There is no way to be sure, but some Psalms commentators have suggested that it wasn’t just the first verse of Psalm 22 which Jesus quoted as he hung on the cross, but that he actually recited the entire psalm. They have suggested that when Matthew and Mark relate that Jesus cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), they intend for the reader to understand that Jesus recited the entire psalm. I remember my Old Testament professor, Ray Dillard, telling about how, in some of the classes he took at a Jewish theological seminary for his doctoral studies, the professor would never ask his students to turn, for example, to Psalm 22, or Isaiah 40, or 1 Samuel 15, or Leviticus 4. Rather the professor would quote the first few words of the passage, and expect his students to know what passage he was referring to. In the same way, it is suggested that Matthew and Mark want the reader to take the words Jesus cited from Psalm 22 as a kind of title for the psalm, and expect the reader to understand that Jesus recited the entirety of the psalm.
For a number of reasons, I think it is doubtful that this is the case. For just one of these reasons, if Jesus had actually recited the entire psalm, it is a bit puzzling why the bystanders would have surmised that Jesus was calling for the prophet Elijah. But if Jesus only recited this one line from the psalm, it makes their confusion more explainable.
Nevertheless, even though I do not think Jesus recited the entire psalm as he hung on the cross, I do believe the entire psalm was on his mind. The psalm has been called the Messianic psalm par excellence. One only has to read through this psalm to see how the sufferings it describes correspond to the sufferings and the death which our Savior endured.
On this Christmas Eve, I call your attention to vv. 9-11 of this psalm:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
I find it entirely credible that, as Jesus hung on the cross, he would have recalled the course of his entire life upon this earth, a journey which for him, as for all of us, began with being drawn out of the womb, and being placed and resting on his mother’s breast. And since he was born into a household of faith, I am sure that from his earliest days, Mary and Joseph would have assured their young child that their God was also his God. From a child, Jesus knew that God was his God.
There is, of course, mystery here in abundance. How could Jesus, who was himself God, possibly not have known that God was his God? Did he really need Mary and Joseph to tell him about God? You would think the answer might be “no.” On the other hand, Luke, you will remember, tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Additionally, we read in Hebrews that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). And, as John Calvin and many Reformed theologians would remind us, that obedience and those sufferings did not begin with Passion Week. Rather, the whole course of Jesus’ life was one in which he learned obedience and subjected himself to suffering.
So, without in any way allegorizing, and without, in my opinion, employing any undue speculation, I am very much prepared to say that God the Father brought Jesus out his mother’s womb, that God caused Jesus to trust in him at his mother’s breast, that from birth Jesus was cast upon his Father, and that from his mother’s womb he knew that God was his God. And I also believe that Mary and Joseph raised their young son in such a way that Jesus knew that his parents’ God was his God too. To use the words of Christian Rossetti’s poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” perhaps the earliest God-consciousness and God-dependence this newborn child felt and experienced was
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay.
And perhaps this experience, this earliest consciousness of God, served to sustain our Savior as he endured the terrible agony of the cross, as he recited and recalled the words of the Twenty-second Psalm. From his earliest earthly moments he had trusted this God. And now those recalled moments greatly encourage him as he cries out to God, pleading with him not to be far from him, and reminding him that there is no one else to help.
This, too, my brothers and sisters, is part of the meaning of Christmas. And I hope this meditation serves to enhance your wonderment this Christmas as you contemplate this incredible act, the incarnation of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
December 24, 2016