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Psalm 22

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken us?”  This deep cry of the psalmist expresses one of humanity’s rawest experiences: abandonment.  It reflects our greatest fear and anxiety that we are alone, forgotten, and left to our own devices in the face of the cruel realities of this world.  

One does not have to look far to hear echos of this ancient cry. Babies in Syria gasping for air after chemical attacks. Teenage girls from Zambia riding in the back of vans or in the bottom of boats on their way to Ireland to be sold as sex slaves.[1] Boys being kidnapped and taught to use weapons for slaughter at the front lines in Myanmar.[2] Parents in Osage, Iowa; Houston, Texas, and Bronx, New York are wondering where the next meal will come from, while others having to make choices about the long term care of their aging parents.[3]

All the while, many others will simply go about each day wondering if their life is connected with others…if their work is worthwhile…or if their relationships are meaningful.

The psalmist, like someone ripping off a band-aid, forces us to consider the ways we are surrounded by events and issues that feel like “bulls of Bashan,” “wild dogs or horned oxen,” or “companies of evildoers.” We are forced to think about the way these things make “our bones feel out of joint,” “our hearts melt like wax,” or “our tongues stick to the roof of our mouths.” So many things we face, individually or collectively, seem so overwhelming. When we stop to consider them, or when too many of them pile up, it is no wonder that we many feel lost or abandoned. We wonder why it seems there is no rescue, no respite, no hope in some situations.

Unfortunately, many feel that they cannot utter the words of the Psalmist. They may have been taught that as a person of faith they should not question God or feel defeated. This leads to a sense of failure in faith or isolation because of a feeling that it is not ok to feel overwhelmed or forsaken. However, the good news for us is that the in the wisdom of the biblical canon and the Church, laments like Psalm 22 have been included in our regular worship.

Like most laments, Psalm 22 follows a “v” pattern that begins with a cry to God followed by a complaint about what is wrong in the psalmist’s situation. In this particular psalm, the author finds themselves in a desperate time, surrounded by enemies and pushed to the brink of extinction. Life hangs in the balance. In the normal form of a lament, the cry and complaint is followed by the question to God. However, in Psalm 22, the cry and complaint is interspersed with two sections of remembered praise. In verses 3-5 and 9-11, the psalmist remembers that God is holy and has been the one Israel has turned to for deliverance in the past. This break in the usual form is significant given the seemingly unbearable situation the Psalmist is in. The fluctuation between lament and praise keeps the reader reminded that, though forsakenness is a real experience, the hope of God’s presence is not lost. It is as though the form of the Psalm itself reminds us that in our deepest times of sorrow and our greatest sense of abandonment we are called to remember how we are part of a much larger story. In verses 3-5 the psalmist remembers the larger community’s engagement with God and how all of Israel’s ancestry has called upon God and found help. In verse 9-11, the psalmist then remembers their own journey, how from birth they were cast upon God and how it was God who rescued them even as they were a suckling babe.

For this Sunday, it is interesting that the reference to Psalm 22 in John’s Gospel, 19:24, is connected with verse Psalm 22:18. In John, the reference to the psalm is connected to the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes and then deciding not to divide his tunic. Some scholars have explored possible symbolic meanings of this act.[4] One way to think about this reference is to remember that Jesus, as the incarnate God, was never divided from God in John’s Gospel. Jesus and the Father are always one. There are some important connections to explore in thinking about lament and the incarnation of God. Most importantly, this refutes a common teaching about God having to turn God’s back on Jesus on the cross because of our sinfulness. As Wesleyans, it is important to remember that we hold onto the confession that God, for the sake of love, entered into our world and our suffering and has redeemed it.[5] This is not to say that Jesus did not feel forsaken or reject. No. In fact, one of the themes of John’s gospel is that Jesus was rejected by those who did not understand him and that he did experience suffering at the hands of those who rejected him. Part of the fact that Jesus and God are one in John’s gospel highlights then that God understands our suffering and forsakenness. It is in this incarnated experience of rejection and the redemption of it that we have hope that we do not suffer alone and that our laments do not go unheard.

Following the cry and complaint, the Psalmist directs a pointed request to God. In verses 19-21 the Psalmist says,

“But you, O Lord, do not be far off! My helper, to my aid, make haste! Rescue from the sword, my life; from the hand of a solitary dog. Save me from the mouth of the lion; and from the horns of wild ox answer me!”

This desperate call to God makes clear two things. First, this call is not generically to a god, but it is to Israel’s god, YHWH. In my world religions class we recently went to a local Jewish Synagogue and observed their worship. One of the things a student noticed was their reverence for God’s name. That the Psalmist calls to YHWH is important, because in the Psalms, the call to God to do something is based on the firm belief that its is God who must act to rectify the wrong in the Psalmist’s world. The belief that the Psalmist can call God to account about the brokenness of the world is based in the covenantal relationship between not just any god, but between Israel and YHWH. This relationship is the basis for prayer and action.

Second, the Psalmist is calling upon God to rescue them from a desperate situation and to do it quickly. The words for “helper” “rescue” and “save” are some of the richest words in the Psalms. That they are all used here is significant. The wealth of imagery the Psalmist uses to describe the situation from which they need to be delivered is both beautiful in its poetic description and overwhelming in that it encompasses the entirety of creation. This overwhelming sense of chaos is the sense that many who read the psalm feel. Creation is disrupted and is in revolt against us. The question is, what will the lord of creation do about it?

The Psalm finishes with affirmations of trust and praise. These two essential parts of lament remind us that our hope for rectification of these awful situations begins in a firm trust that the covenantal God we are called to remember earlier in the psalm is the same God who is at work today. Psalm 22 reminds us that our trust and covenantal actions will become a part of the witness to future generations, “people yet unborn,” that God has done what has been asked. While the explicit answer to the prayers is not yet declared, there is complete trust that God will rescue the psalmist from the horns of the oxen, turn to the psalmist and deliver them, and feed the poor who are needy.

This week, as many incredible situations shake us t