How was Jesus’ cry from the cross, quoted in Aramaic, received by those standing near? “When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down’” (Mark 15:35-36; Matthew 27:47,49). They misunderstood; they were not quite sure exactly what it was that Jesus had said.
Each year during Holy Week we Christians stand once again near the cross and hear Jesus’ cry anew. Unlike those described in the Gospel, though, we know exactly what he said and we recognize it as the opening verse of Psalm 22.
But do we really know what it means? Is Jesus despairing on the cross? Or is he, rather, pointing to the end of the psalm where hope and praise are expressed?
How can we enter into Jesus’ cry today? Was the psalmist looking forward to and predicting Jesus’ death?
To understand this better, we will progress through three steps. First, we will look at Psalm 22 by itself and seek to understand it on its own terms. Then, we will examine how the first Christians drew on Psalm 22 to understand Jesus’ death. Finally, we will see what meaning this might have for us today.
When we feel blessed in life and experience goodness and wholeness, we turn to God in praise and thanksgiving. But what happens when we experience just the opposite? What happens when we are overcome by brokenness, suffering and death, when the relationships of our lives come apart? Lament is a prayer for help coming out of pain.
Of the 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms, over 50 belong to the category of laments. While laments occur elsewhere in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, they are a form of prayer that is less familiar to us today.”
Psalm 22 calls out to God, presents the suffering of the speaker, talks of enemies and ends in praise. It falls into two parts: verses 1-21 (lament) and verses 22-31 (praise).
Each of those sections can be subdivided into two parts: verses 1-11 (the psalmist and God), verses 12-21 (the psalmist and enemies); verses 22-26 (praise in the assembly of Israel), verses 27-31 (praise from all peoples).
Lament: Part One (verses 1-11)
Israel firmly believed that God was a God of life, a God who frees from oppression. Therefore, if I am experiencing death and oppression, then where is God?
The psalmist feels alone, addresses God directly and asks the heartfelt question, “Why?” (verse 1). “Why have you forsaken me?”
What the psalmist is experiencing makes no sense; things do not fit together. God seems very distant in both space (“far,” verses 1, 11, 19) and time (“by day,…by night,” verse 2).
This cry to God should not be confused with despair. In despair, we give up on our relationship to God and let it go.
For the psalmist, that relationship has been foundational (“from my birth,” 10). In fact, his enemies mock him precisely because he has been faithful to God (8). It is this bond of trust in God that the scoffers try to undermine.
We can read through these verses and count how often the words I and youoccur. Even if the psalmist does not experience God’s closeness, he believes that God does care and is always within shouting distance. Lamenting is not a failure of faith but an act of faith.
Lament: Part Two (verses 12-21)
The first part of the psalm addressed more the psalmist’s relationship to God; the second part shifts to his relationship to others.
If God seems far off, the enemies are very near. They are described in animal imagery: strong bulls, ravening lions, dogs, wild oxen (verses 12-13, 16, 21)—all on the prowl and attacking.
The only activity we can clearly identify is one of mocking and gloating (7, 17). When we recall that the ancient biblical culture was very much an honor-shame culture, we can appreciate how much suffering this would bring to the psalmist.
The constant attack of the enemies takes its toll on the psalmist. He suffers physical and psychological breakdown and approaches death (14-15, 16c-18). “I am poured out like water” most likely refers to tears. Many different body parts are mentioned: bones, heart, breast, mouth, tongue, jaws, hands and feet. The ancients did not make the sharp distinction that we do between physical and emotional suffering.
The psalmist feels he has been laid “in the dust of death” (15); the enemies too think he is as good as dead and they begin to divvy up his clothing (18). The last three verses contain urgent pleas for God to come close (19), deliver (20) and save (21).
Praise: Part One (verses 22-26)
The change in tone from part one to part two is quite pronounced. From the language of suffering and pain, we move to that of praise and thanksgiving. This sudden shift is typical of the lament psalms (see Psalms 6:9-11; 10:16-18; 13:6b).
Scholars have offered various explanations. Perhaps the most common is that the psalmist has heard an oracle of salvation, perhaps from a priest at the Temple. This gives him assurance that God has heard the prayer and that deliverance is on the way.
Instead of being surrounded by enemies who scorn, the psalmist is now surrounded by family and friends in “the congregation” (verses 22, 25) of faith. He fulfills his vows with a thanksgiving sacrifice which involves the eating of a meal. All offer praise to God because God heard the cry of the afflicted and brought deliverance (24).
Praise: Part Two (verses 27-31)
The circle of praise now moves from the psalmist and Israel to all nations on the earth (verses 27-28), as well as people before us in time (29) and those who will come after us (31). At the beginning of the psalm, the psalmist felt isolated and alone in space and time. Here at the end, the praise of God goes out to fill all space and time.
Psalm 22 is, thus, the prayer of a just one who suffers innocently, of one who is surrounded by enemies and mocked precisely because of his fidelity to God. When God hears this cry and delivers, the just one offers praise and thanksgiving to God.
Proclaiming the Good News
We are so used to seeing Jesus on the cross that a lot of the shock of it has worn off. As one observer has noted, if Jesus were to come to earth today and be sentenced to death, he would most likely be electrocuted.
Then Christians all over the world would wear around their necks little silver and gold electric chairs! Jesus’ death on the cross was a scandal and an obstacle that had to be explained.
The Passion narratives, then, were perhaps the first Gospel materials to have taken shape. The strikingly similar account of the final hours of Jesus’ life in all four Gospels implies an ancient tradition. And like all the Gospel material, the Passion story is not a bare chronicle of past events but is filled with the faith of the earliest Christians who struggled to understand and explain the tragic death of Jesus.
One of their first affirmations was, as Paul expressed it, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). When Jesus identifies his betrayer at the Last Supper, “the Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Mark 14:21). When he is arrested in the garden, Jesus rejects violent resistance, for “how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:54). He is arrested and carried off “that the scriptures be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49).
Nothing happened by chance or misfortune. All was according to God’s plan and God’s will, as revealed in the Jewish Scriptures.
In addition to this general principle (“according to the scriptures”), the early Christians began alluding to or citing specific passages to show that Jesus was also innocent. The Book of Wisdom (2:12-18) presents an innocent one attacked because of his faith in God, while Isaiah (52:13-53:12) presents God’s servant who suffers innocently for the sake of others.
Fulfilling the Scriptures
But when it came to describing Jesus’ death scene itself, another text was particularly important: Psalm 22. In addition to showing how Jesus dies “according to the scriptures,” it also is an eloquent presentation of the suffering of an innocent one who suffers precisely because of his faithfulness to God’s will, and of someone who is ultimately vindicated by God.
+ “And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take” (Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35) recalls Psalm 22:18, “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
+ “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying…” (Mark 15:29; Matthew 27:39) recalls Psalm 22:7, “All who see me mock me…they shake their heads.”
+ “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46) is a direct quotation from Psalm 22:1.
A further comment is called for regarding an allusion which we might expect to find but, in fact, is not there. In The New Revised Standard Version, Psalm 22:16 reads, “My hands and feet have shriveled.”
But the new Jewish Publication Society translation reads, “Like a lion, (they maul) my hands and my feet.”
The ancient Greek translation, called the Septuagint, renders it, “They have pierced my hands and my feet,” and it is this translation that was cited by many early Christian writers. It is, however, not used in the New Testament.
The original Hebrew of this verse is quite obscure, and its absence in the New Testament suggests that at this point the earliest Christians were not using the Greek. That Jesus’ words are cited in Aramaic would also point in this direction.
Down through the centuries, a number of Christian writers have maintained that Psalm 22, in fact, predicts Jesus’ death in detail. Can we still affirm this today?
In 2001 the Pontifical Biblical Commission addressed this issue expressly in The Jewish People and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible (#21). That document says the Christian community believes that Jesus fulfills the Jewish Scriptures, but “it does not understand this fulfillment as a literal one.” In addition, “fulfillment is brought about in a manner unforeseen….It would be wrong to consider the prophecies of the Old Testament as some kind of photographic anticipations of future events.”
The document stresses that the Christian reads these Old Testament texts “retrospectively.” Like the first followers of Jesus, we look back through our faith in the risen Christ and try to find in the Hebrew Scriptures ways to understand who Jesus is and what he has done.
Relating to Our Lives
To begin with, we should understand Jesus’ cry from the cross exactly as it stands. He makes his own the prayer of the psalmist, an innocent man who is suffering because of his fidelity to God’s will in his life. As I have already explained, these are not words of despair but an expression of faith.
Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels do not hesitate to show Jesus in the utter agony of feeling forsaken as he faces a terrible death. In these Gospels also, Jesus began the journey of the passion with an anguished prayer, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:35-36; Matthew 26:39).
While Psalm 22 ends with hope and praise, those are not the words on Jesus’ lips. The Gospel of John shows us a more exalted Jesus who is more or less in control during his Passion; the darker elements are removed.
But Matthew and Mark show us more the human Jesus who entered fully into our human condition. This is not a sentimental kind of piety.
In addition to understanding Jesus’ cry, we might ask, can we make it our own? But this question has it backwards. The point is not that we can enter into Jesus’ cry but that Jesus has entered into ours.
For us, as human beings, death is dark and scary and real. Even though we believe and trust in God, death can cause anxiety and anguish. Jesus does not bring us deliverance from death but deliverance through death. We live in a culture which, in many ways, is death-denying; it is afraid to take a clear look at the fact and the meaning of mortality.
The cry of the psalmist is a profoundly human cry. Perhaps it is a witness our society could benefit from hearing.
We also need to realize that Jesus suffered and died because of his fidelity to God’s will in his life. Jesus’ preaching was good news for the poor; he ate with publicans and sinners. Many, including both political and religious leaders, found this offensive and threatening.
If we show fidelity to the teaching and example of Jesus, we can face similar reactions. We may not face actual death. But we can face opposition and mockery in lesser, more subtle ways that are still painful. “All who see me mock at me;…they shake their heads” (Psalm 22:7). Do we continue to trust in the Lord?
In addition, while there are no certain references in the New Testament to the second part of Psalm 22 (the hymn of praise), we do see in the Gospels that Jesus was vindicated. His resurrection from the dead is God’s stamp of approval on his life.
Through the death of Jesus, the meaning of death has been, as it were, changed from the inside. Instead of representing the ultimate separation, it is now the path to greater union.
The risen Christ is present now in our midst and gathers a congregation of faith around him to recount the praises of what God has done and to share in a thanksgiving (eucharistic) meal.
At the end of Psalm 22, as in the Gospels, the circle of praise should go out to embrace the whole world. It is a vision of inclusiveness that breaks down all the barriers that we, as humans, are too eager to set up. The death of Christ points us forward to the day when God’s kingdom will be all in all.
This year, once again, we will stand near the cross and hear Jesus’ cry anew. We know what he is saying. Do we understand its meaning and the challenge that it represents?
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe from my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bã’shan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 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;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen, you have rescued me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.
29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
All Scripture citations are from The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Michael D. Guinan, OFM, is a professor of Old Testament, Semitic languages and biblical spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California.