The Psalms: Never Forsaken

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

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

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
    you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on 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.

Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
My mouth 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 surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.

But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
    You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me 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.

I will declare your name to my people;
    in the assembly 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 scorned
    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 I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek the Lord will praise him—
    may your hearts live forever!

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,
    declaring to a people yet unborn:
    He has done it!

– Psalm 22

This Psalm is, on face value, profoundly disturbing not only for King David’s despair in the opening verse but even more so as these words are found on Jesus lips as he is nailed in agony to the cross (Mark 15:34).

Theologians have spent a lot of time and expended a lot of ink trying to understand Jesus cry of dereliction. Where is the Father as the Son hangs upon the cross? Is this a real abandonment, ‘The Father turns his face away’ (Stuart Townend) or is something else going on – is the beloved Son held in his loving Father’s embrace as the darkness descends upon him?

Suffering always throws up questions. This Psalm located on Jesus lips throws up more questions than normal. The Psalm is disturbing yet also profoundly comforting – in the original sense, ‘comfort’ from the Late Latin confortare ‘to strengthen much’ – comforting, not because it offers an escape from reality, not because it makes all our problems go away but because it brings strength in time of weakness and doubt.

The fact that Jesus made these words his own is a source of profound hope. There is now no place of despair or abandonment or god-forsakenness that is not owned by God. God himself in Christ has descended into the hell of our darkness and lostness, he knows what it’s like, he’s been there and because he has been there we are never alone, never abandoned, never forsaken.

The Psalm begins with what looks like the end of faith but ends with the beginning of renewed faith.

Jesus quoting of the Psalm’s opening may well have been intended to bring to mind the whole Psalm. On his track, ‘The Cross’, the American pop/soul/funk artist Prince sang, ‘Black day, stormy night, no love, no hope in sight’ – that seems to have been David’s experience and it can be ours as well. The Psalms are nothing if not honest about the life of faith. Halfway through, however, the Psalm turns as David declares his intention to praise God’s name and encourages others to join with him (v. 22, 23). David had been through his own ‘black days and stormy nights’ but declares that in the midst of that, however overwhelmed he might have felt at the time, God had not abandoned him or turned his face away from him (v. 24).

1,000 years later Jesus lived out this Psalm for all who feel God forsaken. Upon the cross Jesus experienced the very worst that we can go through that we might know the God who will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).

Later on Prince sang, ‘Don’t die without knowing the cross’ – but don’t live without knowing it either!