When God Seems Far (Psalm 22)
I. Who's Qualified?
This morning we begin a month-long 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 much 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.
Over the coming weeks, we’re going to look to God’s word as we revisit a series I originally presented almost a decade ago, a series I believe has lasting relevance and needs fresh consideration. Specifically, we'll be looking at the book of Psalms. To be even more specific, I want us to look at three kinds of suffering addressed in three different psalms: Psalm 22, Psalm 32, and Psalm 42. (Easy to remember, right?) So let’s turn this morning to Psalm 22.
II. The Passage: “Be Not Far From Me” (22:1-31)
Now, before we dive into this psalm, let me mention something about the structure of this psalm. We are told from the opening header 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/feelings, 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?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
So, it's clear that David is suffering. But at this point, we have no idea how or why. And yet we know David's suffering drove him to prayer. 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.
But this psalm also reminds us, right from the beginning, God does not always answer those prayers, at least not in our timing or according to our expectations. And when that happens....we are so often tempted to believe, like David, that God has abandoned us... that we are alone in our suffering. This is key: I think this reminds us that 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.
B. Looking Up: You Are Holy (22:3-5)
But consider the condition of David's faith in verses 3-5...
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.  In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
So 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. Notice the first word of verse 3: “yet”... ”yet you are holy”.
Brothers and sisters, friends, please know that “yet” represents something 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 worthy to be praised; that He is (vs. 4, 5) a God of rescue, of deliverance.
The reality of a God who hears and a God who delivers is the rock upon which David anchor himself. Are you, like David also anchored in the truth? Are you holding on to that glorious “yet”? Are we, in our suffeirng, also looking up... or only around (which it is very tempting to do)?
C. Looking Around: I Am Scorned (22:6-8)
Looking around is exactly what we find in vs. 6-8. Let's look at those verses. David writes:
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.  All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;  “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. We don't know 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? If so, why hasn't He rescued you?”
Scorned. Despised. Mocked. Labeled a “fake”; a “loser”; a “dissapointment”. David knew that kind of relational 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 back at where that alternating pattern takes us in verse 9, 10..
D. Looking Up: You Are My God (22:9, 10)
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.  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? But notice here that David's focus is much more personal; much more intimate. He has testified of a God who works in history. But here he speaks about his own history. Even though David feels abandoned, 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; that God sees and cares; that God is present and provides... faithfully.
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. It's true.
Remember, 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 storms of suffering are raging around us, like David, we have to fight to hold onto the truth, in light of the 'big picture'. 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:
Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.  Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me;  they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.  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;  my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.  For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me;  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, since they are 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...
But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!  Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog!  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 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 about who God is and what he has done has strengthened his belief that God is his only hope. 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. And so he cries out.
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!  Deliver my soul... Are you crying out to God like that... even today... in the midst of your hurts?
G. Looking Up and Looking Around: I Will Praise You! (22:22-31)
But there’s a final part to this psalm. And 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. Verse 22:
I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:  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!  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.  From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him.  The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever!  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.  For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.  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.  Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;  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 crying out for deliverance to shouting out the praises of 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.
You see, 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 with God’s people this window into his struggle. But he gives them more. 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 to all generations (vs. 28-31).
On the other side of your suffering, do you worship and testify in light of how God has delivered you? You should. We should.
Please notice that 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 turn David to His worship.
III. To the Cry of David’s Son
Brothers and sisters, friends, to understand the fullness of Psalm 22, we have to move from the cries of David to the cry of David’s distant son. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke (in the NT) record that Jesus used the words of Psalm 22:1 to cry out while he suffered on the cross.
And when we look closer, this fact, along with several others, tell us is that David’s suffering in Psalm 22 was ultimately a shadow of what was to come. For example, 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 that was brought to a divine fullness in suffering of Jesus. The cross is also where the deliverance that David experienced is... filled to overflowing. 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)
Remember, the end of David's suffering was deliverance and worship. Wonderfully, the end of Jesus' suffering was also deliverance and worship... for us! Christ's sufferings made it possible for us to receive life, life from God and for God... to the glory of God!
Why do we need this deliverance? Because our worship is misplaced. Instead of crying “My God”, we cry, “me God”. We ‘play God’. Yes, we can suffer like David in Psalm 22, but we are also the bulls, and the lions, and the dogs of Psalm 22. We guilty of hurting others…of scorning…of exploiting. But Jesus “suffered once 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. And that changes how we LOOK AROUND.
Brothers and sisters, friends, when God SEEMS far, hold on to that glorious “yet”. Remember the God who hears, the God who cares, the God who saves. Remember the goodness and provision that are ours through Jesus. The English writer George MacDonald (who lived a generation before, and even influenced, C.S. Lewis) 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.” Let's pray.
More in Suffering (2020)
February 23, 2020God Meant It for Good (Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:15-21)
February 16, 2020When Enemies Taunt (Psalm 42)
February 9, 2020When I Kept Silent (Psalm 32)