Psalm 22:25-31 – A Messianic Conclusion

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This last section of Psalm 22 is the most future-looking section of the psalm, going far beyond a historic kingdom of David and Solomon, or any other period in Israel’s history.  While this is typical of the messianic Psalms, I think that the whole nation of Israel is praying for deliverance in Psalm 22.  Israel itself is in the midst of wild beasts intent on destroying it.  This is consistent with Daniel 7-12, for example, which describes the future enemies of Israel as wild beasts rising from the sea to oppress the nation.  The nation is surrounded by enemies intent on destroying it and a worshiper any time during the Second Temple period may have thought of God as silent and distant (22:1-3).

The only way Israel can survive is if the Lord acts to rescue her from her oppressors. The nation was oppressed and needed the Lord to defend it over and over again.  This is the reason the worshiper recalls the “fathers” who trusted in the Lord and were rescued (22:4-5).  During the exile the nation looked forward to a new Exodus, they looked forward to God acting again as he has in the past.  Isaiah 40-55 makes this especially clear, calling on Israel to return to the wilderness and “make straight the paths of the Lord.”  They are called to join the procession out of Babylon.  As they travel once again through the wilderness, God will re-create the desert place as the Garden of Eden.

Read this way, the Psalm has an application in nearly every generation of Israel’s history.  Even after the Temple was rebuilt and some Jews returned to Jerusalem, there was still a sense that the exile continued since they were under foreign domination.

There is a universal aspect to Psalm 22:  all the earth will bow down because the Lord has dominion over the whole earth.  The whole earth will feast and worship the Lord in Zion.   As in Isaiah 25:6-8, both Israel and the nations will stream to Mount Zion to worship God.  When the Lord prepares the banquet, he will remove the disgrace from his people and defeat the final enemy (Death itself).  But in Isaiah 25:6-8 there is some ambiguity since the nations do come to Zion, but it is unclear that they will be worshipers or if they will face judgments.  Most English translations highlight only the universalism of the text based on Christian assumptions.  Jewish interpreters regularly took the banquet in Zion as time of judgment on the nations rather than universal salvation.

This ambiguity is found here in Psalm 22 as well.  In verse 26 it is the afflicted who seek the Lord who will “eat and be satisfied.” This is a “reversal of fortunes,” the afflicted ones will be lifted out of their troubles, they will no longer fear the oppressors.  In verse 29, however, the “prosperous of the earth” will eat and worship as they bow down to the dust.  This may be a reference to a future judgment of the nations at the beginning of the messianic age.

While Psalm 22 is read by Christians as foreshadowing the crucifixion, this future hope of restoration should not be ignored.  By the time of Jesus’ ministry, Israel had endured hundreds of years of exile and domination by Gentiles.  Many longed for the Messiah, they one who would finally liberate them from these “wild animals” who encircled them.  Psalm 22 is one of the few places in the Hebrew Bible which combines the idea of a “suffering servant” with that of a triumphal Messiah.

There is much more work to be done with the Psalm as a foundation for early church Christology.

Psalm 22:1–5 – Why Have You Forsaken Me?

For the psalmist, God is silent (verses 1-2). The verb traditionally translated as “forsaken” (עזב) is occasionally used for divorce, perhaps this is a vivid metaphor for the feelings of the worshiper.  God promised his love and care, yet at the moment God seems to have forgotten and abandoned the worshiper (Terrien, Psalms, 231).  The psalmist is relentlessly pursuing God in prayer (day and night), wearing himself out crying out to God, yet God does not answer.  He describes his cries as “anguish” (שְאָגָה, a word used to describe the roaring of a lion (Isa 5:29, Ezek 19:7) or the bellowing of a bull (in Canaanite literature).  Elsewhere it is translated “groaning.” I imagine the worshiper sounding a low, rumbling groan as he cries out to the Lord.

Yet God is the enthroned one!  He is seated in heaven with all authority and power (verse 3). That God is the ruler of all creation is foundation for the theology of the Hebrew Bible. He is the creator and therefore he is sovereign over all creation.  The point here is that God is capable of saving the Psalmist.

The psalmist combines the sovereignty of God with his holiness.  If the writer is being unjustly oppressed, God must act according to his holiness and judge, bringing the oppressor to justice.  Not only can God save him, he must do so because it is part of his character to act in holiness.

The Psalmist recalls the history of Israel, those who have trusted the Lord in the past (verse 4-5). The “fathers” likely refers to the general history of Israel, but especially the Exodus and Wilderness.  When God saved Israel out of Egypt it was in response to their cries of oppression in Egypt.  They were surrounded by their oppressors, they cried out to God and God answered their cry. The psalmist is therefore evoking the history of Israel.  God has already acted on behalf of his people, the writer wants God to act once again to rescue him from violent oppressors.

This may be a hint of the circumstance of the psalm.  While it is true David was often surrounded by his enemies, it is possible this psalm was inspired by the somewhat regular national crises in the later history of Israel and Judah, including the Exile.  It is possible the worshiper is in Exile in Babylon, literally surrounded by his enemies. God seems to have abandoned him.  In fact, the prophets regularly described the Exile as a divorce or separation of God and his unfaithful bride.  The psalm could be used at virtually any time in Israel’s history until messiah comes (anticipating verses 27-31).

God therefore is capable of saving the worshiper because he is sovereign, he ought to do so because he is holy, and history shows that he has acted to save his people on any number of occasions.  This is the “crisis” of the psalm: the worshiper is surrounded by troubles he cannot handle, he has cried out to God, but God has not answered him – yet he does not stop because he knows that God will not forsake him:  God will certainly answer his plea.