A Reflection on Psalm 22
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the glory of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted and you rescued them.
To you they cried out and they escaped;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, not a man,
scorned by men, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:
“He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him.”
For you drew me forth from the womb,
made me safe at my mother’s breasts.
Upon you I was thrust from the womb;
since my mother bore me you are my God.
Do not stay far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is no one to help.PSALM 22: 2 – 12
I left my young adult Bible study feeling defeated. Most of my friends agreed that the psalms we read were “too depressing.” During the discussion, I tried to reframe their perspective. The psalms of lamentation often begin with jarring and even revolting imagery, but the end is always the same – hope for and praise of God’s goodness and mercy.
During times of extreme loneliness, when we feel unnamed and erased like Jesus did during His Passion, the psalms speak to the human condition. Using language and metaphors that do not ignore the reality of suffering, psalms were written precisely because they did not offer saccharine cliches or sunny solutions to difficult and complex human problems.
Words, such as “cries of anguish” and “cried out” speak of desperation on the part of the psalmist. Most of the time, Christians are told to carry on with a smile and a torch of joy when they are struggling. This may be encouraged by leaders in ministry because of the fear of real, deep human pain – the degree of which cannot be ameliorated by saccharine sentiments or dismissed with cheery platitudes.
We also notice other words that indicate the psalmist’s feelings of distress: “abandoned,” “no relief,” “scorned,” and “despised.” It’s important to note that the emotive reaction of the psalmist is not the same as his expressed faith, even when a pall of despair is looming on the horizon of this life. Christians can, and often do, feel hopeless without committing the sin of despair. That is because emotions are not acts of the will. We can feel anything, yet decide to do and believe something contrary to our feelings.
The psalmist further describes himself as a “worm, not a man,” because he acknowledges his lowliness and nothingness, yet is pleading to his God for salvation. Mocking, jeering, judging, and ostracism are subsequently relayed, and this sense of unworthiness and inadequacy has become insurmountable without God’s intervention at this point.
During bouts of spiritual trials, it’s likely that we will feel invisible – yes, even to our priests, our friends and family, our coworkers, our spouses. That understanding that no one quite gets what we are experiencing, at least not fully, is, as St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, the “greatest poverty.” Perhaps the opening line of this psalm reads, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” so that we can recall the emotional and mental torment of Jesus as He suffered unthinkable and heinous evil.
In a paradoxical way, this becomes our consolation. It does not remove our suffering or replace it, but instead elevates the soul to a state of renewed hope that, however frail, has not entirely been extinguished. This may have been the main goal of the psalmist, to accept and admit defeat, yet simultaneously grasp for the promise of God, fulfilled through the salvation of the Messiah.
Finally, in the psalmist’s misery, he exalts God as sovereign – “enthroned” – and remembers His fidelity to the psalmist’s ancestors who trusted in God and persevered through their tribulations. They “escaped” and “were not disappointed.” In this retrospective, the psalmist is reaching for a reason to continue turning to God, despite the reality that his suffering continues and, in fact, grows more intolerable.
At long last, he reminds God that it was He who created the psalmist, and thus the entire race of humanity, that his faith in God has dwelt within him from the beginning of his life. He concludes this segment of the psalm with this: “Do not stay far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help.”
We, too, can repeat these words when fluent and flowery language eludes us. Emotional fatigue, mental burn-out, physical exhaustion, and spiritual dryness, when compounded, leave us parched. Yet in rehearsing the words of psalms like this one, we, too, can remember times of blessing and flourishing. Neither deprivation nor abundance are indications of God’s favor or displeasure; instead, we can linger somewhere in the caverns of our darkness and wait for God to deliver us, once again, from the trouble that afflicts us.