My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Who said this? If you are familiar with the passion stories in the gospels, you will undoubtedly answer: Jesus.
But as we read in the psalms, we understand the words came from the poets of Israel as they considered and re-considered what it meant to be God’s chosen people.
If God is our covenant God, (Israel may have pondered) then won’t God remain ever faithful to covenant promises for blessing? But did they forget the covenant also promised consequences for sin?
So again and again in The Story of God’s people, painful cycles repeated themselves throughout generations. Faithfulness degenerated into unfaithfulness. Passion turned to apathy. Obedience became disobedience.
And in those cycles the Covenant God would draw back, leaving the people to their own devices.
So the poets of Israel sang a painful lament:
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Message of the Psalms, sees three major movements within the Psalms.
The Psalms of Orientation sing of the order, beauty and trustworthiness of the world. Songs of Creation, Songs of Torah and the Wisdom Psalms give thanks and praise that “the world is a well ordered, reliable and life giving system, because God has ordained it that way and continues to preside effectively over the process.” Psalm 104 is a classic psalm of orientation.
Psalms of Disorientation lament the world gone wrong. Things are not as they ought to be. Chaos reigns instead of order. Unchecked wickedness and greed infect the world while goodness, honesty and integrity seem foolish ideals. The poets cry out: Why!?!? How long, O Lord!?!? Where is mercy? Where is justice? Why don’t you DO something?! Psalm 10 and Psalm 22 speak to the confusion of seekers when the faithfulness and reliability of God are in question.
The Psalms of New Orientation speak once again of order, justice and beauty. But this time, the poet sings with a new understanding of God’s constancy through the darkness of disorientation. In spite of all, through it all, God perseveres to reconcile and redeem. The poet’s fresh insights to this divine work make the song all the more joyful. Think of the 23rd Psalm as one of New Orientation.
The lament in Psalm 22 sings out a beacon of hope in the midst of the depression; a candle lit against the darkness.
And yet …
And yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
In a recent blog, I talked about how a good sermon will name both the realities that we can see and the realities that we cannot see. The psalmists do just that.
There IS experience of forsakenness, abandonment, aloneness within our human reality. Nevertheless there is also Persistent Presence, Stubborn Love and Amazing Grace.
In all our laments, we must also hold on in faith and hope that “goodness and mercy follow us,” pursue us, will always find us. We must always name the Light even in the midst of the darkness.
You will recognize numerous allusions to this Psalm from the passion stories in the New Testament gospels. Mark and Matthew, Luke and John lived immersed in these songs and poems of Israel. When they took on the challenge of describing the indescribable, of explaining the inexplicable Christ Event, they naturally mined the poetic and prophetic words of the Psalms.
They divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
We don’t know if the historical Jesus said exactly these words on the cross, but we can know – as the faithful Son, as the true and perfect embodiment of Israel – his experience of suffering and hope would have been grounded in his Holy Scriptures. The One who is the Living Word brings the words of Scripture to life.
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Augsburg Old Testament Studies) 1985.