The Work of Christ: Messianic Psalms

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Reflections on the Psalms, Part 4

Psalms 22—24 form a familiar, significant trilogy, and special study of them is worthwhile. The three psalms are messianic and reveal three different aspects of the work of Christ: (1) Christ the Sufferer (Ps 22); (2) Christ the Shepherd (Ps 23); and, (3) Christ the Sovereign (Ps 24). The first of the trilogy, Psalm 22, is one of the most magnificent psalms in the Psalter; not only because it is a prophecy of the suffering Messiah, but also because it is an exquisite prayer.

Psalm 22 is an individual song of thanksgiving; such a psalm is characterized by distress and deliverance. Jesus’ distress was the crucifixion, and His deliverance was the resurrection. Psalm 22 was written one thousand years prior to the first coming of Jesus Christ, yet the psalm reads as if someone in the first century stood at the base of Calvary’s cross to record it.

The author of this psalm is King David. The prophecy of the cross in Psalm 22 has been called “the gospel according to David.” Although many of the emotions recorded in Psalm 22 were experienced by David, there are not any recorded events in his life that correspond to this event. Psalm 22 is a prophecy of the coming suffering Savior; the purpose of the suffering was so that the Lord’s people could experience His forgiveness, and the Savior would thus declare victory.

The psalm begins with a rhetorical question. The expression of anguish mirrors the exact words that Jesus uttered from the cross, and reflects His innocent grief and suffering. The words of verse 1 were spoken in the ninth hour of the day (3 pm), at the end of the three-hour period of darkness (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). The expression denotes extreme anguish—not that God the Father was absent from His Son (which is not possible since Jesus is eternally God). The cries by day and night refer to the final three hours of darkness that veiled the earth prior to the death of Jesus.

The initial words of the Psalm are followed by an unyielding assertion of trust in God and in His sovereignty (Ps 22:3). The psalmist recalled the faithfulness of God in the past (22:3-5). The believer can always trust God and anticipate His deliverance (cf. 44:1). God is ever faithful to deliver those who trust in Him (22:5; cf. Heb 11). The Son of God would not be disappointed, because He would rise from the grave in three days.

Verses 6-8 record how Jesus was treated scornfully by those who were His enemies (cf. Isa 52:14; 53:2-4, 7-8; Matt 26:67-68; 27:26, 30, 43; Mark 15:15, 29-32; Luke 22:65; 23:16, 35-37; John 19:1). Contrary to the blasphemous insults of His accusers, Jesus knew that God brought Him “forth from the womb” (Ps 22:9)—a reference to the miracle of His virgin birth—and thus He could have childlike trust in God. God was not only faithful to others (22:3-5), but also demonstrated faithfulness to His Son; thus, as Jesus suffered, He was sustained by thoughtful reflection upon how God sustained Him (22:9-10).

The anguish and distress that the Lord Jesus experienced upon the cross attested to the depravity of the human heart and the attitudes of fallen humanity toward God (22:11-18). The love of God toward sinners is certainly evident in that the One who created the lakes and rivers (Col 1:15-20), and who freely grants the water of life (John 4:10, 13-14), was thirsty upon the cross (Ps 22:15; John 19:28). Although evil individuals threatened and crucified Him (Ps 22:16-18; cf. Isa 53:5; Zech 12:10), the Lord Jesus indicated confidence in the eternal plan of the One who would lay Him “in the dust of death” (Ps 22:15).

The Lord truly suffered intensely, which is evident in that He could feel the pain of each and every bone in His body (22:17). The Lord Jesus endured indignity and shame (cf. Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) for the benefit of those He came to save. What is noteworthy is that Psalm 22 does not contain any confession of sin, nor is there any imprecation [cursing] of enemies. “But Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (Luke 23:34a).

The silent prayer of supplication to His Father was in anticipation of deliverance, knowing that His Father would come to His aid and save Him from those who sought His destruction (Ps 22:19-21). Therefore, this section ends optimistically and anticipates the victory declared in verses 22-31, which is also preparatory for the two subsequent psalms. Christ first suffered and died as the Messiah, so He would then perform the work of Shepherd and Sovereign.

Why Did Jesus Say He Was Forsaken?
Many believe Jesus’ words from the cross, “‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34) are an expression of the most profound agony to be imagined as a result of being separated from the Godhead. There are several reasons why this understanding is mistaken. First, early Jewish culture was oral, which meant committing the Torah and much of the Scriptures to memory. Jesus’ teaching was replete with brief allusions to Scripture, because He assumed His audience would have committed it to memory. So, the smallest of reference was all He needed. When Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 from the cross (in the hearing of those who had entire psalms memorized), it was as if He quoted it in entirety.

Deuteronomy 21:23 affirms, “he who is hanged is accursed of God.” Witnesses to the crucifixion would have concluded that Jesus was not the Messiah. When one considers the entire context of Psalm 22, one realizes, “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 for help, He heard” (v. 24). Jesus’ words from the cross indicate others (family, foes, friends, and followers) had forsaken Him, yet He still had intimate fellowship with God His Father.

Some may object to this understanding, because God cannot have fellowship with sin, which is true in that the Lord is holy. Nevertheless, the Lord God is merciful and demonstrated His love toward sinners, in that while they were “yet sinners, Christ died for” them (Rom 5:8). God certainly is able to consider humanity, even though the depravity of mankind is all encompassing. Second Corinthians 5:21 reads, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteous of God in Him.” Note that the verse does not affirm that Jesus actually became sin on the cross. Scripture uses legal terms to describe the spiritual transaction whereby God declares righteous those who trust in Christ and His work for them on the cross, to make them acceptable in His presence. God’s verdict—whereby sinners are justified—is possible only because Christ has satisfied all the claims of the Law against the guilty.

God made Jesus, “who knew no sin to be” the sin offering for the world. Yet He was always sinless in that divine exchange. Christ endured sin’s punishment on behalf of sinners, and thereby made a legal transaction according to the law. Second Corinthians 5:21 does not mean that Jesus became sin any more than sinners become righteous by themselves. The believer’s righteousness is alien (foreign); thus, the punishment that Jesus endured for sin was no more His than believers’ righteousness is the result of their own. Jesus “knew no sin,” and thereby was able to give His life as a sin offering for the sake of others. He endured the death penalty in the sinner’s place, and thereby propitiated the wrath of God. Christ’s atonement was a penal substitution; it is legal in nature, because Jesus paid the judicial penalty for sin. The sinner’s guilt was transferred to Jesus, yet He always remained sinless.

Finally, to affirm any form of separation (even for a brief moment) among the members of the triune Godhead would mean that their unity is not eternal and necessary. If Jesus were ever separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit on the cross, it would mean His active obedience was of His power and strength. The name “Christ” literally means the One anointed with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, which is why Jesus could testify of Himself, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me …” (Luke 4:18). “Christ” (“Anointed”) not only indicates Jesus’ commission, but also the authority and power by which He was able to fulfill it. Jesus’ perfect obedience to the will of the Father was the result of being “full of the Holy Spirit” (v. 1), which was certainly true of His agonizing work on the cross. Neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit were separated from the Son while He suffered on the cross.

Not only did Psalm 22 record actual events in the life of David, but also it prophesied events in the life of his greatest Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. David may have depicted many of his sufferings with figurative language, yet his descriptions occurred literally in the sufferings, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. Quite possibly, David experienced very little of what he described in Psalm 22, and thus the psalm is entirely prophetic of the coming Messiah. Peter quoted another psalm of David and remarked, “‘And so, because he was a prophet...he looked ahead and spoke...of the Christ” (Acts 2:30-31).

Psalm 22 teaches believers to beseech God continually to meet their needs, whatever they may be. God does not despise nor abhor “the affliction of the afflicted” (v. 24a). God did not forsake His Son, and proved it three days and three nights later, when He raised Jesus from the dead. With the assurance of deliverance, God’s people can praise the Lord today, and encourage others to trust and worship Him also.

Midnight Call - 11/2019

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