Psalm 22, of David, is a heart-wrenching cry for help. The Psalmist sees himself beset on all sides by enemies and mockers.
It underwent a powerful transformation at the crucifixion, when Christ took its opening words into his own mouth in what has come to be known as the cry of dereliction: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). With the recitation of those words, Christ would have called the entirety of the Psalm to the minds of all devout Jews present. The similarity between the Psalm and the circumstances of the crucifixion are striking, and the Evangelists structure their accounts to make this plain: the mocking (Psalm 22:8; Matthew 27:43), the contortion of the body (Psalm 22:14), the piercing of the nails (Psalm 22:16), Christ’s thirst (Psalm 22:15; Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23), the casting of lots for clothing (Psalm 22:18; Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24). And yet for some reason, the crowd was not reminded of the Psalm at Christ’s recitation. When they hear the opening in Hebrew/Aramaic, (Eli, Eli: Matthew 27:47–49; Eloi, Eloi: Mark 15:35–36) they think that he is calling on Elijah.
The Psalm can be divided into three parts. In verses 1–11, the Psalmist is abandoned, scorned, and mocked by his people. The Isenheim Altarpiece offers one possible depiction of this section as applied to the crucifixion, not flinching from the horrors inflicted on Christ. In the second section (Psalm 22:12–18), the Psalmist is attended by beasts and evildoers who seek his life and torture him. Here James Tissot’s What Our Lord Saw from the Cross is especially striking, depicting the strange scene that greeted the dying Lord. In the third section (Psalm 22:19–31), the Psalmist reveals that in spite of his abandonment and torture, God has not in fact turned away, but hears the cry of the afflicted and is close by to help. This last section gives way to an expansive vision of praise. Charlie Mackesy’s Crucifixion supplies a somewhat ambiguous image here, on which more in a moment.
In the Christian tradition the Psalm has been interpreted as expressing that Christ on the cross felt cut off from the Father. This may be seen as the natural result of Christ bearing the sin of the world, being in that moment made into sin for us: God cannot look upon sin (Hebrews 1:13), and so when Christ becomes our sin, the Father must turn his face away. For some this means that true separation is introduced into the Trinity at this point, that the Son is indeed cut off from the Father and from the Holy Spirit; for others, this is true only of the human nature of Christ: it suffers damnation in that moment, exhausting the full divine wrath so that mercy may follow. It is in line with this sort of reflection that it has been called a cry of dereliction.
However, this traditional Christian reading does not take the whole Psalm into account: the third section cannot be reconciled with this type of claim. Indeed, the whole point of the Psalm is that God does not turn his face away: ‘For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him’ (Psalm 22:24). The sense of loss and abandonment the Psalmist feels at the beginning is only that: his sense. The truth is that a salvation has been prepared for him so astonishing that it will summon the entire world to praise (vv.27–28). This final vision of a banquet of worship enfolds not just future generations (vv.31), but even the dead: ‘before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and he who cannot keep himself alive’ (vv.29). In the words of the Lamb of God who is in the process of taking away the sins of the world on the cross, this Psalm is an announcement of redemption in Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the glory of the world to come.
It is in an attempt to honour both the traditional Christian interpretation and the meaning of the text when taken as a whole that I have chosen Charlie Mackesy’s Crucifixion. It could be read in line with the traditional rendering, but it also gestures at something more, at a transcendent meaning to the crucifixion that exceeds what is clear from the event itself, and that thus makes space for the vision of salvation and praise with which the Psalm concludes.
22My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3Yet thou art holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4In thee our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
5To thee they cried, and were saved;
in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed.
6But I am a worm, and no man;
scorned by men, and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock at me,
they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;
8“He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
9Yet thou art he who took me from the womb;
thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts.
10Upon thee was I cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.
11Be not far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is none to help.
12Many bulls encompass me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax,
it is melted within my breast;
15my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
thou dost lay me in the dust of death.
16Yea, dogs are round about me;
a company of evildoers encircle me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18they divide my garments among them,
and for my raiment they cast lots.
19But thou, O Lord, be not far off!
O thou my help, hasten to my aid!
20Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
21Save me from the mouth of the lion,
my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen!
22I will tell of thy name to my brethren;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee:
23You who fear the Lord, praise him!
all you sons of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!
24For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted;
and he has not hid his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
25From thee comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live for ever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
28For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and he who cannot keep himself alive.
30Posterity shall serve him;
men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation,
31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
that he has wrought it.