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Psalms Series One

On Being Forsaken

Psalm 22

One of the difficulties in dealing with the prophetic (or Messianic) Psalms is the temptation to dive right in, pointing out prophecy and fulfillment. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; indeed, a Christian should know these things in defense of the faith. It does tend, however, to cause us to ignore the other meanings of the Psalm. Today we shall study Psalm 22; prophetic indeed - but also very important for our prayer life. For it deals with the problem of being forsaken by God. Whether it is the feeling that we can never be comforted, or that we will never overcome that besetting sin, we've all been there.

Two Red Herrings

Before we begin, we must dispose of two red herrings. Both of these are time honored "explanations" of the feeling of being forsaken by God. You can almost hear the objections:

"The real reason you feel forsaken by God is because of some secret sin in your life." (Delivered with a kindly, "wiser but older" smile.) The explanation is as old as Job - recall how his friends explained God's conduct. There are some answers to this:

  • First, they may be right! Examine yourself and see.

  • Next, the innocent do suffer (as did Jesus.) When you feel like delivering condemnation with a smile, ask first if sympathy and companionship might not go better - and be more productive in either case.

Finally, let us not create guilt. "The real reason your husband ran off with his cute young secretary is that you......." Are we creating guilt where there is no sin? (And do remember that "if our heart condemn us, God is stronger than our heart.")

"Jesus never leaves a Christian. It is impossible for you to feel that way. Are you sure you're really a Christian?" (Delivered with arms crossed, and a stern look of heresy uncovered.) There are answers to this, too:

  • First, even if He hasn't, that doesn't keep me from feeling like He has.

  • Next, the Scriptures are not silent on this - even Jesus felt this way, on the Cross.

Finally, it is the testimony of many Christians that they have experienced it. Thomas a Kempis wrote:

 

"I have never found anyone, however religious and devout, who did not sometimes experience withdrawal from grace, or feel a lessening of devotion. And no Saint has ever lived, however highly rapt and enlightened, who did not suffer temptation sooner or later. For he is not worthy of high contemplation who has not suffered some trials for God's sake. Indeed, the temptation that precedes it is often a sign of comfort to follow. For heavenly comfort is promised to those who have been tried and tempted. 'To him who overcomes,' says God, 'I will give to eat off the Tree of Life.'"

Question and response

The first part of the Psalm addresses this in question and response method, a common poetic device. We see the question posed, then the reaction given. Not necessarily the answer - but the reaction. The first problem is key: the innocent are forsaken.

{22:1} 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. ‑‑ Psalms 22:1‑2 (NIV)

The focus is on the Lord - why has He done this? In reply to this feeling of being forsaken - and complaining loudly about it - David seeks comfort in the history of his people:

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 22:3‑5 (NIV)

There is the first true reaction of the Christian. Our first defense in such a case is always the Scriptures, for in them we are reminded of who God is. We see how the saints of old were cared for, how God defended them. We can look up - and hope.

The second problem comes quickly: the innocent are scorned. David expresses the problem this way:

{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." ‑‑ Psalms 22:6‑8 (NIV)

The focus is now on those around me. Look how they scorn me. Again, David's defense is in the Lord, this time in remembering the personal blessings of the past:

 

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 22:9‑11 (NIV)

Finally, the focus turns inward - to personal pain. David makes a vivid portrayal:

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 22:12‑18 (NIV)

Now we get down to the rub. It is intensely personal - and God is a person. We plead with him as one person pleads with another:

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 22:19‑21 (NIV)

But does God listen? Does He understand? Can he feel our pain? Or is He the remote, august, Heavenly Father who can see all - and knows why we must suffer, and thus leaves us alone? To answer that, we must see this Psalm in its second light - the light of prophecy.

Prophecy

The Psalm is amazingly predictive. Written at a time when crucifixion was unknown - indeed, not yet invented - this Psalm prophesies the Passion of Christ. Four examples are clear:

1. The opening words of this Psalm are quoted by Jesus on the Cross. This may not be prophecy - but it is example, as we shall see later.

{46} About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"‑‑which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" ‑‑ Matthew 27:46 (NIV)

2. The mockery of the crowd is shown in the Psalm - and in the New Testament:

{29} Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, ‑‑ Mark 15:29 (NIV)

Again, it may not be prophecy, but it is certainly example.

3. Now we come to a most amazing prophecy. One section says they gamble for his clothes; another that they slice them up between them. Both are true - fulfilled by the soldiers who divided his rags, and threw dice for the one good piece of clothing He had.

{35} When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. ‑‑ Matthew 27:35 (NIV)

4. If that's not enough for you, consider this. Crucifixion is unknown to David; yet he clearly describes it - most notably in the piercing of the hands and feet. No punishment or torture like this is described in David's time. This is prophecy indeed.

There is another aspect, besides prophecy. I have been referring to it as example, but it might better be called an archetype. Plato had a glimpse of this. He mused that if Socrates (a good man) was forced to commit suicide by the society around him, how much more miserable a death would come upon a perfect man! Indeed, he got it exactly right: crucifixion. Plato was not a prophet - but he saw clearly the consequences of righteousness in an evil world.

In Jesus Christ we see, as C. S. Lewis put it, the union of total privation and total adherence to God. The result - whether the privation is temptation or loneliness from God - is that we have a Savior who understands. He's been there. As the author of Hebrews put it,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are‑‑yet was without sin. ‑‑ Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)

Effect on our Prayer Life

As with Job, when God's comfort is withdrawn, we ask, "Why?" There is one deep answer which must be given. As with so much of the devotional life, Thomas a Kempis said it best:

"At times, God will withdraw from you; at times you will be troubled by your neighbor; and what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself" [An echo of the three steps in the Psalm!] "Neither can any remedy or comfort bring you relief, but you must bear it as long as God wills. For God desires that you learn to bear trials without comfort, that you may yield yourself wholly to Him, and grow more humble through tribulation. No man feels so deeply in his heart the Passion of Christ as he who has to suffer in like manner."

You see the point? This forsaken feeling causes you to come closer, as you come out of it, to God. And your suffering now helps you understand more fully what Christ did for you on the Cross. Indeed, coming to God with all your heart is His desire for you - whatever it takes. For this reason, if for no other, Jesus commanded that we remember His death in the Lord's supper. Thomas a Kempis portrayed Jesus as saying it this way:

"Naked I hung on the Cross with arms outstretched, offering Myself freely to God the Father for your sins, My whole Person a sacrifice of divine propitiation: you, too, must willingly offer yourself daily to Me in the Eucharist [Lord's Supper] with all your powers and affections as a pure and holy offering. I require nothing less of you than that you should strive to yield yourself wholly to me. Whatever you offer to Me besides yourself, I account as nothing; I seek not your gift but yourself."

Indeed, the suffering of the Innocent One provided great blessing to us. We can also see this in the remainder of the Psalm. For once we have passed through the period of trial, we are greatly strengthened. Indeed, our trials become what we talk about; our great trials define our lives; and so it is that the Great Sacrifice defines what God says to man. As Paul put it,

{14} May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. ‑‑ Galatians 6:14 (NIV)

So it is with us. When the trial is over, we are strengthened as we were tried. We proclaim it first in our lives:

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 22:22‑24 (NIV)

Then we will proclaim it in public, to those in our congregation:

{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! ‑‑ Psalms 22:25‑26 (NIV)

And finally to the world:

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 22:27‑31 (NIV)

This is a prophetic picture of the spread of the Gospel; it is also a picture of how we come out of the trial of being forsaken. Take heart; remember your Lord's example on the Cross. Triumph will come; in the meantime, can you pray for the salvation of others while you are suffering in innocence? "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

To him that overcometh

a crown of life shall be

He with the King of Glory

shall reign eternally.

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