a catalog of troubles
Many psalms of David can be read as a catalog of troubles, a list of hardships and many kinds of intense suffering. But the focus is on God’s help in multiplied troubling situations: “In my distress, I will call upon the LORD, / And cry to my God for help; / He will hear my voice out of his temple, / And my cry for help before him will come into his ears” (Ps 18: 6). In Psalm 18, David frames his complaint with specific declarations of God’s deliverance. After the high praise of his opening ( vv. 1-2), David asserts, “I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy of praise / And I am saved from my enemies” (Ps 18: 3). At the end of the psalm, David addresses God directly and again speaks specifically of deliverance from enemies. He has been rescued and and will be rescued: “He delivers me from my enemies; / Surely you lift me above those who rise up against me” (Ps 18: 48).
a quick turn
Sometimes, in the midst of his complaints, David takes a quick turn toward praise and thanksgiving. It’s as if help has come even as he’s writing the psalm. These psalms become a strong encouragement to trust God, to put in his hands every distressing eventuality. He will help. Psalm 3 begins with the pattern. The first two verses are all complaint, the next two, a surprising reverse. David says, “But you, LORD, are a shield about me, / My glory and the lifter of my head” (Ps 3: 3). Next, he lays out the template, the pattern to be found in many psalms: The psalmist cries out to God and God answers. David says, “I was crying to the LORD with my voice, /And he answered me from his holy mountain” (Ps 3: 4).
distress to joy
Several psalms of David abruptly change in this way–from complaint to sudden confidence. Psalm 60 is one example: “Give us help from the adversary, / For deliverance by a human is vanity” (Ps 60: 11) then “Through God we shall do valiantly, / And it is he who will tread down our enemies” (Ps 60: 12). In Psalm 30, David puts forward his case in the form of this complaint: “What profit is there in my blood if I go down to the pit? / Will the dust praise you? / Will it declare your faithfulness? / Hear, LORD, and be gracious to me; / O LORD, be a help to me” (Ps 30: 10). The shift that follows, from distress to joy, is so sudden it seems the next breath: “Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing; / Thou has loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness” (Ps 30: 11).
Psalm 22 is a passage we often hear in Holy Week. It seems to describe in uncanny detail the horrors of crucifixion. That this form of execution hadn’t been thought of in David’s time reminds us that David is not only the writer of Messianic psalms but is also to be numbered among the Hebrew prophets. The thirty-one verses of Psalm 22 can be divided into two parts—the first two-thirds (vv. 1-21) and the final one third (vv. 22-31). The overwhelming impression created by the first section can best be described as horrifying. The first verse is sometimes called the “cry of dereliction”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And there’s no let-up—not till verse 21, which serves as a pivot point: “You have answered me,” David declares, then confidently states: “I will tell your name to my brothers; / In the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” He continues: “You who fear the LORD, praise him . . . For he has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, / Neither has he hidden his face from him; But when he cried to him for help, he heard” (Ps 22: 22-23a, 24)
on the cross
It can be argued that Jesus was praying Psalm 22 on the cross. The suffering, which he freely accepted, was not the end. He would rise and bring us with him. The writer of Hebrews declares, “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12: 2). Praying, we are to expect help. David did. Jesus did.
Revised from a piece in the Edgefield Advertiser, oldest newspaper in South Carolina
June 8, 2021
with thanks to brett-jordan-erLrY4aKztg-unsplash-1.jpg for the great image.