Psalm 22: Commentary by John Sweeney

psalm22 man walking under arch

Jon SweeneyBlaming God has as rich a history as does praising God. But “blaming” is the wrong gerund, since it connotes fault on the part of the speaker, as in, I did not intend to blame you… Better verbs with an object for explaining what we think of as God’s inactivity would be “criticizing” or “disapproving.” Dare we disapprove of God? I think so; and there’s a long history of it. Disapproving of God is, in fact, what Psalm 22 sings. It is a protest ballad of criticism of the Divine. And why not? Where the hell is God, anyway?

Even Jesus criticizes God—with the first line of this Psalm—calling out from the cross as he is dying: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” (New Revised Standard Version). The rest of verse 1, and all of verse 2, are an indictment of God’s silence: “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” These are the words of a friend or companion—only one intimate with God would care enough to speak this way—but a deeply disappointed friend.

This is supposed to be one of King David’s psalms, and the psalmist is a realist. “You are holy … But I am worm,” he juxtaposes from verses 3 to 6. In other words, I get it: we’re a universe apart, and yet, we’re not a universe apart because, “It was you who took me from the womb” (verse 9). You made me. You brought me here. This was your idea. And now you ignore me?! Were you just playing around?

Christians have long wrestled with the humanness of Jesus. The late second century CE Docetists (from a Greek word literally meaning “Illusionists”) were particularly insistent in their argument against this notion. They contended that the human form of Jesus was an illusion, that he was always, while walking around on earth, all-God. To my knowledge, there are no Docetists today, and yet, in my experience Christians still too easily see everything Jesus did and said as part of a grand cosmic plan. The gymnastics we undergo to explain this scream from the cross can be extreme—and part of our own illusion.

One might expect that Jesus—an observant Jew and a teacher (rabbi)—would have said the Sh’ma or another doxological statement on the cross when faced with his imminent death, but he didn’t. Or, if he was wanting to draw from Psalm 22, a favorite, one might think he would have chosen one of the many lines that affirms the sovereignty of God despite the experience of God’s silence that he seems to have been experiencing in those frightful last moments: “Dominion belongs to the Lord!” (verse 28) or “Before him shall bow all who go down to the dust!” (verse 29). But he didn’t do that, either. He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” This wasn’t according to a plan.

There are among us many who criticize God, and it also isn’t according to plan. A spouse dies, and we scream. A child dies, and we curse. Calamity falls all around us and we say, was it a game, rather than a plan, that you began when you created us?

I know that there have long been arguments against the divinity of Jesus based on this Psalm, for similar reasons to what I’ve been discussing here. God wouldn’t cry out to God, the arguments go. My intention isn’t to address these, or to argue at all, but simply to say God is inscrutable. There are many times in the Hebrew Scriptures when God changes God’s mind, when God is pliable, when God displays surprising emotion. Whether you are Christian or Jew, or neither, you have surely had moments in your life when you somehow knew this God (by any number of names) more profoundly than the God who is a master planner and implementor.

As a Catholic married to a congregational rabbi, I’m often uncomfortable when Christians re-appropriate Jewish religious metaphors without acknowledging that these existing images and symbols remain valuable to a whole other community of God seekers. Take, for example, the widespread notion that Christ is the slain Passover lamb (see St. Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 5:7). I can understand how it might be offensive to Jews that this ancient and animating redemptive image has been aggressively revamped by Christians, who have too often denied the integrity of Judaism and actively oppressed Jewish people.

Similarly, the Renaissance-era English poet John Donne, in a sermon preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, once called the Psalms “the manna of the church.” But this strikes me as less offending—that the spiritual riches of one tradition have the power to instruct, minister to, and nourish (those are Donne’s words) to the people of another tradition.1 This is what I often receive from the riches of Judaism, ancient or contemporary, and for which I am deeply thankful. In the case of Psalm 22, one thing I am particularly grateful for is the biblical and later Jewish sensibility that wrestling with God is a holy act, and that it can be combined productively with due praise, as part of a holistic religious life.

1John Donne, Sermon 156, preached at St. Paul’s, January 29, 1625