SF 10: Cries & Desperation | Psalm 22 part 3

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The darkest moments of our trials can become moments of desperation. We can lose heart, and we can lose the will to go on. Wrestling with trials depletes us of strength and courage, and it takes an even greater toll when we find our wrestling is also against God himself.

We continue our short series on Psalm 22, a psalm that has become precious to me after losing my son. It’s a psalm that provides a foundation for life in a fallen world of suffering and tragedy. It’s comparable to Job, in that it plunges us into the darkest horror, and then rises from that to shine the brightest light that gives us the greatest hope in our suffering.

Transcript

In the first 11 verses, the psalmist has been swallowed up into the hopeless horror of a brutal execution. He is in intense pain. This pain is physical, emotional, and spiritual. He is despised and mocked by his executioners. And while that defines the nature of his affliction, the greatest drama of this psalm takes place between this man and his God. The horror leading to his execution is overshadowed by the horror that his God has forsaken him. It is this pain that fuels his cries.

And his executioners know it. They know he is a man who trusts in God. A man in whom God delights. And they use God’s absence to mock him. From the depths of this horror, the psalmist reaches for something to cling to, something that keeps his hope in God alive.

He first reached for the nature of God’s holiness. God’s holiness assures us that he is against all forms of wickedness and evil, whether it comes from man or nature. And this truth has testimony among the generations who have come before, who have trusted God. They have enjoyed God’s holiness and seen his victory over affliction. And their praise enthrones the God who delivers, the God who seems to be silent in the psalmist’s affliction.

The second thing he reached for was God’s testimony in his own life. As he faces his eminent death, he remembers that God delivered him in child birth. God caused him to trust him from infancy. God gave him life, and if he is to die at this moment, God must be with him in his death, where he continues to trust in him.

And that’s where we left off in our last episode. And now we come to his final lament, expressed in what would be his captors’ victory over him in the final moments of his life, in verses 12 to 21.

12 Many bulls encompass me;
strong bulls of Bashan 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 strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17 I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
(Psalm 22:12-21)

These verses express a lament of wrestling. The wrestling is found in a pattern that cycles between all the parties involved in the suffering.

His enemies are the “they.”
The psalmist is the “I.”
And God is the “you.”

The psalmist uses these pronouns of “They,” “I,” and “you” to direct our attention to the suffering he wrestles with. It’s a pattern that shows up as two rounds of wrestling.

ROUND 1

“THEY”

The enemies are described as metaphors. They are personified as animals, and the ways these animals hunt down their prey become metaphors for how these people terrify the psalmist.

12 Many bulls encompass me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

The enemies are like bulls. Bulls are powerful, dangerous, and brutish. But these are not just any bulls. They are bulls of Bashan. Bashan was a region where everything seemed to be bigger and better. Bashan bulls were of higher quality stock. Everything bullish about a bull was even more so with a bull of Bashan. These are the strongest of the bulls.

These bulls of Bashan surround the psalmist. They’ve singled him out and now they have encircled him. He’s cut off, and as good as dead.

And now we switch metaphors to a lion. The enemies open wide their mouths at him, roaring like a victorious lion. They bare their teeth, and show how wide their mighty jaws are. Ravening means to tear prey to shreds. He’s not being torn apart yet, but they’re closing in, preparing to sink their teeth into his flesh.

The lion’s roar to put terror into the heart of the prey. And the word for roaring lion is the same word the psalmist used in the opening when he asked, “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my roaring?

It just shows how fitting that statement is. The psalmist isn’t overreacting to his situation. He roars at God because he knows his enemy has him and is roaring over him in deadly victory.

“I”

What is happening in the heart of the psalmist, surrounded by bulls of Bashan, roaring and showing their wide-open mouths full of teeth?

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 strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;

These are metaphors that demonstrate intense suffering. He is poured out like water. He is physically drained, like an empty vessel. Everything he had in him has been poured out. He has nothing left to give.

All his bones are out of joint! What would it feel like if every one of your bones was out of joint? That would be intense, overwhelming pain. That shows us how much pain he was in.
His heart is melted away like wax within his breast. He’s about to give up. He has no courage left, no will to fight for his life.

His strength is dried up like a potsherd, like a piece of broken clay pot laying out in the hot sun. His strength is completely gone.

His tongue sticks to his jaws. He is so dehydrated from being denied water, perhaps from blood loss. This is a man who needs immediate medical care. He is slipping close to death.

Where is his God, who brought him into the world from his mother’s womb? Where is the God who taught him to trust him since he was a baby?

“YOU”

Here he is.

v.15 you lay me in the dust of death.

This has to be a joke. He’s been crying out to God to come to his rescue, to be near to help him. And the first moment he sees God at work in his situation, God is laying him in the dust of death. It seems like a cruel irony.

Not only are his enemies against him, so is his God. The very God who pulled him from his mother’s womb, who caused him to trust in him. God hasn’t abandoned him, God is committed to his destruction. God gave him life, sustained his life, and now he takes his life. God’s hand is behind all of this. He has a good grasp of God’s sovereign care in his life. God brought him into the world. He walked with him to this day, and now, God’s hand will take him out of it. He knows his death doesn’t come by the will of his enemies. He well knows that his death can only come by the will of God. You lay me in the dust of death. You, God, you do this to me.

This is exactly what Jesus experienced. We know this psalm is a prophetic account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Ultimately, it was God the Father who laid his Son to the grave.

Isaiah 53:10
But the Lord was pleased
To crush Him,  putting Him to grief;

Acts 2:23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.

That’s the end of round 1 of the They-I-You cycle. Now we go into round 2.

ROUND 2

“THEY”

We have a new animal metaphor for the enemies.

16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—

These aren’t dogs like our family pets. These are jackals, predators that hunt in packs. They overpower larger prey as a group. They encompass the psalmist, cutting him off from any escape.

And here we see the metaphors give way to people. The dogs are a company of evildoers who encircle him. They’ve taken control of him in the final death march. They’ve pierced his hands and feet. Jackals nip at the hands and feet of their prey to bring them down. This company of evildoers is doing the same. They pierce Jesus’ hands and feet as they nail his body to the cross.

“I”

And now we’re in Jesus’ point of view, hanging on that cross.

17 I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

He’s stripped naked and raised high for all to see. This is the final indignity. He looks down and sees all of his bones protruding from his dehydrated and emaciated body. They stare and gloat over him. He’s humiliated. And his very last possessions, his clothes, are gambled for. He has nothing left. We see the fulfillment of this in the book of John.

John 19:23-24
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

And now we have the final moment of round 2. This is the end, and this is the final cry of desperation.

“BUT YOU!”

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!

The pronoun doesn’t just open with “You.” It’s a “But you!” This is a desperate cry for help. “But you, O Lord, do not be far off! Oh you, my help, come quickly to my aid!” It’s almost over!

And he returns to the animal metaphors in the last 2 verses, which form two very important couplets upon which this entire psalm turns. And in this final couplet all parties are involved.
The couplets are born out of the psalmist’s cry to God for rescue, and they reveal that he is within moments of death.

The first couplet is a cry for deliverance; deliverance from two threats. The sword, which threatens his soul; and the power of the jackal, which threatens his precious life.

The second couplet is a cry for salvation. He needs saving from two more threats. The mouth of the lion is about to bite down on “me”, he says. A very personal pronoun. It isn’t a possession, as is my soul and my precious life. Now it’s personal. Save me!

The second threat of the second couplet are the horns of the wild oxen. But something happens. A major change happens in mid-couplet. What was supposed to be a parallel cry of “Save me…,” “Rescue me…,” sees a change of tense. And this change of tense reflects a change in heart. And it happens so quickly that he doesn’t miss a beat when he says, —

21. You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

The imperative present tense of “save me” becomes the past tense of “You have rescued me!” He cried out to God, “Do not be far off! Deliver me, save me, come quickly!” And God does. God’s deliverance comes so quickly that it can’t wait for the couplet to end properly. The salvation came so fast, and so complete, that the psalmist uses a literary device to reflect the speed and completeness at which God came.

There is no punctuation, no break in the flow of the literary structure. The change comes in the least likely place. It’s so unusual that you have to re-read these couplets three to four times just to make sure you’re reading it right.

Let’s read them together again.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

Isn’t that marvelous? God came to the psalmist’s rescue just in the nick of time. What seemed to be his doom, the loss of his life and his soul, ended in rescue from the goring horns of the wild oxen. And from this point on, the tone of the psalm completely changes, and becomes an awe-inspiring enthronement of God on the praises of his people.

This rescue came for the psalmist, but how does this square with Jesus on the cross? Is this where the psalm departs from the foreshadowing of Jesus’ death? We will answer that when we look at the next section of this psalm.

What can we learn from the wrestling of the psalmist?

Wrestling with affliction can be a hard and exhausting, and leave us discouraged. Our afflictions can close in on us, surround us on all sides with all varieties of companion forms of suffering. They present themselves as bulls, lions, jackals, and wild oxen. Afflictions roar to cause terror. They bare their teeth, exercise their strong jaws, threaten to shred us apart, nip at our hands and feet, overpower us with a pack of jackal paws, and rush at us with their horns.

We cry out to God, and sometimes he doesn’t seem to be there. We feel forsaken, abandoned by God. He seems so far away from us. He even seems committed to our destruction, to lay us to the dust of death.

But we don’t give up. We continue to call upon God. We plead our cause before him. And we cry out to him in desperation. The psalmist did. During his trial and crucifixion, Jesus did. We shouldn’t roll over and take it like a fatalist. If we have a theology that encourages us to take affliction without seeking God for rescue, then something is desperately wrong with our theology.

Yes, God works all things out for our good, but that isn’t meant to silence us, it’s meant to give us hope. It’s to give us strength in the midst of suffering, just as the psalmist looked to the testimony of the father’s who suffered, and yet enthroned God upon their praises.

We’re also to remember how God has worked in our life, even in the most fundamental ways, remembering he pulled us from our mother’s womb and brought us into this world. He made us to trust him for our life, from the very days of our infancy. If he was with us then, he is with us now, in the trial that threatens to drag us to the dust of the grave. He is here. We’re not forsaken or abandoned. He has heard every cry.

And in the next section of this psalm, we will get answers to questions that leave us perplexed and confused. They are the most comforting and most hopeful of all passages of Scripture. They are verses that gave me one of the few tangible threads of hope after I lost my 18yo son.

Episodes in the Psalm 22 series

There are 6 messages in this series on Psalm 22. This is a rich psalm filled with marvelous insight to encourage and comfort the suffering Christian. It provides some of the grandest truths in all of Scripture, Job-like in it’s intensity and Revelation-like in it’s hope. It starts in the deepest, darkest of pits, and rockets to stellar heights, all this in 31 verses of poetry. It’s my prayer that this psalm blesses your battered soul and causes you to rejoice in God in the midst of your afflictions.