Ps. 22: Entering the Text

For Christians it is impossible to hear the opening verse of Psalm 22 without thinking of Jesus at the crucifixion. According to the Gospels (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46), Jesus cried out this verse – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – just before he died, and it has become a prominent feature of Christian liturgies commemorating his death. Many encounters with Psalm 22 begin and end with this Christian liturgical setting, but here I want to propose three additional ways to think about the psalm. The three insights will broaden our view of Psalm 22 beyond the standard Christian setting and association with Jesus’ death, while at the same time enriching our understanding of that setting.

First, although Psalm 22 begins with a bleak statement of divine abandonment, which sets the tone for the first two-thirds of the psalm (verses 1-23), the last third (verses 24-32) praises God’s deliverance and sovereignty. Thus, although we most remember Psalm 22 for its profound lament, God’s triumph has the last word. 

The second insight is the psalm’s expansion from the particularity of the speaker’s crisis to the broader scope of YHWH’s kingship. Because the speaker laments his rejection and alienation, it comes as a surprise in verse 24 when he turns to address a gathering of supporters and we realize his lament, while highly personal, has taken place within the context of a large congregation (verse 26). The scope expands even further in verses 28-29 as the speaker invokes all nations and the ends of the earth as the extent of YHWH’s sovereignty. This movement shows the communal quality of prayer and worship in ancient Israel. Even an “individual lament” like Psalm 22 is embedded within the larger frameworks of community and the world as a whole.

The last insight is a lesson from Jewish interpretation of the psalm. Whereas Christian tradition, as we have seen, associates Psalm 22 with Jesus’ crucifixion, Jewish tradition connects it to the story of Esther, whose marriage to the Persian king brought her danger and peril, but also enabled the deliverance of her fellow Jews in exile. This mix of suffering and deliverance in her story mirrors the two parts of Psalm 22 and explains why the psalm came to be included in the celebration of Purim.       

This deeper look into the biblical, Christian, and Jewish settings of Psalm 22 expands our appreciation of its diversity in content and reception. There is a lot packed into its thirty-two verses, and by looking at the psalm from different angles, we can celebrate its surplus of meaning and enrich the perspective most dear to each of us.

Key Term:

  • The meaning of the Hebrew phrase ’ayyelet haššaḥar in the superscription is elusive.  The words are clear enough and translate to “hind of the dawn” – but what is that? The NJPS doesn’t even render the phrase in English, instead leaving the Hebrew words and including a footnote about the phrase’s uncertainty. Most likely, it is a direction for the music, perhaps a reference to an instrument or melody, but the its significance is lost to us today.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Which words or images in Psalm 22 are most striking to you?
  • What liturgical setting do you associate with Psalm 22?
  • How do you feel about the strong words of lament at the beginning of the psalm?
  • How can Psalm 22’s shift to a communal setting inform our perspective on suffering?

 

 

Psalm 22: Text & Translation

 

 

Psalms 22

(1) For the leader; on ayyeleth ha-shaḥar. A psalm of David. (2) My God, my God, why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring? (3) My God, I cry by day—You answer not; by night, and have no respite. (4) But You are the Holy One, enthroned, the Praise of Israel. (5) In You our fathers trusted; they trusted, and You rescued them. (6) To You they cried out and they escaped; in You they trusted and were not disappointed. (7) But I am a worm, less than human; scorned by men, despised by people. (8) All who see me mock me; they curl their lips, they shake their heads. (9) “Let him commit himself to the LORD; let Him rescue him, let Him save him, for He is pleased with him.” (10) You drew me from the womb, made me secure at my mother’s breast. (11) I became Your charge at birth; from my mother’s womb You have been my God. (12) Do not be far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. (13) Many bulls surround me, mighty ones of Bashan encircle me. (14) They open their mouths at me like tearing, roaring lions. (15) My life ebbs away: all my bones are disjointed; my heart is like wax, melting within me; (16) my vigor dries up like a shard; my tongue cleaves to my palate; You commit me to the dust of death. (17) Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me, like lions [they maul] my hands and feet. (18) I take the count of all my bones while they look on and gloat. (19) They divide my clothes among themselves, casting lots for my garments. (20) But You, O LORD, be not far off; my strength, hasten to my aid. (21) Save my life from the sword, my precious life from the clutches of a dog. (22) Deliver me from a lion’s mouth; from the horns of wild oxen rescue me. (23) Then will I proclaim Your fame to my brethren, praise You in the congregation. (24) You who fear the LORD, praise Him! All you offspring of Jacob, honor Him! Be in dread of Him, all you offspring of Israel! (25) For He did not scorn, He did not spurn the plea of the lowly; He did not hide His face from him; when he cried out to Him, He listened. (26) Because of You I offer praise in the great congregation; I pay my vows in the presence of His worshipers. (27) Let the lowly eat and be satisfied; let all who seek the LORD praise Him. Always be of good cheer! (28) Let all the ends of the earth pay heed and turn to the LORD, and the peoples of all nations prostrate themselves before You; (29) for kingship is the LORD’s and He rules the nations. (30) All those in full vigor shall eat and prostrate themselves; all those at death’s door, whose spirits flag, shall bend the knee before Him. (31) Offspring shall serve Him; the Lord’s fame shall be proclaimed to the generation (32) to come; they shall tell of His beneficence to people yet to be born, for He has acted.

 

תהילים כ״ב

(א) לַ֭מְנַצֵּחַ עַל־אַיֶּ֥לֶת הַשַּׁ֗חַר מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִֽד׃ (ב) אֵלִ֣י אֵ֭לִי לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי רָח֥וֹק מִֽ֝ישׁוּעָתִ֗י דִּבְרֵ֥י שַׁאֲגָתִֽי׃ (ג) אֱ‍ֽלֹהַ֗י אֶקְרָ֣א י֭וֹמָם וְלֹ֣א תַעֲנֶ֑ה וְ֝לַ֗יְלָה וְֽלֹא־דֽוּמִיָּ֥ה לִֽי׃ (ד) וְאַתָּ֥ה קָד֑וֹשׁ י֝וֹשֵׁ֗ב תְּהִלּ֥וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ה) בְּ֭ךָ בָּטְח֣וּ אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ בָּ֝טְח֗וּ וַֽתְּפַלְּטֵֽמוֹ׃ (ו) אֵלֶ֣יךָ זָעֲק֣וּ וְנִמְלָ֑טוּ בְּךָ֖ בָטְח֣וּ וְלֹא־בֽוֹשׁוּ׃ (ז) וְאָנֹכִ֣י תוֹלַ֣עַת וְלֹא־אִ֑ישׁ חֶרְפַּ֥ת אָ֝דָ֗ם וּבְז֥וּי עָֽם׃ (ח) כָּל־רֹ֭אַי יַלְעִ֣גוּ לִ֑י יַפְטִ֥ירוּ בְ֝שָׂפָ֗ה יָנִ֥יעוּ רֹֽאשׁ׃ (ט) גֹּ֣ל אֶל־יְהוָ֣ה יְפַלְּטֵ֑הוּ יַ֝צִּילֵ֗הוּ כִּ֘י חָ֥פֵֽץ בּֽוֹ׃ (י) כִּֽי־אַתָּ֣ה גֹחִ֣י מִבָּ֑טֶן מַ֝בְטִיחִ֗י עַל־שְׁדֵ֥י אִמִּֽי׃ (יא) עָ֭לֶיךָ הָשְׁלַ֣כְתִּי מֵרָ֑חֶם מִבֶּ֥טֶן אִ֝מִּ֗י אֵ֣לִי אָֽתָּה׃ (יב) אַל־תִּרְחַ֣ק מִ֭מֶּנִּי כִּי־צָרָ֣ה קְרוֹבָ֑ה כִּי־אֵ֥ין עוֹזֵֽר׃ (יג) סְ֭בָבוּנִי פָּרִ֣ים רַבִּ֑ים אַבִּירֵ֖י בָשָׁ֣ן כִּתְּרֽוּנִי׃ (יד) פָּצ֣וּ עָלַ֣י פִּיהֶ֑ם אַ֝רְיֵ֗ה טֹרֵ֥ף וְשֹׁאֵֽג׃ (טו) כַּמַּ֥יִם נִשְׁפַּכְתִּי֮ וְהִתְפָּֽרְד֗וּ כָּֽל־עַצְמ֫וֹתָ֥י הָיָ֣ה לִ֭בִּי כַּדּוֹנָ֑ג נָ֝מֵ֗ס בְּת֣וֹךְ מֵעָֽי׃ (טז) יָ֘בֵ֤שׁ כַּחֶ֨רֶשׂ ׀ כֹּחִ֗י וּ֭לְשׁוֹנִי מֻדְבָּ֣ק מַלְקוֹחָ֑י וְֽלַעֲפַר־מָ֥וֶת תִּשְׁפְּתֵֽנִי׃ (יז) כִּ֥י סְבָב֗וּנִי כְּלָ֫בִ֥ים עֲדַ֣ת מְ֭רֵעִים הִקִּיפ֑וּנִי כָּ֝אֲרִ֗י יָדַ֥י וְרַגְלָֽי׃ (יח) אֲסַפֵּ֥ר כָּל־עַצְמוֹתָ֑י הֵ֥מָּה יַ֝בִּ֗יטוּ יִרְאוּ־בִֽי׃ (יט) יְחַלְּק֣וּ בְגָדַ֣י לָהֶ֑ם וְעַל־לְ֝בוּשִׁ֗י יַפִּ֥ילוּ גוֹרָֽל׃ (כ) וְאַתָּ֣ה יְ֭הוָה אַל־תִּרְחָ֑ק אֱ֝יָלוּתִ֗י לְעֶזְרָ֥תִי חֽוּשָׁה׃ (כא) הַצִּ֣ילָה מֵחֶ֣רֶב נַפְשִׁ֑י מִיַּד־כֶּ֝֗לֶב יְחִידָתִֽי׃ (כב) ה֭וֹשִׁיעֵנִי מִפִּ֣י אַרְיֵ֑ה וּמִקַּרְנֵ֖י רֵמִ֣ים עֲנִיתָֽנִי׃ (כג) אֲסַפְּרָ֣ה שִׁמְךָ֣ לְאֶחָ֑י בְּת֖וֹךְ קָהָ֣ל אֲהַלְלֶֽךָּ׃ (כד) יִרְאֵ֤י יְהוָ֨ה ׀ הַֽלְל֗וּהוּ כָּל־זֶ֣רַע יַעֲקֹ֣ב כַּבְּד֑וּהוּ וְג֥וּרוּ מִ֝מֶּ֗נּוּ כָּל־זֶ֥רַע יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (כה) כִּ֤י לֹֽא־בָזָ֨ה וְלֹ֪א שִׁקַּ֡ץ עֱנ֬וּת עָנִ֗י וְלֹא־הִסְתִּ֣יר פָּנָ֣יו מִמֶּ֑נּוּ וּֽבְשַׁוְּע֖וֹ אֵלָ֣יו שָׁמֵֽעַ׃ (כו) מֵ֥אִתְּךָ֗ תְֽהִלָּ֫תִ֥י בְּקָהָ֥ל רָ֑ב נְדָרַ֥י אֲ֝שַׁלֵּ֗ם נֶ֣גֶד יְרֵאָֽיו׃ (כז) יֹאכְל֬וּ עֲנָוִ֨ים ׀ וְיִשְׂבָּ֗עוּ יְהַֽלְל֣וּ יְ֭הוָה דֹּ֣רְשָׁ֑יו יְחִ֖י לְבַבְכֶ֣ם לָעַֽד׃ (כח) יִזְכְּר֤וּ ׀ וְיָשֻׁ֣בוּ אֶל־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־אַפְסֵי־אָ֑רֶץ וְיִֽשְׁתַּחֲו֥וּ לְ֝פָנֶ֗יךָ כָּֽל־מִשְׁפְּח֥וֹת גּוֹיִֽם׃ (כט) כִּ֣י לַ֭יהוָה הַמְּלוּכָ֑ה וּ֝מֹשֵׁ֗ל בַּגּוֹיִֽם׃ (ל) אָכְל֬וּ וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּ֨וּ ׀ כָּֽל־דִּשְׁנֵי־אֶ֗רֶץ לְפָנָ֣יו יִ֭כְרְעוּ כָּל־יוֹרְדֵ֣י עָפָ֑ר וְ֝נַפְשׁ֗וֹ לֹ֣א חִיָּֽה׃ (לא) זֶ֥רַע יַֽעַבְדֶ֑נּוּ יְסֻפַּ֖ר לַֽאדֹנָ֣י לַדּֽוֹר׃ (לב) יָ֭בֹאוּ וְיַגִּ֣ידוּ צִדְקָת֑וֹ לְעַ֥ם נ֝וֹלָ֗ד כִּ֣י עָשָֽׂה׃

 

 

Source Sheet created on Sefaria by Marilyn Stern

 

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