“At three o’clock, Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My
God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46).
How was Jesus’ cry from the cross, quoted in Aramaic,
received by those standing near? “When some of the bystanders heard
it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran,
filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to
him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come
to take him down’” (Mark 15:35-36; Matthew 27:47,49). They misunderstood;
they were not quite sure exactly what it was that Jesus had said.
Each year during Holy Week we Christians stand once again near
the cross and hear Jesus’ cry anew. Unlike those described in the
Gospel, though, we know exactly what he said and we recognize it
as the opening verse of Psalm 22.
But do we really know what it means? Is Jesus despairing
on the cross? Or is he, rather, pointing to the end of the psalm
where hope and praise are expressed?
How can we enter into Jesus’ cry today? Was the psalmist
looking forward to and predicting Jesus’ death?
To understand this better, we will progress through
three steps. First, we will look at Psalm 22 by itself and seek
to understand it on its own terms. Then, we will examine how the
first Christians drew on Psalm 22 to understand Jesus’ death. Finally,
we will see what meaning this might have for us today.
When we feel blessed in life and experience goodness
and wholeness, we turn to God in praise and thanksgiving. But what
happens when we experience just the opposite? What happens when
we are overcome by brokenness, suffering and death, when the relationships
of our lives come apart? Lament is a prayer for help coming out
Of the 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms, over 50 belong to the
category of laments. While laments occur elsewhere in Scripture,
both Old and New Testaments, they are a form of prayer that is less
familiar to us today (see "Biblical
Laments: Prayer Out of Pain.)"
Psalm 22 calls out to God, presents the suffering of
the speaker, talks of enemies and ends in praise. It falls into
two parts: verses 1-21 (lament) and verses 22-31 (praise).
Each of those sections can be subdivided into two parts:
verses 1-11 (the psalmist and God), verses 12-21 (the psalmist and
enemies); verses 22-26 (praise in the assembly of Israel), verses
27-31 (praise from all peoples).
Israel firmly believed that God was a God of life,
a God who frees from oppression. Therefore, if I am experiencing
death and oppression, then where is God?
The psalmist feels alone, addresses God directly and
asks the heartfelt question, “Why?” (verse 1). “Why have you forsaken
What the psalmist is experiencing makes no sense; things
do not fit together. God seems very distant in both space (“far,”
verses 1, 11, 19) and time (“by day,...by night,” verse 2).
This cry to God should not be confused with despair.
In despair, we give up on our relationship to God and let it go.
For the psalmist, that relationship has been foundational
(“from my birth,” 10). In fact, his enemies mock him precisely because
he has been faithful to God (8). It is this bond of trust in God
that the scoffers try to undermine.
We can read through these verses and count how often
the words I and you occur. Even if the psalmist does
not experience God’s closeness, he believes that God does care and
is always within shouting distance. Lamenting is not a failure of
faith but an act of faith.
The first part of the psalm addressed more the
psalmist’s relationship to God; the second part shifts to his relationship
If God seems far off, the enemies are very near. They
are described in animal imagery: strong bulls, ravening lions, dogs,
wild oxen (verses 12-13, 16, 21)—all on the prowl and attacking.
The only activity we can clearly identify is one of
mocking and gloating (7, 17). When we recall that the ancient biblical
culture was very much an honor-shame culture, we can appreciate
how much suffering this would bring to the psalmist.
The constant attack of the enemies takes its toll on
the psalmist. He suffers physical and psychological breakdown and
approaches death (14-15, 16c-18). “I am poured out like water” most
likely refers to tears. Many different body parts are mentioned:
bones, heart, breast, mouth, tongue, jaws, hands and feet. The ancients
did not make the sharp distinction that we do between physical and
The psalmist feels he has been laid “in the dust of
death” (15); the enemies too think he is as good as dead and they
begin to divvy up his clothing (18). The last three verses contain
urgent pleas for God to come close (19), deliver (20) and save (21).
The change in tone from part one to part two is
quite pronounced. From the language of suffering and pain, we move
to that of praise and thanksgiving. This sudden shift is
typical of the lament psalms (see Psalms 6:9-11; 10:16-18; 13:6b).
Scholars have offered various explanations. Perhaps
the most common is that the psalmist has heard an oracle of salvation,
perhaps from a priest at the Temple. This gives him assurance that
God has heard the prayer and that deliverance is on the way.
Instead of being surrounded by enemies who scorn, the
psalmist is now surrounded by family and friends in “the congregation”
(verses 22, 25) of faith. He fulfills his vows with a thanksgiving
sacrifice which involves the eating of a meal. All offer praise
to God because God heard the cry of the afflicted and brought deliverance
The circle of praise now moves from the psalmist
and Israel to all nations on the earth (verses 27-28), as well as
people before us in time (29) and those who will come after us (31).
At the beginning of the psalm, the psalmist felt isolated and alone
in space and time. Here at the end, the praise of God goes out to
fill all space and time.
Psalm 22 is, thus, the prayer of a just one who suffers
innocently, of one who is surrounded by enemies and mocked precisely
because of his fidelity to God. When God hears this cry and delivers,
the just one offers praise and thanksgiving to God.
After the resurrection of Jesus, when his first
followers went forth to proclaim the Good News (the gospel that
he embodied), they were faced with a problem. Jesus had been put
to death by the authorities. What’s more, the form of death, crucifixion,
was the most shameful and degrading imaginable.
We are so used to seeing Jesus on the cross that a lot
of the shock of it has worn off. As one observer has noted, if Jesus
were to come to earth today and be sentenced to death, he would
most likely be electrocuted. Then Christians all over the world
would wear around their necks little silver and gold electric chairs!
Jesus’ death on the cross was a scandal and an obstacle that had
to be explained.
The Passion narratives, then, were perhaps the first
Gospel materials to have taken shape. The strikingly similar account
of the final hours of Jesus’ life in all four Gospels implies an
ancient tradition. And like all the Gospel material, the Passion
story is not a bare chronicle of past events but is filled with
the faith of the earliest Christians who struggled to understand
and explain the tragic death of Jesus.
One of their first affirmations was, as Paul expressed
it, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures”
(1 Corinthians 15:3). When Jesus identifies his betrayer at the
Last Supper, “the Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Mark
14:21). When he is arrested in the garden, Jesus rejects violent
resistance, for “how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which
say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:54). He is arrested
and carried off “that the scriptures be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49).
Nothing happened by chance or misfortune. All was according
to God’s plan and God’s will, as revealed in the Jewish Scriptures.
In addition to this general principle (“according to
the scriptures”), the early Christians began alluding to or citing
specific passages to show that Jesus was also innocent. The Book
of Wisdom (2:12-18) presents an innocent one attacked because of
his faith in God, while Isaiah (52:13-53:12) presents God’s servant
who suffers innocently for the sake of others.
But when it came to describing Jesus’ death scene
itself, another text was particularly important: Psalm 22. In addition
to showing how Jesus dies “according to the scriptures,” it also
is an eloquent presentation of the suffering of an innocent one
who suffers precisely because of his faithfulness to God’s will,
and of someone who is ultimately vindicated by God.
“And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting
lots to decide what each should take” (Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35)
recalls Psalm 22:18, “They divide my clothes among themselves, and
for my clothing they cast lots.”
“Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying...”
(Mark 15:29; Matthew 27:39) recalls Psalm 22:7, “All who see me
mock me...they shake their heads.”
“Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’
which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
(Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46) is a direct quotation from Psalm 22:1.
A further comment is called for regarding an allusion
which we might expect to find but, in fact, is not there. In The
New Revised Standard Version, Psalm 22:16 reads, “My hands and
feet have shriveled.”
But the new Jewish Publication Society translation reads,
“Like a lion, (they maul) my hands and my feet.”
The ancient Greek translation, called the Septuagint,
renders it, “They have pierced my hands and my feet,” and it is
this translation that was cited by many early Christian writers.
It is, however, not used in the New Testament.
The original Hebrew of this verse is quite obscure,
and its absence in the New Testament suggests that at this point
the earliest Christians were not using the Greek. That Jesus’ words
are cited in Aramaic would also point in this direction.
Down through the centuries, a number of Christian writers
have maintained that Psalm 22, in fact, predicts Jesus’ death in
detail. Can we still affirm this today?
In 2001 the Pontifical Biblical Commission addressed
this issue expressly in The Jewish People and Their Scriptures
in the Christian Bible (#21). That document says the Christian
community believes that Jesus fulfills the Jewish Scriptures, but
“it does not understand this fulfillment as a literal one.” In addition,
“fulfillment is brought about in a manner unforeseen....It would
be wrong to consider the prophecies of the Old Testament as some
kind of photographic anticipations of future events.”
The document stresses that the Christian reads these
Old Testament texts “retrospectively.” Like the first followers
of Jesus, we look back through our faith in the risen Christ and
try to find in the Hebrew Scriptures ways to understand who Jesus
is and what he has done.
What conclusions might we draw from this information
that relates to our lives today?
To begin with, we should understand Jesus’ cry from
the cross exactly as it stands. He makes his own the prayer of the
psalmist, an innocent man who is suffering because of his fidelity
to God’s will in his life. As I have already explained, these are
not words of despair but an expression of faith.
Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels do not hesitate to show
Jesus in the utter agony of feeling forsaken as he faces a terrible
death. In these Gospels also, Jesus began the journey of the passion
with an anguished prayer, “Abba, Father, for you all things are
possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what
you want” (Mark 14:35-36; Matthew 26:39).
While Psalm 22 ends with hope and praise, those are
not the words on Jesus’ lips. The Gospel of John shows us a more
exalted Jesus who is more or less in control during his Passion;
the darker elements are removed.
But Matthew and Mark show us more the human Jesus who
entered fully into our human condition. This is not a sentimental
kind of piety.
In addition to understanding Jesus’ cry, we might ask,
can we make it our own? But this question has it backwards. The
point is not that we can enter into Jesus’ cry but that Jesus has
entered into ours.
For us, as human beings, death is dark and scary and
real. Even though we believe and trust in God, death can cause anxiety
and anguish. Jesus does not bring us deliverance from death
but deliverance through death. We live in a culture which,
in many ways, is death-denying; it is afraid to take a clear look
at the fact and the meaning of mortality.
The cry of the psalmist is a profoundly human cry. Perhaps it is
a witness our society could benefit from hearing.
We also need to realize that Jesus suffered and died
because of his fidelity to God’s will in his life. Jesus’ preaching
was good news for the poor; he ate with publicans and sinners. Many,
including both political and religious leaders, found this offensive
If we show fidelity to the teaching and example of Jesus,
we can face similar reactions. We may not face actual death. But
we can face opposition and mockery in lesser, more subtle ways that
are still painful. “All who see me mock at me;...they shake their
heads” (Psalm 22:7). Do we continue to trust in the Lord?
In addition, while there are no certain references in
the New Testament to the second part of Psalm 22 (the hymn of praise),
we do see in the Gospels that Jesus was vindicated. His resurrection
from the dead is God’s stamp of approval on his life.
Through the death of Jesus, the meaning of death has
been, as it were, changed from the inside. Instead of representing
the ultimate separation, it is now the path to greater union.
The risen Christ is present now in our midst and gathers
a congregation of faith around him to recount the praises of what
God has done and to share in a thanksgiving (eucharistic) meal.
At the end of Psalm 22, as in the Gospels, the circle
of praise should go out to embrace the whole world. It is a vision
of inclusiveness that breaks down all the barriers that we, as humans,
are too eager to set up. The death of Christ points us forward to
the day when God’s kingdom will be all in all.
This year, once again, we will stand near the cross
and hear Jesus’ cry anew. We know what he is saying. Do we understand
its meaning and the challenge that it represents?
All Scripture citations are from The New
Revised Standard Version of the Bible.