When you’re with people in profound suffering, the general rule is listen more than speak. Sometimes, well-meaning friends will volunteer their theories on what it must be like: “Oh, it must be really painful,” or “You must be so angry,” or “I couldn’t handle what you’re going through.” But such attempts at points of connection are usually misguided. The better policy is just to listen—to discover what is going on for them.

When you’re with people in profound suffering, the general rule is listen more than speak.

I think something similar applies to the crucifixion. We can come up with theories about what it must have been like for Jesus. We might find ourselves wondering, what did it feel like? The whipping. The nails. The strain on the body. The thirst. The heat. What was that like? How on earth does anyone go through that?

But to dwell on the physical pain is another case of telling, not listening. It’s me imagining where I’d be focussed.

Better to listen. What did he feel? What was it like for him?

Sufferer’s Song

Fortunately, we are not left in the dark. When Jesus was on the cross, he gave us a substantial insight into what it was like for him. And he did this through song. As with many of us, when emotions overwhelm us—in a break-up, or a death, or a loss—we reach for song to say what prose seems inadequate to communicate. So too, Jesus. When he cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) he wasn’t just thinking out loud. He was quoting the opening line of Psalm 22.

Similarly, Jesus’ last words on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), look like an allusion to the last line of Psalm 22, “He has done it!” It’s possible, therefore, that the song was in his mind throughout the ordeal.

So what can we learn from this?

The song begins:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.

This is not the cry of an atheist. Notice the pronouns: “my God, my God,” is his cry. But neither does he feel any compulsion to be God’s PR agent; to spin the circumstances into a more favourable light. This is no Pythonesque “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” It is humble but raw: “Why are you so far from saving me?”

This is not the cry of an atheist. It is humble but raw.

Jesus’ experience is one that many believers have gone through before and since: “I cry out by day, but you do not answer me, by night but I find no rest.” Prayer feels empty—like pulling a lever that’s no longer attached to anything.

Yet the Psalmist looks beyond his experience:

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

God’s track record with Israel is faultless. When they trusted in God, they were never put to shame; when they cried out, they were saved. Every time.

But shame feels like what is going on here: “scorned by everyone, despised by the people” (Psalm 22:6).

Dying of Shame

For modern readers preoccupied with the physical suffering of the cross, it is surprising to find how little it features in the Gospels. A preacher looking to gin up a graphic account of the death of Jesus will end up in Josephus or Tacitus—in the Gospels they’ll come up short (none of them, for example, mentions that Jesus was nailed to the cross).[1] The biblical emphasis is less on the pain of the cross, and more on its shame; how embarrassing, humiliating, degrading it was.

7 All who see me mock me;
    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
    “let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
    since he delights in him.”

Those words must have been brutal. Shameful. Bitter. A fair summary of Jesus’s life is “He trusted in God” (Matthew 27:43). He had faith in God. And, say his enemies, look where that got him.

But Psalm 22 remains the song of a believer, not a sceptic.

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
    you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
    from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

Holy Ground

The first part of the song is a bouncing back and forth between theology (God is faithful) and experience (this is awful). From verses 12 to 18, we enter holy ground. If ever we are given access to the heart of Jesus on the cross, it is here.

12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.

These verses cross the line between history and prophecy. Historically, it is a Psalm of David and presumably (if poetically), David knew all these experiences to be his own. But when were David’s hands and feet pierced? When did they cast lots for his garments?

David knew all these experiences. But when were David’s hands and feet pierced? When did they cast lots for his garments?

In Psalm 22, the speaker is literally naked. His clothes are being gambled for (v 18). To be stripped naked is to be rendered down; to lose personal dignity and identity. For the onlookers, nakedness exposes the empty hope of the psalmist’s faith. For the psalmist, nakedness means that faith is truly all he has left. His faith is now everything, or it is nothing. There is no in between.

(Not) Forsaken

Jesus’s words “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” have sometimes been misunderstood as a confession of doubt. They are, in fact, an affirmation of his faith. Psalm 22 makes this clear:

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
    You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
    my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
    save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my people;
    in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you descendants of Jacob, honour him!
    Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
    the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
    but has listened to his cry for help.

25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
    before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek the Lord will praise him—
    may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth
    will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
    will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
    and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
    all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
    those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
    declaring to a people yet unborn:
    He has done it!

Notice the litany of salvation verbs here: help me Deliver me Rescue me save me. God will help him, rescue him, save him. He is so confident of this that he has a plan for what he’ll do after it happens:

22 I will declare your name to my people;
    in the assembly I will praise you.

When I first got my driver’s licence my mum came with me as she needed a lift across town afterwards. It was quite the experience to do a driving test knowing that someone was so confident you’d pass they already had a plan for what you’d do afterwards. (I did!)

The world “assembly” there is the word for “church.” And the plan of the sufferer, while he’s still suffering, is that when God rescues him (not if, when­) he’ll go straight to church, straight to the assembly of God’s people, and take over as the worship leader. “I will declare your name to my people; in the church I will praise you.” And it’s going to be a cracker of a service.

When God rescues Jesus, we are freed in his wake. And Jesus is now our worship pastor.

On the lips of David, all Israel has a stake in his rescue. David is Israel’s king. Good news for the king is good news for the people. Their freedom is caught up in his. So also with Jesus. When God rescues Jesus, we are freed in his wake. And Jesus is now our worship pastor. Unashamed to call us his brothers and sisters, he leads our worship of his Father (Hebrews 2:11-12).

And so, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we await the salvation of Jesus. Jesus went to his death, as Psalm 22 makes clear, fully confident that his Father would rescue him from the grave. In the meditation for the events of Easter Sunday, Psalm 23 will be our guide. But for now, we pause, and we wait. Waiting on the Lord being, of course, the posture of faith.

[1] However, Thomas’s request in John’s Gospel to put his hands in the wounds of Jesus confirms the method of his affixation to the cross was indeed by nails. See John 20:24-29. Paul also says that our legal indebtedness was “nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:14), presumably an allusion to the nails by which Jesus was crucified.