October 29, 2013

Cover Feature

The Rabbi is dying. He is not any rabbi. He is the Rabbi, the one who left people “astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority” (Matt. 7:28, 29).1

But He is dying. He implored to be spared the bitter cup (Luke 22:42).

He was not.

Now He hangs from the cross. Most of His followers have deserted Him. The same acolytes who were acclaiming Him mere hours before now pretend they do not know Him. He feels alone and rejected by all (Matt. 26:56; see also Isa. 53:3).

Agonizing, He resorts to the same comfort tool He has used throughout His 33 years of joys, trials, and tribulations: He goes to the Scriptures for support. In His most trying hour, Jesus makes David’s experience His own. He begins to recite one of the great song prayers in the Psalms. “With a loud voice,” He cries, “ ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ ” (Matt. 27:46, citing Ps. 22:1). In the tradition of the time, “citing the first words of a text was . . . a way of identifying an entire passage.”2

But it is too late for further developments. It is the ninth hour. The sacrifice is almost perfect. There is no more time, not even for reciting the Scriptures. While it is very likely He had memorized the entire psalm, Jesus never makes it past the first line of David’s poem.3

The Rabbi dies well before His reciting is finished. Though He might have fast-forwarded in His mind to the glorious ending of the poem, it would be for others to complete what He had begun.4

From Lines to Poem

Jesus, however, was not the first to repeat some of David’s lines in Psalm 22 on that fateful afternoon at Golgotha. The chief priests, scribes, and elders had mocked Him a few hours before saying, “He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now” (Matt. 27:43; cf. Ps. 22:7, 8). “In their blindness they did not see that they were fulfilling the prophecy,” writes Ellen White.5 But their ridiculing act “led men to search the Scriptures as they had never done before. . . . [Those men] never rested until . . . they saw the meaning of Christ’s mission.”6

At the same time, the light began to shine on those who heard Christ’s words on the cross.7 They started to connect the dots, to move from isolated lines to the poem as a whole and the big picture it represents. Because if there is something significant about Psalm 22, it is that there is—interlaced along the continuum of human suffering and seeming dejection—a golden thread connecting humanity’s personal and corporative past to a thankful present and a glorious future. David’s strange song contains the message of the Bible in a nutshell; in its few lines the highs and lows of our existence find their place within the all-encompassing story of redemption.

It is for us then to make them ours, proclaiming to the world those lines Jesus did not happen to recite.

The dying Rabbi never made it beyond the first line of the poem. But it is for His followers to carry on the task He left unfinished. 

Enforcing the Blueprint: Creation

You are He who took Me out of the womb;
You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts.
I was cast upon You from birth.
From My mother’s womb
You have been My God (Ps. 22:9, 10).

After perusing at least a dozen scholarly commentaries on Psalm 22, I find the limited space devoted to discuss the above verses quite striking. Often minimized, even overlooked altogether, these and other “creation passages” are foundational for understanding the timely unfolding of the plan of salvation. Many Bible commentators, however, seem to miss the extent to which the belief in humanity as God’s supreme act of creation brings home the meaning of the whole process of redemption (which is, in fact, to bring humans back “to the perfection in which [they were] created”).8

But while some “sons of the kingdom” seem to be dozing off, others are coming to sit at the creation table (see Matt. 8:11, 12). A. J. Jacobs is an agnostic journalist who, as a personal experiment, set out to follow the Bible injunctions as literally as possible for one whole year. While he found a few of the commands were rather easy to follow, others presented various cognitive challenges. Specifically, in his mind he found it hard to accept the six-day Creation story as it is told in Genesis. One night, however, Jacobs decided to convince himself about the possibility of a recent creation. While he never managed to dispel his doubts completely, he writes that he found the prospect “fascinating.” He started to think of the implications of accepting God as Creator. Suddenly he felt more connected to other human beings; everyone had become his brother or sister. But he also realized that creation belief made his life more significant. He was important because he was created by God, and God made humanity the pinnacle of creation, “vastly superior to the beasts and nature” (see Ps. 8:5-8).9 Even for this agnostic, the possibility of believing the Bible account as true made a huge difference.

Believing in God as our Creator makes a huge difference, indeed. According to David, God started to work in him before he was even born (Ps. 22:10). Indeed, he writes, “I was thrust into your arms at my birth” (NLT).10 Since the very beginning, God fashioned David and made him part of His people for the glory of His name (see Isa. 43:21). Moreover, it is the Lord who takes David out of the womb and teaches him to trust when he is still on his mother’s breasts (Ps. 22:9). This ability to trust is the basis of any meaningful relationship with our human parents, and in turn with God.11

God formed us “an intricate unity” (Job 10:8), and out of this realization a natural connection develops: His work as the Creator is an entitlement on Himself, as attested by one of the throne room scenes witnessed by John the revelator: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Rev. 4:11). It is a motivation to praise Him that cannot but grow exponentially once we realize He does not only create. He also hears. And He saves.

Applying the Contingency Plan: Salvation

I will declare Your name to My brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will praise You. . . .
For he has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
Nor has He hidden His face from Him;
But when He cried to Him, He heard (Ps. 22:22-24).

Sometime ago I was shopping for groceries in my local supermarket, which boasts a large section of certified kosher foods. It was a few days before Passover, and I could not help noticing a buzz of excitement in the “kosher quarters.” Jewish matrons of every age and bearing walked around chatting animatedly, discussing the prices and alleged properties of the goods offered. Children in skullcaps were running to and fro, making a joyful noise—and a folkloric mess. Bearded and beardless men in suits and ties, seemingly professionals, discussed over their cell phones in loud voices—supposedly with their exacting wives—about the right amount or brand name of a specific product to be purchased.

As I walked amazed among them, I could not help wondering what the fuss was all about (which is, incidentally, what practicing Jewish people all around the world ask every year at Passover: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”). Traditionally, as Christians we have stressed the differences between celebrating the memory of a physical liberation (from the bondage in Egypt) and a reminder of a spiritual liberation (from the bondage of sin). But as I paced through the kosher aisles apprehending the scene of joyous anticipation, an all-encompassing similitude dawned on me: For all our differences, the celebration of Passover implies enacting mementos of God’s intervention in human affairs. Both Jews and Christians believe God is not one of the gods of the ancient Greeks, forever detached, forever unreachable in an unchangeable cosmos. He is not the impervious, immutable deity, the eternal continuum who is beyond even the possibility of interacting with humans on earth. On the contrary, He is the God who comes down, who reveals Himself, who gets involved, and who has power to guide and even alter the course of circumstances (see, for instance, Dan. 2:28). Be it in ancient Egypt or in our hearts, we believe God changes things. And He answers prayer (Ps. 22:21), for He has a long record of doing so (verses 4, 5).

This awareness is the reason we declare and praise His name (verse 22). It is what motivates not only a personal expression of worship, but a corporate one. As individuals and also as a group, we yearn to give glory to His name, “for He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted” (verse 24).

Every time God intervenes in the life of His people, His redeeming actions elicit a response of praise and witnessing. It was the case of Moses on the seashore of the Red Sea (“He has become my salvation” [Ex. 15:2]). It was also the response of Hannah when she saw her prayer answered (“I rejoice in Your salvation” [1 Sam. 2:1]). It was the experience of Mary before the birth of Jesus (“He who is mighty has done great things for me” [Luke 1:49]). Even Jesus breaks in a song of praise and thanksgiving to the Father when He Himself witnesses “men . . . convicted and converted to the truth” (see Matt. 11:25).12 The author of Hebrews applies the words of Psalm 22:22 to Jesus Himself, as He extols the God of salvation among His human brethren (Heb. 2:12).

The process of God’s act of redemption, and its corresponding human response of gratitude, is straightforward. Ellen G. White writes, “All who . . . desire to know the truth will see the power of God when it is revealed, and will acknowledge it” (see Ps. 50:14, 15).13 It is the natural response of those who, based on the firm ground of knowing where they come from, now rejoice in God’s supreme act of intervention (see Isa. 43:1). Moreover, God’s act of salvation now guarantees each one of us a privileged spot as we move to the third major stage of the story of redemption (see 2 Cor. 4:14).

Projecting the Outcome: Re-creation

All the ends of the world
Shall remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations
Shall worship before You.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s,
And He rules over the nations (Ps. 22:27, 28).

Psalm 22 connects our present thanksgiving for the reality of salvation to the worship to be bestowed by “all the families of the nations” (verse 27). God’s rule “over the nations” (verse 28) makes “all the ends of the world . . . remember and turn to the Lord” (verse 27).14 It is the moment God’s imprint on us, first applied at Creation, later mangled by sin but repurchased at the cross, now becomes perfect once again. The Lord restores a kingdom “which shall never be destroyed” because “it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2:44).

Within this context, the sufferings described in Psalm 22—the groaning and the crying, the siege by the forces
of evil, and even the feeling of God’s desertion—are nothing more than a “light affliction, which is but for a moment”; in fact, they are “working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). We might be “encircled” by “bulls” (Ps. 22:12). We might be “surrounded” by “dogs” (verse 16).15 We might feel as if the Lord has brought us “to the dust of death” (verse 15). But even in our seemingly darkest hour, “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:16), because the ending is a foregone conclusion.

Which nevertheless is not supposed to be a safe conduct for remaining on the sidelines.

Reciting the Poem

The dying Rabbi never made it beyond the first line of the poem. But it is for His followers to carry on the task He left unfinished. We are the ones who must keep connecting the dots that link God’s creation with His salvation and future new creation. We are the ones sent to make sense of the “besieging part” of the great controversy, dispatched to open the eyes obscured and the hearts puzzled with the enlightenment of God’s revelation. We are the ones to proclaim that even though “now we see in a mirror, dimly,” then we will see “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

The reciting must go on, because the story has to be retold “to the next generation” (Ps. 22:30; see also Ps. 102:18). Everyone needs to hear that “He has done this” (Ps. 22:31). His past actions are the best guarantee that He will fulfill what is left “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our] hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

Feeling forsaken? unheard? beleaguered? bedeviled? Look at the big picture—and finish the poem! From now on, it only gets better. n

  1.   Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible texts are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2.   James L. Mays, “Prayer and Christology: Psalm 22 as Perspective on the Passion,” Theology Today 42 (1985): 322.
  3.   See James Howell, “Commentary on Psalm,” retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/10/2009&tab=5.
  4.   Ibid.
  5.   Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 749.
  6.   Ibid.
  7.   Ibid.
  8.   Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 16.
  9.   A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), p. 107.
  10. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  11. See Cintia Paseggi, “Born to Connect,” Adventist World, NAD Edition, January 2012, pp. 28, 29.
  12. Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: E. G. White Estate, 1993), vol. 16, p. 231.
  13. Ibid., p. 232. (Italics supplied.)
  14. For the connection between God as a deliverer and His rule over the nations, see also Psalm 72:11, 12.
  15. For the use of animal metaphors in Psalm 22, see G. Eidevall, “Images of God, Self, and the Enemy in the Psalms: On the Role of Metaphor in Identity Construction,” in P. Van Hecke, ed., Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2005), pp. 55-66.