The great writer C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer when he was sixty years old, after only three years of marriage. It was natural for him to turn to writing to help him through the grieving process, and the journal he kept after Joy’s death was eventually published; he called it A Grief Observed. At one point in the book he talks about how he had been taught as a Christian that if he needed God’s help all he had to do was ask and God would be right there. But now, when he desperately needed it, no help seemed to be coming. Rather, it was as if the door had been locked and bolted in his face. At the time of his greatest need he felt completely alone.
I think every honest Christian can identify with Lewis here. It’s true that some of us have stories of going through difficult times and how God gave us a special sense of his presence to help us. Perhaps he even delivered us in some miraculous and unexpected way. Those are wonderful stories and a great strength to our faith as we look back and remember them. But sooner or later most of us experience what Lewis went through: we’re in a time of great need and it seems as if God’s nowhere to be found. Our prayers are hitting the ceiling and bouncing back down at us. The skies are empty and barren. God, if there is a God, seems to be a million miles away.
That’s where our psalm for today starts. If anyone tells you Christians never have those kinds of experiences, ask yourself why God inspired Psalm 22 and gave it to his Church as a prayer for us to pray. The opening words are:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).
This is a psalm in which the experience of godforsakenness is explored thoroughly – and as you may remember, this was the psalm Jesus used when he hung on the Cross. So let’s look a little more closely at it together. It might help you to have it open in front of you as I speak; it’s on page 728 of the B.A.S.
Many of you know I hang around with songwriters a lot, and I hear quite a few hard luck songs. Some of them are carefully constructed but some are not: they sound like they’ve been scribbled down exactly as the words tumbled out of the songwriter’s brain, with no attempt to arrange them in an artful way.
Psalm 22 falls into the first category; It’s carefully arranged, with a real order to it. Let me point it out to you.
The psalm falls easily into two parts; verses 1-20 are the complaint, and verses 21-30 are the thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. The first section also falls into two parts; the first half, verses 1-10, is a sort of ‘A-B-A-B’ structure, in which complaints about God’s absence are followed by remembrances of how it wasn’t like that in years gone by. Look at the structure: verses 1-2 are the complaint, verses 3-5 the remembrance, verses 6-8 the second complaint, and verses 9-10 the second remembrance. Then in 11-20 the psalmist uses animal symbolism to talk about how his enemies are gathering around to gloat over him and destroy him.
Let’s think about this a little more closely. In the passage I read a moment ago, verses 1-2, the psalmist complains that God has forsaken him, and no matter how much he prays and groans and cries out for help there seems to be no answer. But then in verses 3-5 he goes on to say:
Yet you are the Holy One,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
Do you understand what the writer’s doing here? At first glance it seems as if he’s turning from the black mood of verses 1-2 and putting his trust in the God of Israel. But when you look more closely you can see that’s not the point. What he’s actually saying is, ‘There are all those stories of how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’
The same thing happens a few verses later. After the psalmist complains about the fact that God’s treating him like an insignificant worm, he goes on to recount how people mock him and throw his faith in his face:
All who see me laugh me to scorn;
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, if he delights in him”.(vv.7-8)
The implication is, ‘He hasn’t rescued you, so obviously he doesn’t delight in you after all, does he? You thought you were some sort of special Christian, did you? Well, think again!’
‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-10 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since before he was born; ‘You were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and he asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned like this?
Note that this isn’t a private grief; it’s public. His enemies taunt him; they gather around and threaten him, like a herd of wild bulls or a pack of rabid dogs. Whatever this trouble is – and it isn’t spelled out anywhere in the psalm – whatever it is, he’s in mortal danger and it seems as if there’s no one to rescue him.
Well, which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? Think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who just don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong after all – perhaps I’m really nothing to God. Or maybe God’s just some sort of cosmic monster doing experiments on us, not the loving Father we thought he was’. You see, for some people the worst thing this sort of suffering does isn’t to stop them believing in God but to stop them believing in God’s love for them.
Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that. It doesn’t try to give rational answers; it simply enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. This is the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. This is the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to even show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. This is the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of God’s companionship in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.
And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. We read that as he hung there, ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’(Mark 15:34). As Jesus was growing up he would have learned the psalms by heart. Now in his hour of greatest need the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the God he felt had abandoned him.
You see, the early Christians developed a new way of reading what we call the Old Testament. They came to believe Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the story had been leading up to all along. And because of that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the highest revelation of God’s love and God’s will, and that the whole story up ‘til then had been pointing to him.
So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me laugh me to scorn; they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying, “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him”’ (vv.7-8), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of Jesus hanging on the cross and the chief priests mocking him, ‘saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God, let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’”’ (Matthew 27:42-43). They read verse 16, ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’, and thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing’ (v.17).
Maybe you think this is a little fanciful; yes, we can see there are some similarities, but the writer of the psalm wasn’t really writing about Jesus, was he, hundreds of years before? Surely he was writing about some suffering he was going through himself. All these connections are co-incidences, aren’t they?
You can think that way until you get to the last part of the psalm. In this part, the psalmist thanks God for the deliverance he has experienced, and then he promises to tell all his brothers and sisters in the congregation about it. He says he’s going to encourage everyone who fears the Lord to praise him and all the Israelites to stand in awe of God. Furthermore, he’d obviously made a vow that if God delivered him, he would show his gratitude by caring for the poor, and he’s determined to do that.
So far so good, but now look on. He says in verses 26-27, ‘All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations’.And then, even more extravagantly, he says in verse 28, ‘To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before him’ – that’s the dead, of course! So he’s saying, ‘Because of what God has done for me all the Gentiles from far away will start worshipping Israel’s God, and even those who have died will bow down to him’. This is some spectacular sort of deliverance, don’t you think, if it’s going to have this sort of dramatic effect? It’s certainly more than ‘Thank you, God, for helping me get over my feelings of low self-esteem!’
Jesus cried out to God on the Cross, and God delivered him – not from the suffering, but through the suffering and death to the bright new morning of the resurrection. And because of his death and resurrection the Gospel message went out beyond the borders of Israel to the ends of the earth, and people from every nation have come to believe Jesus is God’s anointed King. Those who would have been lost in death have found their hope in him because of his promise of resurrection and eternal life. And ‘The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the Lord shall praise him’ (v.25). ‘My descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done’ (vv.29-30).
So this psalm speaks to us of Jesus, who went through the terrible experience of Godforsakenness on the cross. He cried out to his Father for help and it seemed there was no answer. So when it seems to you as if there’s no answer for your prayer – when it seems as if the skies are barren and there’s no God there to help – this psalm assures you that you’re not alone. God himself has experienced Godforsakenness. God the Son looked for help from God the Father, and, from that time in the Garden of Gethsemane Thursday night until the resurrection morning on Sunday, it seemed as if there was no answer. He carried the burden of human sin and evil on his own shoulders, alone, with no one to help him. So we can pray the words of this psalm with him, confident that he knows the worst of what we’re experiencing, and more besides. As Hebrews 2:16 says, ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested’.
One more thing. The suffering on the cross made no sense when Jesus was going through it, but looking back on it now we know it was taken up into God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world. And I believe one day we too will see that not one second of our suffering has been wasted. That may be an incomprehensible thought to us right now – I have no idea how it can possibly be true – but God is infinitely bigger than my ideas, and one thing we know about the God of the Bible is that he specializes in bringing good out of evil. Evil won’t have the last word. Love will have the last word, and when we finally see God face to face all our pain and all our questions will be swallowed up forever in love.
Note: quotations from Psalm 22 are from the version found in the Book of Alternative Services and are versified according to this translation. All other biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.