Updated: Aug 23, 2021
I mean to say a few words today about Psalm 22. This Psalm has come to mean a great deal to me as it has often refreshed me in times of trial. Psalm 22 and others like it repeatedly bring hope to me in those hours of darkness when I find myself deep in the valley wishing I was on the mountaintop; those times when I seek for faith but it eludes me; when I reach for hope but can’t seem to find it; when I long for courage but fear remains. This Psalm has more than once provided a road map through the valley for me, pointing me towards the light and compelling me to rise again, embrace faith, hope, and courage, and once more set out to scale the heights.
Jesus was praying David's prayer from the cross.
For most, I suspect, the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” recall to our minds the words of Jesus from the cross. That’s no bad thing but the words didn’t originate with Jesus. They were penned centuries before that day and those who heard him cry out in that hour with those words would have recognized that Jesus was borrowing them. He was quoting ancient Hebrew poetry, from a Psalm he and thousands others like him had committed to memory in their youth. Something in this hour was dragging these words out of the man from Nazareth. In this moment he was identifying with the ancient author of Psalm 22, David, one of the great heroes of the Old Testament, the man after God’s own heart. Jesus was praying David’s prayer from the cross.
If there’s one story we know about David it’s the one we learn in Sunday school, when David with nothing but a sling and a stone topples the Philistine giant Goliath. Israel was cowering in fear but David rescues the nation from her doubt. We love the David and Goliath story; we like the mountain top moments in David’s life. Who doesn’t want to stand up and cheer when David preaches to the Philistine?
1 Samuel 17:45–47
45 … “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
This was a glorious moment for David and I pray that you have been privileged to stand with David and preach your own sermons in the face of doubt and fear. But David didn’t always live on the mountaintops. In fact, if you have a read through this time in David’s life there is much more space given to the valleys than to the mountaintops. David delivered Goliaths head to King Saul that day but David didn’t always walk through life with such a bold testimony of faith at his side.
David is first introduced to us in the biblical story with boldness. The prophet Samuel is commissioned to anoint Saul’s successor over Israel. And he’s sent by God to the house of Jesse. Jesse has a house full of boys; strapping young men – men with glory written all over them, and Samuel is sure, as he surveys them, that he’s beholding the next king of Israel. But the Lord says to Samuel. “You’re not looking at what I’m looking at.” And when the scene is through at Jesse’s house the young David, whom his father didn’t think was even worthy of a seat at the table, is brought in from the hills and anointed in the presence of his father and his brothers. The Spirit of the Lord, the text tells us, from that day forward came powerfully upon David. This must have been a glorious moment for David. A day of vindication; a day of public recognition of the faith he had nurtured while he tended the flocks. The Lord had noticed his rich faith and had come in Samuel to endorse it. In this young man lay the future of the nation and when the oil from Samuel’s horn flowed over his head that day the testimony to those who watched was clear. They were in the presence of the next king of Israel!
But when we turn the page from that scene we’re not taken to some great festive occasion where the nation honors the young David as king. In fact it’s almost like the whole scene with Samuel didn’t even happen. It’s clear, as we read on, that that moment didn’t compel his brothers to show him respect. And his father, Jesse, sent him back to tending the sheep. The closest our young David got to royalty was a side job he took playing music for the real king. Faith takes these kinds of journeys all the time. Great moments of elation and then reality, it seems, returns and life goes on as usual. David had to have wondered, questioned, and even doubted if the old prophet Samuel hadn’t made a mistake that day when he was called in from shepherding the sheep.
Lord, what are you doing?
But if David thought this return to reality felt like a valley beside a mountaintop he hadn’t seen anything yet. For soon our ruddy shepherd boy finds an opportunity to stand on the very peaks of faith. He finds himself on the front lines of Israel’s war machine, the only man bold enough to take on the Philistine giant. He answers Goliath’s blasphemy with a lecture on the glory of the God of Israel and proceeds to feed the mighty Philistine and his army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. Soon David’s name is in the spotlight. They’re writing songs about him. Everywhere he goes they’re singing his praises and everything he puts his hand to is met with glorious success. Now we’re on the mountain top! But turn the page again and where do we find David? He’s dodging the spear of King Saul! He still got that job in the palace playing music for the king. This is not so glorious. The king’s not singing his songs; he’s trying to kill him! David had to have been thinking, “Lord, what are you up to here?”
Things go from bad to worse; David flees his homeland and ends up in Gath. Gath?! That’s where Goliath was from. David feels safer among his enemies than he does among his own people. In Gath, our hero’s faith heads for the valley and the great warrior David feigns insanity to save his skin. Gath, as we can imagine, doesn’t work out and David, the anointed one, finds himself with a bounty on his head in the wilderness as he leads a band of discontents while being hunted down like a wild animal by the jealous King Saul. “Lord, what are you doing?”
David the shepherd songwriter, anointed by the great prophet Samuel; David the slayer of Goliath, the hero of the nation, now cowers in the wilderness, his life hanging in the balance. This is a long way from that glorious moment when Goliath fell. What thoughts had surged through the young man’s mind when the old prophet anointed him those years ago in the presence of his brothers? What glory days had he imagined were ahead of him as Goliath toppled like a mighty cedar? Whatever hope sprang in that young man’s heart on those days was now severely challenged by the howling winds and the ceaseless heat of the wilderness. The hero of the nation?! Where is he now? He’s hiding; a man on the run. King of Israel? There’s no throne in sight for David. “Where are you Lord?”
I can’t say with any certainty what precise set of circumstances called forth the words of Psalm 22 from the heart of David. But they are words filled with fear and doubt. They are words that come out of a heart compelled by circumstance to grapple with the fundamentals of faith. These words are spoken from a heart that struggles against despair; a heart teetering on the edge. I envision David up early one morning in the wilderness just as the sun is rising. That same old sun embarking on its familiar journey across the Judean sky; it’s been there every morning of David’s life. He can count on it. It’s reliable; always there. Its heat warms the face of our future king. Since he was a boy with the sheep on the hillside he has seen the faithfulness of God in the sunrise. Every morning, never changing, always faithful. The sun still rises in the wilderness but what happened to the faithfulness of God? Fear and doubt gnaw at this anointed one. Wind and sand and Saul have threatened the confidence he held as a child. He recalls his words spoken to the Philistine giant but try as he may they ring hollow in the wilderness of his soul. His knees buckle, his hands reach to the heavens and he empties his soul to the bleakness of the hour. From the valley of despair we hear his cry.
For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David.
1 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?
2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
8 “He trusts in the Lord;
let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you
even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast upon you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions tearing their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 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.
15 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.
16 Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
17 I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.
19 But you, O Lord, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver my life from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 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.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
they who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
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,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
29 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.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it.
What did you hear in those words? Are these words of despair or are they words of hope? What happened somewhere in the middle of this prayer? It seems that David, in the very process of putting voice to all his fears and doubts, finds faith. He addresses the God who has abandoned him and as he agonizes over the sense of forsakenness that surrounds him he takes hold of the God who is near. He begins with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but he doesn’t stay there. Before he’s through he moves to, “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.” What caused David to change his mind? I don’t think it was because his circumstances changed. When doubt and fear are given voice and directed to God they are transformed into the boldness of faith. This is the repeated testimony of the Psalmist. He is always moving from fear to faith and from forsakenness to fellowship.
We don’t live our Christian lives continually in the sunshine
I have walked through most of my Christian life in avoidance of the Psalms and in the process have robbed myself of one of the most powerful resources available to sustain faith. From my perspective, the Psalms had three strikes against them. They were Old Testament and I was a New Testament Christian. They are poetic and I wasn’t. And what do you do with those nasty imprecatory Psalms where the Psalmist calls down judgment upon his enemies? That doesn’t sound very Christ-like. So I avoided them; I read a few out of a sense of duty but I never dwelt there and my soul was impoverished because of that.
We don’t live our Christian lives continually in the sunshine. We long to do so but the walk of faith isn’t like that. What’s lacking I think in our Christian assemblies is what was present in the ancient Jewish world of worship. A quick glance through our hymnals and it appears that the vast majority of the songs we sing were written by folks who wrote them out of the mountaintop moments of life. Faith is bold and confident and fear and doubt are nowhere in sight. But life is not composed of one Goliath moment after another. The ancient Hebrew hymnal, unlike ours, was loaded with songs that were written from the valley; and Psalm 22 is one of them. Where are these songs in our songbooks? We need them. We need a way to express our doubts and fears to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In present-day Christianity, we’d be forgiven for imagining that doubt and fear is unacceptable behavior and that if you are swimming in those waters worship is not a time to speak of it. When Israel sang her songs she routinely sang her way from soul-wreaking despair to glorious hope. We, on the other hand, prefer to pretend that despair doesn’t even exist.
And who teaches us to pray as David prayed? Who teaches us to pray real prayers that express all the agony of trying to cling to faith in a world where it is constantly under attack; real prayers that seek to make sense of the situations in life when God seems to have taken a leave of absence. When was the last time you heard someone lead the congregation in a prayer like Psalm 22? We don’t do that. We don’t do that as a congregation and we don’t do that individually either. And so like David when we’re living life in the sunshine we rejoice in the blessings of God but unlike David when the shadows enter and the fog refuses to lift we sit in silence for we’ve no words for those moments. The Psalms are written to give voice to those moments in your life and you need to let them express your heart to God in the midst of great trials.
What is most glorious about finding
these words on Jesus’ lips
is that he was quoting from David.
What was the opening line of Psalm 22 doing on Jesus’ lips on the cross? Evidently, Jesus had spent time prior to that moment contemplating, chewing on, and memorizing this Psalm and many others. Jesus wasn’t hanging there being all divine and thought this would be a fine time to start quoting Scripture to us. His situation called forth the 22nd Psalm from his soul where he had painstakingly placed it in his past. What is most glorious about finding these words on Jesus’ lips is that he was quoting from David. Jesus had so entered into the human story that our prayers were upon his lips. There is something in that understanding that is well worth your contemplation.
But what else are we to hear in the words of our Lord as he hung there on that tree all alone on that dark Friday. We are to hear in those words a profound expression of faith! The pain was real that day, the darkness made it worse but amidst the pain and the agony of these words was the profound testimony that what appeared like forsakenness was not forsakenness at all; that the verdict the Psalm rendered was being rendered once more on this day. God had not hidden his face from him! His father had not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one. God in fact was gloriously present in this profound trial of Christ and his words from the cross, far from denying the presence of God, are a glorious affirmation of his presence.
The man from Nazareth used the Psalm as it was designed – to speak boldly of faith in the midst of great trial. And I think, that in these words from the cross of Calvary Jesus is sending out an invite to you and me to prepare as he did for the trials of your life. How did he do that? He did it the way Israel had done it for centuries. He memorized the Psalms. Not so that he could quote them in a sermon but so that he could call them to mind in the trials of life and remind himself of the faithfulness of his Father. Brothers and sisters, you cannot experience the richness of this profound blessing simply by determining to have a read through the Psalms when trials come into your life. Do that, by all means do that. But the great blessing is found in embodying the Psalms; locking them into our hearts and minds to the degree that when our trials arrive the words give voice to our souls.
You will find yourself walking where David walked.
The very practice of memorizing a Psalm like Psalm 22 immerses you into the journey of the Psalmist himself. You will find yourself walking where David walked – through the valley of despair and out the other side. Without even noticing, all of us memorize vast quantities of information. We are capable of memorizing Psalms. It doesn’t mean that you ever need to say them out loud to anyone else, but you do need to say them out loud to yourself. Take one verse each day; speak it out loud with all the passion you can muster until you own it. Come back to that same verse again a couple of times throughout the day and repeat it again until you have it. The next day add another verse and repeat this process until you have the Psalm locked in your heart. You won’t run out of hard drive space.
Perhaps Psalm 22 might seem daunting to you. I get that. Start with a short one instead. Try Psalm 13, it expresses the same sentiment. “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” It’s only six verses long. Learn it in the first week of the month and then bless yourself by spending the remainder of the month contemplating it; saying it over and over and over again; chewing on it; tasting every morsel; carefully placing it into your heart to be called upon in the midst of your next trial. Take the Psalmist's journey; the journey from fear to faith, from doubt to hope, from despair to rejoicing. As Christ himself did, let David pray your prayers for you.