A recent skype call from a friend in the USA caused me to look afresh at Psalm 22. One of the disturbing things about growing older is the nagging consciousness of how little one has really grasped of God's Word. Even well-known passages may be packed with greater riches than one ever realised. In the assembly of my childhood we had an elderly brother who would fairly regularly stand up on a Lord's Day morning and read this Psalm, in his words, "without comment". It is, undoubtedly, a marvellous way of concentrating the mind on the sufferings of the Lord Jesus, but, looking back, I rather wish he had offered some exposition for the benefit of younger folk like me. Of course, this particular section of Scripture is for ever linked in our minds with the unfathomable work of Calvary. But I'd like to linger over one verse which all believers may legitimately take to themselves as a tonic in times of trouble.
First, however, let us remind ourselves of the remarkable range of meaning built into the Psalms as a whole. These amazing poems can be read in at least three different ways (and for the clearest presentation of this truth I am indebted to A G Clarke's indispensable Analytical Studies in the Psalms). First of all, we should bear in mind their historical situation, for they are not ivory-tower exercises in versification but grow out of the personal experiences of the psalmist. This by no means denies inspiration. The New Testament makes it clear that "the Holy Spirit by the mouth of David spake" (Acts 1.16): that is to say, the words are wholly inspired and yet the human instrument was no unconscious dictaphone but a man who, going through sunshine and shadow, related everything to his communion with God. Near the beginning and the end of his life David suffered hard knocks at the hands of Saul and at the hands of his own son Absalom. There's no precise indication of which time of trial provoked Psalm 22, or even if it relates to either of these, but we can be certain that it was a season of dejection and dereliction. David felt utterly abandoned. The Psalms are rooted in human reality.
Second, it is evident that most if not all the Psalms include a measure of prophetic anticipation. Though they spring from the writer's immediate circumstances they also look forward to the culmination of God's programme in the Messiah, glimpsing both His sufferings and glory. Just try this little test. Read through Psalms 65 to 68, and Psalms 96 to 99. If language means anything, do they not offer a telescopic foreview of the kingdom era when Israel and the nations will be blessed, when nature will be restored, when Christ will reign in righteousness over the entire earth? In the case of Psalm 22 we are privileged to see both the sufferings and the glory; indeed, we can actually pick out what might be called the hinge moment, where the writer turns from exploring in graphic depth Messiah's trials (the past) to announce His subsequent triumph (the future). It comes in the middle of v.21, where the shift in tone is unmistakeable. Instead of the earlier complaint "thou hearest not" (v.2), we read "thou hast heard me". The Psalms look to the long-term.
Third – and this is of immense encouragement for saints under stress – these poems contain material for practical application in the here and now. As Paul says, citing Psalm 69, "whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom 15.4). The Psalms have something to say to me.
It is this third way of reading that I want to take up in relation to verse 22 of Psalm 22. Here is the passage in its context:
"But be not thou far from me, O Lord: O my strength, haste thee to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion's mouth for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns. I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee" (Ps 22.19-22).
Three lessons strike me. First, our circumstances are designed, in the providence of God, to teach us more about Him. Having come through the bitterness of unimaginable sorrow when it seemed that prayer went unheeded, David is now able to look back and acknowledge Jehovah's greatness. A footnote in the first volume of Allen P Ross's superb Commentary on the Psalms (Kregel, 2012) investigates the implications of a "name" in Hebrew culture. He tells us that "the word is frequently used with the meaning 'reputation'…[and] the nuance of reputation overlaps with the meaning of character description. The name of the Lord stands for the Lord Himself, His essential nature revealed as an active force in the lives of the people". God's name, then, is everything that He gloriously is in the inexhaustible fullness of His divine being. David's ordeal has taught him more about God than he knew before. It's the same with Genesis 22. Breathing the raw air at the summit of Moriah, Abraham discovered that his God was "Jehovah-jireh", the Lord who sees to it for His people, providing exactly what they need just when they need it. Similarly, in his grief David found more in his God. Of course, Abraham already knew intellectually that Jehovah was the infallible supplier of His children – had he not assured Isaac that "God will provide himself a lamb" (Gen 22.8)? – but on Mount Moriah he saw it with his very eyes (Gen 22.13). The textbook of Scripture often needs the razor-sharp edge of immediate peril to bring its doctrines home to our hearts.
Second, what we learn about God is not to be hoarded but shared. David does not intend to declare God's name in a vacuum, but "unto my brethren". It's implicitly an exercise in fellowship, for believers are not to be miserly in their appreciation of God. What we enjoy is to be passed on, perhaps in a private word, perhaps in public ministry, for the benefit of those who are dear to us. This is Paul's point in his second letter to the Corinthians: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassions, and God of all encouragement; who encourages us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to encourage those who are in any tribulation whatever, through the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged of God" (2 Cor 1.3-4, JND). It may sound a bit of a mouthful, but the meaning is simple: God puts His people through difficulties that they may discover the sweetness of His practical encouragement in their time of need and, in turn, pass it on to others facing similar tests. Maybe your current trial, so perplexing and painful, is equipping you in a very special way to serve believers in your assembly. But there is a flipside to this truth. Just as the Lord instructs us personally by means of those tough situations through which He takes us, so He also ministers to us through the experiences of fellow-saints. We must therefore be willing to learn from others.
Third, an enriched knowledge of God fuels our praise and worship: "in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee". What is praise but the glad acknowledgement of what God is and what He has done for His people? The more we know of Him the more we have to offer in the way of worship. Because the sovereign God "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Eph 1.11), we can be sure that nothing in our lives, no, not even those burdens which seem so hard to bear, is accidental or random. In a sense, then, verse 22 answers the question of verse one. Why do the Lord's people pass through all kinds of distress in this world? – That they might all the more be able to lift up His name in glad adoration.
To be continued.