Have you ever been stabbed in the back? Betrayed? Ratted on? The psalmist in 52 just has. This is his response.
Typical to Psalms, there are two groups of people in this one: the good and the evil. Within the framework of Psalms, who is good and who is evil? In Psalms God judges according to the intent of the heart. God is good; someone who follows God and wants to please him is good. A good person wants good for other people; he or she does not initiate harm. A wicked person, by contrast, hates God and opposes him in all he speaks, thinks, and does. A wicked person in Psalms plots and carries out harm toward others, especially toward the followers of God. (Just as the bad guys do in your favorite adventure movie, right?)
This principle is so important I want to repeat it. In Psalms, people are not judged good or wicked according to whether or not they commit certain sins, but according to their allegiance. Everyone who pledges allegiance to God is called good, and everyone who pledges allegiance against God is called wicked. Enemies of God, those who willfully oppose him and oppose his principles, are wicked. Friends of God are good. Psalms paints people black or white. Unfortunately for us, there are no gray zones with God. His vision is sharp and clear–not fuzzy like ours. God knows who his friends are and who his enemies are, just as a shepherd knows which sheep are his and which are not.
Psalms are real life. Just as in our own experience, some people in Psalms pretend to be on God’s side by pretending to be on the side of God’s friends. But they lie. In their hearts, they are false friends who speak falsely and lead others down a wrong path. Often the deceit of these people is found out; they are discovered, and their duplicity becomes apparent by their actions that seek to harm someone who is good. Psalm 55:12-14 gives an example of this kind of person. A good person in Psalms always tells the truth, even when that truth means confessing his own sin. Psalm 51:1-17 is an example of a good person confessing his sin to God. Remember, a good person is someone who wants to please God. Good people do not become wicked people by sinning, but by betraying God. To betray God is to fully and finally join the enemy’s team. God is always kind and gracious to forgive everyone who asks him with a true heart. By the standard of Psalms, a good person may sin perpetually, but he or she also always wants to do better and to please God. Wicked people never truly want to please God; they hate him.
So with that as background, what about Psalm 52?
Though not necessary, a bit of history may help to understand this psalm. The superscription of verse 1 reads, “To the choirmaster. A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
David, the servant of Saul the King, was running for his life from Saul, who had gone mad and wanted to kill him. Doeg was Saul’s chief shepherd (1 Samuel 21:7). David most likely knew Doeg, since David was also a shepherd. Ahimelech was an innocent priest who was unaware of the full situation between David and Saul. When David in his flight from Saul asked for food and a weapon, Ahimelech provided these, because he believed David’s lie that he was on a secret mission for the king. Doeg happened to see David at the priest’s tabernacle that day, and reported to Saul. Saul, not in his right mind, ordered his servants to kill Ahimelech and his whole household. When they refused, out of respect for the priesthood and knowing that Ahimelech had done no wrong, Saul ordered Doeg to do so. Doeg gladly slaughtered 85 innocent, unarmed priests, plus women, children, nursing infants, oxen, donkey, and sheep–all that lived in the nearby town of Nob, a city of priests. Patrick Reardon writes at length concerning Psalm 52 that Doeg was worse than Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ. (Reardon, 101-102)
If Psalms were a play and I was the director, I would have the sole character in this scene pacing back and forth in barely contained fury and anxiety in order to reflect the back and forth movement between the poles of good and evil in the psalm. The psalmist is clearly angry when he speaks these words,
Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? The steadfast love of God endures all the day. 2 Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. 3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. Selah 4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. (Psalm 52:1-5 ESV)
Notice in verse 1 the contrast between the evil man and the good God, whose “steadfast love…endures all the day.” Then again, after the diatribe against the wicked, the psalmist switches back to consider the fate of the good people in verse 6 which continues, “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying … ” Verse 7 takes us back to the fate of the wicked, as spoken by the righteous of verse 6, “See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!” Then the psalmist considers his own situation in verse 8, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
Finally, the psalmist quits his pacing back and forth and settles his vision fully on God, where it fixedly remains as he speaks the final verse directly to God, “I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.” (Psalm 52:9 ESV)
Prayer is like Psalm 52. In the spiritual battle of prayer, the human heart is torn between consideration of the painfully dangerous situation at hand and faith in the steadfast love of God that endures forever and works its goodness forever in perfect reflection of the eternal goodness of God. In prayer, our hearts and minds pace back and forth between the poles of the power of what is bad and the greater power of God, who is good. May we always, as the psalmist does, align our hearts fully and fixedly on the goodness of God, whose power and judgment win out in the end.
Psalm 52 is a highly passionate psalm, yet we don’t want to leave it without considering the technical aspect of how speech functions within its nine verses.
There is one actor throughout the psalm. Nevertheless, he speaks in more than one voice and variously addresses more than one audience.
- In verses 1-3, the sole actor speaks his words directly to the “mighty man.” He describes this evil man’s words, his tongue, and his heart. There is a pause at the end of this block, written as “Selah.”
- In verses 4-5 the same actor addresses the wicked man’s tongue, “4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.” In verse 5, although the psalmist still appears to be addressing the tongue, it seems apparent that the tongue is a metaphor for the man as a whole. The technical words for this figure of speech are synechdoche (part for the whole) and personification (assigning personality to an object). A second Selah pause ends the address to the tongue.
- In verses 6-7, the addressee is not specified. The psalmist appears to be talking to the air, to himself, or perhaps to an invisible audience placed somewhere beyond the bounds of history and viewing its final outcomes, “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying…”
- In verse 7, the same actor quotes the words of the righteous, but again, the addressee to whom the righteous speak are not specified. The righteous do seem to be in a position of being able to know and see final outcomes.
- In verse 8, the psalmist appears to be speaking to himself, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
- Finally, in verse 9, the psalmist addresses God directly, using the second person, “you,” “I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. (ESV)
Why is this important?
Today’s readers can appreciate the content and passion of Psalm 52 without thinking much about the dialogue within it. Noticing the changes in speech and addressees, however, prepares the reader to encounter other psalms in which such changes clarify meanings of content that may be more obscure. Examples of such psalms are Psalm 110 and Psalm 118.
Romans 8:16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (ESV)
Everyone who’s attended Christian church for any length of time has been taught, “What is true of Christ is true of us in him.” The Holy Spirit unites the church and Christ through believer’s baptism. We can pray the psalms with Christ, because, as believers, He is in us and we are in Him.
Romans 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (ESV)
Nowhere is the victory of Christ more pronounced than in Psalm 21. Andrew Bonar rightly divides this psalm into three sections: 1) Verses 1-7: “Messiah’s exaltation after his suffering,” 2) Verses 8-12: “His future acts when He rises up to sweep away his foes,” and 3) Verse 13: “The cry of his own for that day, as their day of realized bliss.” (Andrew Bonar, 72)
What is true of Christ is true of us. In Christ we have our resurrection from difficult situations that threaten to drown and annihilate us. In Christ we have our victory over our enemies. These include death itself, fatigue, despair, persecutors, fear, uncertainties, hopelessness, and many others. Finally, our end will be glorious, as we share an eternity of praise and thanksgiving for the Father of the One who set us free.
Dialogue functions as a prophetic tool for the Spirit’s announcement centuries ahead of time that the divine Christ would be incarnated as a human being who would suffer greatly.
[Please feel free to jump down to the Summary and Conclusion at the end of this article.]
Speakers. Although it is true that Psalm 22 attributes David as its author, while Psalm 102 makes no attribution, I believe the in-character persona of the first person speaker is identical. The character is Christ, God’s Son, and the setting is his passion. I can say this because both psalms are quoted in the New Testament with the Son identified as the speaker.
Concerning this identification, Psalm 22 is the easier to ascertain. A portion of verse 1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (ESV), is placed by gospel writers Matthew and Mark as proceeding from the lips of Christ, as he hung upon the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Psalm 102:25-26 is cited in Hebrews 1:10-12. The author of the letter attributes this quotation to God and states that in the quotation God addresses the Son (Hebrews 1:8). Going back to Psalm 102, we discover that since God addresses the Son in verses 25-26, then it must be in reply to the Son’s addressing God in verses 23-24, “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘take me not away in the midst of my days…'” God then replies, as in Hebrews, “25 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 26 They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, 27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.” (ESV)
Pattern. Both Psalm 22 and Psalm 102 follow a pattern of 1) statement of suffering by a first person singular speaker, which, as demonstrated above, is the in-character persona of Christ. 2) Following the statement of suffering is an objection in a different voice, which might be paraphrased, “But your greatness, Lord, extends far beyond this suffering.” 3) Following the objection, the first person singular voice of Christ provides further evidence of suffering contra the objection. 4) The psalm resolves the conflict in final statements of the glory of Christ in a voice not the sufferer’s own.
1. Suffering. In both Psalm 22 and Psalm 102, the first person singular in-character persona expresses great suffering.
Psalm 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (ESV) …
…11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.
12 Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 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;
15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet–
17 I can count all my bones– they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (ESV)
Psalm 102:1 A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD. Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you!
2 Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress! Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!
3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh.
6 I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;
7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
8 All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9 For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. (ESV)
2. Objection. Both psalms record objections to the initial statements of the speaker’s suffering.
Psalm 22 Recap of Suffering: 1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
Objection: 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
[See Dialogue in Psalm 22 for an explanation of how these verses might be considered an objection by a chorus of speakers.]
Psalm 102 Recap of Suffering: 1 A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD… 3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. 4 My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread. 5 … my bones cling to my flesh. 6 I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places; 7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop. 8 All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. 9 For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink, 10 … for you have taken me up and thrown me down. 11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. (ESV)
Objection: 12 But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations. 13 You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come. 14 For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust. 15 Nations will fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory. 16 For the LORD builds up Zion; he appears in his glory; 17 he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer. 18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD: 19 that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the LORD looked at the earth, 20 to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, 21 that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD, and in Jerusalem his praise, 22 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the LORD. (ESV)
John Barclay attributes verses 12-22 to speech by the Father through the Holy Spirit to the Son. [Barclay, John, The Psalms of David, 332. While most commentators do not share his attribution, I share most of it, independently. I cite Barclay here as confirmation of this assignment of multiple speakers. The topic of dialogue in Psalm 102 will receive an article of its own.]
3. Protest contra the objection: The speaker protests against the objection with further evidence of his suffering. The objection points to the essential being of the sufferer as far and beyond greater than the quality of the suffering would seem to suggest might be possible. That is, the first person speaker, because of his suffering, appears to limit his identity, while the objectors expand and elevate his identity. The first person singular speaker then replies with further evidence that indeed, his suffering has been extreme.
Psalm 22 Objection: 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
Protestation Contra Objection: 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 8 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (ESV)
Psalm 102 Objection: 12 But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations. 13 You will arise and have pity on Zion… [through verse 22]
Protestation Contra Objection: 23 He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days.
24a “O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days … (ESV)
4. Resolution by means of a final statement of the glory of Christ (the sufferer) in a voice not the sufferer’s own:
Psalm 22:27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. 28 For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. 29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. 30 Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; 31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
(ESV) [See Dialogue in Psalm 22 for an explanation of how this portion might be considered as speech by a persona different than the sufferer. The article also discusses how this portion might apply to both God and his Christ.]
Psalm 102:25 In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands. 26 They shall perish, but thou remainest: and they all shall wax old as a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them, and they shall be changed. 27 But thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail. 28 The children of thy servants shall dwell securely, and their seed shall prosper for ever. (Septuagint English)
Summary and Conclusion. This article seeks to demonstrate how Psalm 22 and Psalm 102 follow a similar pattern of organization. The pattern has four steps: 1) Statement of suffering by a first person singular speaker, 2) Objection to the statement by a different speaker(s), 3) Contra the objection, response by the initial speaker with further evidence of suffering, and 4) Final statement of the glory of the sufferer above and beyond (outside the realm of) his suffering. The significance of observing this pattern is to realize that Psalms is a unified whole that speaks prophetically of the suffering of the Christ to come. The New Testament authors understood and utilized the prophetic role of Psalms, as witnessed by their quotations of them.
By means of dialogue, both psalms emphasize the human nature of Christ, while also emphasizing his divinity. It is as a human being that the Christ suffers, with the suffering expressed through the voice of a first person singular speaker. Part of the dramatic pathos of each psalm lies in the reader’s discovery that Christ the divine Son suffered so greatly as a human being that for encouragement he needed to be reminded of his divine identity. A chorus of God’s people remind him in Psalm 22, while in Psalm 102, God himself reminds his incarnated Son that he is divine. As mentioned, the dialogue functions as a prophetic tool for the Spirit’s announcement centuries ahead of time that the divine Christ would be incarnated as a human being who would suffer greatly.
Those who have been reading my blog for some time know that my premises concerning Psalms are that 1) Psalms are written by and large about Christ, and 2) Psalms contain dialogue.
Disclaimer: I promise that the original ideas (to the best of my knowledge they are original) presented here, concerning verses 3-5, are neither simple for me as author to compose, nor as readers will they be simple for you to follow. This psalm requires effort and takes time.
Concerning dialogue, many psalms contain conversation, or speech, directed from one party to another. The speech occurs in blocks of varying length to or from the major characters. Considered as a unified whole, the major characters in Psalms are 1) God, 2) His Son the King, 3) the King’s people, 4) God’s enemies, who are also enemies of the King, and 5) at times, an unidentified narrator.
Psalms is a high drama that tells the story of God’s chosen King and his people. Once the reader has perceived and experienced speech in certain of the psalms, it proves difficult not to look for and find it in other psalms. The speech and drama expressed in individual psalms unites them into a continuous, passionate story about the main characters, especially God’s Son, the King.
Psalms with clear examples of speech include Psalms 2, 89, and 110. Hebrews 1 quotes several psalms as though God himself were speaking directly about his Son through them. Psalm 22 also contains speech.
Psalm 22 and Speech
1. First Person Singular (verses 1-2, 6-21) Speaker: the psalmist, the Lord, Christ at his passion. Christ spoke a portion of verse 1 while hanging on the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1a, ESV) Verse 1 in particular marks this psalm as prophetic. Addressee: God
2. Third person reported speech (verses 7-8). Speaker: The first person speaker of verses 1-2 and 6 is quoting in third person what the mockers are saying to him. Addressee: those whom the first person speaker addresses in verses 3-5 (see below.)
Within the actual setting of the Crucifixion event of the Christ, i.e., Jesus Christ’s being crucified, there really was a chorus of mockers present at the foot of the cross who spoke words similar to those of Psalm 22: 6-7. Matthew records various examples of mockers in Matthew 27:39-44. (See also Mark 15:29-32.) Luke also records the speech of mockers in Luke 23:35-39.
3. First Person Plural (verses 3-5). Speaker: either 1) the same speaker as in number one above, or 2) a choral group of speakers. Addressee: if 1), the same speaker, then the addressee is God. If 2) a choral group, then the addressee is the first person singular speaker of verses 1-2.
My viewing this block as possibly being spoken by a chorus is to my knowledge original. Therefore, I cannot point to confirmation from another. I would prefer being able to cite someone else who reads the psalm this way.
- Within the setting of a readers’ theater type of dramatic performance (See Psalms 9 and 10: A Readers Theater), a group of speakers functioning as a chorus is entirely logical, reasonable, and possible.
- Other psalms containing clear-cut examples of a chorus of speakers representing the people of God are the following: 20, 46, 48, 95, 100, 118, and 132.
- The block of speech found in verses 3-5 is set off by contrastive conjunctions.
- Most English versions begin verse 3 with either of the English words, “but” or “yet.”
- The contrastive conjunction is present in both Hebrew and Greek versions.
- The block ends with verse 5, and to indicate this, verse 6 presents another contrastive conjunction, which appears as “but” in English.
- The sense of this block contrasts in content from the prior two verses and the following protestation by the original first person singular speaker.
Here is a paraphrase of verses 1-8 interpreted as a Readers Theater dialogue. The text utilizes the New King James version.
Superscript: To the Chief Musician. Set to “The Deer of the Dawn.” A Psalm of David.
The Christ addressing God (verses 1-2): 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.
Chorus of Faithful Followers addressing the Christ (verses 3-5): But You are holy1, 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. [1 See footnote below describing Christ as the Holy One of God]
The Christ responding to the chorus’ objection (verses 6-7): 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,
Mockers (verse 8): “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him; Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!”
The Christ addressing God (verses 9-10, etc.): 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…
Casting this portion of Psalm 22 into a Readers Theater dialogue adds depth and richness to an already deep, rich psalm. The dialogue serves to emphasize the prophetic nature of the psalm. Today’s readers must always bear in mind that when Psalm 22 was first “performed,” Messiah was still centuries in the future. His name had not yet been spoken. Worshipers of God were for the first time learning that there was indeed a Son, a King, a Chosen One of the Lord Jehovah, appointed by him and destined by him for his people to worship. This was all new. Much of the psalms serve as an announcement and description of what the life of the future Christ would be like.
As the dialogue above opens, the reader hears the first speaker wailing out to God in sorrow for his dreadful suffering. Then the chorus, who have been watching and listening, object with loud surprise and dismay, “But how can this be? You are so-and-so.” Clearly, the prophet behind these biblical words has given the chorus the role of seeing and knowing the identity of the suffering one, “This is none other than our God himself!” “How can you be suffering? You are our God, whom we have known and trusted for generations! You had the power to deliver us. How can you now say that you are forsaken of God?”
The first speaker turns toward the chorus and replies with an objection of his own, “But it is not as you say. I am a worm and not even a man. I am a reproach of men, and despised by the people. Look! Here’s proof. All those who see Me ridicule Me; They shoot out the lip, they shake the head. This is what they are saying about me. Listen.”
Then, as though they were also present on stage, the mockers repeat their mocking, “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him; Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!”
At this point the first person speaker turns away from the chorus, having answered their objection, and turns toward God, whom he had been addressing at the beginning. He begins, “But you are he who…” It is as though he is continuing his thought from verses 1 and 2 while interweaving those sentiments with what his mockers have just spoken. “This is what the mockers are saying about me, but you, my God, are not like them. You are not one of them. You appear to be abandoning me, but why? 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…What a long history we have together. Why are you forsaking me now?”
Evaluation of Above
There is nothing in the text that could possibly prove that the readers theater interpretation is correct. Neither can it be proved that this interpretation is not possible and is incorrect. Further, there is much in the text, in the psalms as a whole, and in the New Testament that could bear witness to a dialogical–readers theater–interpretation.
From a literary standpoint, the readers theater interpretation makes as much sense as the perception of a single speaker throughout, because of the contrastive clauses introducing the sections. When read out loud straight through, there’s definitely a sense of argument in the words themselves. Either the speaker is arguing with God, arguing with himself, or both. The argument concerns the topic of why God has abandoned the speaker.
If there is only one speaker throughout, then verses 3-5 could fit nicely with the possibility that the speaker is arguing with God. He might be saying, “Why are you abandoning me now? In the past you did such and such for our people. Your abandoning me now is out of character with your past actions.”
Against this interpretation lies the question of why the first person singular speaker suddenly chose to identify himself with the group of believers whom God delivered over the centuries? And once having done so, why would he suddenly switch back to singular to see himself as not even qualifying to be in that group of believers? He states that he is a worm, and not a man. He adds proof that he has many detractors who mock him. Then suddenly, he argues from the other side that God has treated him well in the past. It is God who took him out of his mother’s womb and so forth.
If there is one speaker throughout, then the reader must conclude that he is in a great state of mental agitation and doubt. He flips back and forth between statements of faith in God and statements of self aversion. From what I know of God and Scripture, it makes more sense to me to hear more than one speaker in this section. The first person singular sufferer is talking to both God and the chorus of witnesses who interrupt his prayer to address him directly in disbelief of the situation. Given that the psalm is a prophecy announcing a future occurrence, I find no harm in the readers theater viewpoint. It accurately portrays the truth of the shocking nature of the Christian cross narrative, that the Almighty God Yahweh, who shepherded his people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land, would be the same person who speaks the words of Psalm 22. Such a discord is all but inconceivable. A chorus of God’s people would certainly be shocked at the revelation that their protector and deliverer was now in dire straits, abandoned by Almighty God. And yet, vindication comes in the end.
The plaintive sufferer speaks through verse 21. The descriptions in verses 12-18 closely match the occurrences recorded in the gospel accounts of the scene at the cross of Christ: the Roman soldiers surrounding Jesus (Psalm 22:12), the religious authorities speaking slanderous lies (verse 13), the physical effects of crucifixion (verses 14-15), the enemies surrounding the cross mentioned again (verse 16a), the nail pierced hands and feet (verse 16b), the effects on the body of a hard life of constant exercising, fasting, and hunger, the skin and bones displayed by hanging naked on a cross (verse 17a), the public nature of the crucifixion revealed in the stares and gloating of people (verse 17b), and the soldiers dividing Jesus’ garments by lot at the foot of the cross (verse 18). Verses 19-21a record a direct request for deliverance, “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! (NKJ)
The prayer for deliverance recorded in verses 19-21a transitions abruptly in verse 21b, “You have answered me.” The NET Bible places an exclamation point here. Verse 22 announces praise and testimony to be given by the former sufferer to his brothers and in the middle of the congregation. Verses 23-31 form a final prophetic block that concludes this magnificent psalm.
While it is clear that the agonizing sufferer spoke the bulk of verses 1-21a (minus verses 3-5, which could correspond to a chorus, and the reported speech of mockers in verse 8), the announcement of deliverance in 21b, and the intention to praise God in verse 22 (1st person singular), it is not clear who speaks the final section from verses 23-31. Some might conclude that the sufferer of the early part of the psalm sings a praise solo to God at the end. Others hear a cantata, because the ending verses have a mixture of voices that alternate both speakers and addressees. It is not simple to decipher who is speaking to whom and about whom in verses 23-31.
How do we sort these verses? Most commentators find a sharp contrast between the blocks of verses 1-21 and 22-31, which they explain in various ways, none of which can be proven definitively. (See, for example, Craig C. Broyles, 115, 120-122 and Charles Spurgeon, 324.) Verse 21a definitely attaches to the prior verses. Here the sufferer is directly addressing God as he continues to ask for deliverance. Verse 21b, the announcement of answered prayer, is also spoken in first person singular by the sufferer to God. Following this, because of grammatical considerations alone, verse 22 would appear to be the same speaker. Verses 21b and 22 comprise a clear transition between the first portion of the psalm, the passion portion, and the final portion of the psalm, the praise portion.
The remaining verses of the praise portion prove difficult to determine who is speaking. The difficulty stems from the changing grammatical character of the speaker(s) and addressees. On the one hand, the sufferer of the first portion of the psalm might be seen as a sole speaker throughout. In this scenario, the speaker performs before the congregation the vow of praise he gave to God in verse 22. Difficulties for the reader arise, however, as the sufferer alternates between addressing God directly as “you” and referring to him in third person singular as “him,” “the LORD,” and the Lord. He may also refer to himself in third person as “him” in verse 24 and “he” in the phrase “when he cried to him,” (verse 24). While the concept of praising God clearly rings through the entire section, it proves difficult for the reader to follow the speaker’s line of thought exactly. The prior section from verses 9 through 21 did not present these difficulties.
An alternate method of reading the final section would be a readers theater format. This possibility arises due to the heavy Christology of the first section spoken by the sufferer. Readers steeped in remembrances of the gospel accounts of Christ’s passion called forth by verses 1-21, most likely will find in the final sections remembrances of Christ’s sequential role as the ascended, eternal King, as presented in the remaining portions of the New Testament. The following is a suggestion only; it cannot be proven, yet in keeping with the Christology of the first portion, it can help elucidate the prophetic nature of the final portion.
Christ addressing God (verse 22): I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
Christ addressing his brothers in the midst of the congregation after his his suffering has ended and just as he announced in the prior verse (verse 23): “You who fear the LORD (Yahweh), praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!”
Chorus of the Congregation speaking in agreement (verse 24): For he [Yahweh of vs 23] has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted [the sufferer of the first portion of the psalm], and he [Yahweh] has not hidden his [Yahweh’s] face from him [the afflicted sufferer], but has heard, when he [the sufferer] cried to him [Yahweh].
Christ addressing God (verse 25a): From you comes my praise in the great congregation; [a reality unfolding in the choral reading of this very psalm]
Christ addressing himself or the listeners/audience (verses 25b): my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
Christ addressing the congregation or the audience (verse 26a and b): The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him [Yahweh] shall praise the LORD [Yahweh]!
Or, chorus of the congregation addressing the audience (verse 26a and b): The afflicted [the former sufferer, whom the congregation recognizes as the Christ] shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him [the same former sufferer] shall praise the LORD [Yahweh God]!
Christ addressing the congregation (verse 26c): May your hearts live forever!
Chorus of the Congregation offering the praise announced in verse 26b (verse 27a): All the ends of the earth shall remember [the suffering and exaltation of the Christ] and turn to the LORD [Yahweh, or the exalted Christ],
Chorus of the Congregation addressing Christ (verse 27b): and all the families of the nations shall worship before you [the exalted Christ].
Chorus of the Congregation prophesying about the Christ, whom they identify with Yahweh (verses 28-31): For kingship belongs to the LORD [the Christ, the sufferer of the prior portion whom they recognized as their God in verses 3-5], and he rules over the nations [gentiles, a new addition]. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him [Christ] shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him [Christ]; it shall be told of the Lord [Adonay] to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness [the Christ’s] to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
The strength of viewing Psalm 22 in the above fashion is that it binds together the psalm as a whole, unifying the two perhaps disparate sections. The tension of the conflict between the protector/deliverer God of verses 3-5 with the sufferer of verses 1-2 and 6-21 is resolved in the recognition that his story turned out good in the end. God delivered him from his affliction.
Another strength of the readers theater style of interpretation is that the promise of praise in verse 22, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:” (ESV) is fulfilled and acted out even in the psalm itself.
More than that, in the context of the Christ story, the final four verses speak words that are true of both God and his Christ. Their identities seem melded. In the end, Yahweh the Christ would be King forever, including over the nations. All mortals would bow and worship before him (See Philippians 2:10 and Romans 14:11).
There is no doubt that some psalms contain speech. For example, in Psalm 2, God speaks directly and is labeled as speaking.
Psalm 2:4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
Other psalms that perhaps contain speech but bear no labels, present difficulties of interpretation. By the addition of presumed labels, such as those for a readers theater to be presented before a live audience, some of these difficulties might disappear.
The organizers of a live reading in Old Testament times, possibly priests, would perhaps indicate to their audiences who was speaking which lines. They may have offered visual or vocal clues lost in translation. Theater audiences today have no difficulty recognizing who is speaking which lines, because they both see and hear the speakers. If the same audiences, however, were to merely read a script without the parts assigned and that bore neither quotation marks nor paragraph breaks, they most likely would encounter frequent confusion as to who was speaking what, especially if a list of characters was also missing2.
One of my passions in presenting Psalms is to communicate the high sense of life and drama present in them. The psalms are not dry pieces of ancient religious language. They are life giving communications from Almighty God, who knows our form and wishes to tell us that he is intimately involved in our lives. Within Psalms, a tuned in reader can find the complete gospel of Jesus Christ: his preexistence with God and as God, his incarnation, his passion, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, ascension, his Lordship as King over all, and his future role as final judge3. God sent Jesus as Redeemer of the entire human race, because God loves us. God incarnated himself through his Son. Jesus understands us experientially from the inside out. God does not reject us, but he provides a way back to himself. In the person of the suffering and then exalted psalmist, God shows us that way.
1 See the following for references to Jesus Christ as “the Holy One.”
- 1 John 2:20 “Holy One” https://bible.org/seriespage/9-exegetical-commentary-1-john-218-27. W. Hall Harris III refers to Jesus as the Holy One.
- Mark 1:24 by unclean Spirit; also Luke 4:34
- John 6:69 by Peter to Jesus, “You are the Holy One of God.”
- Acts 2:27 by Peter quoting Psalm 16:10
- Acts 13:35 by Paul quoting Psalm 16:10
- 1 Peter 1:15 “the Holy One who called you,” is most likely God. Bob Utley, Bob Utley, https://bible.org/seriespage/i-peter-11-23.
2 An excellent book that explores the intricacies of speech and dialogue in Psalms and other portions of scripture is The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation: The Center of Paul’s Method of Scriptural Interpretation by Matthew W. Bates. (See Bibliography.)
3 See Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. (Bibliography.)