Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My God, Why Have you Forsaken Me?: Learning to Pray Psalm 22 (vv. 12-18)

The plight of the psalmist reaches its pinnacle in verses 12–18 and his faith is never more steady than in verses 19–21. 

12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
    You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
    my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
    save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

The intensity of lament boils in these verses (vv. 12-13). There appears to be no way out for the psalmist. He metaphorically views his enemies as wild and ravenous beasts seeking his life. Close your eyes and picture yourself surrounded by any of the following: a herd of angry bulls, a pride hungry lions, or a pack a wild dogs. Terrifying. This is how the psalmist feels. His body responds physically to the terror and pain (vv. 14–15).

Verses 12–18 connect directly with Jesus’ last hours on the cross. He cried out in thirst, opponents surrounded him, and the soldiers responsible for his execution gambled for his clothing.
These verses are meant to sound extreme because suffering is devastating and shocking. We’ve all experienced it in some form. Whether its the loss of a loved one, the suffering caused by illness (our own or of a loved one), the loneliness and grief of a broken relationship or marriage, or the sheer, or aftermath of some other trauma, the words of Psalm 22 give us vocabulary and phrases and serve to model prayer for moments of authentic desperation. Jesus looked to this psalm. So can we.

If verses 12–18 function as the psalmist’s words as he reaches the bottom of the pit, it is profound to remember and recognize that God is still present. This is one of the most vital resources for the faithful. We may literally reach the end of our rope, exhausted all of our resources, and have no one on earth to help us, but our future is not depended on any part of creation. The psalmist continues to hope in God and in verses 19–21 offers a final impassioned cry and pray for help. Read the psalmist’s words in these verses again. Note how they connect with his description of his plight.

When we pray to God, we do not have to sugar coat our words. The promise of the Gospel is that God already knows our needs (Matt 6:8). So why hide our true feelings and deepest desires? The psalmist is surrounded on all sides by enemies who seem like famished beasts. So what does he pray for? The psalmists asks specifically for deliverance and rescue from dogs, lions, and wild oxen. Notice that these are in the reverse sequence of their appearance in vv. 12–18 where the order was bulls, lions, and dogs.

The psalmist prays for God’s presence and help (v. 19). This is the key to prayer. The psalmist recognizes that God is present, able, willing, and powerful enough to save. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that it is the amount of our faith that activates God’s actions. It’s not. Faith is only as powerful as its object. Our God is able to hear our prayers and bring deliverance. Jesus prayed Psalm 22. This did not alleviate his suffering immediately, but we know that resurrection occurred on the other side of suffering and death. The psalmist in Ps 22 experienced deliverance and answer to his prayers. He will tell us this story in the concluding verses of the psalm (vv. 22–31).

How do verses 12–21 teach us to pray in the midst of our suffering?

What role does faith play in our prayers for help?

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