Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 1

Psalm 22

Psalm 22 is a lengthy lament, which I would divide into three main sections:

    • Vv. 2-11 [1-10]—A lament to God by the Psalmist in regard to his suffering and the deplorable situation he faces
    • Vv. 12-23 [11-22]—This situation is described in terms of attacks by his adversaries
    • Vv. 24-32 [23-31]—Praise to YHWH for his power and goodness, anticipating that God will bring deliverance

The meter is irregular, with 3+3 couplets dominating; however, 4+4 couplets are found, especially in the concluding praise section, along with 2 beat tricola (2+2+2). In an ancient poem of this length and complexity, it is not surprising to find many metrical irregularities and inconsistencies; some of these, at least, may be intentional and part of the original composition, without necessarily reflecting textual corruption.

The superscription indicates that this is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David. It also provides the specific musical direction (in the MT) rj^V^h^ tl#Y#a^ lu^, which would mean “upon (the) hind/doe of the dawn”, though there is some uncertainty regarding the form tlya, which the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus) and Targums apparently understood as tWly`a$ (“strength, help”), as in verse 20 [19]. The expression then could mean something like “strength/help that comes with the dawn”, the implication being that the Psalmist is facing a ‘dark night of the soul’, but that the sunrise of deliverance from YHWH is coming. In the context of the musical direction, it may refer to a particular melody or style, the preposition lu^ (“upon”) indicating that the poem is to be performed according to that musical standard. It may be comparable to the many ‘parody’ works by medieval and Renaissance composers, based on previously existing melodies and compositions.

This Psalm is especially significant for Christians, due to its use in the Passion narrative of the (Synoptic) Gospels, with details from the poem effectively being enacted (fulfilled) in the narrative. In the Synoptic tradition (Mark-Matthew), Jesus quotes the opening line while fastened to the stake (Mk 15:34 par), and it may have been that historical tradition which prompted early believers to turn to the Psalm, where they recognized certain parallels with the events of his death. The Gospel writers clearly were aware of these details, and take care to highlight them, though the Psalm is cited directly only at Jn 19:24. In addition to the words uttered by Jesus, three elements of the Psalm were seen as related to the circumstances of his death:

Section 1: Psalm 22:2-11

Verse 2 [1]

“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me,
(be)ing far removed from my (cry for) help, (the) words of my groaning?”

This opening 4+4 couplet establishes the Psalm as a lament, in which the protagonist cries to God in the midst of his suffering. It is an example of synthetic parallelism, with the second line building upon the first. The verb bz~u* (“leave, [set] loose, abandon”) in line 1 is picked up by qojr* in line 2, which I parse as a verbal noun (from qj^r*, “be far [removed], distant”). Not only does the Psalmist feel that God has left him, but He has gone far away. The parallel suffixed nouns yt!u*Wvy+ (“my [cry for] help”) and yt!g`a&v^ (“my groaning”) in the second line further add to the intensity of the scene. The root ga^v* more properly denotes roaring—i.e., a roaring cry of suffering and distress. On the use of v. 2a in the Passion narrative, cf. above and the special note at the end of this study.

Verse 3 [2]

“My Mightiest (One)—
I call by day and you do not answer (me),
and by night, and (there is) no calm for me.”

The initial address to God (“my Mightiest”, yh^ýa$), if original, rather distorts the meter of the verse, though it does provide a fitting parallel to the opening of v. 2 (“my Mighty [One]”, yl!a@, repeated). To preserve the clarity of the couplet, I have rendered the initial address as a partial line which adds a moment of tension and suspense to the rhythm of the two couplets of vv. 2-3 [1-2] when read together. The parallelism of the couplet here is obvious, being more conceptual than formal. The noun hY`m!Wd can specifically mean “silence”, emphasizing that the Psalmist cries out continually (and is not silent), or it could indicate that there is no calm or stillness for him (i.e. no rest or respite from his suffering); the latter sense is to be preferred.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“And (yet) you are sitting (in the) holy (place),
the shining (splendor) of Yisrael!
In you our Fathers trusted (for safety)—
they trusted, and you made escape (for) them;
to you they cried out and were rescued,
in you they trusted and were not disgraced!”

These three couplets provide a contrast with the Psalmist’s situation. Since YHWH rescued and delivered the people of Israel in times past, why will he not deliver the protagonist now? In some ways, this anticipates the praise section in vv. 24-32, but here the recollection of past action of God on behalf of his people only serves as a bitter irony. There is a hint of rebuke in the opening couplet, contrasting the Psalmist’s deplorable condition on earth with YHWH sitting in splendor on his throne in heaven; it could perhaps be rendered “…and yet, there you are, sitting in the holy place!” The contrast between God and the human condition is further developed, most vividly in the verses that follow.

The threefold use of the verb jf^B* in vv. 5-6 may seem overly repetitive, but effectively makes a theological point: God will deliver those who trust in him. The root jfb often connotes trusting in someone for safety and protection, and is occasionally rendered “seek refuge [in]” —i.e. God as a place of protection. In spite of this threefold affirmation, implying that the Psalmist, too, is trusting in YHWH, there is as yet no deliverance from suffering.

The rhythm of these lines is terser than the couplets of vv. 2-3, the verbal repetition giving a staccato-like quality to the strophe, with a pair of 3+2 bicola followed by a 3+3 couplet (v. 6).

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

“And (here) I (am) a worm, and not a man,
(the) scorn of mankind, and contempt of (all) people!
All (those) seeing me bring derision to(ward) me,
they let out (laughter) with (the) lip and wag (their) head:
‘He circled (with joy) to YHWH, so let Him (now) bring escape!
let Him rescue him, (seeing) that he finds delight in Him!'”

The contrast of the Divine and human condition is a frequent theme in Old Testament poetry, the human side often expressed by the parallel “man…son of man”. Here, however, the contrast is made even more graphically—the Psalmist’s condition is that of a worm, something even less than a man! By this is meant, primarily, the disgrace that he experiences from the rest of humankind (or, so it seems to him). The first couplet, a 3+3 bicolon with rhythmic tension in the second line, provides a synthetic parallelism, where the idea of being a “worm” is defined specifically in terms of the scorn (hP*r=j#) and contempt (hz)B=) he experiences from other people.

Even allowing for poetic exaggeration, to be sure, it is interesting to consider just what it is which brings about such treatment by the people at large. The only evidence provided here is that the protagonist has been struck by severe misfortune, which seems to run contrary to his faithful devotion to YHWH. In other words, if he has been faithful and loyal to YHWH (i.e. trusting in Him, cf. above), then how is it that he is now trapped in such a deplorable situation? This is a natural religious sentiment, felt my many devout persons at various times, and was a frequent theme in the ancient Wisdom literature (indeed, it runs throughout the entire book of Job). His sense of disgrace is only heightened all the more by the mockery he receives from the faithless in society. This is presented most vividly in vv. 8-9 [7-8], including a representative taunt expressed by the populace; this taunt, clearly reflected in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 15:29-32), as noted above, occurs in the climactic couplet of v. 9, with both synonymous and chiastic parallelism:

    • The Psalmist circles (with joy) unto YHWH
      • so let God bring escape for him
      • and let (God) deliver him
    • since he finds delight in (YHWH)

The Masoretic pointing of the first verb (lG)) suggests that it is a form of the root ll^G` (“roll”); equally possible is derivation from lyG] (“circle around”), in which case it should probably be vocalized lG`. The meaning would not change much, though the derivation from lyG], with its connotation of rejoicing (i.e. circling with joy), seems to fit better the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]

“(Yet it is) that you brought me forth from (her) belly,
making me trust (in safety) upon (the) breasts of my mother;
upon you was I (then) thrown out from (the) loving (womb)—
from (the) belly of my mother you are my Mighty (One)!”

The vulnerability of the human condition is again emphasized here, with the basic image of childbirth. The child is thrust harshly out into the world, away from the loving care (symbolized by the natural motifs of the “breasts” and “womb/bosom”) of its mother. Yet the Psalmist counts himself among those (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones) who, removed from the state of childhood (trusting in the mother), come to trust wholly on God (YHWH) instead. The same verb jf^B* is used here in verse 10, echoing its earlier threefold usage in v. 5-6 (cf. above).

Thus, this section of the Psalm, in spite of its character as a lament, closes with an affirmation of trust in YHWH. It is a trust that remains, despite the suffering and misfortune that may be experienced, at the lowest point of the human condition; this test of faith and trust in God is a golden strand that runs through the Psalm, leading into the final praise-section of vv. 24-32. In this regard, Psalm 22 has a stronger wisdom emphasis that many of the Psalms we have recently studied; the royal theology and covenant-background is less prominent, though it does come more into view in the second section of the Psalm, as we shall see in the next study.

Psalm 22:2[1] in the Synoptic Passion Narrative

As mentioned above, most Christians are familiar with this Psalm through certain details of the Passion narrative in the (Synoptic) Gospels; most notably, in the Markan narrative (followed by Matthew), Jesus quotes the first line (v. 2a) of the Psalm as he is fastened to the stake. The Synoptic tradition preserves this in transliterated form, though with some confusion regarding whether it is a transliteration of the Aramaic or the Hebrew. This confusion runs through the manuscripts, to the point that there is no way of being sure whether, at the historical level, Jesus would have made such an utterance in Aramaic or Hebrew. Typically, however, such (Aramaic) transliterations preserved in the Gospels are seen, on objective grounds, as a mark of historical authenticity.

Generally, it would seem that the transliteration preserves an Aramaic form, with the most common difference involving a modification of the initial address to God to reflect the Hebrew. The Hebrew of Psalm 22:1 (cf. above) reads:

yn]T*b=z~u& hm*l* yl!a@ yl!@a@
°E~lî °E~lî l¹mâ ±¦za»t¹nî
“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me?”

The best form of the Markan reading (in Mk 15:34), as presented in the Nestle-Aland critical text (unaccented), would seem to be:

elwi elwi lema sabaxqani
which transliterates the Aramaic
yn]T^q=b^v= am*l= yh!l*a$ yh!l*a$
°E_lohî °E_lohî l®mâ° š®»aqtanî

In Mark, this is subsequently translated as:

o( qeo/$ mou o( qeo/$ mou ei)$ ti/ e)gkate/pile/$ me;
“My God, my God, unto what [i.e. why] have you left me down in (this place) [i.e. left me behind]?”

The verb form e)gkte/pile$ follows the LXX translation, and is a more or less accurate rendering of the Hebrew verb bz~u* (“leave [behind], abandon”). Matthew’s translation uses the vocative address qee/ mou… (“O my God…”), but otherwise is closer to the LXX. Matthew’s Greek transliteration similarly differs by having the opening address in Hebrew (hli hli = yl!a@ yl!a@), while the rest is Aramaic, making it a composite (bilingual) citation, such as would be fitting for a popular adaption of Scripture among the largely Aramaic-speaking population of the time. Of many such examples of this bilingualism, one need only note the shifting between Hebrew and Aramaic (apparently without any comment) in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Daniel.

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