3 Reasons Jesus Quoted Psalm 22

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Updated Apr 15, 2024
3 Reasons Jesus Quoted Psalm 22

The cross is the central event of the Christian faith. It is the place where Jesus’ Lordship is most fully revealed. His Lordship, however, is not found in might or strength. Jesus’ throne is a cross and his crown a ring of thorns. From this place, Jesus echoes the most visceral and gut-wrenching of prayers penned in the scriptures: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” It is significant that Jesus doesn’t pray an extemporaneous prayer from the cross but offers words ripped from Psalm 22

But have you ever asked yourself why Jesus quotes this psalm? After all, there is a myriad of laments that Jesus could voice. Over half the psalter are laments. Why not voice Psalm 88:14, saying, “Oh Lord, why do you cast my soul away?” Or what about Psalm 55:4, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me”? Wouldn’t this be applicable to what Jesus was undergoing? 

Jesus is particular about what he speaks while on the cross. Whether it be the declaration of forgiveness or the assurance of eternity in paradise, every statement conveys the purpose and intent of Christ’s crucifixion. Given this, looking at Psalm 22 can help us understand the nature of the cross. Below are three reasons why these words were on Jesus’ lips.

A Cry of Dereliction

Everything that surrounds the cross screams defeat. Clouds cover Golgotha in darkness and gloom. Pilate hangs his inscription “The king of the Jews” upon the cross, not as a testimony of Christ’s Lordship but as a declaration that the might of Rome has vanquished its enemy. People stand by and mock Jesus. The very people who had previously cried “Hosanna!” now deride him. Then, almost topping it all off, with his last vestiges of strength, Jesus raises his voice in a cry of desperation and agony; “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The words ring with pain.

This is the cry of someone overwhelmed with God’s absence. This is the cry of someone crushed under the weight of sin and curse. We can never understand Christ’s death without recognizing the shame and dereliction that the cross represents. Jesus suffers under an extremity of both outer and inner pain. 

Physically, the cross represented the epitome of all the vile, brutal, and violent tendencies of the world. Crucifixion was a torture device so extreme that the Romans reserved it for the lowest of society. In fact, by law, no Roman citizen was allowed to be crucified. It was so agonizing and painful that a new word had to be invented to describe its effects: excruciating (literally meaning out of the cross.) The physical horror of being pierced with nails strung up on a pole and left to suffocate is well known.

In addition to the physical horror, there was also a spiritual offense to the cross. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “Cursed is the one who is hung upon a tree.”  Death by hanging was seen to be a sign that one was under God’s curse. Thus, Jesus dies in the place of sinful humanity, bearing the curse of sin on his shoulders. The separation from God, felt by all humanity because of sin, was now placed on him. Paul describes the cross this way: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). On the cross, Jesus suffered the curse of divine separation. The Father seemed distant and removed. The quotation from Psalm 22, therefore, was a prayer of defeat, a resignation to the fact that Jesus (i.e., the afflicted one) experienced the silence of God’s absence. 

A Statement of Identity

Not much is known about the history behind Psalm 22. Over time, however, the Psalm was read as one of the many messianic psalms. Like the suffering servant passages of Isaiah, this psalm was seen to point to the coming anointed one. The divine servant of God, who comes to redeem and save, would be an “afflicted one.” Thus, while we can never see the lament implicit in the opening verses of the psalm, we must recognize that Psalm 22 also contains key statements about the Messiah’s identity. 

Psalm 22 details the life of Jesus in dramatic detail. The anointed one is one stricken and afflicted, surrounded by enemies, taunted, and ridiculed. The afflicted one undergoes incredible pain, saying, “My heart has turned to wax, and my mouth has dried up” (Psalm 22:14-15). Then, in a scene that may have seemed odd or out of place in its original context, the afflicted one describes how people “pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:16-18). Did Jesus quote Psalm 22 the very moment the soldiers started gambling for his garments (John 19:23-24)?

When Jesus cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”, he is not solely crying in lament, he is also pointing to his messianic identity. On the cross, Jesus announces to all who before him that he is the suffering one of Psalm 22. Any priest, pharisee, or devout Jew conversant with the psalms would recognize the psalm Jesus was quoting. They would know the verses, Thus, as they watched the description of Psalm 22 being played out before them, they would come to recognise that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

A Shout of Victory

The cross is not just an instance of defeat, it is also a triumph. Thus, it stands to reason that all that Jesus declares from the cross contains a victorious undertone. This is certainly true of his quote from Psalm 22. As much as Psalm 22 begins with a cry of lament, it ends with words of hope and salvation.

Following the description of the afflicted one’s piercing, the psalm makes clear that the place of suffering is the place where God’s love and power are most fully revealed. The psalm reads, “God 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” (vs. 24). The afflicted one is not actually despised by God, ignored, and rejected. As it happens, the place of suffering is the place of God’s mightiest work.

With a shout of victory, the psalmist declares that the death of the afflicted one amounts to salvation for all. The afflicted one is even understood to be the Lord himself. The Psalm concludes: “All who go down to the dust will kneel before him…Future Generations will be told about the Lord, they will proclaim his righteousness, to a people yet unborn, for He has done it” (vs 31). In the end, the death of the afflicted one is a mighty act of salvation brought about by the very hand of the Lord. The afflicted one’s suffering accomplishes the work of redemption.

This is exactly what we believe about the cross. Jesus dies on the cross as an act of salvation, not punishment. Jesus dies because the work is complete. He has done it, it is finished (John 19:30). Redemption is secured not by our works but by his. Thus, his death marks the defeat of all the spiritual forces of sin and curse that threaten our lives. Christ’s death is the death knell for all that would keep us separated from him. 

We cannot understand Jesus’ cry on the cross without understanding the entire arc of the Psalm. We must hear the quotation “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” in such a way that it leads us through the description of his piercing to the final proclamation that “he has done it.” Jesus’ death on the cross is the pathway to life; it is an act of redemption. Thus, his cry from the cross testifies that he accomplished all he set out to do.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Dario Hayashi

SWN authorThe Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.comibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca.  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.

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