by Ian McKee, N. Ireland
The Psalms have profitably occupied the attention of many writers and the results of their labours adorn the bookshelves of numerous believers. Indeed, the Messianic Psalms have also acquired volumes dedicated to their exposition. While not every Messianic Psalm majors on the Lord’s death, Psalm 22 provides the longest consecutive passage in relation to this important subject. Consideration of this Psalm ought to direct our attention to the purpose and results of this supreme and vicarious sacrifice. This, in turn, will provide opportunity to explore some practical themes of contemporary relevance.
As we peruse Psalm 22, which is in the character of the sin offering Psalm, let us approach it in a spirit of profound and thoughtful reverence. Deep within our souls we should hear those words first heard by Moses, “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” Ex.3.5.
It is a cause for awe to realise that David penned this prophetic Psalm some 1,050 years prior to its fulfilment. Truly it foretells “the good shepherd [Who] giveth His life for the sheep” Jn.10.11. Also, the Psalm describes in accurate detail the features of death by crucifixion long before the rise of Rome and before Roman cruelty had unleashed this surpassing horror on a world long inured to suffering.
While the inspiration of the titles of Psalms may be questionable, they are, nevertheless, of interest. Psalm 22 is ascribed in the A.V. “To the Chief Musician upon Aijeleth Shahar, A Psalm of David”. “Aijeleth Shahar” means ‘the hind of the morning’. It speaks of One in all the comeliness of holy grace standing at bay as His enemies close around Him with murderous intent. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, renders the title “concerning the succour that cometh in the morning”. This suggests the appearing at dawn of the morning star and the first rays of light. It was this that the duty priest watched for from Mount Zion, for the first shaft of morning light to appear through the serrated ridge of the mountains of Moab. Once that harbinger of the new day was seen, the silver trumpet was blown and the morning lamb was sacrificed, prefiguring the darkness of night being dispelled by the radiant rays of redemption.
So far as titles for this Psalm go, perhaps that by Helen Spurrell is the most triumphant, “To the Eternal Victor. A Psalm of David concerning the Morning Star”1. Hence the Chief Musician referred to in the title of this Psalm is neither Asaph, Jeduthan nor Heman, who all led the praise of Israel, 1Chr.25.6, but the Lord Himself. Truly the day will come when He shall lead the praise of His people, “In the midst of the congregation will I sing Thy praise” Heb.2.12 (R.V.). J.M. Flanigan’s depiction of Psalm 22 as being the “Psalm of the sob and the song” is characteristically apposite.2
- 1. Spurrell, H. “A Translation of the Old Testament Scriptures from the Original Hebrew”. James Nisbet & Co. London, 1985.
- 2. Flanigan, J. M. “Psalms – What the Bible Teaches”. John Ritchie, Kilmarnock, 2001.
Psalm 22 together with Isaiah chapter 53, are the chapters that concentrate most on the sufferings of Christ. Indeed they are likely the two Old Testament chapters most familiar to Christians. Sadly, they are presently the passages neglected by Jews but, in a soon-coming day, that will change!
In this Psalm the Holy Spirit uses David to testify “beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” 1Pet.1.11. David writes about something of which he has no personal experience whatsoever. We search the Scriptures in vain to find anything in David’s life even remotely approximating to the descriptions in this Psalm. Nor is there anything in the experience of the nation of Israel to compare with this. One could borrow the words of the Apostle Paul and apply them here, “before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you” Gal.3.1.
Indeed there is more detail given in this Psalm of the physical sufferings of crucifixion than by all four Gospel writers. It is therefore a Psalm to be approached with reverent attitude. It is recorded that Martin Luther withdrew to a solitary place for three days and three nights to suffuse his soul with the majestic wonder of this Psalm before expounding it in public.
Finally, in this introduction, how is one to divide the Psalm? Some follow the basic division that vv.1-21 speak of Calvary, with vv.22-31 speaking of the praise following resurrection. Others (e.g. Alfred Edersheim)3 divide it into 3 stanzas of 10 verses each (with v.11 being a transition) to describe: (a) the inward sufferings; (b) the outward afflictions; and (c) the fruit of His travail. I wish to consider this Psalm in shorter sections and hence will generally follow suggestions by Harold St. John4 as to paragraph divisions. However, such divisions are simply to aid understanding. As readers delve in these depths of truth they may devise subdivisions that better suit the purpose. The wealth of Psalm 22 will never be exhausted. Truly “the well is deep” Jn.4.11.
- 3. Edersheim, A. “The Golden Diary of Heart Converse with Jesus in the Book of Psalms.” James Nisbet & Co. London, 1866.
4. St.John, H. “Psalms, in the Collected Writings of.” Gospel Tract Publishers, Glasgow, 1989.
There is no confusion in the chronology of the cross. Mark (also Matthew and Luke) uses the Hebrew computation of time when he states “And it was the third hour, and they crucified Him”, Mk.15.25. John, in contrast, uses Roman time and states “and about the sixth hour: and he [Pontius Pilate] saith unto the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’” Jn.19.14. In our time sequence the Lord was crucified at 9 a.m, but at what time of the day was the orphan cry uttered? Mark states “at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which is, being interpreted, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’” Mk.15.34. Matthew also records this cry of the Saviour in association with the precise time point, “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ That is to say, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’” Matt.27.45,46. So taking all together, the Lord was crucified at 9 a.m. in our chronology, was on the cross during three hours of daylight until noon, continued on the cross for three hours in darkness until 3 p.m., when He uttered this cry.
It is therefore abundantly clear that the cry of desolation recorded in the first verse of Psalm 22 has its sole fulfilment in the experience of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the fourth of the seven recorded sayings of the Redeemer upon the cross. Three had been spoken in the three hours of daylight. The first of these was “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” Lk.23.34. The second was “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” Lk.23.43. The third was “Woman, behold thy son! … Behold thy mother!” Jn.19.26,27. Then darkness deep at noontide falls. “And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened …” Lk.23.44,45.
Thus at the end of six hours of supreme and unsurpassed suffering, after three hours of silence in total darkness, this fourth cry from the cross is uttered. It is the cry of complete forsakenness. It conveys the desolation of utter abandonment. It is a grief of unique experience. Its reality goes far beyond the Old Testament type of the scapegoat sent forth “by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness” Lev.16.21. The scapegoat’s plaintive bleat went unanswered as it went farther and ever farther away into the bleak landscape of empty loneliness. The desolation also exceeds that of the “rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown” Deut.21.4. These Old Testament outlines are helpful to our understanding, but only One knew in reality the experience of sin-bearing, “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin: that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” 2Cor.5.21. Similarly, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, ‘Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree’” Gal.3.13.
Although in desolation and abandonment, He still trusts. His cry is personal “My God”, the Mighty One. In the days of His flesh He could say, “I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent Me …” and “… He that sent Me is with Me: the Father hath not left Me alone; for I do always those things that please Him” Jn.8.16,29. Yet He knew that the day would come when He would be alone, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” Jn.12.24. It is the experience of that day that is unfolded in Psalm 22.
The Lord’s greatest suffering therefore was to be forsaken by God, so that every repentant sinner who trusts unreservedly in the One Who died upon that centre cross might never be forsaken, neither in time nor in eternity. The Holy Spirit, through the Psalmist, brings into the foreground the Godward aspect of the atoning sufferings of the Saviour. This abandonment draws forth this anguished cry, but it is a cry not tinged with any scintilla of bitterness, despair or impatience. His faith takes hold on the Mighty God. The only occurrence in Scripture of the double cry “My God, My God” relates exclusively to the Lord upon the cross. While He may only have uttered “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me”, yet His experience is of all that is recorded in Psalm 22.
Perhaps we should reflect upon our own circumstances for a moment. There are times, are there not, when we experience loneliness and feel that no one understands? Perhaps we learn that grief is a selfish thing; it shuts out everything except our own pain. Into our life there may come other trying circumstances and more often than we may care to admit, resentment and bitterness sour the soul. If so, the sooner we repair to Calvary the better, to view One Who experienced desolation for us. The poetry in this respect may be simple, but the truth expressed is profound:
Near the cross, O Lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day,
With its shadow o’er me.
- (Fanny J Crosby)
Small words often convey a magnitude of meaning, and so it is in the opening verse of this Psalm. It is a verse with a double use of the word ‘why’. “My God, My God, why …” and “… why art Thou so far from helping Me? And from the words of My roaring?” ‘Why’ is not a word of unbelief, it is a word of comprehension. Questions lead to contemplation, education and understanding. They are indicative of deepening experience, “Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered” Heb.5.8. The Lord was never disobedient nor unbelieving. His use of “why” expresses the extremity of His feelings. Unlike us, there is nothing within His Person or His life that ever required correction or chastening, yet He suffers; and suffers to an unfathomable depth and capacity. His experience is beyond human words to fully express, or mind to fully understand. His cry is not of despair but of intense, agonised longing as He bears the concentration of an eternal weight of suffering in finite hours upon the cross. Is not this a cause for worship?
He loved me so, I don’t know why He should,
A poor, unlovely stranger in my sin,
But He, in death, my suff’ring surety stood,
My soul to win.
- (I. Y. Ewan)
The second verse of the Psalm rehearses the full experience of Calvary, “O My God, I cry in the daytime, but Thou hearest not; And in the night season, and am not silent.” There was only One Whose prayers were not hindered by sin or ignorance. In holy and impeccable humanity He walked here. His prayers ascended with fragrant fulness. His fellowship and communion were constant and unbroken. Yet here in faith He continues to appeal to His God while His prayer appears to be unheard and unanswered. He feels much more than the oppressive, unnatural, indeed supernatural, darkness; He feels the intensive reality of the withdrawn countenance of God. Yet He continues to pray. This is the One Who taught His hearers, “men ought always to pray, and not to faint” Lk.18.1. This is the One Who taught importunity in prayer, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” Lk.11.9,10. So the sorrowing Sufferer continues to lift His voice to heaven, holding on in faith for the answering response that will dispel the gloom. So should we! In whatever straightened circumstances of soul we find ourselves, we should ask “why?” in faith; and hold on in believing prayer.
The third verse of the Psalm is “But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel”. This is the answer to the “why?” of the first verse. The silence of God is vindicated by the Saviour. The substitutionary sacrifice sustains righteous wrath. God’s Son here manifests the love of God in taking the awesome responsibility to bear in full the penalty that our sins and iniquities demand. God’s holiness, righteousness and justice required no less. God’s love and mercy could do no more. God’s love provided what His holiness demanded.
- O, safe and happy shelter,
- O, refuge tried and sweet;
- O, trysting place where Heaven’s love
- And Heaven’s justice meet.
- (Elizabeth C. Clephane)
The holy Sufferer cried, “Thou art holy!” However, this is not only a statement of fact but of exultation, “O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel”. It is that holy God who made covenant with Israel, “The LORD reigneth; let the people tremble: He sitteth between the cherubims” Ps.99.1. This all-powerful Lord keeps covenant with His chosen One, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, Thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; Thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth” Ps.80.1. He has high thoughts of God. He appeals to One enthroned upon the praises of Israel, “But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” Although the nation of Israel is complicit in the rejection of their Messiah, nothing changes the Divine purpose of a covenant-keeping God.
Therefore, in the fourth verse He cries, “Our fathers trusted in Thee: They trusted, and Thou didst deliver them.” Patriarchs and progenitors of Israel trusted in straightened circumstances and they were delivered. Trust in the covenant-keeping God (note the repeated references to ‘trust’ in verses 4,5,8) was the secret of Israel’s greatness. In spite of their waywardness, God always regarded their cry for deliverance. How often did Solomon, in his prayer of dedication of the temple, repeatedly request in similar words, “then hear Thou from the heavens, even from Thy dwelling place, their prayer and their supplications, and maintain their cause, and forgive Thy people which have sinned against Thee” 2Chr.6.39? Well could Solomon end his prayer, “O LORD God, turn not away the face of thine anointed: Remember the mercies of David thy servant” 2Chr.6.42. So this earnest appeal rises from the Sin-bearer.
In the fifth verse He adds, “They cried unto Thee, and were delivered: They trusted in Thee, and were not confounded.” They cried from Egyptian bondage and were delivered. They cried later from the rivers of Babylon and were delivered. They cried in distress and extremity and were heard. In the crucible of affliction, in intensity and earnestness their cries arose and their cries were answered. So why is He treated differently from the worthies (and unworthies) of faith? “But Thou art holy”!
Most readers will be familiar with the “I am” verses in John’s Gospel, which speak forth the glories of the Lord. However, the most poignant “I am” is contained in this sixth verse of Psalm 22: “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.” The ‘I’ in this verse is emphatic. To those around the cross, to the creatures of His hand, He was hardly human. Israel and Rome combined to place a low value on Him. Says the writer to Hebrews in relation to His humanity, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death” Heb.2.9. But the Psalmist provides His lower assessment still, “I am a worm”. He is passive. He is crushed, unwanted, scorned and despised. Isaiah also emphasises this: “Thus saith the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, and His Holy One, To Him whom man despiseth, To Him whom the nation abhorreth” Isa.49.7. Also, “He is despised and rejected of men; A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: And we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised and we esteemed Him not” Isa.53.3. This sixth verse therefore expresses, so far as human language is able, the innermost feelings of reproach and contempt as experienced by the Saviour when upon the cross.
Yet this metaphor of a worm is also applied to Israel, “For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand, Saying unto thee, ‘Fear not; I will help thee’. Fear not, thou worm Jacob, And ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith the LORD, and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” Isa.41.13,14.
These references are to the coccus worm, the larvae of a species of insect which, when crushed, gave the scarlet dye. He was crushed so that worthless sinners might be robed in royal scarlet. He became a nobody in the eyes of men, that we may become somebody in the eyes of God.
He became a reproach of men. “Because for Thy sake I have borne reproach; Shame hath covered my face. I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children. For the zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached Thee are fallen upon Me” Ps.69.7-9. To which Paul adds, “For even Christ pleased not Himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of them that reproached Thee fell on Me’” Rom.15.3.
When we come to the seventh verse we reach another level in the contempt He experienced. It is one thing to be aware of the reproach and low esteem accorded by the majority verdict, but it is an altogether greater humiliation to be the subject of derisive laughter. “All they that see Me laugh Me to scorn.” This is open laughter directed into the face of the crucified Christ. Remember this is the One “In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” Job 12.10. Yet His creatures jeered in His face and their bitter scorn drew no scathing response. He expresses His feelings to the silent heaven. As well as raucous laughter there is pouting with their lips and exaggerated head-shaking as they mock the suffering Saviour, inferring that the scene is so sad, when really delighting in His shame and suffering. Who were these who were making faces? They were not juvenile delinquents, although that would still have been shocking. These included the leaders as well as those led, the priests and the people, scribes and soldiers, Jews and Gentiles, united in a parody of sympathy. “And they that passed by reviled Him, wagging their heads” Matt.27.39.
Any who have had to suffer ribald mockery will know that it is not easy to endure. Indeed, there is that within our fallen nature that would wish to respond in excoriating condemnation; when grace is given to hold one’s tongue and walk away, even then bitter resentment can gnaw within. However, there is nothing of that spirit in the sinless Lord Jesus Christ, nor was it possible for Him to be removed from this derision and still be our Redeemer. “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth” Isa.53.7. “Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously: Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree …”; and then we have the practical aspect, “… that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” 1Pet.2.23,24.
When we come to the eighth verse we have another aspect of cruelty, that of recalling earlier expressions of confidence in God. It is a hateful thing for anyone to have their words cast back in their teeth. They said, “He trusted on the Lord that He would deliver Him: Let Him deliver Him, seeing He delighted in Him.” These are the words of the chief priests with the scribes and elders, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God, let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him: for He said, “I am the Son of God’” Matt.27.42,43. And others took their lead from the chief priests, “The thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same in His teeth” Matt.27.44. Mark emphasises the chief priests’ jibe, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. Let Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe” and provides the additional comment, “And they that were crucified with Him reviled Him” Mk.15.31,32. Luke adds, “And the soldiers also mocked Him” Lk.23.36. The Gospel records therefore confirm that those opposed to the Lord fulfilled the prophetic statements of Ps.22.8. While spoken by enemies in mockery, nevertheless it testified to the Saviour’s absolute confidence, “Roll Thy care on Jehovah”.5
- 5. Spurrell, ibid.
There is no doubt that God delighted in His Son as He moved in holy humanity in the world for God’s glory. His delight was such that on two occasions He announced from heaven His approval: at the baptism of the Lord; and on the Mount of Transfiguration. That first declaration covered the Lord’s hidden years; the second covered the years of public ministry. This fulfilled the prophetic word, “Behold My servant, Whom I uphold; Mine elect, in Whom My soul delighteth; I have put My Spirit upon Him: He shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles” Isa.42.1. However, there is no public declaration of approving delight at Calvary. The murderous mob assumed from the sight before them that God had no delight in Him at all. They were also blind to the words of the prophet, “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief: When Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand” Isa.53.10. God did delight in Him. He always delighted in Him and He was so delighted in His redemptive work at Calvary that He raised Him from the dead – but we have yet to come to that!
In the ninth verse we have insight into a wondrous retrospect as He remembers Bethlehem, “But Thou art He that took Me out of the womb, Thou didst make Me hope when I was upon My mother’s breasts.” God superintended the wonder of His Virgin Birth; it was essential to His Saviourhood, as was His holy humanity and essential Deity. His mind rehearses His journey into humanity, of God’s care in the safe delivery of “Thy holy child Jesus” Acts 4.27, of God’s providential care in the selection of His virgin mother and in the legal custodianship devolved to Joseph. God preserved Him in the dangerous days of childhood and infancy; and God sustained Him and filled His vision in days of boyhood, early manhood and throughout His public ministry.
The tenth verse is, “I was cast upon Thee from the womb, Thou art My God from My mother’s belly.” His mind dwells upon God, the Mighty One. In confidence, while everything around speaks to the contrary, and every instrument of hell mounts its concentrated fury on the Crucified One, His soul exults in the midst of excruciating suffering: “Thou art My God!” Emphasis can be placed on each of those four words and indeed upon the phrase in its entirety. By virtue of His saving work we can, with our own emphasis, use those same words in every experience through which we pass.
His next appeal to God, “Be not far from Me; for trouble is near; For there is none to help”, is found in the eleventh verse. His appeal is based on the prior relationship of love and care. If God superintended His birth and demonstrated such providential care in relation to His entrance into life on earth, then surely He can turn to Him now in His present extremity.
David learned from this, making it good in his own experience. Concerning the events of his own birth he could say, “For Thou hast possessed my reins: Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise Thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Marvellous are Thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from Thee, when I was made in secret, And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance yet being unperfect; And in Thy book all my members were written, Which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them” Ps.139.13-16. Well could David then exclaim, “How precious also are Thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them!” Ps.139.17.
So the Lord appeals to God to draw near to Him in His sore trial. When mocked, scorned and outcast by all, He clings alone to the One Who has forsaken Him.
The Saviour in the twelfth verse focuses on the universal hostility that faced Him. First He refers to the Jewish leadership, “Many bulls have compassed Me: Strong bulls of Bashan have beset Me round”. So we are now considering, at the cross, the encircling menace of priests, scribes and elders. Men who customarily wore pious looks and sought to exude an air of religious superiority are now bellowing like bulls in their hatred of Christ. They may consider themselves to be ceremonially clean, yet they are cynically cruel. Bashan to the east of Jordan was the rich pasture land best suited for the fattening and finishing of cattle. The prophet Amos used this metaphor for the rich aristocrats of his day, “Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy” Amos 4.1. Ezekiel also deployed the metaphor of the “fatlings of Bashan” Ezek.39.18. Their groomed and well-nourished appearance was in contrast to the animal fury of their faces as they railed against One Whose “visage was so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men” Isa.52.14.
An additional analogy is applied in the thirteenth verse. As well as goring bovine aggression we have the demonstration of diabolical hatred, “They gaped upon Me with their mouths, As a ravening and a roaring lion.” They are the emissaries of Satan, that “adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” 1Pet.5.8. Let us be in no doubt as to the array of unseen forces against the Saviour: there were “principalities … powers … rulers of the darkness of this world … spiritual wickedness” Eph.6.12, exerting their power via the willing medium of the Jewish leadership.
We are then given a further insight in the fourteenth verse to the experience of the Saviour: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: My heart is like wax; It is melted in the midst of My bowels”. The wise woman of Tekoah described death “as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again” 2Sam.14.14. Indeed, Ps.22.14-17 provides an accurate description of the effects of crucifixion. The One Whose “name is as ointment poured forth” S of S.1.3, experiences the draining exhaustion of suffering, strain and excessive perspiration. He was “poured out”, yet He also experienced an overflowing, “Save me, O God; For the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me” Ps.69.1,2.
Also, the cross exerted its racking torture throughout those six long hours. Single dislocation produces searing pain. “All My bones are out of joint” denotes that the intense agony of the physical sufferings in this sensitive body were of a scale supremely in excess of anything that could ever be endured by any other man. In addition to excruciating pain, we have the effect of crucifixion on His internal organs and heart in particular, “My heart is like wax; It is melted in the midst of My bowels”.
Words can only convey so much, but how exceeding much do these words convey! The Lord suffered in a real human body, in holy humanity, beyond what any other human ever experienced, or could. While there must ever be a sense of reverent caution as we approach these phrases, we must never fail to lift our hearts in gratitude.
- Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
- In my place condemned He stood;
- Sealed my pardon with His blood!
- Hallelujah! What a Saviour!
- (Philip P. Bliss)
We return in the fifteenth verse to a further consideration of the Lord’s suffering. “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and My tongue cleaveth to My jaws; and Thou hast brought Me into the dust of death.” That Blessed One endured the fires of God’s judgment against sin. That unremitting fierceness leads to further dissipation of strength to produce an experience akin to a shard of pottery splintered in the flame. With dehydration comes torturing thirst, “They gave Me also gall for My meat; and in My thirst they gave Me vinegar to drink” Ps.69.21.
“And Thou hast brought Me into the dust of death” emphasises that neither the power of Imperial Rome, nor that of the scheming Sanhedrin, could put to death the Lord Jesus Christ. Neither man nor Satan could put Him to death. His life could not be touched by any. He voluntarily entered into the domain of death. This phrase being addressed to God shows that the Lord’s death was an act of obedience to the Divine will.
The Lord’s attention now turns in the sixteenth verse to the activity of His Roman executioners. That the term ‘dogs’ is applicable to Gentiles is confirmed by the Lord in Matt.15.21-28. Like unclean, savage curs the Roman soldiers had compassed Him. They had done so in vicious cruelty at Pilate’s Judgment Hall, at the scourging post, and now the execution squad has carried into effect the decision of Pilate at the behest of the Jewish leadership and endorsed by the people. Efficient in their grisly task, hardened to suffering, they stood closest to the Saviour. Although employed on behalf of Jewish prejudice and hostility to Christ, they were not at all respected by the Jews. In their eyes they were equivalent to the hunting dogs that ran their quarry to ground, circling in snarling fury and then closing for the kill, “For dogs have compassed Me: The assembly of the wicked have inclosed Me”.
Then we have a startling statement, “They pierced My hands and My feet”. A prophetic detail recorded by David 1,050 years before Christ was crucified. “And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified Him” Lk.23.33. It was this act of indignity that became the authentication of His identity on resurrection, “And He said unto them, “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself: handle Me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see Me have.” And when He had thus spoken, He shewed them His hands and His feet” Lk.24.38-40.
Death by crucifixion was unknown in David’s day and for many centuries thereafter. Yet by inspiration he is able in a few words to convey the unspeakable cruelty and barbarity of such a death. Crucifixion was intended to be repulsive, to be a warning to others of the fate they could expect if they rebelled against Rome and its laws. It was never meant to become a fashion accessory, or an ecclesiastical symbol. The cross is the graphic demonstration of the rejection of God’s Son by the world. It is total repudiation, and as a believer in, and follower of, our Lord Jesus Christ, it is the world’s estimate of you if you refuse to be pressed into its mould, mindset and culture. One man understood this perfectly, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved me, and gave Himself for me” Gal.2.20.
Not only were the soldiers close, but those who were attracted to any spectacle, no matter how macabre, were also in attendance as expressed in the seventeenth verse. “I may tell all my bones: They look and stare upon me”, expresses the scene. His skeletal structure was emphasised by the tautness of His skin, and people looked and stared in unabashed curiosity upon One before Whom seraphim veiled their faces, Isa.6.2. The One accorded all due reverence in heaven, is but a gazing stock to the gloating populace of earth.
“They part my garments among them, And cast lots upon My vesture” is a preview in the eighteenth verse of the contemporary witness of John: “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also His coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. “They said therefore among themselves, ‘Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be:’ that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, ‘They parted My raiment among them, and for My vesture they did cast lots.’ These things therefore the soldiers did” Jn.19.23,24.
The disrobing of Christ is ever attended with careful language, which we do well to respect. His garments are a profitable study in themselves. However, here we see soldiers who placed a greater value on the clothing of Christ, than on His Person. So they gambled for the seamless robe and they did so in the view of Christ. Gambling always enriches one person through loss to others. In this case a soldier gained at the expense not only of his companions, but also the Son of God. Yet by what happened at Calvary, believers are clothed in the seamless garments of eternal salvation.
Gambling is never condoned in Scripture. Its futility, addictive nature and destructive potential are only too apparent. In a society obsessed with lotteries and scratch cards, bingo halls and sweepstakes, with bets being taken on everything and anything, and no matter how it is glitzed with contemporary celebrity glamour, its true assessment is seen in the cameo at the cross. Here blood-stained grasping hands diced in callous indifference for that robe that had enwrapped the Eternal Giver.
Again, in the nineteenth verse and for the final time in this Psalm, the Saviour implores God for His presence and help: “But be not Thou far from Me, O LORD: O My strength, haste Thee to help Me”. He lifts His eyes from His foes, away from His taunting tormentors, toward God, toward the One Who is unchanging: “Haste Thee to help Me” is His cry.
His appeal is then amplified in the twentieth verse, “Deliver My soul from the sword; My darling from the power of the dog”. It is true that the sword is the symbol of government and executive power, and of Roman authority, as in Rom.13.4, but this exercise of capital punishment is a travesty of justice applied with bestial brutality. However, the sword is also the symbol of Divine justice as in Zech.13.7, “Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man that is My fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn Mine hand upon the little ones.” In soul anguish and trouble the Only One, the only begotten Son in His unique Person, lifts His voice in on-going appeal to God, the God Who said to Abraham, “Take now thy son, thine only [son] Isaac, whom thou lovest” Gen.22.2. God spared Abraham what He does not spare Himself.
Again there is a further cry in the twenty-first verse, “Save Me from the lion’s mouth”. Peter refers to this one as “your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” 1Pet.5.8. The devil’s emissaries, human and diabolical, have conspired to come to this crisis point; albeit it is also true that the Lord was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” Acts 2.23. “Lord, how long wilt Thou look on? Rescue my soul from their destructions, My darling from the lions” Ps.35.17.
We are now at the climax of suffering. An intensity we cannot even begin to understand is pressing sore. In perfect and holy manhood – body, soul and spirit – He sustains God’s wrath and righteous indignation against sin. He pays the price, He bears the penalty, He cries “It is finished”: and He bows His head, and gives up the ghost, Jn.19.30.
The Lord’s confidence at this moment is not stated by any of the four Gospel writers, but it was David who, by Divine inspiration, provided insight to the innermost feelings of the Saviour at this climax, “Thou hast heard Me from the horns of the unicorns”.
This phrase marks the dividing line in this Psalm. Does He feel Himself to be tossed on the horns of the wild oxen, the aurochs? Possibly so, for we have had many metaphorical references to animals in this Psalm. However, there may be another aspect to this phrase.
Although forsaken by God, the Father heard every cry, and the Saviour has this assurance as He enters death, “Thou hast heard Me”. Again each individual word, as well as the entire phrase, can be emphasised. But heard from where? From the horns! He has experienced that which exceeds the fierce flame of the brazen altar with “the horns of it upon the four corners thereof” Ex.27.2. The value of His sacrifice has satisfied all the righteous demands of the throne of God. It is this that draws out the response from Deity to Deity on the settled ground of secured salvation. Another renders the phrase, “For Thou hast answered Me from between the horns of the cherubim”6, in which case the allusion is to the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat, Ex.25.10-22. Taking both views together we understand that, on the grounds of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, the brazen altar and the mercy seat are in absolute and eternal alignment!
- 6. Spurrell, ibid.
- In Christ alone Who took on flesh,
- Fullness of God in helpless babe!
- This gift of love and righteousness,
- Scorned by the ones He came to save:
- Till on that cross, as Jesus died
- The wrath of God was satisfied,
- For every sin on Him was laid,
- Here in the death of Christ I live.
- (S. Townend / K. Getty)
Psalm 22 now changes to a major key. It moves from suffering and sin-bearing to the triumph of resurrection. Tempting though it is to continue our meditations on the remainder of Psalm 22, this volume is entitled “The Glory of The Lord’s Death”. The glory of His resurrection, the glory of His ascension, the glory of His exaltation, the glory of His kingdom, while not the subject of this study, are subjects that will continue to enrapture and enthral, not only now in time, but forever in eternity.
- And when I think, that God His Son not sparing,
- Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
- That, on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
- He bled and died to take away my sin.
- Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee,
- How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
- (Stuart K. Hine)
However, we cannot lay down our pen with Christ upon His cross. Nor should we leave the last word to hymn writers. Let us end with the accolade of Holy Scripture:
- “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him,
- and given Him a name which is above every name:
- that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
- of things in heaven,
- and things in earth,
- and things under the earth;
- and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
- to the glory of God the Father.”