Leading into Easter we’ve been reflecting on Psalm 22. The psalm is a poem a prayer a song written over 1000 years before Christ by king David. It’s a prayer from a time in his life when he was in trouble and obviously suffering physical and spiritual isolation. We don’t know which particular instance in David’s life inspired this poem or rather I should say necessitated this prayer being written. But both its ability to capture the intensity of human suffering and of gutsy hope has meant that it has stood the test of time. Each new generation that have uncounted it can relate to it. You get the feeling that the thing that is causing David the most suffering is not the taunts of his enemies, or the physical suffering but rather the aloneness: that God who has been close to him since his mother womb now in this hour of need feels far off, distant. The doors of heaven seem firmly shut to him and he feels his cries just echo round the room unheard. It’s what people down through the ages have called the long dark night of the soul.
Yet as the prayer unfolds we see that David does not despair or throw his faith in God out rather he affirms a strong belief that despite the absence of the feeling of closeness, God is still the one who is in control, God is working his plans out for good, that God is able to save him. He knows God well enough to know that God is for him and with him even though he cannot feel him. That God will bring about a salvation that will have positive effects not only for him but also for the poor and the needy and bring people from all nations and families to worship and acknowledge God.
More than simply standing the test of time like all scripture it has the breath print of God on it as well. Paul in 2 Timothy 4:16 says that all scripture is spirit breathed and Psalm 22 has been seen by the gospel writers as prophetically pointing to the suffering that Jesus would go through on the cross.
The Taunts of David’s enemies ‘he trust’s in God let God save him’ echo the taunts thrown at Jesus in Matthew 27:43 “he trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him. He said “I am the Son of God”.
The description of all the joints being out of place and all his strength being gone reflects the process of crucifixion where the person slowly dies of asphyxiation as they run out of the strength to force their whole body weight on to the nail through their ankles and hands to grab a gasp of breath the stress and strain causing the joints to pop and dislocate.
The picture of the tongue sticking to the roof of the mouth and the horrific thirst, being reflected in one of Jesus sayings from the cross recorded in John’s gospel ‘I’m thirsty’. John writes that Jesus said this to fulfil scripture.
John also quote’s Psalm 22 in his narrative when Jesus clothes are divided up between the soldiers at the cross and they decide not to divide his outer cloak but rather to gamble for it. The outer cloak was the most valuable part of Jesus clothing. In Psalm 22 verse 8 it says ‘They divide up my garments between them and cast lots for my clothes’.
Jesus himself chose the first line of this psalm as his dying words. As recorded in Mark and Matthews Gospel in their original Aramaic, the language that Jesus would have used in everyday life. You get the feeling that they were ingrained in the memories of those who had heard them. Not words of despair in Jesus final hour of suffering but rather in Jewish short hand quoting the whole of Psalm 22, which is a prayer of hope. That despite the situation and the horrific nature of what was happening God is still in control and that God is working out his good plans beyond the situation in the situation…
Because it is prophetic it also points beyond the cross to Jesus resurrection and the fact that because of god’s saving action in Jesus Christ that people from all nations and families would come to know God and that those who experience God’s salvation would show care and justice to the poor and needy. At the cross, when Jesus felt that isolation from his father, a way was being made for us to enter in to a new relationship with God.
At the heart of this prayer is relationship: An intimate knowing of God. That’s what makes it a prayer of hope in the middle of what is vividly described opposition and danger. It is why it comes from David a man after God’s own heart. It is why it is on the lips of Jesus on the cross.
One of the debates around what’s known as the ‘problem of evil’, why do bad things happen to good people, is the assertion that evil and suffering in the world means you can’t have a good God who is all powerful. The argument goes something like this. A good God would never let evil happen so it must mean that he is not sovereign. He’s not in control or if God is all-powerful and allows evil to happen how can God be good? But poetry and prayers don’t live in the field of theoretical theology and philosophy, they come from the heart and head grappling and wrestling with what’s going on now. So David in his prayer has it both ways. He affirms God’s sovereignty, ‘even though I don’t feel you and you don’t return my calls God still you are enthroned on the praises of Israel. Still you have always done well to them and saved them. Beyond this situation I know that you will continue to save people and show justice and mercy. In fact from this situation people of all nations and even those not even born yet will know you have done it.
That is Jesus on the cross as well. His answer to his mockers and taunters is to quote Psalm 22. It may seem that God has forsaken him. But as it says in Isaiah 53 of the suffering servant, “we thought him stricken by God, but it was our sins that he bore.” The answer is that God’s sovereignty and goodness are not diminished by this situation or Jesus suffering far from it as it says in Psalm 22 people yet unborn will know of God’s goodness and salvation and they will see that God has done it.
I can’t help but hear the words that John records of Jesus that the other gospel writers simply heard as a loud cry echoing those last words of Psalm 22 “it is finished”. Because here on the cross Jesus has done all that was needed to be done for you and I to be saved; the sin that separated us from God forgiven and a way was made for us to come back and know God. In one of the paradoxes of the cross the writer to the Hebrews is able to say that for the joy set before him Jesus endured the shame and the suffering of the cross. The joy that was set before him was not his own personal safety or wellbeing but rather that you and I would come to know him and abide in him and he in us.
In a profound way the cross shows us the amazing way God chose to work. It would have been easy for God to over come evil with a great display of power for the one who created it all to stop the world and judge it and find it wanting. To start again like some parallel universe or Microsoft version with those troublesome glitches ironed out hopefully. However God does not do that instead he destroys the power of sin and death in the world by accepting powerlessness. By allowing his son to be killed. A move so absurd and ridiculous that only God could have seen it. That as we look back we can say it is God who has done this.
This prayer and the cross itself show us that even in the darkest moments even in the face of the worst humanity can dredge up God is able to bring light and hope. It’s what our faith and hope is. That God’s character will shine through.
Ric Foxley from the leprosy Mission talks about going to visit an Australian missionary Gladys Stains who worked in a leper colony in India. She and her family her husband two sons and daughter had worked in the leper colony for over thirty years. In January 1999 Graham her husband and her two sons Philip aged 10 and Timothy eight were burned to death in their car. Hindu extremists had attacked them while they were sleeping in the car at a camp. The three had tried to get out of the car but a crowd of about 100 people had stopped them. There was a huge outcry in India over this and the government clamped down on extremists who were trying to kill the Christian minority in India.
At the funeral attended by thousands from many different faiths Galdys Stains was able to say. “ I am terribly upset, but not angry. My husband loved Jesus Christ who has taught us to forgive our enemies’ She continued to work with the leper colony until she had to retire recently. The impact of this tragedy and her offer of forgiveness was that it had a profound impact on the lives of many people in India and round the world. The Indian government has just bestowed its highest civil award on her and she is hoping to go back to India to receive it. Tragedy and darkness and evil happen and surround us yet in the midst of that a good and sovereign God works his plans for good.
Often people mistake faith that holds on to God in the midst of the seeming absence of God for blind faith. But God does not invite people to have a blind faith rather a knowing faith.
We know God well enough that in the face of suffering and sorrow we know God is for his people.
We know God is good. We know god is able to work out his plans for our good.
We know God isn’t suddenly too busy with international affairs to deal with things on the home front, our home front.
We know God well enough to say well God I feel so alone. I feel abandoned where are you.
We know God and the reality is that God is there and with us and for us despite that emotional isolation.
We know God well enough to wrestle with God in the seeming darkness.
We know God hears the cries of our souls and answers.