Reflection on Psalm 22

Psalm 22 is a beloved psalm that is best known for its first line, quoted in agony by Christ on the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” It is so commonly read during the season of Lent that the very mention of Psalm 22 any other time almost feels strange. Yet the appointed psalm for the most recent Sunday past was Psalm 22, but the reading came from the last half of the psalm, verses 19-28. Taken by themselves, especially if the reader completely blanks out all the associations with the early verses of the psalm, the text for this week stands alone artistically and thematically. Christians who feel threatened by secular scorn for the very idea of trying to live faithful lives in a culture that simultaneously turns a blind eye to the malevolent teachings of Islam will find strength, inspiration, and real encouragement in these verses from the second half of Psalm 22.

In order to see the psalm with fresh eyes, it is a good idea to read an unfamiliar translation. One of the finest scholars of Hebrew language and literature is Robert Alter. His translation of Psalm 22:19-28 is below:

19 But You, O Lord, be not far.                 My strength, to my aid O hasten!

20  Save from the sword my life,                 from the cur’s power my person.

21  Rescue me from the lion’s mouth.

                And from the horns of the ram You answered me.

22  Let me tell Your name to my brothers,                 in the assembly let me praise You. 23  Fearers of the Lord, O praise Him!                 All the seed of Jacob revere Him!                                             And be afraid of him, all Israel’s seed! 24  For He has not spurned nor has despised                 the affliction of the lowly, and has not hidden His face from him,                 when he cried out to Him, He heard. 25  For You—my praise in the great assembly.                 My vows I fulfill before those who fear Him. 26  The lowly will eat and be sated.                 Those who seek Him will praise the Lord.                                 May you be of good cheer forever. 27  All the far ends of earth will remember                 And turn to the Lord. All the clans of the nations                 will bow down before you. 28  For the Lord’s is the kingship–                 and He rules over the nations. (Alter, 2007)

This reading falls naturally into two parts, and the two parts are linked by a poignant statement:  “from the horns of the ram You answered me.”  (Verse 21b) In many, many translations, perhaps all of them but this one, the word Robert Alter translated “ram” is translated “wild oxen.” A look under the covers at the Hebrew word reveals that oxen, rams and even unicorns could be indicated by this word. Given the flow of the psalm, it is peculiar that none of the major translations saw here what Alter saw, the horn of the ram, the horn used to make the musical instrument the shofar. It is the shofar which is used in Jewish tradition as a call to prayer, and that is the key to understanding this text.

Verses 19-21a constitute a cry for help from someone under severe duress. The psalmist cries out, “Hurry! Help me! Save me!” He is threatened by the sword, by feral dogs, and by the open mouth of a lion. His prayer is beyond urgent; it is desperate.

Breathless and exhausted, frenzied and utterly hopeless, the psalmist hears the clear, plaintive sound of the shofar. Jewish tradition surrounding the making of a shofar is quite strict, in order to assure that the sound is consistent and natural. The poet who wrote this psalm would not confuse the sound of the shofar with any other sound. It is a beautiful image – the beleaguered man running for his life from fierce and evil enemies, stopped in his tracks by the sound of the shofar. The runner, still panting from both fear and exertion, silently and reverently listens to God’s call to worship

He turns away from his panicked efforts to save himself and to persuade God to help him. He turns to a place best described in the book of Revelation. The psalmist finds himself in the very presence of God enthroned in his glory in heaven. The “horns of the ram” carry the reader, too, out of the chaos of persecution and pursuit to a worshipful sanctuary where fervent worship is under way.

Pursued relentlessly by evil, the intended victim pushes back against evil by engaging in the great subversive act of worship. Praise, testimony and feasting with the Lord drown out evils shrieks and the heavy footfalls of approaching enemies. Instead, the evil ones shrink away from the glory of the Lord and the power of the prayers and testimony of the faithful.

What is the content of the testimony?

  • ·         God’s name, reverently and gratefully spoken
  • ·         Praise shouts – Praise him! Revere him! Fear him!
  • ·         Remembrance and performance of vows to the Lord
  • ·         Call to the whole world to honor God

And in the midst of it all, a meal that is a testimony to God’s goodness, just as the Lord’s Supper is a testimony to Christ and his goodness.

The reading then flows smoothly into concluding verses that continue the theme of worship that keeps evil at bay.

The psalm is a grand exposition of the same concept that permeates the book of Revelation – evil cannot defeat someone fully engaged in worship of God Almighty. Even petitions and intercessions asking for help are only part of the worship expression of our complete dependence on God. Apart from our praise and thanksgiving our petitions for help sound whiny. Embedded in our whole-body worship, which one pastor called “bragging on God” they become part of our testimony that God keeps his promises and never abandons his own. Our testimony to what God has done provides the structure behind our petitions to the one who can help us, the one who wants to help us. Our petitions actually express our faith which leads to worship that emboldens us to cry out our petitions and intercessions. We don’t test God with requests so he can earn our faith by answering them; we come to him in faith and worship, and in that attitude of trust, we make our pleas.

When you hear a political speech in which the argument intended to persuade you to believe the speaker is completely without any logical coherence,  when you file a claim for insurance because someone struck your car, only to discover when the dust settles that you have somehow been ruled to be liable for the damage to the other person, when discover that you are accountable for compliance with a law so convoluted that nobody can tell you how to comply, you can feel completely vulnerable and threatened. When the culture around you changes so dramatically that you no longer feel at home in your home town, it can feel like stray dogs snapping at your ankles. When you feel the world closing in on you, it is easy to despair. The psalmist knew how that felt, and he knew that this is the time you need to hear the shofar. You need to hear God’s voice above the chaos. You need to see God on his throne in the heavens, and rather than whine and cry, you need to join in worship. No matter how bad things are, it is always the right time to worship God on his throne. Praise him. Thank him. Remember his marvelous works. Worship is the great subversive act that pushes back against evil. Then, with evil at bay, standing strong in your faith, make your petitions. The psalmist says that you can count on the Almighty to win this war. He will defeat evil. “The Lord’s is the kingship–and He rules over the nations.” (Psalm 22:28)

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