Teaching series from Psalms

The View From the Cross

Psalms 22

Teaching t07566

Introduction

When Jesus was being crucified, he cried out in Aramaic (his native tongue), "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" People misunderstood these words at this time, thinking he was calling for Elijah to rescue him.

People still misunderstand them today. Some say that Jesus lost his faith in God at this moment. He had been convinced that God would raise him up to defeat Israel's enemy (Rome) and establish God's kingdom. But instead, Israel rejected him as a false Messiah and Rome crucified him as an insurrectionist. So he cries out, "Why have you forsaken me? I thought I was fulfilling your plan, but I was wrong."

Nothing could be further from the truth. When Jesus uttered these words, he was not admitting that he missed God's purpose; he was announcing his fulfillment of God's purpose! Because this statement is the first verse of Psalm 22, on of the most amazing passages in the Bible. It was written by David in 1000 BC. Let's read the first 21 verses . . . 

The first thing we need to understand about this psalm is that it is not about David. Unlike most of his psalms, which describe incidents in his own life, the most important details of this psalm cannot be fitted into the events of his life. For example:

This person has fallen completely into the hands of his enemies (vs 11,12,16). This never happened to David even in his darkest hour.

This person dies (vs 15) in complete humiliation and agonizing physical torture (vs 13-17). David died of old age in his own bed (1 Kg. 2:10).

Rather, David, as a prophet, was supernaturally enabled by God to see and feel what it would be like for the Messiah to die over 1000 years before this occurred. Therefore, I call this psalm "the view from the cross." Let's take a closer look . . . 

His desperate plight (22:1-21)

Even the style of the Hebrew in this section fits that of a dying man. The sentences are short, abrupt—almost gasp-like. Like a camera lens that slowly comes into focus, this section is a progressively detailed description of what this man is experiencing. It begins with only a vague picture, but by the last paragraph we see in startling and brutal detail what he is actually enduring.

In 22:1-2, he begins with a lament expressing the agony of his soul that God seems to have forsaken him despite his cries for help. Yet, like Ps. 42, he reminds himself in 22:3-5 that God will be faithful to him as he has always been faithful to his people, Israel.

In 22:6-8, the lens begins to come into focus so that we start to understand the nature of his plight. He is reproached and despised by "the people," the Jews. They are delighted that he is suffering this fate (whatever it is) because it refutes his claim that God delights in him.

Yet he reminds himself in 22:9,10 that he does indeed have a unique relationship with God. He has consciously trusted God from the womb. (In contrast, David acknowledges in Ps. 51:5 that he was "conceived in sin" and "brought forth in iniquity"—separated from God at birth.)

Then in 22:11-18, the lens comes into focus to reveal with horrifying clarity the true nature of his plight.

He is at the mercy of a band of powerful Gentile evildoers. He describes them figuratively as "strong bulls of Bashan" (22:12), and "dogs" (22:16) who are actually "a band of evildoers."

They are executing him by crucifixion. Note six specific features of death by crucifixion, which was the most painful ("excruciating") and humiliating form of execution ever devised.

"I am poured out like water" (22:14a) and "my strength is dried up like a potsherd" (22:15a) both describe his complete physical exhaustion. Crucifixion victims became physically exhausted by having to keep lifting themselves up to inhale (which also caused searing pain in the nerves of their wrists and feet).

"All my bones are out of joint" (22:14b) describes the dislocation of limbs caused by slamming the cross into the hole, and the stretching and eventual snapping of ligaments from having to support their body weight for hours and even days.

"My heart is like wax . . . melted within me" (22:14c) may simply speak of his despair, but more likely (immediate context is physical agony) describes the severe heart trauma caused by exertion in spite of decreased blood and oxygen. Some crucifixion victims evidently died of ruptured hearts, and the mixture of water and blood in Jesus' case (Jn. 19:34) suggest this happened to him.

"My tongue cleaves to my jaws" (22:15b) describes the severe dehydration which caused the tongue to swell, making breathing even more difficult.

"I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me" (22:17). Crucifixion victims were stripped naked to humiliate them.

"They pierced my hands and my feet" (22:16) describes the unique aspect of crucifixion—no other form of execution involves this. This is so clear that some opponents to Christianity have charged that Christians altered the text. The Jewish Bible (using the Masoretic text) says "like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet." The Hebrew word for "they pierced" is karah. The word for "like a lion" is ka'rî. The only difference is the length of the stem of the last letter. Did the Christians alter the text to help their cause? Two reasons say this is not so.[1]

First, the phrase "like a lion, my hands and my feet" makes no sense. "They are at my" is not in the Masoretic text, and even if one assumes those words the image of a lion being at someone's hands and feet makes no sense.

Second, the Septuagint (LXX), authored by Jewish scholars in 250 BC, translates "they pierced." This means their Hebrew text was karah. Therefore, ka'rî is a scribal error or alteration.

This is incredible when you consider that crucifixion wasn't even invented until roughly 600 BC!! It was invented by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians at that time, from whom the Romans got it. Normal capital punishment for Jews was stoning. No Jew was crucified until sometime in the late inter-testamental period. Yet here, several centuries earlier, David describes it in vivid detail.

22:18 adds another amazing detail: "They cast lots for my clothing." So certain is this victim's death that his executioners are already dividing up his clothes. This seemingly insignificant detail is one of many which Jesus would not have been able to deliberately fulfill, and the Roman soldiers who fulfilled it would have been unaware of this prophecy.

What would it have been like to put Jesus on the cross, then use this to mock his claim to be Messiah—and then hear him quote this psalm to you from the cross?

What are the odds that this psalm was humanly originated and fulfilled by chance? Doesn't that explanation require blind faith? Isn't it more reasonable to conclude that this is exactly what Jesus told his disciples it was—God's proof that Jesus is indeed his Messiah, and that his death on a cross was God's plan (22:15 - "you lay me in the dust of death")?

Why did God do this?

If you're wondering why God would orchestrate his own Son's execution, you are asking the question that takes you to the heart of the Bible's message. And you don't have to leave the Old Testament to answer it. Because just as Ps. 22 predicted the manner of Messiah's death, Isa. 53 explains the reason for his death. Let's read a section of it (read Isa. 53:4-6,10,11).

Why did God do this? He did it because he is both righteous and loving. Because he is righteous, God cannot overlook sin—he must punish it with death. Because he is loving, he provided a sinless substitute to bear our sin and to take God's wrath for us.

This is the meaning of the Old Testament sacrificial system. But those sacrifices were only pictures that looked forward to fulfillment in a Person, as this passage makes clear. This is why John the Baptist introduced Jesus as "the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world" (Jn. 1:29). This is why Jesus said that as God's Son, he did "not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45). Jesus came to die on a cross because there was no other way that a holy God can be reconciled to sinful people like you and me. And to make sure that we would know this was his plan, he predicted centuries before he did it.

Now that you know this, what are you going to do with this knowledge? It's not enough just to understand it, or even to believe it is true in some general and abstract sense. You have to act on this knowledge by personalizing it. Explain Rembrandt's "Raising of the Cross." Have you acknowledged to God that you have gone astray and turned to your own way? Have agreed with God that your sins put Jesus on the cross? Have you told God that you trust in Jesus' death as the only payment for your sins? This action is what makes this knowledge life-changing. The moment you call out to God in this way, he will forgive you of all your sins, and give you eternal life, and begin a relationship with you by indwelling you through his Spirit. Do you want this? Then make your move!

The results of this death (22:22-31)

Beginning in 22:22, the tone and content completely change because God has answered his plea for help (2:21b). In contrast to the short gasps of 22:1-21, the sentences of 22:22-31 are full and complete (read). This is what Jesus was thinking about in his last moments on the cross, and the last phrase "he has performed it" may be translated "it is finished" (Jn. 19:30).

He tells us that his obedience and God's deliverance will be the source of blessing for all of humanity who turn to him.

Not only will Jewish people glorify God because of this (22:23), but people from every ethnic group on the face of the earth turn to the Lord because of it (22:27). This is the blessing to every people-group that God promised though Abraham's seed (Gen. 12:3).

Not only will the afflicted and those at death's door find salvation through this (22:26,29), but also those who are prosperous and powerful (22:29).

He tells us that we have the privilege of declaring this message to others (22:31). This is what we have done today, and this is our number one priority as a church—to take this wonderful message all over the world.

Footnote

[1] See H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), p. 207.