The Messianic Psalms – Psalm 22
Stephen Fellowes, Skibbereen, Ireland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The Old Testament is divided by the Lord Jesus Christ in Luke chapter 24 verse 44 into three distinct parts: the law, the psalms, and the prophets. In each of these sections there is an outstanding passage in relation to His death. Leviticus chapter 16 emphasizes the atonement in all its God-satisfying glory. In Psalm 22 we read, in most touching language, of the anguish of the death of Christ, while Isaiah chapter 53 reveals the acknowledgement of His death by the repentant nation of Israel. It is the central portion of these scriptures that we will seek to consider a little in this article.
If a messianic psalm is to be defined as one wherein there is a direct reference to the Messiah which is applied to Him in the New Testament, then we are on safe ground calling Psalm 22 messianic. Numerous references are made to this psalm in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel accounts of the cross-work of our Lord Jesus. The immediate context of the psalm bears testimony to the suffering of David at the hands of Saul, yet, however real these afflictions, they could never fully satisfy the depth and pathos of the language. Truly, we see ‘a greater than David’ in the fulfilment of the forsakenness, the intense hatred, the profound agonies, and, at the last, the unequalled glory. The outpourings of a heart in such distress could only fully refer to ‘the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow’, of which we read in 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 11.
Here indeed is suffering unmeasured and unequalled. We cannot deny the intense tribulation experienced by many of the Old Testament worthies. Joseph experienced the pit and the prison. Job’s life was left in total devastation in just one day, as bit by bit he was stripped of all that he possessed. Jeremiah, Daniel and the prophets would suffer greatly for their faithfulness to the word of God. Paul unfolds in the second Letter to the Corinthians a catalogue of trials that would make us blush at how little we are prepared to suffer for His name’s sake. Yet there is one whose experience stands in distinction to the worst of mortal agonies. We are thinking, of course, of the sinless sufferer for sin on Golgotha’s tree.
Here none can follow but with unshod feet, standing on holy ground.?
‘I’ll creep beside him as a worm
and see him die for me’
The title Aijeleth Shahar meaning ‘the hind of the morning’, traditionally refers to ‘the early light preceding the dawn of the morning, whose first rays are likened to the horns of a hind’, Keil and Delitzsch. When we come to the end of our psalm we see these rays shining as the day of millennial glory dawns. However, before the glory must come the suffering, and so the tender, innocent, hind-like Saviour must face the cross with all its sorrow, surrounded by bulls, lions and dogs. 1 ?
Verses 1-5: The Sufferer abandoned
F. W. Grant succinctly stated that the Lord was in verses 1 to 21 ‘alone’, and in verses 22 to 31 ‘not alone’. It is with aloneness the psalm commences. We are brought straight to Calvary to listen to the cry of the holy, sinless Saviour, forsaken by His God. 2 As J. N. Darby said beautifully, ‘His cry was the perfect expression of His nature’. Notice the language carefully – ‘my God’. This is God acting as God, demonstrating the holiness of His being. He exercises His justice as the sin-hating God, demanding that sin be fully and unsparingly judged. Here we are on the ground of the sin offering. 3 This is not an orphan cry; it is vital to notice that the Saviour does not address His Father to ponder His forsakenness, rather He addresses God. Never was the Son abandoned by the Father, even at Calvary. He is ever ‘in the bosom of the Father’ and this position is eternal, timeless, and uninterruptable.
The theme of this psalm is God, El, and His dealings with sin in the person of Christ. ‘He . . . made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin’. 4 Here we observe the stroke of divine justice falling; we recoil at the darkness, the distance and the awful destitution of the sinless Saviour suffering for sins. Yet in the midst of it He acknowledges to His God ‘but thou art holy’. 5 In this utterance He answers His own question, knowing that God must punish sin and, in punishing sin, forsake the sufferer. Others may have experienced deliverance but He willingly accepts the forsaken place. 6 Wonder of wonders that He did – may our hearts bow in worship!?
Verses 6-21: The Sufferer’s anguish
If the first five verses bring before us Christ’s sufferings from the divine aspect, from verse 6 we have the human and satanic viewpoints. How touchingly the psalm expresses the feelings of the Lord Jesus at the cross! The book of the Psalms is the great book of the inward man, exploring his emotions, desires, purposes and feelings. We cannot cover every detail but let us try to get some sense of the depth of the sensibilities of the perfect man in His agony on the cross.
?In verse 6, in an outburst of utter humility, the Lord refers to Himself as ‘a worm’. The word tala means ‘worm, maggot, larva’. It signifies one characterized by complete lowliness, apparent weakness and total insignificance in the eyes of men. The Lord of glory could become no lower.
In the next two verses the mockery of the cross is brought before us. We hear the scorning, the scoffers ridiculing. Yet, their words, intended to degrade and wound, declared Him as the perfect, dependent One, who always delighted God. In verses 9 and 10, the Lord Himself declares His pathway of dependance, entered upon from birth. This pathway was unique to Him, contrasting with the birth of the wicked, who ‘are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies’. 7 As dependent man, the Lord acknowledges the role of God in His birth, ‘'he that took [Him] . . . out of the womb’. 8 Now, on the cross, He owns the same hand ‘[bringing Him] into the dust of death’. 9 How perfect and consistent is His attitude, and what delight this must have brought to God!
The enmity of the cross is highlighted in verses 12-13, 16 and 20-21. Here we have a hideous display of the hatred of the heart of man. Indeed, if I want to see what man is in the essence of his nature I look to Calvary. Throughout scripture we have a record of man’s thoughts towards God. We see him fail miserably time and time again in spite of God’s goodness towards him. Here, at Calvary, at the zenith of God’s love, under the full blaze of divine grace, man shows himself at his worst – a God-hater and a Christ-rejecter. Various parties are mentioned:
?Verse 12 – The ‘bulls’ denote religious leaders of the nation, powerful and august.
Verse 16 – The ‘dogs’ are a reference to Gentile soldiers, and the singular ‘dog’ in verse 20 denoting perhaps Herod or Pilate.
Verse 21 – The ‘ravening and roaring lion’ must be none other than the devil himself, with echoes of the words of the apostle Peter. 10
One is reminded of the union of hatred in Psalm 2, with the heathen raging, the people imagining a vain thing, and the usually antithetical kings and rulers combining forces ‘against the Lord and against his anointed’.
?The agony of the cross should touch every redeemed heart, couched as it is in the most moving and poetic language. The Lord Jesus was conscious of His utter physical weakness, being ‘poured out like water’ while His agony is excruciating; He could say, ‘all my bones are out of joint’. His ‘heart [was] melted like wax’, ‘in the sacrificial fire of wrath against sin’, F. W. Grant. He felt powerless, utterly without strength, and dehydrated with unquenchable thirst. Verse 16 leaves us in no doubt as to the method of His death by crucifixion. Words fail to express adequately the depth of it all; we concur with the hymn-writer’s sentiment:
?‘O, wonder to myself I am?Thou loving, bleeding,
suffering Lamb?That I can scan the mystery o’er?And not be moved
to love thee more’
Joseph Denham Smith
Verses 22-31: The Sufferer answered
We see in this last section that God does answer, in resurrection power and in the ultimate exaltation and glory of the Son. Notice the ever-widening circle of praise. Verse 22 surely takes us to John chapter 20 verse 17 where the risen Saviour declares the name of His Father and God to His brethren. His brethren here are His disciples, those in close relationship to Him. It is not the church in view here, though the disciples did become the nucleus of the church. We do not find the church, per se, in the Old Testament. 11
In verse 23 there resounds a note of national praise from the ‘seed of Jacob’. In verse 25 we have united praise by a united nation, the ‘great congregation’. 12 The praise becomes universal in verse 27 as the ‘the ends of the earth’ and ‘all kindreds of the nations’ unite, with Jew and Gentile harmoniously linked together in praise to the One who was forsaken by all on the cross. This glorious outpouring of adulation will occur during the millennial reign of Christ, when He will be universally acknowledged as ‘governor among the nations’. Note, however, the concluding verse of the Psalm – the cross will never be forgotten, all the glory that men will enjoy whether heavenly or earthly will be because ‘He hath done this’!
1 Verses 12-13, 16.
2 Matt. 27. 46.
3 Lev. 4.
4 2 Cor. 5. 21.
5 Verse 3.
6 Verses 4-5.
7 Ps. 58. 3.
8 Verse 9.
9 Verse 15.
10 1 Pet. 5. 8.
11 Eph. 3.
12 Ezek. 36.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Stephen Fellowes, originally from Belfast, is in fellowship in the assembly in Skibbereen, West Cork, Ireland. Married to Rachel, they reside in Skibbereen with their three young children. Stephen is active in the little assembly and in gospel outreach work throughout this needy part of Ireland.