Seth Patterson, November 26, 2017
Scripture Psalm 22
Sometimes in order to see a thing clearly you need to clean off the stuff that has gotten stuck to it. In order to see something anew, you may need to acknowledge the detritus it has accumulated over time. Clear off the hair and the dust and that weird piece of tape that is holding it together in order to see it as it actually is. And that can be the case with much of the Bible, but uniquely so for this reading on this last Sunday before Advent. Psalm 22, like most things, has attracted debris over the last several thousand years, and it might be useful if we clean it off a bit, dispose of a couple things in order to see it more clearly. This psalm, one that is much less acknowledged than its more famous sister, Psalm 23—“The Lord is my shepherd,” so forth and so on—this psalm actually has a lot of conversation surrounding it. There are two main discussions:
The first is that many scholars think that it is not one cohesive psalm, but rather two that somehow got squished together. They think this because the first half is a lament. As you will soon hear, it is full of longing and pain. Then it quickly (apparently too quickly for some) switches to a praise psalm. Psalms are generally either a lament or used for praise, but not often both. Each half of Psalm 22 perfectly fits an assumed form, but together the form is problematic. We like our psalms to be tidy and predictable: sad or happy, lament or joy, prostration or praise.
There is also another issue that orbits this psalm. It is sometimes called the Crucifixion Psalm in that some Christians think that they hear language that indicates that the psalm was predicting Jesus’ crucifixion many generations beforehand. And it is true that the first line of this psalm is the same as what the author of the book of Matthew has Jesus crying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It also talks of the clothes being divided up by casting lots just like the soldiers do in Matthew 27. And the quick change in tone, the one that some scholars see as indicating two smooshed-together psalms (technical term), is therefore thought to be due to the knowledge of the upcoming resurrection. It’s true that those who wish to see Jesus’ future predicted in this psalm have a lot to play with. Yet I think a more convincing argument pushes the other way: that it is far more likely that those who recounted Jesus’s painful last moments looked back to this psalm for powerful language, more so than it was actually predicting the future. It is also more likely that Jesus himself knew the psalm well enough to quote it than is the argument that the psalmist somehow knew far in advance the climax of Jesus’ story. This psalm has power, to be true—just not magic.
So, now that we have brushed Psalm 22 off a bit and quickly interrogated some of the discussions surrounding it, here it is. Oh, and a third issue, not for scholars, but for modern listeners: It is kind of long. Longer than we are used to hearing a psalm be read aloud. So, settle in for a few minutes and let Psalm 22 resonate within you:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let God deliver—
be rescued by the one in whom God delights!”
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen rescue me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise God!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify;
stand in awe, all you offspring of Israel!
For God did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
God did not hide God’s face from me,
but heard when I cried.
Because of you I offer praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who worship God.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek shall praise God.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before God.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and God rules over the nations.
To God, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before God shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live.
Offspring shall serve;
the Lord’s fame shall be proclaimed to the generation to come,
They shall tell of God’s beneficence to people yet to be born,
For God has acted.
By the end of this thing we almost forget where we began. You may be able to see why some scholars think that these are two different psalms put together by a later editor. We start at the bottom and end at the top. And while the reading may have felt long to you, it was a short amount of time to move from “I am a worm” to “Stand in awe, I will praise God!”
This jubilation in the latter half tumbles forth from the tongue, it rises up and out of the body like its electric. It is palpable. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied!” “I shall live for God!” “God’s name shall be proclaimed to the generation to come!”
But that joy that we are left with belies the place from which we began only minutes before. We began flat on the ground, stuck face-first in the mud—like a cartoon character who creates a perfect body-shaped imprint in the ground. This psalm begins at a place that we have all felt: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?” “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer.” We have all felt these lows in our lives. In fact, let us not forget, some in this room may be feeling this way today. Or yesterday. Or tomorrow. We all feel unheard, lonely and worm-like at some point.
We began with questions of why. Why is a question of hope. To begin a question with why indicates that you have some tiny drop of hope that it will indeed be answered. We begin at the bottom with hope for some answer and end at the top with “For God has acted.”
But how has God acted? I don’t see anything written here that explains what God said or did to the psalmist to make her turn in a new direction. There is no recorded boom from the heavens or whisper from a nearby flaming bush. “For God has acted.” How? How did we climb out of our wormhole? How did we climb this ladder from the depths to the heights? How did we switch from lowliness to praise so very quickly?
It is in the silence, I think. It is in the absence of words, in the absence of action that presses forth this psalm’s power.
A substantial pause.
But we can’t see that on the page. It is not written down; this has not been scripted for us. But when this psalm is taken off of the page and spoken aloud—which is exactly how psalms were originally used; they were meant to be lived, embodied and pronounced aloud—then the only way that I can see to move from the flat-on-the-ground lament at the beginning to the off-your-feet joy at the end is to live in the silence: to pause. The most powerful moment of this psalm is not ever said aloud.
The silence is necessary to make the shift. But when this psalm is merely read in our own minds we don’t put the pause in there. We just read, one line to the next, trying to absorb content and meaning and to learn. But we have to pause. We have to stick a giant, full and open-eyed silence in there. I wonder if the only way to move from the lament of the “I” to the praise of the “We” is to stop. Open our eyes. Look around us. Take it all in. Stop talking long enough to let God answer! Stop talking long enough to give God space.
And this is not an ancient problem, is it? In fact, it seems as if this psalm is highlighting how universal an issue this is with people. Silence can be hard. It can be vulnerable. Silence may feel empty. But it’s not. Silence is full. It is full of possibility. And let’s not confuse quiet from silence or from pause. I can sit quietly and be completely ignorant to the silence. I can read, watch TV or be on my phone and be quiet, but it is not actually silent because my brain is still full of me, still full of my internal voice.
Here, though, the psalmist must have allowed the silence to happen. Allowed the silence to pour over, to fill up, to surround and engulf. The silence is what washes away that initial pain and longing, that loneliness and abandonment, and the pause allows the psalmist to see clearly. To get off the ground, to look up, to stand up, to look around. The silence may be the moment in which the righteous, justified and human moment of lament shifts. If there is no pause from the sorrow, the possibilities cannot slip in. The psalmist looks up. I look up. We all can look up in this pause. We not only look up but notice what is around us, notice more than our valid and real fears. When we look up we may realize: I am not alone. Here I am surrounded by people, by a congregation, and they will praise God with me! We are all descendants of Jacob together! God heard my cries because you were revealed to me. I am not alone because you are here and we are all in this life together. We don’t all have to agree, but we are all here. Not necessarily of the same mind, but together.
It requires a pause to get to that jubilation. Silence is not magical, but it is necessary. And I wonder if this psalm is saying that it is in the very fact of silence that God shows you that you are not alone, that you are human, that you are part of something. Maybe this psalm is indicating that we need to pause before God is able to answer. Maybe the silence is God. What if we began to think about God, not only in our words and in our proclamations and laments, but also in the moments of silence? In the moments of pause? What if we stopped filling all of our possible moments of life with activities and words and distractions and thoughts? What if we started to give, little by little, moments of silence, little bits of space that allow God to slip in? When we are feeling our most abandoned, our most attacked and neglected, like a worm in the midst of stampedes of bulls and roars of lions, what will the silence reveal to us? Who will the silence reveal to us?
Yet it is human and true that we, that I, often avoid silence. Why do we read this psalm and skip over the necessary pause? Why would we constantly occupy ourselves with things that keep silence at a distance? Why would I not want to experience the possibilities of God responding? Fear? Silence is full of possibilities, and possibilities can be scary. Included within possibilities is failure. Included within possibilities is the fact that you might not like what is presented to you; you might not like what you realize in the pause. It certainly is a lot easier to be sure of the outcome of our silence-avoidance than it is to be alert to the wide spectrum of possibilities in the pause.
And none of us will ever be perfect at this. Most of us will likely not even be very good at this. But that doesn’t mean that taking a pause is not necessary, that living in the silence is not essential. May we all slow down sometimes. May we all hold the silence in our hands, our hearts, our minds, our souls. May we all face the fear that that our pauses may reveal something to us, that God may be waiting in the silence to reveal a congregation of praise, that we can be lifted from lament to joy. May we all seek our God that is awaiting us in our moments of pause. Why pause? Because we are not alone and the silence may reveal this to us.
May it be so.