Psalm 22 and 23
The order of the Psalms is not random. They have been carefully arranged, and with all texts we are more familiar with certain parts than with others. In general, I would say that we’re far more familiar with Psalm 23, but to get the most out of this Psalm we must go through the suffering of Psalm 22 first. By doing this we then get to the peace and rest of Psalm 23. But Psalm 22 is not about our suffering, it’s about Jesus’ suffering. It opens with the cry of Jesus on the cross “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” He may even have recited the entire Psalm for it ends with His last words “it is finished” (John 19:30),for when you look at the full Hebrew text for the last verse of this Psalm, the words “He has done it” could just as accurately be translated “It is finished”! (See the Amplified Version of the Bible).
I see this Psalm as holy ground, and we can only look on in awe for this Psalm outlines in great detail what crucifixion was really like for Jesus. In fact, there is no other passage in the Bible, including the Gospels, which outline in such detail what Jesus experienced as Psalm 22 does. Jesus’ suffering on the cross was more than just physical pain. He experienced the fullness of the wrath and total abandonment of God. This relational trauma, physical pain and spiritual torment is beyond our imagination and experience. No wonder He hoped to avoid it, (Matthew 26:38-39). Yet Jesus managed to endure all this for the “joy set before Him” (Heb. 12:2). Because He endured the cross there is light at the end of this tunnel, for this Psalm also speaks of the dawning of a new day and, what the result will be for believers, Israel, and the ends of the earth.
Martin Luther said about this Psalm, “God forsaken by God – who can understand it?”. Why is He forsaken, alone, His communion with His Father totally interrupted? Well, because God is of such purity that He cannot look on evil. God sees the sin that His Son takes and He, God, has to turn away. And what sin does He see? Our sin! We rightly deserve the consequences of sin and even though, as I have said before, our suffering is often not the direct consequences of our sin, nonetheless the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
But there is also amazing balm here for the suffering and fearful, for “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). This “gift of God” is because Jesus stood in our place, was rejected and abandoned by all, (Psalm 22:6-8 &12-18)including His Father. This action of Jesus Christ teaches all who have accepted who He is that we, His family, have a way out of suffering. We shall look at Psalm 23 in a minute to see this, but looking at Psalm 22 we see that Jesus, still in his utter abandonment, says twice “My God”. And the name of God He invokes here is sometimes translated “Mighty God”. So even in His suffering, even when God appears humanly to be as far away as possible, He is still God and He is still mighty to save. Jesus asks questions of God in His suffering and so can we. Often we do not know why something terrible is happening, but God wants us to know this truth of the Christian faith: Jesus was abandoned by God so that we will never be abandoned by God! The cross towers over us casting a mighty light on our way, for the cross throws no shadow, it can only radiate the pure light of the pure goodness, mercy and love of God.
Where are we going on our journey here on earth? As we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) we are going home. Now let’s look at Psalm 23 which is best accessed through Psalm 22. This is the entry to our safety in the cross. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”. Our life here on earth oftentimes seems to be a dry desert in which we wander, but the Lord has gone ahead to make a home for us (John 14:1-4)and what a place that will be! The Anglican martyr John Bradford who was burnt at the stake under Queen Mary is reportedly to have said to the trembling young man being burned with him “Be of good comfort brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night!”
We are on our way to something mind-blowingly “merry” and good. En-route there is comfort. A verse in the Bible that has been of great help to me when I feel in trouble is this: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”. Many years ago when I was ill and very low with post virial fatigue, that verse repeatedly impressed itself on my mind like a burning light in the dark valley, and it still does today, as it has done for countless other people for hundreds of years.
Each of us must walk through that valley and it is a valley of shadow. It is dark and I know that. There is evil prowling about (1 Peter 5:8). But for there to be a shadow, there must be a light beyond. That light is streaming from the face of Christ. It leads us on and He, the Good Shepherd, is not just ahead holding the door open nor behind on the cross having suffered in our place. No, most amazingly He is with us right now, walking with us, talking with us, and He has, if you like, two divine “sheepdogs” with him, one called mercy/love and one called goodness. Evil has to slink away. So this little party, a sufferer, (that’s you & me), a Saviour and two ministering angels struggle on to glory.
Note finally that v6 of Psalm 23 says “all the days of my life”. This refers to the evil days and the good days, the days of suffering and the days of joy. God in his goodness supplies everything we need in suffering, and his mercy/love on the cross means that we don’t get what we deserve – eternal suffering and separation from God. Amazingly rather we daily receive a free gift – the presence of the Lord God Almighty through His goodness, mercy and love all the way home.
Based on a sermon first delivered on Sunday 23rd August 2020