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The Cross in the Old Testament: The Psalmist

January 24, 2010
Sermon:  The Cross in the Old Testament:  The Psalmist
Text:  Psalm 22

 

Today, we continue our series of sermons The Cross in the Old Testament.  We come today to Psalm 22, a book that is quoted more than a hundred times in the New Testament.  Those passages look back at what is known as the “Hymnbook of the People of Israel.”  The 150 psalms, which are written in beautiful poetry, define much of the worship of ancient Israel.  Of those Psalms, ten are specifically identified as messianic psalms.  New Testament writers referred to these verses in Psalms when speaking of Jesus and describing what happened to Jesus, especially during his passion, his death, and his resurrection.  By far, the most prominent of those references is Psalm 22, a marvelous and unique passage in the literature of Israel.

Have you ever looked through a two-way mirror?  The front side, which looks just like a mirror, allows you to see your own reflection.  From the back side, you can actually see through the mirror and view what is happening in another room. 

For a time, I worked as a chaplain at a child evaluation center in Louisville, Kentucky.  The room in which children played had a two-way mirror.  It was a mirror when the children in that room looked at it.  Those of us who were part of the treatment team could look through the back of that mirror and see how the children interacted with each other and with their parents.  From one perspective, the two-way mirror serves as a mirror.  From the other perspective, the two-way mirror serves as a window.  This type of mirror offers two different perspectives, depending on your location.

I want us to think of a two-way mirror when we read Psalm 22.  In order to understand the psalm best, we must look at it first from the mirror side.  Doing so allows us to see not only the writer of the psalm but also ourselves.  The book of James says that the Word of God is like a mirror and that when we look into it, we see our own reflection.  God would like us to see ourselves.  Our tendency, however, is to look at this passage from the New Testament side.  Doing so allows us to read into the psalm images from the life of Jesus.  That certainly is what New Testament writers did. 

Psalm 22 begins with a startling verse, an astounding question:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Regardless of how many times you read that passage, it draws you up short.  The speaker is being very honest with God when he asks a question of abandonment:  “God, why have you left me?  Why have you forsaken me?”  I want you to notice that in that question, we get a key to the relationship between the psalmist and God.  Like so many of the psalms, Psalm 22 is written in first-person.  Notice the first-person pronoun “my,” which is used twice here.  “My God, my God…”  That word immediately signals an intimate relationship.  The speaker regards God as being close to him in the same way that Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  We see here that the psalmist finds himself in a very odd conundrum.  His sense of intimacy with God conflicts with his sense of abandonment by God. 

 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
     Why are you so far from saving me,
     so far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day,
     but you do not answer,
     by night, and am not silent.

When you pray, do you feel as though the dome of heaven were made of brass and somehow your prayers cannot get past the ceiling, that your prayers just ricochet back to you, that your prayers are not being heard by anyone on the other side?  At some time or another, all of us have had that experience.  St. John of the Cross described that feeling as the “dark night of the soul.”  We sense the absence of God.  We feel that God is so far away that He cannot possibly hear what we have to say.  The psalmist feels this sense of abandonment.  He feels forsaken, yet he gives an affirmation:

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
     you are the praise of Israel.
In you our fathers put their trust;
     they trusted and you delivered them.
They cried to you and were saved;
     in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

This psalmist says, “Listen, I know how it used to be.  I know how it was in the past, ‘O God, our help in ages past.’  I know that You were faithful to the people who went before me, to those who trusted in You.  Where are you now?  I feel so alone, so abandoned.  Where are you now?”

About 6,000,000,000 people live in the world today.  We are rapidly moving toward 7,000,000,000.  When we consider our place in the world, every single person has low self-esteem.  We just do not think much of ourselves.  An example of the writer’s lack of confidence appears in Verses 6-8:

But I am a worm and not a man,
     scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
     they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
“He trusts in the LORD;
     let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”

My dad used to have an expression, “Sometimes you feel so low down, you could sit on a dime and your feet would not touch the floor.”  The psalmist feels the same way.  He feels that he is not a person.  He feels that he is nothing more than a mere worm. 

The word the psalmist uses for “worm” is a particular kind of worm, one that was found in the ancient Near East and still found in some parts of the Near East.  When crushed, this worm emitted a bright red sticky substance, which was used to make scarlet dye for fabric.  The psalmist’s reference to a worm may indicate that something beautiful would eventually come from the crushing.

Following his lament, the psalmist remembers not the history of his people but his own life.  “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast.”  How do we learn to trust?  We learn to trust, first of all, from the significant people who are part of their lives.  If our mother, father, and all those who take care of us are trustworthy, we, as children, will learn to trust.  The writer pleads that God will not be so far from him.    He feels surrounded by trouble and acknowledges his need for God’s help. 

 From birth I was cast upon you;
     from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
     for trouble is near
and there is no one to help. 

The next section, which moves into a second series of complaints, contains references to animals, animals that are frightening: 

Many bulls surround me;
     strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. 
Roaring lions tearing their prey
     open their mouths wide against me.”

When I lived on Lucerne Drive as a boy, a farmer on that street had a dairy farm.  He also had a great big bull.  If I rode my bicycle or walked to a Scout meeting and that bull was close to the fence that bordered Lucerne Drive, I went to the other side of the street.  I knew that thin barbed wire was not strong enough to hold that bull if he decided to take a run at me.  A big bull can be frightening.  A roaring lion and even dogs can also be frightening.

Some have read the words of this section and said, “This is an attack of the evil one.  These animals represent the temptations that come from Satan himself.”  It may be that the psalmist is referring to people who are out to get him.  Regardless of the interpretation, he feels threatened.  He feels under attack. 

The following three verses, Verses 14-16, list a number of physical complaints. The psalmist is saying, “I don’t think things are getting any better.  I have so many physical complaints it looks to me that I am on the verge of dying.”

I am poured out like water,
     and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
     it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
     and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
     you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs have surrounded me;
     a band of evil men has encircled me,
     they have pierced my hands and my feet.

 

Verses 17 and 18 tell us that thinking the speaker is going to die, people are already dividing up his property.  I have seen families do the same with an elderly person. 

I can count all my bones;
     people stare and gloat over me. 
They divide my garments among them
     and cast lots for my clothing.

 

With Verse 19, the speaker offers a second plea, one that is very personal.  Notice again the use of the first-person pronoun and the four verbs used: 

But you, O LORD, be not far off;
     O my Strength, come quickly to help me.”
Deliver my life from the sword,
     my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
     save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

With the use of the verbs “come,” “deliver,” “rescue,” and “save,” we can see this person’s agony.  Perhaps this psalm reminds you of some agony in your own life.  Perhaps it reminds you of some physical suffering or depression.  Maybe you see a person who feels very much alone.  It is not much of a stretch to see that this person feels very despondent.  He uses the first-person “my suffering,” “my agony,” and “my sense of being forsaken.”

A remarkable shift in attitude occurs.  Notice that the word “praise” occurs in Verses 22, 23, 25, and 26.  The psalmist has moved from a sense of abandonment into a completely different frame of mind.  Now he affirms God’s goodness.  I do not know what happened to cause this shift in attitude, but maybe the psalmist had written down the first twenty-one verses in his prayer journal, looking for an answer to prayer.  He was searching for this God that had seemed to have disappeared, the One from whom he felt so alienated, so forsaken him.  He now feels that closeness again. 

Anybody with any mileage on them has experienced that in the life of faith.  Sometimes we absolutely go through a dry desert, thirsting for water, thirsting for spiritual refreshment.  That seems to me to be what has happened to this psalmist.  Once his spiritual refreshment finally comes, he turns from words of abandonment and forsakenness, from pleas for God’s strength and help, to words of praise.  You can see clearly the shift in Verses 22-26: 

I will declare your name to my brothers;
     in the congregation I will praise you.
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
     All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
     Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or disdained
     the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
     but has listened to his cry for help.
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
     before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
     they who seek the LORD will praise him–
     may your hearts live forever!

 

Another shift occurs at this point in the psalm.  The psalmist moves from the first-person now into a psalm that is inclusive of many people. 

We learn a great deal of our theology from the words of our hymnbook.  I cut my eyeteeth on the old Broadman hymnal, and I contend to this day that I learned a lot of theology from that hymnal, maybe more than I learned from classes I have had since.  The hymns of faith teach us the theology of the church.  So many of them begin with the first-person singular.  You have heard me say that sometimes in sermon preparation, I use, as a prayer, the hymn “Open my eyes, that I may see Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me.”  Consider a hymn like “Amazing Grace,” also written in first-person:  “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now I’m found, Was blind, but now I see.”  Another hymn states, “I was sinking deep in sin…Love lifted me.”  When we sing those hymns as a congregation, they become a part of the worship of this community. 

Psalm 23 was used in the worship of the community of Israel.  Jesus knew the psalm.  The people knew the psalm.  The disciples, the Gospel writers, knew this psalm.  It is the reason that words from this psalm are included in all four Gospels.  They reflect the belief of the early church about not only what the psalmist had written but also how these words applied to the life of Jesus. 

 Look at the end of the Psalm, beginning with Verse 27:

All the ends of the earth
     will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
     will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the LORD
     and he rules over the nations.
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
     all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
     those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
     future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness
     to a people yet unborn– for he has done it.

 Ending the psalm with “he has done it” is a remarkable affirmation. 

What does Psalm 22 mean for us?  Any one of us can identify with a personal lament.  We all have our troubles.  “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”  When we are suffering a physical illness, suffering from depression, suffering from any kind of affliction, we have a tendency, a temptation, to believe that we are all by ourselves.  We say, “Woe is me.”  The old song from HeeHaw best summarizes our situation: “Gloom, despair, agony on me, deep dark depression, excessive misery.  If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.  Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”  It is as if we are the only person who has experienced any trouble.  The truth is that we and the community of all nations have the plight of human suffering in common. 

In 1838, just before the Cherokee Indians were removed to Oklahoma, John Ross, the chief of the Cherokees, quoted Psalm 121.  The title of the outdoor drama at the Cherokee Reservation, Unto These Hills, takes its name from this psalm.  “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills – from which cometh my help.”  John Ross, of course, thought of the Smoky Mountains when he read those words.  The Cherokees were assured that their God was going with them on that trip, which became known as “The Trail of Tears.”  Thousands of Cherokee Indians died from smallpox because they were given blankets that had been used by smallpox patients.  This sad story in human history is a tale of many people who suffered. 

Another sad story in human history surrounds the Holocaust, during which time six million Jews died.  Maybe you have read the latest book by Elie Wiesel, Night, the story of two men and a boy who are taken prisoner.  Implicated in an assignation attempt on Hitler’s life, they are all imprisoned.  The boy has done nothing wrong except that he was with his father during some secret meetings in the plot.  They are all three hanged.  The weight of the two men simply brings a quick death for each of them.  The boy, however, is so light that he thrashes about a while before his death.  Someone watching the execution and seeing this boy’s struggle shouts, “Where is God now?”  Wiesel responds, “There He is on the gallows.”

Where is God?  Where was God on the Trail of Tears?  He was right there with the Cherokee people.  Where was God in the Holocaust?  God was there with the Jewish people.  God is always in the midst of suffering.

I read a daily devotion book called Forward Day by Day, published by the Episcopal Church.  This month’s devotions are written by an Anglican priest who is working in the Sudan as a missionary.  The suffering in that area of Africa is almost unimaginable, especially in the region known as Darfur.  People are dying of starvation, dying from the war.  As I read the devotions by this priest, I find myself caught up in prayer for those people of northern Africa.  Where is God in Africa?  He is with them.

Yesterday, the Archbishop of Haiti led a worship service in Haiti, a funeral for religious leaders who had died in the earthquake.  Where is God in Haiti?  Has He abandoned those people?  No, God is there with every rescue worker trying to pull people out of the rubble.  God is there on the hospital ship.  He is there with the teams as they provide food and water.  He is there with military personnel.  He is there with those dear people of Haiti.  God is in the midst of suffering. 

Do you know where else He is?  He is right here in this congregation.  We are not only a family of faith, but we are also a fellowship of suffering.  I have seen you ministering to each other several times this weekend.  I am so appreciative of the way you respond.  Hospitals have intensive care units.  Behind those double doors, patients receive care.  So often when I visit a family in the waiting room, I see people caring for each other.  I have prayer with everybody there.  So often when I go to the hospital to visit a person who has had surgery, somebody else there needs a prayer.  We are a fellowship of suffering.

We should never think we are to be exempt from suffering.  The Cherokees, the Jews in the Holocaust, the people of the Sudan, and the people of Haiti are not exempt.  Neither are we.  It is part and parcel of being a human being.  When we go behind the mirror and look from the back side, we see in this psalm the person of Jesus Christ “who did not count equality with God something to be grasped…but humbled himself and became obedient, even unto death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6). Where is God in suffering?  He is with us.

Henri Nouwen tells a story about a man who asked, “Where can I find the Messiah?” 

The man was told, “If you go to the city gate, you will find the Messiah.  He will be among the beggars.” 

This man went to the city gate but found only pitiful beggars, most of whom had leprosy.  They were dabbing at their sores.  He asked again, “Where is the Messiah?  I went to the city gate but only saw poor beggars.” 

“You go back and look among the beggars.  You will find the Messiah there.  He will not be tending his own sores.  He will be taking care of the others who are so afflicted.” 

Jesus himself calls us to be people of compassion in the midst of suffering.  “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me,” he said (Matthew 25:40).  Our call as a church congregation is to be the people of God.  When we see human suffering, we are to respond.  We are a part of human suffering.  We are not exempt from it. 

Allowing our suffering to be redemptive begins when we accept Christ as our Savior.  Have you acknowledged Jesus Christ as your Savior?  If not, I invite you to make that decision.  This is the day. 

 Kirk H. Neely
© January 2010
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