The theme of suffering permeates biblical wisdom texts, specifically in regards to how people are to act under, and respond to, that suffering. In many ways, the wisdom literature fails to provide any specific answer to why suffering exists in the world. It does, however, serve as a tool for Christians who themselves are in the midst of suffering. Psalm 22 is the quintessential example of this; this psalm deals with the relationship between the believer and his God in the midst of suffering, and gives insight into how that God responds to the suffering of His people.
David, in Psalm 22, is writing in the midst of great suffering. What the specific details of that suffering are is not the focus of the text, but instead the text focuses on David’s response to that suffering. Psalm 22 is not unlike Job in this regard; the first 2 chapters in Job deal in specifics, while nearly the entire rest of the book is about response. The important question to the literature genre is, “how should a believer relate to God in the midst of suffering?” Canonically and historically, there is a running theme throughout the wisdom texts (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and even Daniel) that point to Israel’s exile and subsequent relationship to Yahweh without a Temple, working priesthood, or land. Psalm 22 therefore, seems to fit into this broader idea of suffering in general, and it is no surprise that the Psalm opens in verse 1 with David saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (ESV) In David’s cry, the reader harkens back to the sons of Jacob in Egypt, the oppressed Israelites during the time of the Judges, and even readers in Babylon could see themselves there—suffering is a constant theme, on this side of the Garden, among the people of God.
There are two specific things David does, in the midst of his suffering, that are crucial to understand how Christians deal with suffering. Firstly, he calls upon God to act: “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” Surely, in the midst of trial the Lord seems farthest from his people. David is bringing his case before God, like Job, and pleading with God to act. There is no shyness, no bashfulness in the way David comes before his Creator. He is a broken man, and such a man the Lord will not despise (cf. Psalm 51:17). The second thing that David does in the beginning of this Psalm is to remember who this God is that he calls upon. In verse 3 it reads, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.” David affirms that even if Yahweh does not deliver him from his suffering, Yahweh remains holy. Yahweh is still good and righteous; He is set apart from everything in creation as its Creator. Even though David’s cries go unanswered night after night, and day after day (v. 2) David will not deny the holy character of Yahweh. The second thing David recalls about Yahweh is his acts in history. “In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them” verse 4 says; great comfort is taken in the redemptive acts of Yahweh in history—particularly the redemption of Israel from captivity in Egypt (cf. Exodus 1-14). David is placing himself amongst a great cloud of witnesses. God heard the groans of the Israelites in Egypt, and surely he will hear the groans of his servant.
While this text provides a way for Christians to act in the midst of suffering—namely by crying out to God on behalf of his own goodness—the main idea of this text is not about what the Christian should do, but instead this text gives an insight into what God has done for the Christian. In the ensuing description of David’s suffering, he creates a picture of suffering that points us to Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, who will suffer in the same way as David, yet in David’s own place (cf. Mark 15:24, 33-39; Psalm 22:1, 16-18). God’s answer to human suffering is not that he explains it logically for us, a divine theodicy of sorts, but instead that he enters into our suffering himself. God himself enters into the furnace for his people, as it were (cf. Dan. 3:24-25). There is no doubt that Psalm 22 is meant to be read Christocentrically—the gospel accounts make that point emphatically. The suffering David portrayed in Psalm 22 is the Lord Jesus himself; he was poured out like water, he was surrounded by the strong bulls of Bashan, it was his clothes that were divided and gambled over, it was his hands and feet that were pierced (cf. Psalm 22:12-18). Jesus, as he hangs upon that cross, cries out with David, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (ESV) Jesus comes in a long line of God-fearers who have suffered, yet Jesus does not only suffer with them, but he suffers for them. Jesus himself is God’s answer to suffering. Jesus was forsaken by the Father on the cross, that his Church may be brought near (cf. Ephesians 2:13).
In just this broad look at suffering in the wisdom literature, Psalms 22 specifically, there are two mains ideas: how Christians should relate to God in the midst of suffering, and how God chooses to relate to Christians by himself suffering. Apart from a God who comes and suffers in the place of his people, there could be no redemption. David could not say, “In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them” if Jesus had not himself been willing and obedient to enter into that suffering (ESV, Psalm 22:4). Therefore, because of Jesus, Christians can cry out to God in the midst of their suffering, for they have a faithful and compassionate High Priest who himself suffered (cf. Hebrews 4:14-16). The cross shows how deep God’s compassion runs, and how far he is willing to go in order to redeem his people from their suffering, either in this life or in glory (cf. Romans 8:18-25).
***This was originally written for a Wisdom Literature class at Philadelphia Biblical University