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Tragically, not many commentators hear the voice of Christ in Psalm 102. Spurgeon (1) does not. Generally, those who don’t hear the voice of Christ fail to hear the divine dialogue within this amazing psalm. Because two or more witnesses biblically establish a valid testimony (Deuteronomy 17:6; Matthew 18:16; John 8:18), I’m going to take time at the outset to provide these additional witnesses to my own. First, here is a link to the text itself, where the reader can find the entirety of Septuagint Psalm 101(102), and below that is an excerpt that contains the portion quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12.
Reader Resource: Bilingual Text LXX (Septuagint in Greek) and LXE (Brenton’s English Translation). Notice that in the Greek Septuagint and in Brenton’s translation, Psalm 102 in our English Bibles is numbered as Psalm 101. Also, verse numbers may differ, depending upon which Septuagint edition is being used. The numbers to the left follow the Masoretic tradition while those in parenthesis follow the numbering used by the link given.
23(24) He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days.
24a(25a) Take me not away in the midst of my days: 24b(25b) thy years [are] through all generations.
25(26) In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands.
26(27) 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(28) But thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.
28(29) The children of thy servants shall dwell [securely], and their seed shall prosper for ever.
Here is the same text as presented in the ESV with the Septuagint English in brackets alongside: Psalm 102:23-28.
23 He has broken my strength in midcourse; [LXX: He answered him in the way of his strength:]
he has shortened my days. [LXX: tell me the fewness of my days.]
24 “O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days— [LXX: Take me not away in the midst of my days:]
you whose years endure throughout all generations!” [LXX: thy years [are] through all generations.]
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.
28 The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
their offspring shall be established before you.
Finally, here is the portion (ESV) which the author of Hebrews quotes from the Septuagint:
10 And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”
Second, as witness #1, here is how I perceive the dialogue in Psalm 101(102). Note that verse numbers differ and are dependent upon the edition being used. For reader convenience I am using the Masoretic numbers and referencing in brackets the numbers found in the “Bilingual Text” link in the “Reader Resource” paragraph at the top of this article.
- Verses 1 – 11 [1-12 in the bilingual link given above]. God’s Son speaks to his Father in the days of his incarnation and Passion.
- Verses 12 – 22 [13-23] God the Father replies through the Holy Spirit to his Son.
- Verses 23 – 24a [24-25a] God the Son answers God the Father. (23 “He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days. 24a Take me not away in the midst of may days:)
- Verses 24b – 28 [25b-29] God the Father answers the Son. (24b “thy years are through all generations. 25 In the beginning thou, O Lord …]
Witness #2: John Barclay (2).
[Barclay uses the Masoretic numbering] In this Psalm we behold the sufferings of Christ, as expressed in his own person, by the Holy Ghost, from the beginning to verse 12, contrasted with the following glory, as declared by the same Spirit in the person of the Father, from verse 12 to 23. Then from the 23d to the middle of verse 24, the dialogue is again renewed, as at the beginning of the Psalm, in the person of the Son–to whom, from the middle of verse 24, to the end of the Psalm, the Father is again represented, as replying according to the former manner, mentioned from ver. 12 to 23: for so this Psalm, ver. 25, &c. is expressly applied and interpreted by the Holy Ghost, Heb. I. ‘Unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever–And thou, Lord, in the beginning, hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of think hands,’ &c.–‘And they shall be changed: but thou are the same, and thy years shall not fail.’
My Comment: Very few biblical commentators will ascribe verses 12-24a to God the Father or God the Holy Spirit, even among those who readily find the Father replying to Christ in the final speech, verses 24b-28. Most gladly I recognize the kindred spirit that exists between John Barclay and myself.
In contrast to Barclay, the third witness, below, Robert Hawker, is one who readily hears the voice of Christ in his Passion in verses 1-11, yet who does not recognize the words of comfort found in verses 12-22 as proceeding from God the Father. He does, however, hear Christ speaking in verses 23-24a and the Father directly answering him in verses 25 to the end.
Witness #3: Robert Hawker (3).
After verse 28: From the apostle Paul’s quotation of this glorious passage, Heb. I. 10, &c. and his illustration of it, as there explained, it should seem very evident that these verses contain God the Father’s answer to Christ’s prayer, and form a blessed summary of all redemption mercies ensured to the church in Him…Reader, I know not what soul exercises or afflictions your heart may be wounded with; but I venture to believe, that the truest relief under all, is to view Christ in his unequalled sorrows. Poring over ourselves, or over our own sorrows, and magnifying them, will never bring comfort. But if I see Jesus with the eye of faith, in the tribulated path; if I mark his footsteps, and he calls to me, and leads me by the way of the footsteps of his flock, where he feeds his kids, beside the shepherds’ tents; I shall feel comfort.
My Comment: Very often, those commentators who do not perceive the voice of Christ in Psalm 102, but that of an unnamed human suppliant–these authors tend to focus on Christ as Creator, and that portion of Hebrews as a Creation passage. The reasoning is that the author of Hebrews merely “applies” the words of Psalm 102:25-28 to Christ as object. They consider verses 25-28 to be spoken by the unnamed single human speaker who speaks throughout the entire psalm. They argue that though this human poet addresses God throughout the entirety of the psalm, this particular portion is applied by the author of Hebrews as making reference to Christ as Creator. In other words, they see a human speaking to God throughout the psalm, complaining to God for a longer life, reasoning that because God has such a long life and such power to create, why can’t he give some of that to the suffering poet? They fail to grasp the nearly sacrilegious arrogance of such a supplication. These commentators claim that the author of Hebrews by inexplicable “divine” inspiration, wrenched these words in particular from the whole psalm, and applied them in reference to Christ as object (Creator). Not only does this do disservice to the entire concept of the Bible’s having been written in “plain, ordinary speech,” but it completely destroys the comfort Hawker and others preeminently find in this psalm, as they consider the sufferings of Christ and the comfort afforded both him and us, who are in him, by God the Father.
Witness #4: Arthur Pink (4)
Arthur Pink lines up with Hawker as perceiving Christ as speaker up until the Father’s reply quoted in Hebrews (verses 25-28). Myself and Barclay, the reader might recall, saw two sections in which God the Father spoke directly to the Son (verses 12-22 and 24b-28.) Pink sees only the latter. He adds to the discussion, however, by combining the author of Hebrews’ rhetorical (logical, argumentative) use of Christ as Creator with the devotional comfort found in Psalm 102 of Christ as suffering Savior. Pink writes:
“And Thou, Lord, in the beginning, hast laid the foundation of the earth.” The Psalm from which this is quoted is a truly wondrous one … It lays bare before us the Saviour’s very soul. Few, if any, of us would have thought of applying it to Christ, or even dared to, had not the Spirit of God done so here in Heb. 1. This Psalm brings before us the true and perfect humanity of Christ, and depicts Him as the despised and rejected One (p 69, see note 4).
After the above, Pink quotes the entire psalm (an indication of how very impressed he is with it) up through verse 22. He labels verses 23-24a as the “strong crying,” quoted in Hebrews 5:7, “of Him who was ‘acquainted with grief.'” Then Pink writes:
And what was Heaven’s response to this anguished cry of the Saviour? The remainder of the Psalm records God’s answer: “Thy years are throughout all generations. Of old hast Thou laid the foundation of the earth. And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure, yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall be changed: But Thou art the same, and Thy years shall have no end” (vv. 24-27).
Conclusion: In what I hope has not been a manner too arduous to read, I’ve presented four witnesses who agree that through the use of dialogue, Psalm 102 represents both the voice of the Son crying out to his Father in anguish during the days of his incarnation and Passion and the comforting voice of his Father in reply. I have been greatly encouraged recently to have discovered current academic writers who perceive divine dialogue between Father and Son in the book of Psalms (5). I’m sure up to date devotional material, such as this one seeks to be, will also follow.
I have presented these four witnesses so that the reader may have confidence to explore this pathway in a meditatively devotional session of his or her own. For those who follow this blog, I promise that a devotional interpretation of Psalm 102 will be written next.
For now, in consideration of Christian history’s regarding of Psalm 102 as one of the seven so-called penitential psalms, I just want the reader to notice how exactly the Holy Spirit wrote Scripture. We have seen that not all of the so-called “penitential” psalms are penitential in a sense that requires confession and repentance over sin. In this sense of the word, Psalm 51 is the most “penitential,” and Psalm 102 not at all. Note carefully that Psalm 51, which confesses and mourns over sin, does not represent Christ in any way as speaking from the divinity of his being. Rather, he speaks as mediator, a participant in humanity, a sacrificial lamb who took upon himself the sins of the world. Then, just as carefully, note that Psalm 102, which is highly “penitential” in the second meaning of the word, that of poverty and suffering of spirit, presents Christ both in his divinity and his human nature, but quite apart from sin. The reader can conclude that Christ God’s Son, as 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “knew no sin,” as Psalm 102 demonstrates, and yet God “made him to be sin” “for our sake,” Psalm 51. Praise God.
1 Spurgeon, Charles. The Treasury of David: Containing an Original Exposition of the Book of Psalms; A Collection of Illustrative Extracts from the Whole Range of Literature; A Series of Homiletical Hints upon Almost Every Verse; And Lists of Writers upon Each Psalm in Three Volumes. Peabody: Henrickson Publishers, No Date.
2 Barclay, John. The Psalms of David, and the Paraphrases and Hymns: With a Dissertation on the Book of Psalms, and Explanatory Introductions to Each. Edinburgh: James Gall, 1826. Reprinted Digitally by Forgotten Books, registered trademark of FB &c Ltd., London, 2017. Available at http://www.ForgottenBooks.com, 2017. A better quality copy is available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433068259260;view=1up;seq=205;size=75.
3 Hawker, Robert S. The Poor Man’s Old Testament Commentary: The Book of Psalms, public domain. Available at http://grace-ebooks.com/library/Robert%20Hawker/RH_Poor%20Man%27s%20Old%20Testament%20Commentary%20Vol%204.pdf, published by Grace Baptist Church of Danville, Kentucky. Accessed May 3, 2018.
4 Pink, Arthur. An Exposition of Hebrews. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1954, pages 68-74.
5 See Bates, Matthew W. The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament & Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015 and Paperback Edition 2016. See also Bates, Matthew W. The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation: The Center of Paul’s Method of Scriptural Interpretation. Baylor University Press: Wayco, Texas, 2012.
It happens to be Maundy Thursday and tomorrow is Good Friday. Psalm 51 is an Easter Song if there ever was one. Psalm 51 is difficult for me and for everyone who strongly feels that Christ is the primary speaker in David’s psalms. The speaker in this psalm unquestionably confesses his personal guilt and sin. And Christ is sinless and holy. How can the speaker be Christ? And yet, that is my position.
Craig C. Broyles writes that of the seven penitential psalms (Pss. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), Psalm 51 is unique in its exclusive focus on sin (Broyles, p226). He also writes that among the psalms as a whole, it is “unrivaled … for its interest in inner transformation” (Ibid.). While Broyles in no way claims Christ as speaker, he states that within the psalm itself there is no reason to see David as speaker (Ibid., p 226-227). The superscripts were written by an ancient editor after the fact. None of the superscriptions above the psalms is to be considered Scripture.
Why is it so difficult to receive Christ as speaker in Psalm 51? Consider these words:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:1 ESV)
Turn away thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. (Psalm 51:9 LXE)
I must speak personally here, but I think I speak for many. To attribute the above words to Christ stirs up uncomfortable feelings of shame that are difficult to deal with. If Christ the sacrificial lamb speaks these words upon the painful cross, then that means that he the sinless one is speaking these words for me. It’s extremely humbling to go before the throne of grace knowing that He knows. It’s humbling to agree with him that yes, I did do these things. But what is most humbling is to see the big problem for God that my sin caused and to watch, childlike, as he himself pays the cost to fix the damage my sinful actions brought about. Yes, it’s very childlike. Come on, folks, admit it. God went to a lot of trouble to fix the problem humanity’s sin caused and it cost him a great deal. Because he is who he is, we in our puniness will never be able to possibly imagine what it was like for God’s Son, God himself, our creator, the all-powerful one, to become one of us and to take upon himself our sin.
Psalm 51 can be a great blessing for everyone whose sin is great. So often we hear about those who feel that God could never forgive their sin because of its excessive nature. “God can forgive others,” they may think, “but he could never forgive me.” Yes, he could! And he did! The actual words of the psalm itself don’t say what the sin was. When Israel’s high priest used to lay his hands upon the head of the scapegoat, he wasn’t just symbolically giving up the low-level sins of the people, but all their sins (Leviticus 16:7-10). God knows. Jesus on the cross knew what the sins were. He confessed them as his own.
What might the following words mean when translated into the actual experience of the One hanging on the cross?
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2Corinthians 5:21 ESV)
Might such a person, who has himself become sin, be able to confess the words of Psalm 51? For the sake of all who might ever believe in him, I say yes (1).
1 Because Scripture calls for a witness of at least two, “Where two or more are gathered in my name…” “…take one or two others along…,” I’d like to bring along with me John Barclay. He writes:
… there is no blasphemy (as many have most blasphemously alleged there is) in this manner of interpretation [Christ as the sole speaker in all of Psalm 51]; which must either be admitted, or the New Testament made void! (Barclay, page 218)
While Barclay in his preface has multitudes of arguments to support his attributing all of Psalm 51 to Christ as speaker, one of his main arguments is the existence of parallel passages: Psalm 51:16-17 is parallel to Psalm 40:6. Psalm 40:6-8 is quoted in Hebrews 10:5-7. There the words are attributed directly to the mouth of Christ, “Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said…” (Ibid.). Barclays’s logic is mathematical: If A = B and C = B, then A = C. Since the New Testament in Hebrews attributes Psalm 40:6 to Christ as speaker, then a parallel passage in another psalm (Psalm 51:16) must also be attributed to Christ (Barclay, page 47). It also follows that since there is one speaker throughout all of Psalm 51, if one portion is spoken by Christ, then the whole psalm, by the rules of plain English, must also be spoken by Christ (Ibid., page 42-43).
While I agree with this “head” explanation, I also fully agree with Barclay elsewhere, when he states that seeing Christ as our intercessor and mediator in Psalm 51 is mostly a matter of heart. Christ fully and consciously washed our sins away in his own blood. Why would anyone want to maintain that Christ our mediator did not stand in for us and acknowledge our sin as his own? If this were not so, Barclay asks, then how can we have confidence that the righteousness of Christ is ours? In other words, “How could sinners call his righteousness theirs, if he had not called their sin his?” (Ibid., page 71). And if our theology permits Christ to call our sin his, then in honesty, we cannot forbid him from confessing it. Yes, to see Christ as the speaker of Psalm 51 is to see what substitutionary atonement meant for the Lamb of God.
Many blessings upon you all; may this Easter be among the happiest you have ever known.
Psalm 38 screams at the reader and begs her to ask, “Why is such a self-declared righteous man being punished so extremely by God? What were his self-declared sins against God, that he receives such wrath?” And finally, “Doesn’t it seem odd that someone who knows he is being oppressed by God for his sins would so mightily press upon God in prayerful request for salvation from his enemies?”
Psalm 38 is nowhere quoted in the New Testament, yet it bears a striking resemblance to Psalm 22, which is one of the Old Testament passages most often quoted in the New (1). The Gospel quotations of Psalm 22 make explicit reference to Christ in his Passion, while the author of Hebrews sees Christ as speaker within the context of Psalm 22:22. If readers perceive Christ as speaker in Psalm 22, wouldn’t the same principles of interpretation allow them to perceive Christ as speaker in Psalm 38? The answer is yes.
Augustine in the 4th century perceived Christ as the speaker of Psalm 22 in its entirety from first to last (3). Making an appeal to consistency, he argues that if Psalm 38:3 is not spoken by Christ, then neither is Psalm 22:1, whose words in verse 1a Christ spoke from the cross, “O God, my God, attend to me: why hast thou forsaken me?” Augustine equates, “The words of mine offences are far from my health,” (Psalm 22:1b, Septuagint) with, “There is no peace to my bones because of my sins,” (Psalm 38:3b, Septuagint). Augustine answers questions 1 and 2 above by his claim that as Christ is the head of the body, when he speaks, he speaks for both himself as head and for the body. The sins he confesses are the sins of the body–i.e., the sins of humankind. God metes out on the cross the just consequences of sin that fell upon Adam when he first sinned in the garden. There God said to Adam, “You shall surely die,” (Genesis 2:16-17).
While many other commentators have many other opinions of who is speaking in Psalm 38, I will jump forward to John Barclay (1795-1826, Scotland), with whom I share a kindred spirit. He writes,
This Psalm also is all spoken in one person, and breathes forth the heaviest pressure and anguish of spirit, supported by the most consummate meekness, patience, and resignation to the will of God: the language is borrowed from the most pungent feelings of one suffering all manner of distress in body, min, character, and estate. That Messiah is the person, is demonstrable from the very face of the whole Psalm, compared with all its parallels cited on the margin with others [Note: The ESV version has many links to Psalm 38 throughout the Old and New Testaments], and read in the light of the four Evangelists: so that nothing more particular needs be said in this place; only the reader may especially consult Psalms vi. xl. lxix. and lxxxviii. with their illustrations (Barclay, pages 186-187).
Robert Hawker (1753-1827) writes upon Psalm 38:1,
And how truly interesting is it to behold Christ with an eye of faith thus praying; and to hear him with the ear of faith thus pleading; when enduring that curse which the law denounced against the sinner, and thus redeeming us from the curse by becoming both sin and a curse for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Gal. iii. 13. 2 Cor. v. 21. (Hawker, page 284)
And again, concerning verses 2-10:
Let any man read these verses, and then turn to the gospel, and his mind must be led out to remark the striking similarity between what is here said by the spirit of prophecy, and the history of the sorrows and sufferings of Jesus. Reader, turn to some few passages, and then pause over both, in comparing spiritual things with spiritual, and say whether David spake these things of himself, or of some other man? Luke, xxii. 41-44; Mark, xiv. 32-34: (Ibid.)
Concerning verses 11-14:
Who that ever read the prophet’s account of Him, that as a sheep before her shearers was dumb, so he opened not his mouth; or who that ever read the relation of Jesus standing before Pilate, when, amidst all the blasphemy poured upon him, he remained silent, until the unjust judge himself marveled; or who that ever attended to what the apostle hath said of Jesus, that when he was reviled, he reviled not again; who, I say, that ever attended to these things, could hesitate for a moment to behold the Lord Christ in this prophetic description of him? Surely no one that knows any thing of David’s history, will give him credit for this dumbness and insensibility to the reproaches of his enemies. (Ibid.)
For those who may feel uncomfortable attributing the confession of sin to the lips of Christ, Hawker writes this of verse 18:
Let not these words stagger the faith of the believer in considering them as spoken by Christ. As the sinner’s Surety, he was truly made sin for his people, so the scripture declares, yea, also a curse for them. Hence, in the eye of the law, Christ and his seed are one. Gal. iii. 13. 2 Cor. v. 21. (Ibid.)
Samuel Horsley (1733-1806) is bold in proclaiming,
Many parts of the psalm, however, have so striking a reference to the case of our Lord in the days of his flesh, that I cannot but think the whole belongs to him, and that he (the humanity of Christ) is the sick persecuted suppliant. If the sickness may typify generally his humiliation, as I think it may, and the heat which rages in the sick man’s loins, the fiery trial of wrath which he endured in the garden of Gethsemane, when his distress, though principally mental, discovered itself in dreadful symptoms in his body; if this interpretation of the sickness be admitted, there is not a sentence nor a word in the whole of this extraordinary composition which is not applicable to our Lord as man, with more strictness and propriety than to any other person. (Bishop Horsley, page 95, published posthumously in 1815 by the author’s son.)
Again, Andrew A. Bonar (1810-1892) addresses the incongruity of confessed sin by one whom Scripture declares righteous, when he writes:
The difficulty in the way of supposing it used by the Lord Jesus, as descriptive of his feelings and state, when he took on our guilt by imputation, is not at all greater than in some passages of Psalms xl. and lxix., which almost no one doubts to be his utterances. (Bonar, 129)
Finally, the editors of The Orthodox Study Bible (2008) write that Psalm 38 (37 LXX),
“reveals the great love of Christ for mankind in His sufferings and death on the cross, especially v. 18: For I am ready for wounds, and my pain is continually with me. And although He was ‘separate from sinners’ (Heb 7:26) and ‘knew no sin’ (2Co 5:21), yet out of His great compassion for sinners, He prays this prayer in a relative sense as though He were one of them. Thus, He takes the place of sinners as one of them, and intercedes to the Father for their salvation in the midst of His sufferings and death on the cross.”
The fact that I’ve included so few current references to the voice of Christ praying Psalm 38 is a sad reflection on the distance today’s evangelical churches and biblical academicians generally have moved away from the centrality of hearing Christ pray the Psalter. The third question stated in the opening paragraph above is, “Doesn’t it seem odd that someone who knows he is being oppressed by God for his sins wo0uld so mightily press upon God in prayerful request for salvation rom his enemies?” The answer is simple once we identify the speaker as Christ who prays this prayer. We are not at all surprised to hear the substitutionary Lamb of God asking his Father that his enemies not triumph over him.
What about the Penitential Nature of Psalm 38?
Psalm 38 is third in the series of seven traditional penitential psalms (4). The first verses of Psalms 38 and 6 are identical in the Septuagint (Greek). Even though the speaker in Psalm 38 attributes his suffering to his sin, he does not repent in the strict form of asking for forgiveness (5). Bruce Waltke, James Houston, and Erika Moore write:
Psalm 38 is truly a great piece of literature. The psalmist enables his reader to feel his eventual numbness from his unremitting pain by his unrelenting verbal depictions of them. No psalm depicts sickness in such an extended, numbing way. As the psalmist can endure no further suffering, neither can his audience endure further reading about them. (Waltke, page 134)
Psalm 38 is complex, however, because in the center of this prayer to God the psalmist shifts his focus from describing his pain to describing his enemies. The psalmist’s concern over his enemies continues nearly to the end of the poem. While Craig C. Broyles writes that the actions of his enemies, like those of his friends, are a reaction to his sickness (Broyles, 186), verse 20 (LXE) states otherwise, “They that reward evil for good slandered me; because I followed righteousness.” As indicated in the opening paragraph above, the self-proclaimed righteousness and goodness of the psalmist adds further complexity to this “penitential” psalm.
For those who explore the Septuagint, verse 17(18 LXX) provides an eye-catching difference from the Masoretic text within the context of the New Testament narrative:
Mark 15:15: and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (ESV)
Septuagint (Greek): Because I am ready for scourges, and my pain is ever with me. (NETS, Albert Pietersma, ed.)
Septuagint: For I am ready for plagues (footnote in text: scourges), and my grief is continually before me. (Brenton)
Septuagint: For I am ready for wounds, And my pain is continually with me. (Original translation of St. Athanasius Academy in The Orthodox Study Bible.)
Masoretic (Hebrew): For I am about to stumble, and I am in constant pain. (NET)
Greek for “scourges”: μάστιγας
Definition: μάστιξ, μαστιχος, ἡ, a whip, scourge ) [Hebrew שזט Strong’s 07752] 1 Kings 12:11,14; Prov. 26:3): Acts 22:21; Heb. 11:36; metaphorically, a scourge, plague, i. e. a calamity, misfortune, especially as sent by God to discipline or punish (Ps. 88:33 (Ps. 89:33) (Thayer, Lexicon)
When placed in the context of the entire psalm, verse 17 (18 LXX) adds an important detail to the Passion of Christ.
Psalm 38 is much more than a “penitential” psalm. In it, we as readers find a strikingly complete first person narrative of the Passion of Jesus Christ. As the surrogate for the human race, Christ confessed the sins of his people, even while maintaining his own righteousness. We see his physical sufferings, his friends and family standing passive and aloof, the attacks of his enemies, and his utter reliance and trust toward God his Father.
As we the readers immerse ourselves in this psalm, we come to experience with the psalmist the great, great love which the triune God bears for his children–us. God is a personal God in an extreme sense of that word. He himself, by becoming one of us and dying a sacrificial death on the cross for us, bears the full weight of the burden each one of us owns. “See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children– and indeed we are!” (1John 3:1 NET)
A Personal Plea
If anyone who is reading this has not in your whole life turned to God and said something like, “Hi. Here I am, and this is who I am. Would you be my friend?” then I ask you, won’t you stop reading and thinking right now, turn to God, introduce yourself to him, and ask him for his presence with you? He’ll do all the rest. Jesus Christ will be the best friend you will ever have in your whole life.
1 Psalm 32:1-2 is quoted in Romans 4:7-8, Psalm 22:1 is quoted Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:18 in John 19:24, Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, and Luke 23:24; and Psalm 22:22 in Hebrews 2:12.
2 Compare Psalm 32:3 (LXE) and Psalm 38:13-14 (LXE); Psalm 32:4 (LXE): “For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.” and Psalm 38:2 (LXE): “For thy weapons are fixed in me, and thou hast pressed thy hand heavily upon me.” In this verse the verbs “fastened” and “fixed” are translations of the same Greek word, ἐμπήγνυμι–to stick in.
3 Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, page 191.
4 The seven penitential psalms are: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
Have you ever or are you now being pursued by an enemy who is too strong for you? Perhaps an employer who has it out for you, maybe a violently irrational spouse who blames you for everything, could it be a sibling who wants your share, or even, God forbid, a pastor who views you as a personal threat and is bent upon shaming and eradicating you? These people hotly track you down like a predator its prey. They lay traps before you, that you will fall into them, become ensnared, and succumb to their violence. Hyperbole? Not really. This and so much more happens countless times every day to people all over the world. And it happened to Jesus. Crafty lawyers and religious politicians monitored his every step, lurking nearby whenever he publicly spoke, secretly meeting and plotting in advance, asking difficult questions calculated only to trap in order to later destroy.
The most amazing thing about Psalm 142 is that the Bible contains it. Imagine yourself overpowered by your enemies, at your wits’ end, looking to your right and finding no one to help you–no colleagues, no friends, no family, no neighbors, no one in your congregation of fellow believers. Where are they? Vanished like a mist on a scorching, dry day. You are alone, vulnerable, like a mouse already in the cat’s claw. So you turn to the only friend you have–he is someone you have just met, are about to meet, or whom you have known for a long time. You turn to God.
Who else can hear you? Who else can you trust? To whom else can you bare the secret insides of every crevice of fear and anguish in your heart? You open your Bible and you read the words of this psalm.
Psalm 142:1 A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer. With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
2 I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.
3 When my spirit faints within me, you know my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.
4 Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul.
5 I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
6 Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!
7 Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me. (ESV)
The Holy Spirit reaches into your conscious awareness as you say these words, perhaps even out loud because no one else is with you, “I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!'” (verses 5-6 ESV)
As you gradually recognize your very own personal heart staring at you from the page in front of you, it dawns on you that God is the one who oversaw the printing and publishing of this book you are holding in your hands. And he is the one who caused you to read these exact words at this exact moment of your despair. And if you are very blessed, the Holy Spirit will show you Jesus, God the Father’s own Son, crying out to his Father in the days of his ministry and passion on earth. As the physical presence of Psalm 142 sinks into you, You sense God speaking inside you, “I have been there and done this. I am with you now.” And you are no longer alone. God the Word, the great communicator, speaks loudly and clearly to your heart, “Peace, my child. I see you; I hear you; I know exactly where you are. I love you so much, and I will help you. See! I seal my love with the cross of my Son.”
When the story ends and the crisis has passed, you will share your testimony in the great congregation and the righteous will cheer their God on your behalf, just as verse 7 predicts, “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.” You might even add to your story the words of Psalm 119:71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” “Statutes” is a tough word. Which statute is it that God wants me to learn? In his Son’s own words, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 ESV) Our troubles teach us love–first, that God loves us, second, that he loves others and wants us to love them too. As we see God helping us through all our difficulties, we come to realize that God loves us, and he wants us to love others the same way he loved us. And this is why I am writing about Psalm 142. I want to share God’s love.
Psalm 82 raises puzzling questions: 1) Who are the “gods” of verses 1 and 6, the mighty ones among whom God stands? 2) Who is the first person speaker in verse 6? 3) What is the meaning of the final verse, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!”
1) In view of John 10:31-39, a passage in which Jesus quotes verse 1 of this psalm, the “gods” are the judges and rulers who stand in the place of God as arbiters over the affairs of people. Because of their power and their need to represent justice fairly, it is as though they are “gods” in relation to other people. But they are botching the job. They are judging unfairly and favoring the “wicked.” We can read into the psalm that the judges are favoring the rich, the powerful, those with influence, those who offer favors in return, and so on.
God favors the poor and needy. This psalm is very clear. God’s indictment is against the rulers who are so unlike himself. God says, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” God continues, They [the gods/judges] have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” (Psalm 82:3-5 ESV) When human rulers go against God’s goodness and his kindness toward the poor, the very “foundations of the earth are shaken.”
2) Is the “I” who speaks in verse 6 the same as God who speaks in verses 2-5? Patrick Reardon (Christ in the Psalms, 161-162) points out that the Orthodox Church recites Psalm 82 in their Easter liturgy just before the announcement of the Resurrection of Christ in Matthew. He relates that the Orthodox Church applies verse 8, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations! (ESV),” as a cry by God’s people for the resurrection of Christ. If Christ is addressed as “O God” in verse 8, perhaps then he is also the speaker of verses 6-7?
3) The New Testament supports a reading that Christ is referenced as the one who shall inherit all the nations in verse 8. (Matthew 28:18; Romans 8:17; Ephesians 5:5; Philippians 2:9-11) If Christ is indeed referenced in verses 6-8, then this psalm supports the presence of two persons of the Trinity within the Old Testament.
The Point: However we may choose to answer the questions Psalm 82 raises, the psalm leaves no question about God’s view of the poor and needy. Neglect and mistreatment of the poor and needy by those with power to help provokes the judgment of God against those who hold the power. God does not view the poor and needy as a threat, a danger, as scum, as those to be locked out and avoided. His instructions are clear, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82 promises a day of judgment in which God will judge the judges. This psalm warns them that he is not pleased with their judgments. O that we would be a godly nation who obeyed his Word.
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.
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.)
I wanted to write a quick and easy, last minute message for Thanksgiving Day. “Piece of cake,” I thought. So I hit the concordance looking for a short psalm of pure thanksgiving. Except for Psalm 100, I found none. What I found is that psalms containing “thanks*” are woven into many psalms that speak of hardship, suffering, the wicked, and judgment. Light bulb!
How often do you, or I, or anyone experience days of pure thanksgiving? The key to understanding thanksgiving in Psalms is that they are “woven in.” Psalms is like a tapestry created from the fabric of life. Perhaps this is why they have remained on the top ten list of biblical popularity for eons of human history. They express real life and living. Just as pain and blessing are woven together, so are pain and thanksgiving.
God understands our human hearts, and he is very wise. When he tells us in his Word to give thanks, it is because he knows that thanksgiving is good for us. Finding something to thank God for in the middle of chaos, hurt, disappointment, doubt, confusion, and despair is like finding a rock in sinking sand. It can literally save our psyche from severe harm. In general, our minds are monaural–they follow one track at a time. When I am purposefully giving thanks out loud, it means that I am not doubting, not complaining, not fearing, and a host of other “nots.” I can only do one thing at a time. When I am worshiping God with thanksgiving, God is rescuing my heart from harm. Hallelujia!
So here we go:
Thank you Lord that I slept in a warm, dry bed last night. Thank you Lord that I woke up and am still alive this morning. Thank you that I have family and friends. Thank you that I have one more day to live, that yesterday, which was so horrible for me, is not the last page in the book of my life. Thank you that my car still runs. Thank you for your presence in my heart. Thank you that your invitation for me to turn to you still stands. Thank you for your promise of life after death. Thank you for this little blade of green grass growing through the crack in the pavement. Thank you Lord for sharing this moment with me. Thank you for you…
It’s not hard to fill half an hour with simple thoughts such as these. Thanksgiving is an anti-depressant for those who have little. For those who have much, it’s an antidote to pride. Giving thanks reminds us that we are not in charge. It cautions us not to take our blessings for granted.
So, Happy Thanksgiving!!
Here is one example of a variegated psalm that contains the mix of life.
Psalm 28:1 Of David. To you, O LORD, I call; my rock, be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit.
2 Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.
3 Do not drag me off with the wicked, with the workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors while evil is in their hearts.
4 Give to them according to their work and according to the evil of their deeds; give to them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward.
5 Because they do not regard the works of the LORD or the work of his hands, he will tear them down and build them up no more.
6 Blessed be the LORD! For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.
7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.
8 The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed.
9 Oh, save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever. (ESV)
Well, folks, here it is.
Psalm 137:7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–
9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. (NIB)
Yuk! Did you read that? And it’s right there in the middle of the Bible.
People deal with this in different ways. Here are just a few.
- Skim over and ignore.
- This was a very long time ago in a different culture. At that time, the cultural norm was different than today. Things are changed now.
- God is sovereign. He judges whom and how he pleases.
- They were given their chance to repent.
- They earned it.
- The psalmist doesn’t represent the heart of God here.
Can you spot the common thread in all of the above responses? There’s one thing they all have in common. Waiting…waiting…Ok time’s up. All the above responses are defensive. If you are reading this, then most likely you are the sort of person who would try to defend, gloss over, or somehow explain away the presence in Scripture of this offensively violent vengeance. It does offend us. There’s no getting around that response. Believers feel they must explain and defend God for including these words right in the middle of the Bible. How uncomfortable. What a great spot for critics and skeptics to attack Christians, and they do. Because, in fact, these words challenge us in our gut.
So here’s my take on this at this point in my life: We read it because it’s here.
When I was still young in the Lord, but growing, I worshiped with a small congregation. The format of the services included songs, Scripture reading, and communion. Each of these was congregational led. Some used to call it Spirit led. That is, there was no preplanned program for the day. There were no predetermined songs, readings, or specified time for communion. Someone would lead out and others would join in or listen as appropriate.
I used to enjoy reading from Scripture at these services. Psalms were often read by myself and others. Over time, I noticed that whenever I selected a psalm to read, I tended to select only portions of psalms. Many if not most of the psalms have a sentence or two of judgment and/or punishment concerning the “wicked” in them. Because I felt that our Sunday worship services were meant to be joyful, I only read the happy verses in Psalms. Eventually, the burden became too great. My own censorship piled up to an enormous height, so large that I could no longer bear it. The result was that in my personal devotions, I began reading all of Scripture. I quit censoring. I quit cutting out large segments because I could not deal with them.
My discovery? That God is a God of judgment. And not just in the Old Testament. Not just in the “old days” before Christ came. It’s often quoted that Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in all of Scripture. “There men shall weep and gnash their teeth.” That’s the phrase that kept gnawing at my heart so miserably before I converted to Christ. It dug into me and ate my insides out like a worm. I hated that phrase. As an unbeliever in great need, I used to open my Bible as a desperate, frightened beggar lost in life. I hoped I would find comfort, but instead I repeatedly found, “There men shall weep and gnash their teeth.” And I would slam my Bible shut.
Eventually, my need for help won out, and I turned to the God of the Old Testament, confessing my need and total ignorance of him. Interesting…he didn’t meet me with condemnation. He met me with love, a strong love that continues to this day.
So what do we as believers in Jesus do with Psalm 137:7-9 and similar statements sprinkled like salt throughout Psalms? We read them and admit that they are there and that God intends those words to be there and that he hasn’t changed his mind, because God never changes.
Several decades ago, I realized that the God of creation is the same God who loves me. What a privilege and blessing that is! Think by name of all the evil dictators in the whole world over all time. God could have been like one of those! But he isn’t. When I think of God, I see his Son hanging on a cross to save the world. “If you have seen me,” Jesus said, “you have seen the Father.” I believe that God is both a God of judgment and a God of love. Fortunately for us, the love won out. But what good does that love do you if you don’t know about it and haven’t received?
If you remove heat, you have cold. If you remove light, you have darkness. If you remove love, you have pain. If you remove mercy, you have judgment. So turn towards the heat, turn towards the light, turn towards love, and turn towards mercy. In short, turn towards God. He loves you.
IS IT COINCIDENCE OR GOD’S PLAN that three psalms ending with the number 8 form a triplet detailing the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, God’s divine and human Son? Psalm 88 is a first person account of the crucifixion. Yes, that’s right–the Psalter gives us in Christ’s own words an account of what it was like for him to die. Foretelling in advance is called prophecy. Through the poet Christ prophetically speaks out his thoughts and deep feelings as he lies within his tomb. That God captured this moment in time and included it within his Scripture for us to find and read is precious beyond words.
Psalm 18 is a joyful account of Papa God rescuing his Son from death. For us who have seen so many movies, the word that comes to my mind is “playful.” This account of the resurrection frolics, and I mean no disrespect. A more modern word might be “rocks.” Psalm 18 rocks. Reading this psalm fills me with admiration for God, wonder, and respect. The drama of the psalm matches the drama of the most amazing event in all of human history–a man who had been dead for three days broke free from his grave alive and well. Psalm 18 tells how that happened. It later describes the exaltation of Christ to Kingship over all nations as he executes judgment upon his enemies, both spiritual and physical.
Finally, Psalm 118 continues the celebration of resurrection. It’s a glorious day!
Please take time to reread these three prior posts as they explain in detail what I have outlined above. The links are here: