Hope in the Midst of Lament: A Meditation on Psalm 22

We all face a problem. It is the biggest problem in the world. It is bigger than our national debt. It is more grandiose than the problem of finding water in places where we are running out. It is a problem that affects all of us: Rich and poor, Black and white, American and Russian. It does not matter. This problem does not discriminate. We all face it. It is the problem of death.

The problem has been summed up well by Kasey Chambers in a country song.

We’re all gonna die someday lord
We’re all gonna die someday
Mama’s on pills daddy’s over the hill
But we’re all gonna die someday

Mrs. Chambers may have been hoping for a laugh with those lyrics, but what she says is true. We are all going to die someday. That is an inescapable fact. It doesn’t matter whether you are an atheist, a Buddhist, or a Christian. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in science or if you don’t believe in science. The fact that we are all going to die is not denied by anyone. This is the great problem we face. This has been a problem for humanity ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden. With that first sin, death entered into the world and things have not been the same since. War, violence, disease, old age, disasters, all these things and many more lead to death. This is not what God intended, but this is what the world has become. We live in a fallen world and the greatest evidence of this is death.

Sin and death is not what God desired for his creation, and because God is loving and merciful he was not content to just sit back and watch humanity destroy itself. So God did the most amazing thing. He took on flesh and came to earth. God was born.  He lived among poor people in a remote part of the Roman Empire. God experienced everything we experience in life. He understands poverty, pain, rejection, and death because he has been poor. He has felt pain. He has been rejected, and he was put to death. God did not die in a hospital bed while taking pain killers. He was crucified on a cross, one of the cruelest forms of punishment known to man. Why did he do it? He did it for you and me. He did it because of love. This was the greatest act of love the world has ever witnessed. God did not just die for his friends and family. He died for everyone. He died for the people who were spitting upon him as he walked to Golgotha. He died for Pilate, Caiaphas, and everyone in the crowd who yelled, “Crucify him.” God forgave these people from the cross and he gave his life for them. There is no greater love than this.

What took place at the cross was a tragedy. God was crucified. It was the greatest act of injustice ever. In the ancient world the cross was a symbol of torture. Some respectable citizens refused to even speak about crucifixion. It was not polite conversation. The cross was ugly and vulgar. It was a reminder of death. Death is often cruel and unwelcoming. Death was humanity’s greatest problem 2,000 years ago and it remains that way today. We have not advanced so much as a society that we are able to solve this problem, and we never will. As Jesus was being tortured and as he was dying on the cross he cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Some have pointed to this verse as evidence that God abandoned his Son on the cross, but I do not believe this to be true. You cannot divide God, and Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Why does Jesus utter these words then? These words come from the first verse of Psalm 22. This is a psalm of lament. Jesus turns to scripture as he laments what is taking place. God did not abandon him, even though it might have felt that way. When we are hurt, when we are in the middle of grief or despair, it often feels like we are all alone. It feels like God has abandoned us, but we know that is not true. We know that this is only a feeling and that God is near. In these times of sorrow and pain we often cry out just as Jesus did from the cross.

As we hear these words of lament from the cross it is important that we go back and read the entire psalm. The psalm begins with deep lament, but then it moves to petition and hope. The psalmist asks God to intervene and to save. We find statements like these:

“Lift my soul from the sword”

“Save me from the lion’s mouth”

“You do not hide from the sorrowful; when they cry out for salvation, you listen.”

And then at the very end of the psalm we find amazing words of hope.  The psalmist writes,

“Those who live at the earth’s end will remember and turn back to their Creator.”

“You will be remembered in every generation.”

At the cross, it seems death has won. Romans and Jews knew as much about death as we do. They understood that when a person died, they were dead. People do not come back from the dead. Jesus died on a cross and was buried in a tomb. We talk a lot about Friday and the events of the cross. We also talk a lot about Sunday and the hope we find there, but we don’t often talk about Saturday. On Saturday, Jesus was in the grave. The people who knew Jesus were mourning because they knew he was dead. On Saturday, Jesus is alone in the tomb. On Saturday, it seems death has won.

On Friday, God was crucified, and on Saturday, he was alone in the tomb. There seems to be little hope here. No one is expecting a dead man to come back to life. These are dark days. These are days of lament. These are days of sorrow and grief. It is no surprise that Jesus turns to a psalm of lament on the cross. His followers who were faithful Jews probably also turned to the lament psalms in their grief. This is what the people of God did. This was a way of expressing their sorrow and asking God for help. Psalm 22 begins with these words,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.

Those are strong words. Some Christians do not like saying them or reading them, and yet this is how people feel at times. They feel abandoned and alone. Imagine being a peasant in Israel who is being oppressed by Rome. You are longing for a better life. You are longing for God’s promises to come true. You hear word of a man who performs mighty deeds. Some are saying he is the Messiah. You hear him speak, and you put your hope and trust in Jesus of Nazareth. You follow him and eagerly await the coming kingdom of God, but now this man whom you thought was the Messiah, a man you hoped would bring about real change, has been crucified by the Romans. All hope is gone, so you turn to the psalms of lament and you grieve.

Psalms of lament help us find the words we long for when we are too stricken with sorrow to come up with our own words. These psalms express grief for us, but that is not all they express. Notice what the psalmist says next.

Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

The psalmist turns to God not just to express his frustration, but also because he trusts God. He knows how God has acted in the past and he trusts that God will do it again. Psalms of lament often describe a movement from grief to trust.

So Jesus recites a psalm of lament from the cross. He chooses a psalm that describes the rejection and pain that he was feeling, but that is not all it describes. Psalm 22 is a psalm filled with echoes of hope. It describes a time of lament, but it reminds the reader that lament is not the last word. Kasey Chambers sang, “We’re all going to die someday” but I prefer the lyrics of another poet. One of my favorite albums of all time is Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen. That album contains the song “Atlantic City.” In that song Springsteen sings,

Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

The first line begins much like the Kasey Chambers’ song. We are all going to die and that is a fact. No one escapes death. But Springsteen does not stop there. He goes on to remind us of one of the most important truths we find in Scripture. Everything that dies will someday come back. The apostle Peter puts it this way.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Pet. 1:3)

Our hope is in the resurrection! Death does not have the last word. The psalmist in Psalm 22 pleads with God and asks him to intervene. At first glance it looks as if God is not going to intervene. Jesus dies and is buried. It looks as if Pilate’s conviction and sentence is carried out, and it is, but God does something amazing. God, the righteous Judge, intervenes. Pilate does not have the last word. Caiaphas does not have the last word. Satan does not have the last word. God has the last word, and God overturns the verdict. Pilate says death. God says life, and so on the third day Jesus is raised from the grave.

What is interesting about Psalm 22 is what comes at the end. It begins with lament and despair, but it ends in these broad statements of faith and hope.  There is such a broad gap between the beginning and the end that some commentators believe it’s not part of the same psalm, but they miss the point. When this psalm is put into the context of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus it makes absolute sense. The death and burial of Jesus were two of the darkest days on this planet, but they were followed by the brightest and most hopeful day humanity has ever known. The resurrection is God’s answer to the problem of death. For Christians, the problem of death is no longer a problem. Jesus has overcome death and we now have a living hope. The resurrection is a game changer. It changes how we look at the cross. It changes how we look at death. It changes how we live our lives. Death no longer has its grip on us.

Psalm 22 ends with statements like these:

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.”

“Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.”

The resurrection is not just good news. It is great news! It is news that we will want to share with everyone. It is news that doesn’t just capture a community or town, it captures the entire world. It doesn’t just go out and stop. It goes out and it keeps on going.  One generation shares it with another. It keeps getting passed down and handed off. It is such a great message that a person cannot keep it to themselves. It must be shared. It must go out. God has come and he has conquered death. Hallelujah! He has overcome the evil one. Glory be to God! What was a problem for humanity for thousands of years no longer has to be. We have a Savior who died for us, but he did not stay dead. His tomb is empty. This is our hope.

There are still many things in this world to lament and grieve over. We still hurt. We still feel pain. We still deal with tragedy and disease, but now we view these things through a different lens. Because Jesus came to earth and endured the tragedy of the cross, he now understands whatever we are going through. When we hurt and grieve he steps into our suffering and he walks beside us. He is a friend who is always near. Jesus not only helps with our pain and suffering, but he brings us hope. Out of lament comes hope. Out of death comes resurrection. God is in the business of redeeming and restoring.  God is in the business of bringing life to that which is dead, and in this we hope.

Holy Father, we come into your presence and we say “Thank you.” Thank you for loving us enough to come to earth. Thank you for loving us enough to die on the cross. Thank you for loving us enough to provide an answer to the problem of death. The resurrection is our hope.  May we look to you when we are suffering and know that you are the giver of life. You are the one who makes all things new. Father we live in a world that is broken and longing for something more. May we not keep the message of resurrection to ourselves, but may we share it with as many people as possible. May the message of resurrection go forth to all the nations and may it be proclaimed to coming generations. Father our hope is in you, your Holy Spirit whom you sent to comfort us, and your Son Jesus who died for us and was raised from the grave. We pray this in his name. Amen.

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Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.

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