psalm 22 (2)… spiritual suffering

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 8 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts 9 Yet you are he who took me from the womb; 10 On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 11 Be not far from me for trouble is near, and there is none to help.


spiritual suffering

The psalm opens with a haunting cry that sets the tone maintained through the first movement.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me

The psalm is a lament. It is a complaint to God by one he has forsaken. Divine abandonment dominates the lament (v3,,11,19). The psalm envisages the covenantally unthinkable – the righteous forsaken (Ps 14:5, 37:25, 28, 46:1-7, 145:18, Deut 31:6, Job 8:20).

For the sufferer is righteous. The cry of the sufferer is that of a believer. It is not one of unbelief but uncomprehending faith. God is emphatically ‘my God’, a phrase repeated three times in the opening two verses.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

The faith that inhabits the cry of incomprehension is evident in his following confession.

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

Whatever the reason for his abandonment the fault does not lie with God. God is holy. He will not impugn God instead, however incomprehensible his circumstances, he will honour him.

God is king ‘enthroned’ in his people’s praises, praises partly flowing from their many deliverances. The sufferer looks back at his heritage of faith. Previous generations trusted the Lord (notice the triple ‘trust’ vv4,5) in desperate situations and and were delivered. God honoured his covenant promise to protect them as their sovereign King (Ex 15:1-18; Ps 95-99). Their deliverance, however, serves only to feed the anguish of his own abandonment. Inexplicably he is not delivered and as a result feels worthless… a worm, of no significance. God neither rescues nor replies. There is no help for him in God (Ps 3:2). Jesus had trusted in God from before his birth. He was the son who always brought pleasure. He was so in tune with his Father’s will and so committed to his pleasure that he could say, ‘I and my Father are one’. He enjoyed unbroken intimacy with his God which served to make his present abandonment so much worse. Day and night are concentrated on the cross in a crucible of forsakenness.

Human sin, even when not necessarily our own, may bring us into situations where we feel abandoned. It has been so since Eden. Sin brought banishment from the garden into a world under judgement. Eden’s banishment was re-enacted in Israel’s exile from Canaan (Isa 27:10; 49:15’ 60:15). Sin alienates from God. In the dereliction of the cross Jesus identifies fully with any sense of forsakenness that his people may experience (Hebs 2:5-18).

We may wonder why the question ‘why’ erupts from Christ;s lips. Surely he knew why he was forsaken? Had he forgotten he was to be made sin? He had spoken to his disciples about his imminent death at Jerusalem and the cup of suffering he must drink. This was not forgotten but it was temporarily hidden. Perhaps we do not grasp how fully human he was and the depths of suffering he endured. He was a man drowning in a sea of pain, rejection and hatred. We fail to grasp the crushing effect of crucifixion upon human resilience and reasoning. Jesus’ cry came while nailed to the most refined instrument of human torture devised by man – a Roman cross. It was designed to impress upon Rome’s subjugated nations the terrible price of challenging Rome. Crucifixion all but blotted out rational thought. Jesus’ cry is not born of rational thought; it is a scream of emotion (the words of his roaring) and incomprehension birthed in white-hot searing agony and the absence of the God upon whom he had always depended .

Psalm 22 provides language that at least in part would clothe the experience of other righteous sufferers but never was it more appropriate than when on the lips of Messiah. On the cross he pioneers faith for his people (Hebs 12:2). His mind soaked in Scripture naturally draws upon Psalm 22 to express his tortured thoughts. It is certainly a mistake to view his cry as merely a mechanical fulfilling of Scripture. Rather it is a dynamic fulfilment. The psalm provides the language he requires even as it anticipates the language he would use.

Christ’s trauma has three dimensions. Vv 1-11 express his agonising spiritual trauma while Vv 12-21 focus on his physical suffering and the impact of his human enemies. While the physical and social suffering are immense and must not be treated lightly the psalm places first the spiritual battle; what harrows most is the absence of God. For a believer the loss of the Lord’s felt presence threatens to overwhelm his soul.

Of course Jesus not only suffered like his people, he also suffered for his people. In his suffering he is both perfected as a priest and offered as a sacrifice; in the former he is suffers like his people and in the latter he suffers for his people. Believers may feel abandoned. Deep suffering will perhaps create such feelings but they are not truly forsaken. God may be obscured but he is not absent. Jesus was actually forsaken. He was the scapegoat that was sent into a desolate place, the far country. He experienced in the fullest sense the exile that is sin’s effect. The exile from Eden, Canaan, and the divine presence was his as he became sin. The cross was the pre-emptive day of the Lord visited upon Christ. Jesus did not descend into hell upon death, he experienced the harrowing of hell upon the cross. It is in life he is God-forsaken as he becomes a curse (Gals 3:13) as he identified fully with the sin of his people and accomplished their redemption. He is forsaken not for any sin in him, he had none; he was abandoned for our sin.

Despite heaven’s silence he continues to cry to God. The emphatic ‘you’ (vv3-5) followed by the contrasting emphatic ‘I’ in v6 reveal his emotional intensity. The ‘I’ draws out our compassion.

But I am a worm and not a man.

His engagement is always with his God. God delivered his people but has abandoned him. He is not worth delivering. Like Israel he perceives himself as a worm (Isa. 41:14). A worm suggests he feels debased and perhaps loathsome. He feels less than human. Crucifixion was intended to dehumanise. Its victim was an object of scorn and shame. No doubt this and the taunting of the onlookers fed into his crushed sense of self. Like Jerusalem at the exile, the contempt of others crushes (Lam 1:12,13,17). However, primarily Jesus’ dehumanisation stems from abandonment by his God. Divine abandonment is the fast route to a disintegration of self.

Nevertheless, the impact of the ridicule of others should not be minimised.

All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 8 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

The mocking irony ‘for he delights in him’ hits the mark; no-one is less a obviously one in whom God delights than the crucified; he is wretched, forlorn, despised. The language is that of those who surround the cross (Matt 27:41-43). Those who viewed him, considered him stricken by God and afflicted they did not grasp he was wounded for their transgressions and bruised for their iniquities (Isa 53).

Faith has been his native breath. From the womb he has trusted. Indeed, his trust was God’s work. He will continue to trust, however contradictory in his situation. Echoing the opening verse, he pleads as a covenant son from birth

11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.

It is a cry, however, that continues to fall on deaf ears; the one who ignited his trust ignores his trust. The sufferer is completely alone. The sense of abandonment, familiar in deep suffering, intensified in one ‘made sin’, is acute. The darkness remains unrelieved. These opening eleven verses underline the trauma to faith of divine abandonment.The spiritual stripes with which we are healed lacerate just as much, if not more so, than the physical..

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