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The suffering King - Psalm 22

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 8th July 2001.

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Glenn Chambers was a young man from New York who had a lifelong burning desire to work for God in Ecuador. Now he was setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, to be working with the "Voice of the Andes" mission team in Ecuador. At the airport on the day of his departure he was desperate to send a final note to his mother. So he looked for a piece of paper and found a scrap on the floor. It was an advertisement with the word "Why?" in the middle. So Glenn scribbled his note around the word in the middle, stuffed it in an envelope and put it in the post-box. Later that night his flight crashed into the side of the 14,000 foot Colombian mountain, El Tablazo. The envelope arrived on his mother’s doorstep after she heard the news. And all she saw when she opened the note was the question "why?".

"Why?" It’s always the first question we ask. Why am I suffering in this way? Why is this happening to me? Why has my family been affected in this way? And as we turn to look at Psalm 22, it presents us with probably the most famous why question in the Bible: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Here, King David, the psalmist, is asking the question that millions have asked before him and after him. Why? Where is God in my suffering? Why has God left me?

Throughout this summer term in the morning services we have been studying some of these remarkable psalms in the Bible. And we’ve been seeing how they point us to Jesus. And we’ll see today that Psalm 22 is no exception, in fact in many ways it is unique. And yet our first question when we come to the psalms has always been what was the psalmist saying when he originally wrote it. The problem with Psalm 22, is that no-one really knows. As we read it through, you’ll have seen how shocking some of the language is. It is a psalm of execution. The person who writes it is not just experiencing real difficulty, he’s actually close to death. David himself had plenty of tough times, yet nothing which compares to this. So who is David talking about, if not himself? He must be looking forward to another one who would suffer. Two things make that clear. First there is the detailed description of the sufferings in verses 12-18. David, or anyone else, never knew many of those sufferings. And secondly, the end of the psalm shows that the experience of the sufferer will have incredible results for the whole world. None of the sufferings of David ever had such mind blowing effects for the rest of the world. So who could this be? Well of course there is only one answer. Jesus. Only Jesus could fulfil this psalm. And only in his death could he experience everything the psalmist writes about.

Psalm 22 is a psalm about Jesus’ death. The NT writers saw this clearly with many references or allusions to Psalm 22 coming in the NT. It’s been called the psalm of the cross. For it was on the cross that Jesus suffered in a way you and I will never know. David was effectively writing a prophecy about that unique death. Peter in his first letter says that the Spirit of Christ was working in prophets like David to point to the sufferings of the Christ and the glories that would follow. And that is exactly what we find here. The sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. Only the Spirit of Christ could prophesy such a psalm and predict Jesus’ death in such minute detail. And it is possible that as Jesus hung on the cross he was meditating on this psalm. Not only did he quote the first verse, but some believe he also meant the last verse, "and God has done it", when he said "it is finished". And if that is right, then as we read Psalm 22 then we are delving into the mind of Christ himself as he suffered on the cross. We’ll look first at Jesus’ sufferings, then we’ll see Jesus’ trust and then we’ll see Jesus’ victory. And as we examine Jesus’ own pain on the cross and his why question, we’ll discover there is incredible hope for everyone here this morning.


1) Jesus’ Sufferings

So first, then, Jesus’ sufferings. Now like all Hebrew poetry, this psalm is written with a very clear structure. Verses 1-21 are a lament, a plea for help, and verses 22-31 are the answer and the victory. But in verses 1-21 there is an ebb and flow in the psalmist’s mind between his pain and God’s character. You can see it if you look carefully at the verses. Vv 1-2 begin with me- why have you forsaken me? Vv 3-5 turn our attention to God, "yet you"; and then verses 6-8, "but I", and so on. And this happens six times in this first half of the psalm. And under this first heading of Jesus’ sufferings, well see the ‘me’ sections, which focus on the sufferings of the psalmist, or as we now know, the sufferings of Jesus. And there are three:


a) Spiritual Suffering (vv 1-2)- And the first type of suffering that Jesus suffers is spiritual suffering. Verse 1: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Now of course we know that this is the verse that Jesus quoted as he hung on the cross. Here we find Jesus himself asking the ultimate why question. "My God, why…." But what does it actually mean? Well some think that Jesus was doubting God or angry that God wasn’t helping him. But that cannot be right since Jesus never doubted God once. The Bible makes it clear that he was sinless. In fact it is interesting to note that in this Psalm there is not one hint of the psalmist asking God to condemn his enemies, or even of examining himself to see if there is any sin in him. Often in difficult times, the psalmist will turn in on himself to examine if he has sinned against God to bring about this trouble. But not in this case. No, here the sufferer is sinless. He wasn’t doubting God’s goodness. Nor was he having a crisis of faith. Maybe it was a cry of loneliness. Maybe he felt as if God was distant. That definitely is a very human experience. And to a certain extent that is right. Jesus was alone from his Father but for a much more terrible reason. No, the real reason for the cry was that Jesus was literally God forsaken. The real reason that Jesus cannot find the solace of God upon the cross is that God turned his back on his own Son. That is what caused Jesus the most pain. And that is a pain that none of us can ever bear ourselves, thanks to God. If we did, we would be in hell. For the wonderful news is that Jesus bore hell for you and me. And that is what happened that day. All the sin that you and I have committed was laid on Jesus’ back. He was dying in place of you and me, bearing the wrath of his own father, literally being God forsaken. He, Jesus the sinless Saviour, bore the wrath of God, the punishment, that we deserve for rebelling against God. And the only verse in the Bible which summed up the horror of that feeling and experience was Psalm 22 v 1 : "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" He knew the reason all right. But the experience of God forsakenness was Jesus’ completely. That was the worst cost that Jesus had to pay for our salvation. Such pain we need not ever know because the sinless Saviour died in our place. That’s his spiritual sufferings.


b) Mental Sufferings (vv 6-8)- Then secondly there are Jesus’ mental sufferings in verses 6-8. "I am a worm, and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people." And of course, this is supremely seen in the mocking that comes upon Jesus from those gathered around the cross. Matthew tells us in his gospel that those passing by "hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying: ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself.’" So the mocking of others only heightens Jesus’ own despair as he is forsaken by God. And notice what the unbelieving crowd assume about God: their understanding is that God will save Jesus whatever the situation. How often have you heard people say to you in difficult times: "Oh, come on, surely this is the sort of situation where your God should help you out. Where’s your God now?" they say. Well remember that Jesus endured that mockery first. He too endured mental suffering, tempting him to answer back. But of course he didn’t. Instead "as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."


c) Physical Sufferings (vv 12-18)- But then thirdly there were physical sufferings, verses 12-18. And what a catalogue of evil it is. And notice that everything is described in a bestial way, in other words the crowds are described as animals. It is as if this horrific bloodlust for Jesus is sub human, animal like, not the behaviour which is fitting for human beings. You still see it today don’t you, as people do things in a crowd they would never dream of doing as individuals. And these are the sufferings that accompany crucifixion, so fully and finally experienced by Jesus Christ. His bones are out of joint, he has a raging thirst, his hands and feet are crucified, people stare at his nakedness, and perhaps most humiliating of all, they barter for his clothes, as he hangs naked in their place on the cross. And the NT shows how each of these things are fulfilled in the death of Jesus. He could never had planned it this way. Rather this was Jesus fulfilling the plan of God, witnessed to by the psalmist centuries before. So Jesus’ sufferings. He endured all that for you and me! He endured it all, spiritually, mentally and physically, so that we could go free. He suffered hell so we need not! So have you accepted this amazing gift? Do you know this for yourself? As the hymn writer puts it: "Because the sinless Saviour died| my sinful soul is counted free| for God the just is satisfied| to look on Him and pardon me." Jesus’ Sufferings.


2) Jesus’ Trust

So as Jesus suffered there on the cross, what was he thinking? Just how did he get through it? Well the second side to verses 1-21 gives us the answer, as we turn from the ‘me’ passages, to look at the ‘you’ passages. In other words Jesus turns from himself to look upon his Father. But notice before we turn to these verses that it was in the midst of his suffering that Jesus turned to his Father. Jesus did not think that simply because he was God’s Son, then God would save him from everything. Some Christians of course have that attitude. Rather like the story that was in the paper the other week about a lay preacher who claimed that "God would look after him." Peter David, who preaches in chapels and on street corners across South Wales, tried to persuade police that he had the highest level of insurance cover of all, divine protection, and said that that meant he didn’t need an MOT or insurance or road tax. He also had a false number plate which read Deut 8:18, a reference to Deuteronomy 8 verse 18 saying that God is the only source of power. Sadly the court saw differently and Mr David had to pay a rather large fine! Well that is not the Bible’s view. God never promises us freedom from trouble. But he does promise strength in trouble, and it was this that Jesus trusted in. And he saw three things:


a) God’s Character (vv 3-5)- First he remembered God’s character, verses 3-5. "Yet you are enthroned as the holy one, you are the praise of Israel." In the midst of the trouble, the psalmist looks back to God’s character. He knows he’s a holy God, he is the enthroned one, and he is the praise of Israel. As one writer puts it: "He needs not to distrust in the darkness what he trusted in the light." In other words if he can trust God when things are good, they why should he distrust him when things are going badly? But what grounds does he have for his trust? Verse 4: "In you our fathers put their trust and you delivered them. In you they trusted and were not disappointed." God’s faithfulness to his people in the past is a great spur to this man in his present suffering. Why should God be faithless now when he has always been faithful to his people throughout history? God’s character does not change. He is always faithful and is always with his people, despite the ups and downs. Jesus knew it and trusted that God would uphold him and ultimately see him through.

And that is true for the Christian too. Now this is not the blasť sort of confidence which is more words than action. This confidence in God’s character is a firm hope even in very difficult times. God does not change. He is always faithful and sure. He doesn’t promise freedom from tough times, but he does promise never to leave us or forsake us. And it is important for us to know that before we go through difficult times, as well as in them. That of course is why reading and studying the Bible is so important. If we don’t know how good God has been to his people throughout history, then what confidence will we have in when we hit difficult times, when those why questions crop up? Instead, an understanding of God’s amazing character and his constant faithfulness seen from the Bible will strengthen us even if we can’t answer all the questions.

David Watson who was a world wide Christian leader died from cancer in 1984. Just before he died he wrote these words: "A doctor complained recently: ‘Our patients expect us to make them immortal!’ Many cling tenaciously to this life because they fear there is nothing more to come. Today’s preoccupation with youth and youthfulness demonstrates the same deep seated anxiety about the future, especially the last enemy death, of which cancer seems the most frightening symbol. One day we stand to lose everything of this world, and no-one knows when that day will come. Once we have lost our lives to God, however, we belong eternally to him; and in Christ we have all that is ultimately important. If we spend our whole time worrying about ourselves we have missed the point of our existence… God offers no promise to shield us from the evil of this fallen world. There is no immunity guaranteed from sickness, pain, sorrow and death. But what he does pledge is his never failing presence for those of us who have found him in Christ. Nothing can destroy that. Always he is with us. And in the long run, that is all we need to know." And that is what Jesus clearly understood. God’s unfailing character.


b) God’s Care (vv 9-11)- But secondly, Jesus knew God’s care in verse 9-11. "Yet you brought me out of the womb, you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast…. From my mother’s womb you have been my God." What this psalmist and ultimately Jesus knew was that God had cared for him right from birth. God had been his God from day one. He’d been brought up to know this God and love him and trust him whatever. Now this is the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. It’s one thing to read the Bible and understand his character, but it’s quite another to actually know the God of the Bible personally. And in these verses, there is no casual acquaintance. This relationship was one of intimacy, personal friendship with God, a reliance on him which was not just intellectual but of the heart too. He knew God. So again the psalmist knew that if God had cared from him throughout his life, then he wasn’t about to stop now, however it felt. Yes, true, it did fell like God had forsaken him, and for Jesus that was very real. And yet God could and would not stop loving him. And that again is true for the Christian. Certainly there are times in life where God perhaps does seem distant, prayers may not be being answered how we would like, and yet that never means that God has stopped loving us. And it is on that basis that the psalmist can cry out in verse 11: "Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no-one to help." Where else could he turn but to God? Only God could help him. And that was Jesus’ experience on the cross. He knew he was God forsaken, and yet at the same time he entrusted himself into God’s hands. "Father into your hands I commit my spirit." Even as a God forsaken person he refused to give up on his God. And as people loved and cherished by God, we need not give up our trust of him.


c) God’s Answer (vv 19-21)- But then lastly in this section there is God’s answer in verses 19-21. And this is really the turning point of the psalm. Verse 19- again there is a shift from ‘I’ to ‘you’, and we read: "But you, O Lord, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me." Again his confidence is in God. And what is God’s answer? Well the answer comes in verse 21, but the NIV doesn’t explain as well as some. However if you look at the bottom margin under verse 21 you’ll see that there is another possibility. And so verse 21 would then read like this: "Rescue me from the mouth of the lions and from the horns of the wild oxen. You have heard me." And my Hebrew experts tell me that this is the much better understanding of the verse. And if that is right then it makes much better sense. At the end of this lament from verses 1-21, we find God answering. Yes it appeared God was silent in verses 1-2, but now we have his answer. God will rescue his suffering servant. There is hope. Jesus’ trust in his heavenly Father will be seen to be well founded. For he trusted in God’s character, God’s care and also that God would answer in his time. So what does this mean then for the future? Well as a result of all this suffering, there is an incredible victory.


3) Jesus’ Victory (vv 22-31)

So lastly and briefly, Jesus’ victory, verses 22-31. Only in the mind of God could such an amazing victory come from such deep suffering. But that is how God worked it. Through Jesus’ death on the cross came the most magnificent results. First in verses 22-26, there is a great celebration. In Jewish law, it was written that if a prayer or vow had been answered by God, then the one who prayed the prayer should have a party with all his friends and family. They should tell of God’s goodness and faithfulness. And that is what is going on in these verses. God has answered his servant Jesus and Jesus is declaring God’s faithfulness to his brothers in verse 22. And Hebrews chapter 2 makes it clear that Jesus is declaring his victory and God’s rescue of him to us. We are his brothers. And in verse 26, we read: "The poor will eat and be satisfied, they who seek the Lord will praise him- may your hearts live forever." And through Jesus’ death this comes to a greater fulfilment. The poor in spirit are fed, they are satisfied through Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven and we are made new. We can praise him and rejoice, and our hearts will literally live for ever. That is one of the incredible results of the work of Jesus on the cross. Forgiveness, cleansing, reconciliation with God, we can seek the Lord and live. We can have friendship with him again. And that is reason enough for a great celebration. We do that every time we meet around the Lord’s table to take bread and wine, as we remember what Jesus has done for us. And one day we’ll meet around the throne in heaven and feast with the King in person, all because of Jesus’ work on the cross and God’s rescue of him.

But there’s also a great conquest. Verse 27: "All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord… for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations." The nations are people like you and me. We are turning back to him, and his will be the victory. No longer will people rise against him. Rather they will turn to him, or else face his power and rule. And verse 30: "Future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn- for he has done it." What a wonderful future to look forward to, as more come to know him and all will kneel before him. Much of this is in the future, though the work begins now. It’s started. Death is defeated, sin is paid for, many people are coming to know this great God through his Son Jesus Christ. And yet one day everything will be put right again. One day there will be no more crying or weeping, no more suffering or pain, for then we shall be with our God face to face forever. Let that wonderful future spur you on. Let that great hope dwell in your hearts and flourish. Feed on it and take great comfort. For this victory of God’s Son has started and one day it will be completed. Jesus’ victory.

Yes often we still ask the why questions, and sometimes they do remain unanswered. And yet in our suffering we can be assured that Jesus has suffered ultimately on our behalf and paid the greatest price to bring us back to God. For this psalm has shown us Jesus’ sufferings, we’ve seen Jesus’ trust in those difficult times, and yet we have also caught a glimpse of Jesus’ great victory. May these wonderful truths spur us on to that final great day.


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