ReThinking Psalm 22

A note to readers: Normally my entries here are not primarily personal in tone or content. This one is. I offer it as a personal reflection, not in any way as a representation of United Methodist teaching, nor on any official or unofficial position of The General Board of Discipleship, my employer.

Something that struck me fairly powerfully while praying Psalm 22 at a Good Friday service yesterday was that perhaps the speaker in Psalm 22 is not primarily an individual in distress, but the head of an army about to be destroyed in battle. "Strong bulls of Bashan surround me"-- "Save me from the jaws of the lion, the mouth of the dog"-- this isn't language one would use to describe a disease process (as this Psalm is usually described-- and as I have seen it in many commentaries). But it fits the context of battle perfectly.

So the cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" is also a battle cry-- Come on, YHWH, our Defender-- where are you? You're supposed to be on our side here! What gives? Perhaps the point of the Psalm was precisely for those situations in battle where all seemed lost-- to rally God to attention in some way, a rallying that spurs morale in the troops and gives renewed confidence that indeed, they will come back to praise God in a victory celebration.

I'm also thinking the early Church totally got this vision of the Psalm. We also sang, yesterday, "Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle." a sixth century text by Venantius Fortunatus. Of course, I've been quite aware of the Christus Victor reading of the cross by early Christianity, and this hymn simply fits that. But this is the first time that I've really connected Psalm 22 with it as well. Psalm 22 seemed to me always to be about the suffering of Jesus, personally, a personal suffering that we certainly also take seriously at the remembrance of his passion and execution.

Perhaps it was my "individual salvation" upbringing that has made it difficult for me to see what now appears obvious to me about Psalm 22. The personal side is there, to be sure. But the personal elements in that Psalm, ultimately, are also metaphorical of a much deeper situation at stake-- the King of the kingdom of God apparently being trounced by the armies of the kingdoms of this world.

Not simply in anguish, but facing the loss of all, a loss of cosmic proportions, Jesus cries out the first line of this Psalm, and shortly thereafter, dies.