The darkest hours in all of scripture are found in Psalm 22. This harrowing psalm describes the execution of our Lord from his perspective, but it ends in victory and gives us a glimpse of a future glory that provides us the greatest hope for all of those who suffer, even those who die in their suffering. It’s an amazing picture that has given me great strength after the death of my son. This is the first of a short series looking at Psalm 22.
The announcement came first through the prayer chain. A teenage girl was hit by a drunk driver and is in a coma — in critical condition. The church comes together for prayer for this precious life. For weeks the church intercedes to God to spare this girls life. And she awakens from the coma. The doctors are amazed she’s alive. Three weeks later, she’s in church. The church family praises God for her healing. “God answers prayer”, the pastor affirms, over and over. “Never underestimate the power of a praying congregation,” he says.
Meanwhile, sitting in the congregation is a mother and father who, years before, lost their son in an auto accident. He, too, was in a coma for weeks. The church prayed for him, but they had to make the heart-rending decision to pull him off life support and watch him die. They’re happy for the girl who survived, but they wonder why God didn’t answer their prayers for their son’s healing. Where was the power of the praying church when they needed it most? God took one family through terrible suffering, and delivered them. God took another family through suffering, but the deliverance they hoped for never came.
How do we reconcile the two different outcomes? Did the family that lost their son lack faith? Did they harbor some horrible sin in their lives that prevented God from answering their prayer? These are some of the reasons Job’s friends gave him for his suffering. They defended God and accused Job for his calamity — and that turned God’s anger against them.
But if it’s not sin or lack of faith, how else can we understand the purpose of suffering, where it seems that Satan wins the battle?
The answer is found in Psalm 22, and it has provided me great comfort. It helped me to grapple with why my son succumbed to suicide while others, who made serious attempts, survived.
Today we’re going to consider the first 5 verses.
Before we get into the text, there are a few things I would like to note about the character of this psalm.
1. This psalm is prophetic. It speaks of the Messiah. Twenty four times the writers of the New Testament compare this psalm to Christ’s trial and execution.
2. Jesus quoted from this psalm during his trial and execution. It even contains his final words. We know this psalm was on Jesus’ mind during his darkest hours.
3. Christ’s enemies understood the messianic nature of this psalm, and in the most theologically macabre irony, they used the words of Psalm 22 to mock Jesus.
4. Peter says of David, the author of this psalm, that he was a prophet who foresaw and spoke of Christ. (Acts ——)
Even though this psalm is prophetic and messianic, it is not off-limits for us to identify with. It has a dual purpose. One is to point to Christ, but the second is for us to find comfort as we face suffering in our lives.
Paul prays that we may “know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings.” And we will share in the deliverance he experienced, as Christ said, “Because I live, you shall live also.”
The prophetic and messianic nature of it should not detract from it’s use to us as comfort and encouragement. It should do the opposite. It should increase our comfort and encouragement.
There is something else I treasure about this psalm. The four gospels give us four different perspectives of the events that form the crucifixion. They read like newspaper accounts. The rest of the New Testament teaches the theological significance of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Psalm 22 provides a unique contribution to our understanding of the crucifixion; something we don’t find in the New Testament. Psalm 22 gives us a window into the heart and mind of Jesus as he experienced his trial and execution. This psalm of lament gives us a glimpse into the inward struggle that Jesus faced. This psalm of David, a psalm of lament, is a fitting place for God to record the inner pain of his son.
And it opens with Jesus’ final, recorded words — words of abject horror.
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.
The psalm opens with a punch! There is no set up of the crisis. There is just a cry of utter terror, falling from the parched, bleeding lips of the Son of God.
Isn’t this surprising? When we think of Christ we think of a man who is the picture of calm courage. The last thing we think of him is as someone who struggles with fear. The first hint of fear that we see in him is in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in so much agony that his sweat was saturated with blood from broken capillaries.
What caused this great distress? What did he have to fear?
He was already hated, slandered, antagonized and rejected. Soon he would be deserted by his closest companions. He was about to face betrayal, mocking, beatings, more rejection, and execution by crucifixion, which is a horrific way to die.
These things would be horrible to experience, but they are not what distressed Jesus the most. The most terrifying part of Jesus’ execution is expressed in the opening words of this psalm.
Without any degree of composure, Jesus cries out “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
Being forsaken by his father was the most horrific thing Jesus experienced. This is what he feared the most. God left him to the forces of destruction when he needed his father the most. “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”
The Hebrew term we translate as groaning literally means “roaring.” Jesus was screaming out to God in agony.
“God, how can you stand by and watch me go through this pain? I cry out to you incessantly! I roar to you by day, but you don’t answer! I cry out to you by night, but I find no rest. I roar and cry out — but you remain silent.”
“Where are you? I am in agony. I’m in so much distress I can’t rest. Don’t you know? Don’t you see? Don’t you care?”
These are verses of great pain. Verses of what it’s like to be forsaken of God.
Have you been there? Have you ever felt like God abandoned you? Have you ever cried out to God day and night, only to receive his silence? You can’t even sleep because your heart is pounding — knotted inside of you? Doesn’t God know what I’m going through? Why doesn’t he care?
This is how Christ felt. But when Christ was abandoned by God it was more real than ours. Jesus was abandoned so that God would never abandon us. He was forsaken so that we would never be forsaken. God’s people will never experience the agony that Christ faced when he cried out those words. Even though we feel forsaken, we feel God doesn’t hear our cries, there is a big difference between what Christ experienced and what we experience.
In spite of being forsaken, Jesus never turned from God. He never became an atheist or a God hater. His very first words reveal his faith in the midst of his trial, when he addressed God as “My God, my God.”
Our sufferings reveal the weakness of our flesh. And we are weak. But John Calvin reminds something important when he said “Trials give evidence of our faith.” Trials reveal where we place our faith. They expose whom we trust in our suffering. When the dark hour comes, who do we run to?
Christ ran to his father. Even when he was forsaken, truly forsaken in a way we will never know, he knew the only one he could turn to was God the Father.
And, in his being forsaken, watch how Jesus finds hope.
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.
I find those first four words of verse 3 stunning. In his darkest moment, Jesus reaches for hope in a particular attribute of God. He doesn’t say, “Yet your are compassionate.” He doesn’t say, “Yet you are gracious.” He doesn’t look to God’s love, His mercy, his power, or his sovereignty. What Jesus reaches for is the holiness of God.
“Yet you are holy.”
Now, I want to make sure this registers to us, because it’s so out of the blue, so outside our theological wheelhouse, that it’s very easy to miss.
I recently vacationed in Florida within walking distance of the beach. It’s been decades since I’d been swimming, and longer since I’ve been to the ocean. On our first excursion into the water my young adult children swam a short distance out to a sand bar. My wife and I were wading shoulder deep near the shore, and we decided to swim out to meet them. Half way out I realized something was wrong. I wasn’t getting the air I needed and I wouldn’t make it out, and if I did, I wouldn’t make it back. So I turned back for the shore. For the next two minutes, I struggled to swim back to shore. The harder I swam the harder it was for me to get enough air. And I was losing steam, and I still couldn’t find footing. Panic set in and I swam with all my might, unable to draw a full breath. I cried out to God, “Lord, have mercy on me!” And suddenly there was sand under my feet and I stood up. Relieved!
But I was panting. My chest was heaving, my heart pounding, trying to get enough oxygen — and I couldn’t stop. The walk onto the beach to find a chair was almost as much a struggle as swimming. Was I having a heart attack? I sat down and our friends asked me if I needed a clinic, because I couldn’t catch my breath.
I was also worried for my wife. She was in worse physical condition than I was, but she had made it out to the sand bar. I believed she would have as much trouble as I did to make it back to shore. But she was fine. She made it back without any trouble. What was wrong with me, then? How is it that I struggled and she didn’t?
And I remembered — nine years ago, I had a bad case of pneumonia that took me two months to recover from. It ravaged my lungs. And now, I no longer have the lung capacity I once did. Looking back at those moments in the water, I was within a minute or two of drowning or having a heart attack. I’ll never forget that feeling of losing hope — and crying out for God’s mercy.
This is where Jesus is, except for him, it’s a thousand times worse. He’s drowning in despair, in his forsakenness. For what does he reach for hope? I cried out for God’s mercy. Jesus cried out for God’s holiness.
Why? Why holiness? What is it about God’s holiness that gives Christ his greatest hope?
Let’s unpack these verses to help us understand.
Jesus begins with “Yet” —
My suffering is great, yet you are holy.
You have forsaken me, yet your are holy.
You don’t hear my cries for help, yet you are holy.
You are far from saving me, yet you are holy.
Why holiness? Let’s read on.
You are enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted.
And you delivered them.
To you they cried and you rescued them.
They trusted in you and you did not let them be put to shame.
Jesus steps out of his own dark, personal crisis to consider the God to whom he cries out. He knows his specific suffering doesn’t define his God. His God is the holy one of Israel, the covenant making God of a nation.
There are no specific events described where the fathers trusted in God and were rescued. These are general statements about the character of God. They are considered true and unassailable. It’s not a statement that needs to be defended. The character of God toward the fathers is well know and accepted.
The psalmist also knows that his moment of darkness is not unique among men. This isn’t the first time anyone has struggled with severe trials. It isn’t the first time anyone has felt forsaken of God, wondering why it seems he doesn’t hear our cries for help. A whole nation of fathers throughout centuries have experienced the same thing, and they trusted in God. And God delivered them. He rescued them. And not only did he rescue them, he did so in a way that didn’t allow their enemies to shame them. They knew it was shameful to trust in a weak or indifferent God.
So, why holiness?
Holiness is not an attribute of God, it’s his nature. Holiness is part of his character. Holiness is the foundation for all of his attributes.
Holiness is contrary to sin. It’s contrary to evil, and any form of evil, including pain and suffering. Our trials, our suffering, our sorrows, our pain, are expressions of evil, designed to overtake us and destroy us. Yes, God uses them to shape us for life in this world, but they are outside of God’s holy perfection. They are pawns of evil, and they will not exist in Heaven. God will eradicate all sin, all evil, and their attendants. God is ultimately opposed to such things.
It is fitting that the psalmist, and that Christ, reaches for hope in the holiness of God. God’s holiness can, and should, provide us with comfort in the midst of our suffering. God’s compassion, mercy, grace, love, sovereignty and power are expressions of his holiness in our lives as we experience suffering.
And because of the extensive, unassailable testimony of God’s deliverance and rescue of the fathers of Israel, God is enthroned on the praises of his people. Isn’t that a marvelous picture? The praises of a nation enthrone the God in whom they trust in their darkest hours.
Psalm 22 opens with this surprising contrast. In 3 verses it goes from the pit of despair to the nation-sized heights of praise. As the psalmist splashes into the waters of distress he cries “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” only to lift his head to draw in the air of hope with “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of your people.”
These polar opposites prepare us for the magnification of both suffering and praise that unfold dramatically in the rest of the psalm.
Listen on YouTube
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.
- Part 1, Episode 8, Psalm 22: 1-5, The Darkest Hour in All of Scripture
- Part 2, Episode 9, Psalm 22: 6-11, A Battle-worn Faith
- Part 3, Episode 10, Psalm 22: 12-21, Cries & Desperation; How the Godly Suffer
- Part 4, Episode 11, Psalm 22: 22-24, He Has Hidden His Face
- Part 5, Episode 12, Psalm 22: 25, 26, The Peace Offering of the Afflicted
- Part 6, Episode 13, Psalm 22: 27-31, Even the One Who Could Not Keep Himself Alive