notice that this is described both in Mark 15:24 as well as Psalm 22:18. It is not surprising that Christians have long felt this is a prophecy of Jesus: The gospel account invites that reading, by making it a point to include these parallels. This connection was noticed by the gospel writers — one might say that the New Testament understanding is that Psalm 22 is about Jesus.
Tradition tells us that this is a Psalm of David, and that David wrote this reflecting on all those times in his life when he was hunted by an enemy, and hiding. David had this experience both when he was hunted by Saul, and later when his own son tried to take over the kingdom, and started a civil war against him. This Psalm then is a Psalm of utter despair; the Psalmist only sees enemies, and realizes that he has no strength to fight them. If it is David, then it is a Psalm about being very close to losing everything.
There is another theory that this Psalm was a Psalm written after the fall of Jerusalem, during the time of exile. One of the specific events suggested as inspiration for this song is the story that is told in Esther: that there was a plot by Haman to wipe out the people — and, they were delivered through the courage of Esther, who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. God may seem absent when there is a plan to kill everybody, but as verse 28 and following tells us: “Dominion belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations… Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance.”
As a Christian, I’ve always been of the tradition that reads Psalm 22 and sees Jesus. I know that this is not how the people who selected it as one of the Psalms read it; but, this is an important interpretation in my own tradition. I think my favorite theory is that this Psalm tells the story of Purim. I know that I have nothing better to go on than the tradition that David wrote this Psalm — but, I have a lot of trouble finding what event in David’s life matches the Psalm. I can see why there are alternative theories. One might say, that it is hard to say that David wrote this about himself.
I had a theology teacher, Chris Kettler, who believes that one way that Jesus saves us is by doing those things that we cannot do. He taught us that Substitiutionary atonement is not just about Jesus taking our punishment — but it is also about Jesus standing in our place when we are too weak to stand. He specifically spoke of how sometimes our faith does not seem as strong as it needs to be, but Christ always remains faithful for us: There are times when Jesus believes for us because we cannot believe. There are times Christ prays for us when we do not know the words to pray.
“My God My God, why have your forsaken me” is one prayer that I do not know how to pray! Sometimes we believe things when we are young that later proves to be untrue. One of the things that I believed is that crying out distressed to God shows a failure of faith. I also, somehow, believed that prayer is always supposed to be reverent and polite. The way I learned to pray was not like prayer in scripture — the way I learned to pray was somewhat sanctimonious. It is not a surprise, because my first thoughts came from public prayer; and public prayer is a bit sanctimonious.
Basically, in my childish mind, God was like some crazy emperor; full of power, easily angered, and with a very poor self esteem. I never thought about it — but this picture of God was a picture of a petty God. If prayer must always be sanctimonious, it means that we are walking on eggshells; which is something you only need to do when approaching somebody with a fragile ego. I have come to realize that this picture of God is far more blasphemous than anything I might say in anger: God is not so petty than we need to walk on eggshells — God’s ego is not so fragile that any of us can shatter it.
I read scripture — I find that the examples of prayer include Jesus crying out in distress, saying: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me.” I see pretty much every person who is remembered for his or her faith paying at some point in utter distress; praying things that I didn’t know we were allowed to pray.
I still can’t think of Psalm 22 as a model prayer! I don’t know if I could manage any prayer in a time that I was so distressed that I would ask God why God has forsaken me — but it was still a very important part of my faith development: Jesus prayed the prayer that I could not pray — and taught me that the appropriate prayer is the prayer that honestly expresses my feelings. I am allowed to pray when I am angry, or sad, or distressed — I don’t need to wait until I can say what is sanctimonious — God will listen to the prayers of my heart; even when my heart is not ready to pray. Strangely enough, because Jesus prayed: “My God my God why have you forsaken me”, God feels a lot less distant.