The Story of the Cross (Psalm 22:1–22)

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It has been suggested that Psalms 22–24 form a deliberate trilogy, and that the common theme is that of Jesus as Shepherd.

The New Testament reveals Jesus as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11), “the great Shepherd” (Hebrews 13:20), and “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). It is said that these three psalms line up with this threefold theme in that Psalm 22 reveals Jesus as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, Psalm 23 reveals Jesus as the great shepherd who has risen to care for his sheep, and Psalm 24 reveals Jesus as the ascended shepherd who will reward His under-shepherds upon His return. That may be a bit of an exegetical stretch. Nevertheless, there is clearly a connection between these psalms. Unless Jesus had laid down His life for His sheep (Psalm 22), we would not be able to take any real comfort from the song for sheep (Psalm 23). In fact, there would be no genuine song. And if this were the case, we would have no hope of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 24).

In other words, if Jesus had not cried out “My God, My God,” we would not be able to claim, “The LORD is my shepherd.” If Jesus had not been condemned, we could have no comfort. If Jesus had not suffered desolation, we would have no reconciliation.

The story of our good, great and chief shepherd has everything to do with our story. And perhaps this is most clear in the words of Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is the story of Easter weekend. And this story contains two different yet inseparable stories: the story of Good Friday, which is the story of the cross (vv. 1–21); and the story of Resurrection Sunday, which is the story of the empty tomb (vv. 22–31).

The Parts

We can divide the story in two parts: a lament (vv. 1–21a); and a rejoicing (vv. 21b–31). We might title these two parts “Faithful Suffering,” and “The Fruit of the Suffering.” The first part highlights redemption secured, the second the reward secured. In this study, we will consider the first story. Without it, the rest of the story makes no sense.

The Psalm of the Cross

Psalm 22 has been called “the Psalm of the Cross,” and with good reason. There are at least six clear prophecies in this psalm that were fulfilled as Jesus hung on the cross for sinners. In fact, as James Boice suggests, there is ample reason to suggest that Jesus was focusing on this very psalm as He hung on the cross. Having been raised in a covenantally faithful home (vv. 9–10), Jesus was well-versed in Scripture. In fact, He is even called “the Word” (John 1:1; Revelation 19:13)! As someone once observed, when Jesus spoke, like those special versions of the Bible, all of the words that came out of his mouth were red!

It is because of this remarkable fulfilment of prophecy that many believe that this psalm is pure prophecy. In other words, it is claimed by some interpreters that this psalm has no parallel in the life of David. The idea is that David is not writing about any personal experience but rather is writing pure prophecy about the Lord Jesus Christ. That he is writing prophecy, there is no doubt, but it seems to me that, like other messianic psalms, David is recording both his own story and the story of Jesus. In the case of Psalm 22, David’s story is told within the context of the Easter story. That is the way that it should be all of us.

The stories of our lives are varied, and yet they share many similarities. One of those is in the suffering that we experience in this world. We suffer because of the sins of others: crime, corruption, cruelty, and even disease. We also suffer simply because we are a part of a sin-cursed world: disease, natural disasters, etc. And we also suffer because of our own sin and sins: alienation from God; guilt before God and man; painful consequences (physically, relationally, psychologically, spiritually); etc.

In other words, regardless of who’s to blame, our story involves suffering. And so did Jesus’. We see this in Psalm 22.

But this story has a happy ending—as yours can. For many of us, our story will have a happy ending. The happy ending for this particular is found in vv. 21b–31. It is the story of the resurrection. But we must first deal with the hard part of the story in vv. 1–21a.

Recently, my wife and I were out of town and watched a film titled, Do You Believe? The film tells the story of several people who are suffering, which makes them doubt God’s love for them, and even the very existence of God. But it is through the suffering that the characters are brought face to face with the gospel truth. That is the theme of the text before us.

Over the course of two studies, I want to consider the Easter Story as it is found in Psalm 22. I trust that we will find ourselves in this story—and that we will find ourselves in the right part of the story. The truth is, every one of us is in this 31-verse story. You can either identify with David (and with the greater David), or you identify with the enemies of David (and with the enemies of the greater David).

One Story, Six Acts

The first part of the story—the story of Good Friday—follows a distinct pattern. There is an alternation between sections marked by “I” and “Me” (vv. 1–2, 6–8, 12–18), and sections marked by “You” (vv. 3–5, 9–11, 19–21). It is an alternation between the experience of crying, complaining, and condemnation—each then followed by an expression of confidence.

Again, this pattern displays the faith of Jesus in His Father. We see here the faithfulness of Jesus. It is this faithfulness that transforms the horror of that Friday into what became designated Good Friday.

As we will see, Good Friday was the greatest display of faith in all of history. And we should be eternally grateful. Yes, Good Friday is the story of faith. Let’s look more closely at this.

The Cry of Crucifixion

The psalm opens with the cry of crucifixion: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent” (vv. 1–2). Readers of the New Testament will immediately recognise that these were the words spoken by Jesus from the cross (Matthew 27:45–46).

This highlights both the conflict and the confidence of David (and Christ) as he laments. He is not merely complaining but is rather crying out with a confidence that God will do something. David (and Christ) knows that God is righteous (v. 31) and so he refuses to be silent.

It is important to interpret, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” in the context of Jesus’ confidence in God. Yes, it was a cry of desolation. The Father had turned His face away. The sin that Jesus bore invited the wrath of God. This was a cry of disorientation. The eternal fellowship had been broken. There was no light of the Father’s countenance to brighten His way. There was no voice from heaven to comfort and guide Him. The heavens were indeed brass. But it was precisely His knowledge of God, and His trust in God’s character, that produced the devoted cry, “My God, My God.”

This highlights the gospel work of Jesus. He cried out because of His assurance that the Father is righteous (v. 31). In fact, it was because of God’s righteous character and His commitment to righteous conduct that David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, gave His life to be crucified (Romans 3:21–26).

A Cry of Desolation

This cry of these words were on His lips as He endured the agony of the cross (Matthew 27:45–46). But there was a specific context to this. He cried these words at some point during the three hours of darkness, at midday, on that Friday.

Why was it dark? Because, as the songwriter records, “the Father turned His face away.” As the Father laid the sins of the world upon His Son (2 Corinthians 5:21), the eternal fellowship between Father and Son was broken for the first (and the last and only) time. Jesus’s cry was one of desolation. He was experiencing the abandonment by God—indescribable sorrow, the worst of all of the sufferings of Christ. This is something that no form of media can fully capture.

Was the desolation that Jesus experience indescribable? Yes, it was. Was it unbelievable? No! Jesus was forsaken so you would not be.

A Cry of Disorientation

For the first time, Jesus experienced what might be described as confusion. The perfect Son of God was abandoned by His perfect Father.

It has been argued that there is a distinct difference between crying out “My God” and “My Father.” Jesus often addressed God as His Father (see Mark 14:36; Luke 23:46), but not here. Here, He cries, “My God.” I tend to agree with this assessment. This cry is not as tender a cry as “Abba.” There is a sense of distance here, a sense of disorientation. It is as if He is asking, “What is happening?” or, “How can this be?”

Christian, sometimes we sense this disorientation. It just does not seem to make any sense that we, God’s children, suffer like we do. Let the story of Good Friday, and the rest of the story of Easter, encourage you. If you ever feel forsaken, know that Jesus felt the same.

The Confident Theology of Jesus

Even as He felt abandoned by God, Jesus expressed His confident theology: “But You are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in You; they trusted, and You delivered them. They cried to You, and were delivered; they trusted in You, and were not ashamed. But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people” (vv. 3–5).

David, foreshadowing His greater Son, expresses confidence in the midst of his crying. He affirms his devotion, his God-centred dependence, in the midst of his God-caused disorientation. It is both a wonderful revelation of Christ and His Father as well as a wonderful reassurance for you and me.

He Knows the Character of God

David, and through David, Jesus, speaks of God as “holy.” The word describes something that is transcendently different from the norm. God is different from the norm of the pagan gods. In other words, Jesus knew and was confident that God keeps His words! Ross notes that “this attribute of God’s holiness is appropriate for building confidence.” Calvin comments along similar lines with reference to this statement, “I have no doubt, that in using this language he seeks from it a remedy against his distrust.” After all, what is faith but acting upon God’s word because of confidence in His character?

He Knows the Commitment of God

In vv. 4–5, David writes of some of the history of Israel, God’s covenant people. It is clear that he knew his Bible.

Jesus also knew His Bible. And so He knew that God always fulfils His promises. He always cares for His people to whom He has committed Himself. Jesus had committed to the Father that He would die for sinners. The Father had committed to raise Him from the dead. So Jesus called to remembrance God’s faithfulness to His people, His commitment to His Word.

VanGemeren perhaps captures this most succinctly when he writes, “The history of redemption reveals God as loyal and able to save.” This is the heart of the matter. From eternity past, Jesus knew of the covenantal faithfulness of God. He is God! The everlasting covenant (Hebrews 13:20) in the Godhead was revealed throughout history. And even though the clouds were dark and seemed to be hiding God’s face, Jesus knew and trusted the heart of the Father.

I have often drawn attention to the faith that Jesus displayed, not only though His 33 years of life on earth, but especially in these dark and dying hours. It was here, when Jesus became obedient to death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8), where his faith perhaps shone the brightest (if such a distinction can be made). Jesus had never died before. He did not need to die. No human born of Adam has had a choice. The wages of sin is death. We are born to die. But not Jesus. He is life. So for Jesus to die was the ultimate act of obedience. Obedience, by definition, is an act of faith. His laying his life down was the supreme act of faith. He was entrusting himself to the Father, trusting Him to deliver Him. This was the ultimate exodus (Luke 9:31). Jesus was trusting His Father to part the waters of death and to bring Him safely to the other side.

The Contemptuous Crucifixion of Jesus

Verses 6–8 describe the contemptuous crucifixion of Jesus: “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people. All those who see Me ridicule Me; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, ‘He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him; let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!’” The fulfilment of these words can be read in texts like Matthew 27:39, 43; Luke 23:35.

David senses that his enemies have nothing but contempt for him. He is counted as nothing more than a mere worm—inconsequential and of no value. His historical profession of faith in the true God is mocked by them. They openly mock him and call upon this God to come and deliver him. The enemies expect nothing less than his full and irreversible destruction. The same was true of the experience of Jesus.

In these verses Jesus further laments of the unjust, irreverent behaviour that He is receiving at the hands (more to the point, from the mouths) of those who hate him. What unimaginable treatment of the glorious Son of God! “Amazing love, how can it be?” Yet in this He did not threaten. He refused to respond in kind. Rather, in His praying, He committed himself to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23–25).

Perhaps you are in a similar situation—slandered unjustly, your faith in God under assault, your expressed trust in God actually sneered at. Is this a part of your story? If so, you are in good company.

But let us also not miss the reality that some, perhaps even some reading this, may be guilty of this very thing. Perhaps you continue to sneer at Christ. You continue to reject Him, thus mouthing reproach against the holy and omnipotent Son of God. Be careful. For, as we will see, He committed His enemies to His Father. The Father will vindicate His Son. You had better repent before it is too late!

The Confident Remembrance of Jesus

In vv. 9–11, we read of the confident remembrance of Jesus: “But You are He who took Me out of the womb; You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts. I was cast upon You from birth. From My mother’s womb You have been My God. Be not far from Me, for trouble is near; for there is none to help.”

David responds with faithful remembrance—as Christ did. Therefore He keeps praying and trusting.

He Knows the Father’s Care

Alan Ross explains, “God seems to have abandoned him (vv. 1–2), but God has a history of not abandoning his people (vv. 3–5); others were taunting his faith (vv. 6–8), but his faith has gotten him through life so far and so he would not abandon it now (vv. 9–10).”

Jesus continues to pray and to plead. There is a great lesson here for us. As Calvin notes, “He who pretends that he trusts in God, and yet is so listless and indifferent under his calamities that he does not implore his aid, lies shamefully. By prayer, then, true faith is known, as the goodness of a tree is known by its fruit.” Are we faithful enough to pray?

Jesus, as it were, remembers His early days. He remembers God’s providential care for Him. The Father had prepared a body for Him (Hebrews 10). He had prepared a mother’s womb and breasts for Him. In other words, God’s purposeful and wise providence emboldened Jesus’ faith in His Father. Jesus prayed with faith and hope because He knew there is purpose for this suffering and that, once this purpose is satisfied, literally, the suffering will cease. He continued to confide in the Father though he was suffering on the cross. What amazing faith! What an amazing Saviour! What an amazing God!

And you? What’s your story? If you belong to Christ, if Good Friday is really good to you, then your story began before the foundation of the world. God designed your life to be saved by this very suffering Servant on the cross (Ephesians 1:3–4). This should drive you to believing prayer, as Calvin exhorts us. Perhaps that is the reason the church generally is so weak in the knees: We either don’t belong or we forget that we belong to this faithful God, who commands us to cast all our care upon Him, for He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Believer, remember God’s story in the midst of yours.

The Crushing Crucifixion of Jesus

The crushing experience of Jesus on the cross is described in vv. 12–18:

Many bulls have surrounded Me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me. They gape at Me with their mouths, like a raging and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all My bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it has melted within Me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.

(Psalm 22:12–18)

The description here is nothing less than one of the crushing torment experienced by Jesus at the hands of sinners and, ultimately, at the hands of the Sovereign. While David wrote of his own experience, this is clearly prophetic. His hands and feet were pierced (Luke 23:35); passersby stared at Him (Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:24); and His garments were divided (John 19:24).

Jesus laments that His enemies were behaving in a beastly manner. His enemies were fierce and unrelenting—even intimidating. Physically, Jesus was destroyed. His joints were dislocated, He was devoid of necessary moisture, and His thirst was too much to bear. He could barely speak. He was one a step away from the dust of death. Vile enemies, like filthy and ravenous dogs, surrounded Him. There was no escape. In fact, he had been pierced to a piece of wood. He would not be delivered—at least, not in a normal, natural way. He was so emaciated that He looked inhuman. And all could see this, for He was naked, and what clothes He did possess had been mischievously and heartlessly sold in a gambler’s game. He was as good as dead, so what use were His clothes to Him?

And how did He respond? As in the previous parts of the story, He continued to have faith in His Father.

Believer, while you may suffer, you have not resisted unto blood!

The Confident Resignation of Jesus

Finally, in this first part of the story, we read of Jesus’ confident resignation: “But You, O LORD, do not be far from Me; O My Strength, hasten to help Me! Deliver Me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog. Save Me from the lion’s mouth and from the horns of the wild oxen!” (vv. 19–21). This confident resignation is encapsulated in the last words of Jesus from the cross: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46; see John 19:28–30, 31–37).

David here feels as though he is at the end of his life. He makes a final plea. Though he feels abandoned, he knows that God is holy and so he makes a final plea for deliverance.

This is paralleled in the final moments of Jesus on the cross. In an interesting historical twist, this prayer was literally fulfilled in that Jesus was delivered from the sword. The soldier pierced His body with a spear, but only after He had gone down to the dust of death.

We will delve further into this in our next study, but suffice it to say that v. 21 ties in with Jesus’ last words: “It is finished” (John 19:30). There was finally no more suffering. The price had been both paid and accepted. His cry “My God, My God” had been heard, and now He prayed, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” And then He died. He died to never die again. He had fulfilled what He had been sent to do. This major part of the story was finished.

How does His story intersect with yours? This story highlights several important truths: the hatred of sinners for God; the awfulness of sin; the love of God—both Father and Son—for sinners. We will consider some of these in our next study, but perhaps the greatest lessons right here is the faith of our Saviour. Galatians 2:20 says that we live “by faith in the Son of God.” The KJV offers an interesting translation when it speaks of “the faith of the Son of God.” There is a sense in which Christ’s faith purchased our salvation.

Jesus believed God when He was on the cross. He believed God about the cross. The question is, do you? Do you believe that what Jesus suffered, He suffered in your place?

Everyone will ultimately lament the death of the Son of God. We are either identified with Christ and His sufferings (for us) or we are identified with the enemies who pierced Him. This makes all the difference as to when you will lament. Make no mistake: All of us will experience lamentation—either prior to our everlasting conversion or prior to our everlasting condemnation.

This psalm is about what the Lord Jesus suffered for sinners who repent of their sin. It is about what He suffered at the hands of sinners who will not repent of their sin (and hence, those who “crucify Him again,” Hebrews 6:6). So, what is your story? With whom do you identify with in this story—the protagonist or the antagonist?