Man Pouring Out His Heart to God in Prayer
Folksongs of Faith

The Suffering Savior

Author: Ray C. Stedman

We will conclude this series on the psalms with a study of the twenty-second psalm. In many ways this is the most amazing of all the psalms. In it we have a picture of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, painted by David the Psalmist one thousand years before Jesus Christ was born. It constitutes one of the most amazing predictions of all time.

At least nine specific events or aspects of the crucifixion are described here in minute detail. All of them were fulfilled during the six hours in which Jesus hung upon the cross, from nine o'clock in the morning until three o'clock in the afternoon. Moreover, the latter part of the psalm clearly depicts the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The probability that the predictions of these nine events would be fulfilled by chance in one person, on one afternoon, is inconceivably small. The chance that all this could occur by accident is beyond any realm of possibility our minds could imagine. Yet all was fulfilled as predicted in this amazing psalm.

All the world knows that on November 22, 1963, President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, while riding down a Dallas street in a motorcar. Suppose there had been in existence a document which predicted this event and which we knew to have been written in A.D. 963. That was about the time of the height of the Byzantine empire, when most of the Western World was ruled from Constantinople, much of Europe was only sparsely inhabited by barbarian tribes, and America was not yet discovered.

Suppose that a document had been prepared in that ancient day which predicted that a time would come when a man of great prominence, head of a great nation, would be riding down a street of a large city in a metal chariot not drawn by horses, and would suddenly and violently die from the penetration of his brain by a little piece of metal hurled from a weapon made of wood and iron, aimed at him from the window of a tall building, and that his death would have world-wide effect and cause world-wide mourning. You can imagine with what awe such a document would be held today. Such a prediction would be similar to what we have in Psalm 22. That hypothetical prediction would have been made even before the invention of the motorcar, or of firearms, and five hundred years before the discovery of America. It would be regarded as fantastically accurate. Yet we have that very sort of thing in this psalm.

The psalm has two major divisions. The first twenty-one verses recount for us the sufferings of an unknown sufferer who is all alone and is crying out unto God in his agony. Many scholars assert that these first twenty-one verses represent the thoughts which went through the mind of the Savior as he hung upon the cross, the full range of his thoughts as he was suffering there. From verse twenty-two to the end the sufferer is no longer alone but is in the midst of a large company and is praising God and shouting in victory. It ends with his claiming the worship of the entire world.

The best and simplest way to approach this psalm is simply to read it through, making certain observations. It is so clear, so unmistakable, that it hardly requires comment. It starts, very strikingly, with the words Jesus uttered on the cross:

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Psalms 22:1a RSV)

and the Psalmist goes on to add,

Why art thou so far from helping me,
  from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
  and by night, but find no rest. (Psalms 22:1b-2 RSV)

These opening words have been called "the cry of dereliction," i.e., the cry of abandonment as the sufferer becomes aware that he is forsaken by his God. As we know from the New Testament, Jesus uttered these words at the end of a strange period of darkness which settled upon the land. For the first three hours as he hung upon the cross the sun shone brightly and there was normal daylight. But at high noon a strange and disquieting darkness settled upon the whole land around Jerusalem. No one has ever been able to explain it. It lasted for three hours. It was not an eclipse of the sun, because eclipses do not last that long.

There have been similar periods at other times in history. In 1780, for instance, there was a strange dark day which settled upon the New England states when for some still unexplained reason the light of the sun failed in only that particular portion of earth, so that it passed into a period of darkness in the middle of the day. Something like that happened at Jerusalem. Notice how the Psalm reflects this. It says that the sufferer cries out in the day and in the night -- in the light and in the dark -- but still God does not answer.

So here we have the strange mystery of the abandonment of the Son of God -- what some have called "Immanuel's orphaned cry" -- "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Jesus actually spoke these words in Aramaic. Because he cried out with a loud voice, passersby misunderstood him. He said, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? When the bystanders heard the words, "Eloi, Eloi," they thought he was crying for Elijah. But he was calling out for God, from the depths of his being, because of his sense of abandonment. The strangeness of that rejection by God is highlighted for us by his stated awareness of the faithful character of God:

Yet thou art holy,
  enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted,
  and thou didst deliver them.
To thee they cried, and were saved;
  in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed. (Psalms 22:3-5 RSV)

He is remembering the history of men of faith in the past, and the fact that a faithful God never abandoned one of them. Even though they were sinful men, God saved them when they cried out to him. "But," he says, "I am a worm, and no man." For some strange reason God is treating him differently. Even the spectators reflect that difference of treatment:

But I am a worm, and no man;
  scorned by men, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me,
  they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; [they say,]
"He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him,
  let him rescue him, for he delights in him!" (Psalms 22:6-8 RSV)

He is treated like a despised and hated criminal, as though he had lost his right to live in human society. Matthew records for us the fact that the crowd actually used these very words. The unthinking multitude passing by, looking at the sufferer on the cross, said, "He trusts in God; let God deliver him now," (Matthew 27:43a RSV). What an amazing prediction this is! The very words of a multitude which could not have been controlled, and who had no intention of fulfilling prophecy, are clearly foretold.

We are faced with the strange mystery of why the Son of God was abandoned by his Father. He goes on to press the point himself. He shows us that there are no grounds for abandonment in himself:

Yet thou art he who took me from the womb;
  thou didst keep me safe upon my mother's breasts.
Upon thee was I cast from my birth,
  and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.
Be not far from me,
  for trouble is near and there is none to help. (Psalms 22:9-11 RSV)

How utterly forsaken he is! His friends have rejected him and fled. His disciples and family have left him alone; all have gone. Only God is left and now he senses that God himself is forsaking him. He knows no explanation for this. He says that from the very moment of his birth he was in fellowship with God. He was always the delight of God's heart, kept by his Father right from birth. And, you recall from the New Testament, as he began his public ministry the Father spoke from heaven and put his seal of approval upon his life, saying, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased," (Matthew 3:17b, Mark 1:11). There is absolutely nothing in himself to merit abandonment, and yet here he is, forsaken.

In his human weakness he does not even understand it, and so he cries out this strange cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Now we know, of course, that it was because he was being made an offering for the sins of the world. All the ugliness and meanness and defilement and filth of our sin was laid upon him.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
  he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
  and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5 RSV)

He goes on to describe the scene from the cross:

Many bulls encompass me,
  strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
  like a ravening and roaring lion. (Psalms 22:12-13 RSV)

In the beautiful method of the Old Testament poets he uses these figures to describe the onlookers. Like bulls, powerful, unopposable, they seem to be strong. Remember that Jesus said to his enemies at that very time, "... this is your hour, and the power of darkness," (Luke 22:53b RSV). They seemed to be irresistible, like great, powerful bulls. Then he changes the figure and says they are like lions, fierce, ravening, threatening, their fangs dripping with anxiety to be at him and tear him apart. He is surrounded by his enemies. Then he describes his own reaction:

I am poured out like water,
  and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax,
  it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
  and my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
  thou dost lay me in the dust of death. (Psalms 22:14-15 RSV)

What a description of the exhaustion of the cross! Having hung there for five to six hours, his body suspended by the nails in his hands and feet, his bones are pulled out of joint. There is an awful sense of weariness and fatigue. His heart feels like melted wax within him. And he is gripped by a terrible, terrible, ravaging thirst. His body, dehydrated in the hot sun of that spring day, is gripped now by awful thirst. He cries out from the cross, "I thirst," (John 19:28b).

Then we have a most amazing and unmistakable description of death by crucifixion, written at a time when crucifixion was simply unknown. This was set down when no one, so far as history tells us, put anyone to death by crucifixion. Certainly the Jews did not, for their method of execution was to stone someone to death. But here is One who clearly describes his own crucifixion:

Yea, dogs are round about me;
  a company of evildoers encircle me;
  they have pierced my hands and feet --
I can count all my bones --
  they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
  and for my raiment they cast lots. (Psalms 22:16-18 RSV)

It is absolutely impossible to explain that verse on any natural basis. It is clearly a God-given picture of the crucifixion. The Psalmist says that he is surrounded by "dogs". This was the common Jewish term for Gentiles, and especially for the Romans. Roman executioners are all around the cross here. He decries the fact that he is surrounded by these alien people. They have stripped him; he is naked. He can see all his bones and, worse yet, he can feel them. And the crowning indignity is that at the foot of the cross they are actually casting lots for his garments. The calloused, hardened Roman soldiers were trying to divide the spoil of his clothing (Matthew 27:35, Luke 23:34, John 19:34). Because they did not want to rip his seamless robe apart, they cast lots for it. It is impossible that this could have been fulfilled by the collusion of the Roman soldiers. Yet here it is, clearly described 1000 years before, so that Jesus' death by crucifixion is unquestionably in view.

Now we get the final prayer of this sufferer:

But thou, O Lord, be not far off!
  O thou my help, hasten to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
  my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion,
  my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen! (Psalms 22:19-21 RSV)

The "sword" would be a symbol for the authority of the Roman government. The "mouth of the lion" would be the picture of the invisible powers, the satanic forces. In the figure of the "horns of the wild oxen" it is as though he were impaled upon two great, widespread horns, and he is crying out now in final extremity for help from God. And you recall, this is exactly what the Savior did in his last words as he hung upon the cross. He cried out, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46b RSV)."If anyone is going to save me, it has to be you, Father. If anyone is going to lift me out of the dust of death, raise me up again, it will be you. I trust myself to you". And so, in this closing prayer we have reflected his commitment at last to the hands of the Father.

Verse 22 constitutes a clear change. Without a word of explanation the same speaker goes on and says,

I will tell of thy name to my brethren;
  in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee: (Psalms 22:22 RSV)

Well, what is this? Here, unquestionably, is the resurrection. The same one who has just suffered and died is now in the midst of a company whom he calls his brethren. The writer of Hebrews picks up this theme. In chapter two he applies these very words to Jesus. He says that it was the will and purpose of God the Father to bring many sons to glory, and that it was fitting that he should make the captain of their salvation perfect through suffering. And, he continues,

That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying,
  "I will proclaim thy name to my brethren,
  in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee." (Hebrews 2:11b-12 RSV)

What a wonderful picture of the result of the resurrection -- the calling out of the people of God who are one with him and share his life, and who are joint heirs with Christ, members, like him, of the family of God. And so he says to them,

You who fear the Lord, praise him!
  all you sons of Jacob, glorify him,
  and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! (Psalms 22:23 RSV)

Why? Because this is the One who has answered the prayer of a dead man and raised him from the dead. The resurrection is the ground of Christian worship, he says,

For he has not despised or abhorred
  the affliction of the afflicted;
and he has not hid his face from him,
  but has heard, when he cried to him. (Psalms 22:24 RSV)

Again, the writer of Hebrewssays to us, at the end of his letter,

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the everlasting covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, (Hebrews13:20-21a RSV)

This is what constitutes the ground of praise for all Christians: we have a living Lord who has been raised from the dead and whose life is now shared with us so that his life is ours, and ours belongs to him. He goes on to tell us just that:

From thee comes my praise in the great congregation;
  my vows I will pay before those who fear him. (Psalms 22:25 RSV)

That is, "I will fulfill my word to them. I will do for them what I have promised to do." What is that?

The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
  those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
  May your hearts live for ever. (Psalms 22:26 RSV)

Is that not great? His promise is that, out of the resurrected power which he holds, he will give us everything we need. So we will be satisfied. And, as Peter puts it in his second letter,

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, (2 Peter 1:3 RSV)

There is not one thing more that we need than what already has been made available. Thus it is true, as Hebrews7:25 tells us, that, "he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them."

The next verse goes on to trace out the effect of this power, as it moves out across the face of the whole earth.

All the ends of the earth shall remember
  and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
  shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
  and he rules over the nations. (Psalms 22:27-28 RSV)

It is the fulfillment of Jesus' great commission that his Gospel shall be preached to all nations. And out of every tribe and nation shall come those who respond, who fear him, because God is the ruler of all and he will see to it that his message reaches all men. We are living in the very days when men from every tribe and nation are coming to Christ.

The final picture encompasses the utter subjection to him of all peoples and all creatures everywhere in the universe:

Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down;
  before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
  and he who cannot keep himself alive. [i.e., the poor, obscure, weak, and helpless]
Posterity shall serve him;
  men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
  that he has wrought it. (Psalms 22:29-31 RSV)

Those last words are amazing! In the Hebrew the last phrase is literally, "It is finished." So what is really said here is that "there shall be proclaimed deliverance to a people yet unborn, that it is finished." It is striking that this psalm both opens and closes with a word of Jesus from the cross. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 RSV). And, as he cried with a loud voice just before he died, "It is finished!" (John 19:30). All is done. There is nothing left to do.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness. (2 Peter 1:3 RSV)

Is that not tremendous? What a psalm! What an anticipation, and what a fulfillment, of this amazing event!


Our Father, we can only bow in worship and adoration of a God who plans like this, and who carries through his plans against all the opposition of men and devils, who fulfills in history what he has predicted long before and brings to pass all his words. And we, who have been made the recipients of this amazing work of grace, who have profited by the death and the resurrection life of the Son of God, gather now, Lord, to give thanks to you out of the fullness of gratitude in our hearts for all that has been given to us. We ask that you will lead us now in the sharing together of the Table of the Lord, so that every heart may be obedient, worshipping, awe-struck -- bowing before the greatness of our God and the love of our Savior. We ask in his name, Amen.