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When God Seems Far (Psalm 22)

April 15, 2012 Speaker: Bryce Morgan Series: Suffering: Learning from the Psalms in the Midst of Difficult Times

Topic: Psalms Passage: Psalm 22:1–22:31

Suffering

 

When God Seems Far
Psalm 22:1-31
(One Mission: Through Many Tribulations)
April 15th, 2012

 

 

I. Introduction

 

This morning we begin a short three-week study on the topic of suffering.

 

Now, in terms of qualifications to teach on this topic, if personal experience is the key, then I am grossly unqualified to address this subject. If personal experience is the key, then there are people in this room who would be better equipped to speak to you, rather than myself.

 

But while personal experience can teach us invaluable lessons (whether we like it or not), personal experience apart from God’s word is ultimately an unreliable teacher; for as the old saying about suffering goes, “The same sun that melts the ice also hardens the clay.” Suffering can either soften us or harden us.

 

In this series we’re going to look to God’s word, specifically to the book of Psalms. To be even more specific, I want us to look at three kinds of suffering that are mentioned in the Bible. And interestingly we find these three kinds of suffering addressed in three different psalms: Psalm 22, Psalm 32, and Psalm 42. (That’s easy to remember, isn’t it?)

 

As you might already know, the Psalms are a wonderful place to go in the midst of difficult times. The 16th century French pastor John Calvin said the Psalms are like a mirror that represents or reflects all the emotions, even the “distracting emotions” we experience as human beings. But because the Psalms are inspired by God, we can be assured that God wants to instruct us through this “mirror”.

 

So let’s turn this morning to the first Psalm I’d like us to consider, Psalm 22.

 

 

II. The Passage: “Be Not Far From Me” (22:1-31)

 

Now, before we dive into this psalm, I want you to see something about the structure of this psalm. We are told from the superscription that this is a psalm of David. And what David has done in the first 21 verses of the psalm is present us with three couplets or pairs. And within all these pairs, we find that the first half is a statement about the writer’s current circumstances and/or his current inner turmoil, and in the second half, there is a statement directed to God.

 

You might have noticed in your outline that I’ve described these two parts as the psalmist “looking around”, and then the psalmist “looking up”. So throughout this psalm David's focus is alternating between what's happening around him or inside him AND a confession of God or crying out to God.

 

A. Looking Around: I Am Alone (22:1, 2)

 

Let's look together at the first two verses. David cries out...

 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? [2] O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

 

Notice the picture of suffering God has given us. At this point, we have no idea what's happened to David. We have no idea why he is crying out like this. But we do see here the depths of his inner struggle. David's suffering drove him to prayer, but as we see in verse 2, his prayers were not answered. So David's attempts to pray in light of his struggle have only led him into a deeper struggle.

 

When you suffer, when you struggle, when you wrestle with despair or confusion or frustration or bitterness or betrayal or anxiety, like David, do you cry out to God? That's exactly what we should do. That's exactly what this psalm represents. David continuing to cry out to God...through song. But this psalm also reminds us, right from the beginning, that God does not always answer our prayers in our timing or according to our expectations.

 

And when that happens....we are so often tempted to believe that God has abandoned us...that we are alone in our suffering. That's how David feels, isn't it? He writes, “why...why have you forsaken me?” You see, the most dangerous thing about our suffering is not the depths to which we might descend in terms of physical pain or relational chaos or economic loss. The most dangerous thing about our suffering is what it MIGHT do in terms of our faith; that it tempts us to believe that God has abandoned us or given up on us.

 

And yet David's faith has not grown cold. Even though he finds no rest, he still composes this psalm. Even though he feels forsaken, he still cries out, “MY God, MY God”.

 

 

B. Looking Up: You Are Holy (22:3-5)

 

And look at how that faith wells up in verses 3-5.

 

[3] Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. [4] In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. [5] To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

 

Now this is where the alternating pattern begins. David has been looking around at his circumstances, in the midst of unanswered prayer. But now he is looking up. He is looking to what he knows to be true about God. And what he knows is right there at the beginning of verse 3: “you are holy”. And notice the first word: “yet”...”yet you are holy”.

 

Brothers and sisters, friends, listen...that “yet” represents something so important, so critical. When David says “yet”, he is declaring in no uncertain terms that no matter how bad things are, and no matter how He FEELS about God and God's presence, his perception does not change the reality that God is holy...that God is worthy to be praised and God is praised by His people.

What else does David know? He knows that the God to whom he cries is the same God who has delivered His people (v. 4), the same God who has rescued His people (v. 5).

 

Do you see how David is holding on to these truths? Even though God has not answered David in the midst of His suffering, David knows that God has answered before. God is a God who hears the cries of His people; He is a God who hears and rescues. That is what David confesses, that's what we find him rehearsing here. The reality of a God who hears and a God who delivers is the rock upon which David anchor himself.

 

Is this what we do in the midst of our suffering? Do we anchor ourselves on the reality of what the word tells us about a God of deliverance? The God to whom we cry is the same God who delivered His people when they cried from bondage in Egypt; the same God who delivered His people when they cried from Babylon; the same God who delivered His people when they cried for the Messiah; the same God who sent Jesus.

 

Are we crying out? Are we holding on to that glorious “yet”? Are we looking up, or are we stuck looking around?

 

 

C. Looking Around: I Am Scorned (22:6-8)

 

That's exactly what David goes back to in verses 6-8. Let's look at those verses. David writes:

 

[6] But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. [7] All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; [8] “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

 

So David transitions in these verses from describing how he feels abandoned by God to how he feels scorned by his fellow Israelites. Did you see that phrase, “despised by the people”? These are not foreigners who are harassing David. These are “the people”. These are his people. But for some reason they are mocking David. Again, we don't know the specifics of what's going on here, why the people are ridiculing David, but look at verse 8 again. This seems to be the kind of scorn heaped on someone who turns out to be a hypocrite.

 

They almost seem to be saying, “You talked a big talk, David, but look at you now. Look at you. You claimed to be something, but now you're nothing. Is God really on your side? Well, why hasn't He rescued you?” For some reason, the people have labeled David as a fraud. He has been treated like, and feels like a worm...lying in the dirt...trampled by those around him.

 

Maybe you've felt that way before. Maybe you feel that way right now. Scorned. Despised. Mocked. It is a very rare kind of suffering that doesn't involve, to some extent, a brokenness of at least one personal relationship. David knew that kind of pain. For years he was separated from his family. His wife was given to another man. His son tried to get rid of him and take his throne. David knew that kind of pain.

 

And so, David feels forsaken by God. He is despised by his own people. At this point, it wouldn't be surprising if David just wanted to ‘throw in the towel’ and give up. But look at where this alternating pattern takes us.

 

D. Looking Up: You Are My God (22:9, 10)

 

Look at verses 9 and 10. This what David confesses:

 

[9] Yet [there's that glorious “yet” again...”yet”] you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother's breasts. [10] On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother's womb you have been my God.

 

David is looking up again, isn't he? That powerful and profound “yet” has brought him back to the reality of a God who hears and a God who delivers. But notice the truths that David confesses in these verses. Before, in verses 3-5, David rehearsed God's concern for His people. He was focused on how God intervened for the sake of the nation. But here, David's focus is much more personal; much more intimate.

 

Even though David feels abandoned by God and despised by God's people, in the midst of his struggle he clings...he clings to the precious truth that God is nevertheless HIS God; that God has watched over him his entire life, from his mother's womb. We saw the phrase “my God” repeated twice in the opening line of the psalm. But here it is again, at the end of v. 10.

 

Let me ask you this: when you are in the grip of difficult times, do you think back to the day of your birth? Some people do this and arrive at a 'George Bailey' conclusion, right? They conclude, “I wish I was never born.” But when David thinks back to the beginning of his life, he remembers the faithfulness of God; he meditates on, he rehearses the amazing truth that God has watched over him and provided for him all his life.

 

Do you believe that be true for you? Do you believe that it was God who gave you life? Can you say with David, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb.” (Psalm 139:13) Do you believe God brought you into this world and was and is the ultimate source of your provision? You should believe that, because it's true. (God in abstract?)

 

Listen, in the midst of our suffering, the psalmist is teaching us how to rehearse in the midst of our hurt. (2x) We need to rehearse, we need to go back over everything we know to be true about God.

 

Typically, when we are suffering, we are tempted to spend most of our time rehearsing our hurts, not rehearsing in the midst of our hurt. We tend to go back over the ways we've been hurt, or our current miserable condition; or we rehearse all the anxious speculations we have about what will happen.

 

But God wants us to rehearse what He has told in His word about His goodness, and His love, and His provision, and His promises, and His faithfulness. And God calls us to do this because, as we talked about before, He knows the most dangerous thing about our suffering is what it MIGHT do in terms of our faith; that it tempts us to believe that God has abandoned us or given up on us, or that God is not good; that He doesn't care about us.

 

When the storm of suffering is raging around us, like David, we have to fight to hold onto the truth. God hears. God cares. God saves.

 

 

E. Looking Around: I Am Dying (22:11-18)

 

But look at verses 11-18. Again, we see David's focus is drifting:

 

[11] Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. [12] Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; [13] they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. [14] I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; [15] my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. [16] For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—[17] I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; [18] they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.

 

It's not hard to miss the hopelessness dripping from these verses. David finds himself in a terrifying situation. Look at how he uses all of the animal imagery here. He is on the verge of being trampled by bulls, devoured by lions, and attacked by dogs. Fear and sickness have evidently robbed him of his strength. These men, these dogs have bitten into his hands and feet. Verse 17, he is nothing but skin and bones. Clearly everyone thinks this is the end, because they are even beginning to divide up David's clothes among themselves.

 

And David himself feels like this is the end. Did you see that in verse 15? He says to God, “you lay me in the dust of death”. This is no minor emotional hiccup, is it? David is not just having a bad day. This is profound suffering. Physical. Emotional. Relational. Spiritual.

 

 

F. Looking Up: You Are My Help (22:19-21)

 

But David has not given up. Look at verses 19-21. David cries out...

 

[19] But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! [20] Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! [21] Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

 

What is the result of David's 'rehearsing in the midst of his hurts'; of David reminding himself of the truth about God? The result is that David's prayers are renewed! Even though he felt forsaken by God, the truth has strengthened his belief that God is his only hope. And so he cries out.

 

Now, how we interpret verse 21 is a little unclear. Either David is declaring that God did hear him and did save him, or that God has done it before in a different situation (notice the new animal image—the wild ox)...or maybe the Hebrew here should be translated as another plea: “rescue me from”, and not “you have rescued me”.

 

But however we understand it, we still see that David's faith is anchored in the reality of a God who saves, not a God who abandons His people in the midst of their sufferings.

 

Brothers and sisters, verses 19 and 20 should be our prayer in the midst of all our struggles:

But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! [20] Deliver my soul... Are you crying out to God like that?

G. Looking Up and Looking Around: I Will Praise You! (22:22-31)

 

But there’s a final part to this psalm. It’s almost like a whole other psalm. Look at verses 22-31. As I read these verses, notice the shift, notice the change in David’s perspective. He declares in verse 22:

 

[22] I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: [23] You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! [24] For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. [25] From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. [26] The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever! [27] All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. [28] For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. [29] All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. [30] Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; [31] they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.

 

David has shifted this from a psalm of personal confession to a psalm of public declaration. Do you see that? He has moved from a crying out for deliverance to a shouting out praises to God for deliverance received. What a change from the cry in verse 1 to the declaration of verse 24: For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.

 

How do we explain this shift? Well, verse 22 is the transition or the hinge verse. Verses 1-21 seem like the part of the psalm that was written in the midst of the suffering. But verses 23-31 appear to be the part of the psalm written after the suffering had ended, after God had answered David’s prayer; written as David reflected on God’s salvation.

 

And so David shares this window into his struggle with God’s people, but he doesn’t leave it there. Even though it might feel like it in the worst of times, David reminds them that God does not forsake His people. When God’s faithfulness meets our deepest struggles, the result is worship (vs. 25-27). God is faithful, and his faithfulness extends over all people and to all generations (vs. 28-31).

 

David is now ‘looking up’ AND ‘looking around’. As he savors God’s salvation, he looks with new eyes on his circumstances. Complaint turns to praise. Despair turns to testimony. My woes turns to His worship…His greatness.

 

 

III. To the Cry of David’s Son

 

In a famous quote, the English writer C.S. Lewis declared that “pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

 

In the midst of your suffering, what is God shouting to you? What is He saying this morning?

To understand the fullness of Psalm 22, we have to move from the cries of David to the cry of David’s far-off son. If you have any familiarity with the gospels of Matthew and Luke, then you know that Jesus used the language of Psalm 22:1 as he hung on the cross.

 

In fact, Jesus’ experience of suffering reveals that in David’s suffering in Psalm 22, there was a shadow of what was to come. Like David, the garments of Jesus were also taken and divided (Matthew 27:35). Like David, the people also wagged their heads at Jesus as he hung on the cross (Matthew 27:39). Like David, Jesus also endured the people’s taunts (Matt. 27:43). And so, clearly, Jesus as the truly innocent sufferer brings to fullness the struggles of David, who also suffered unjustly.

 

But there’s more to it than this. You see, the suffering that David experienced is not the only thing brought to a divine fullness in Jesus’ suffering. The cross is also where the deliverance that David experienced is filled to overflowing. The end of David’s suffering was deliverance and worship. But the end of Jesus’ suffering was deliverance for us, deliverance from death and from the grip of sin and from eternal punishment. David escaped death in his season of suffering, but Jesus beat death, and because He did, we can cry out in truth, “My God!”

 

The Apostle Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” (I Peter 3:18)

 

Listen, the end of Jesus’ suffering was to give us a heart of worship that can always say, no matter what we’re going through, not matter how deep the pit seems, no matter how far God seems from us, we can always say, “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.”

 

Because of the reality of sin, of our human desire to ‘play God’, we not only find ourselves in a world of suffering, as in Psalm 22, but we are also the bulls, and the lions, and the dogs of Psalm 22. We are also guilty of hurting others…of scorning…of exploiting. But Jesus “suffered for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous”, and if our faith is in Him and what He did on our behalf, then because of grace and the gift of God’s Spirit, we can LOOK UP in our suffering; we can stand forever in the reality of Psalm 22:26, “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied…”.

 

When God SEEMS far, hold on to that glorious “yet”. When God SEEMS far, rehearse… rehearse in the midst of your hurts; rehearse the truth of this Good News about Jesus; rehearse the truth of the gospel; rehearse the wonders of God’s faithfulness in Christ, of God’s unconditional love, of God’s promises, of eternal rest that will be ours in Jesus.

 

The English writer George MacDonald wrote, “As cold as everything looks in winter, the sun has not forsaken us. He has only drawn away for a little while, for good reasons, one of which is that we may learn that we cannot do without him.”

 

I pray that in our suffering, God will teach us this very thing. [Let’s pray]

More in Suffering: Learning from the Psalms in the Midst of Difficult Times

April 29, 2012

When Enemies Taunt (Psalm 42)

April 22, 2012

When I Kept Silent (Psalm 32)