December 22, 2014

Horse 1808 - Psalm 22

Yesterday (Sunday 21st) our Pastor mentioned that at the beginning of John 1, John deliberately invokes a literary style similar to that found in the beginning of Genesis, to establish that Christ is God and the various theological foundation points which follow on from that.
Yet again proving that you shouldn't leave me alone with an idea because I tend to want to pull it to pieces, I then wandered to Matthew's gospel and Jesus quote invoking Psalm 22:

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)
- Matthew 27:46

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
- Psalm 22:1

On the face of it, this looks like a cry of utter despair but if you bother to read through the entire of Psalm 22, instead of a cry of despair it is a cry of mocking triumph over death.

(Link: via Bible Gateway)

In the Jewish literary and rabbinical tradition, if you quote the beginning of a piece of scripture it is supposed to bring to mind the rest of the section. One of our clients, who is a Rabbi at a synagogue in eastern Sydney, has on multiple occasions stated that quoting the beginning of a piece of scripture is also supposed to especially bring to mind the end of that piece. He explained that its like if you only told the beginning of a joke - everyone is expected to know the punchline. This makes a fair degree of sense in context when you have a class of academia who handle massive pieces of text, which  they've all spent considerable amount of time to painfully remember. This makes even more sense when you consider that Jesus was a Jew and a Rabbi and Matthew who wrote the gospel is also a Jew and his first audience was also Jewish.

Psalm 22 contains a considerable amount of what could be Messianic text. Verses 14 to 21 very much talk about the "here and now" given the situation Jesus was enduring at the time:

Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they 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

It is the end of the Psalm though, where we find the punchline. It is also here where I've read needless disagreement from scholars on what Jesus' last words actually were that Friday.
If we compare the account in chapter 19 of John's gospel, he states that Jesus' last words are "it is finished". Compared this with the end of Psalm 22.

Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
- Psalm 22:30-31

Why the discrepancy? What if the most rational explanation is that Jesus spoke the whole of Psalm 22? If that is true then we're not necessarily looking at a discrepancy but a difference in writing purpose. Jewish people might be expected at this point to remember the whole of Psalm 22 but John who writes for an audience which includes Gentiles, can not expect that level of rigour from people not trained nor brought up with that tradition - John cuts straight to the punchline.

So what's the point of all of this; especially now during the Christmas season? Because I think that the Christmas season itself echoes something of that literary and rabbinical tradition. Consider those lines from Charles Wesley's Carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing":

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Charles Wesley, 1739

The message of Christmas means nothing without Easter because thousands of Jewish kids were born in the Roman Empire. Even Good Friday means nothing without Easter Sunday because thousands of people were executed on Roman crosses. Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, marks the high point of the Christian year.

The Christmas season is like quoting the beginning of Psalm 22 and expecting people to know how the story ends, except that Christmas is not a case of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" but Immanuel - "God is with us".

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