Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent.” (Psalm 22:1, 2)
The beginning of this familiar Messianic Psalm contains both words of agony and words of hope—the one more obvious than the other. The obvious one is that the Psalmist, David, is struggling with feeling abandoned by God. The context of this feeling is not specifically mentioned, but it need not be. A careful reading of the Psalms (an “anatomy of the soul,” as Calvin rightly noted) will reveal that this is a common sense that the righteous have throughout their Christian pilgrimage. There are a variety of “experiences” that lead the Psalmist to profess this sense of the soul—the attacks of the wicked (seems to be prominent here in this Psalm); the confusing discrepancy between the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering; struggles with sin; or even the seemingly arbitrary removal of the favor of God for no particular reason, among other things. In each of these cases, the Psalmist struggles to find the God Who is always near. One gets the feeling many times in reading the Psalms (and in living life) that it is as if the Psalmist (and us) is groping around in a dark room searching for the comfort of God’s presence when all we must do is turn on the light to realize that He has always been there. It is in these times we are reminded of His covenant promises and mercies (as the Psalmists so often rehearse, instructing their own souls)—for God cannot lie, what He has spoken He will perform. It is a great comfort to the struggling believer to walk with the Psalmist through the valley of the shadow of death to the heights of the Rock in the wilderness firmly established for our temporal and eternal comfort. It is much like what Samuel Rutherford once wrote to a discouraged friend who had once lost sight of this Strong Tower and Mighty Fortress: “Your Rock is Christ, and it is not your Rock which ebbs and flows, but your sea.”
The less obvious part of these opening verses of Psalm 22—the words of hope—must be rightly discerned through the lens of the New Testament. What the Psalmist experienced here, no matter how deep and overwhelming the sense, was but a portion of the true reality of the words. In the end, the righteous are never forsaken. The ones to whom God has united Himself by covenant, where promises have been sovereignly made and fulfilled by Him alone—these ones can never be lost and can never be apart from Him. What God has joined together, no mere man or experience or deep feeling of abandonment can ever separate or tear asunder. It is to this truth and reality that we find the Psalmist returning again and again—read through the Psalm as you read this letter and see the transformation for yourself. There is only one way to understand how this can be so—and the answer is found at the center of all human history on a crude, rough cross outside the gates of the city of Jerusalem. The reason why these words contain great hope to the discouraged like David (and you and me) is because they were words taken up by Jesus on the cross in a way that no righteous man could possibly know or experience. The stone-cold silence of that moment where the Father turned away from the Son because He became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:17-ff) is the most deafening cry of the cross. But in it, we have the most comforting and powerful words for the one who feels abandoned by God. What we so often feel as but a mere sense or awareness, though often excruciatingly painful, nonetheless is not the reality of what Christ endured for us at that moment. Words of agony and words of hope bound up in the same verses so that in our despair we might indeed find comfort.
In his very helpful book Deserted By God?, Sinclair Ferguson, at the very end, reminds us of this moment of deep distress that Christ endured in order to point us to the hope that our souls must continually grasp. In writing about what Jesus did for us on the cross, and after speaking to the point that at the cross He took our place, he writes the following (pp. 179-80): “He also entered into the deepest and darkest depths of human loneliness, isolation, pain, and distress. When Mark records that Jesus ‘began to be deeply distressed and troubled’ (Mark 14:33) he uses language that elsewhere ‘describes the confused, restless, half-distracted state, which is produced by physical derangement, or by mental distress, as grief, shame, disappointment.’ Jesus’ sinless and sensitive spirit felt the full force of the turning of His Father’s face from sin. He plumbed the depths. He tasted the darkness of pain, opposition, rejection, loneliness. He comes to us as the Crucified One, Who is qualified to understand us and sympathize with us. But He comes also as the Risen One Who is able to hold us up and keep us. In Him there is comfort. In Him there is also security. Come to Him if you are weary and burdened. He will give you rest. He has promised. Trust Him. He will do it.”
As we prepare ourselves to come to the Lord’s Table this Sunday, let us remember that we come to the Table where the words of agony and hope meet. We remember the suffering and death of our Savior, the wrath He endured for us and for our salvation—the agony and the travail of His soul. But even as we remember this and give praise to God our Savior, we see the hope shining forth from the cross for all who are the called of God and who believe the Gospel. As I so often remind you, come with faith in your hearts—even in the midst of your agony and despair—that Christ, the Crucified and Risen One may bring hope to your soul.
Resting in the HOPE that is ours in Christ,
November 2, 2017