“I gave my back to the smiters”

When we partake of bread and wine each week we are asked to remember the Lord’s sacrifice – as his words direct us in Luke 22:19. The Apostle Paul adds the words, “let a man examine himself” as we partake of the emblems (1 Cor 11:28). This involves, amongst other things, an appeal to our conscience as we think of what the Lord endured in his sufferings on our behalf. The crucifixion itself is the extreme example of this. Psalm 22 helps us to appreciate what the Lord had to suffer, but also tells us what sustained him during those dreadful hours upon the cross.

The gospel writers give an account of the crucifixion which is stark and unembellished. They take a spectator’s viewpoint and record the facts. An example of their understated approach are the words, “and they crucified him!” We have to go to the Old Testament, especially to the Psalms and the prophets, in order to feel the depths of his suffering; to appreciate the brutality to which he was subjected and his thoughts and feelings in the midst of indescribable torment. For example, it is Isaiah who tells us what the Lord is thinking whilst suffering the scourging (Isa 50:6–8) and Psalm 69 tells us of his feelings of loneliness and desolation. Many other such passages in the Old Testament can be advanced to demonstrate similar thoughts. It is a sombre reminder of the intensity of the pain afflicting him to learn that our English word “excruciating” is derived from the Latin ex cruce meaning “out of the cross”.

In Hebrews 12 the apostle tells us that it was Jesus’ faith in the “joy set before him” that strengthened him to endure the cross. In verse 4 Paul says, “ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin”. The implication is that the Lord had to fight against sin right until the moment of death, whilst in the midst of terrible suffering. He did just that. We only need to contrast the behaviour of the thieves crucified with him to illustrate this. They cursed and railed against their tormentors because, unlike the Lord, they had no battle against sin to fight and therefore gave vent to their natural feelings against those afflicting them.

Pain breaks down resistance; that is why evil men torture their victims. The control of Jesus over mind and tongue, his concentration on the words of Scripture, his offer of salvation to the repentant thief, and his seeking forgiveness for his tormentors are so remarkable that they must evoke a response in us to try harder to emulate his example. A consideration of Psalm 22 should provoke us to more earnestly serve him and more fervently await his coming.

No reprieve from the battle

The opening of Psalm 22 plunges us dramatically right into the middle of this struggle, with the words which the Lord cried out near the end of his sufferings at the ninth hour of the day,

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46).

Much has been written about this tortured cry, especially with regard to the Aramaic used here, and the Hebrew of Psalm 22. In what sense could the Lord feel “forsaken”? Matthew and Mark offer a translation and the Greek word used means, “to leave, abandon or desert”. The Father never abandoned him and the Lord knew this, as the Psalm goes on to show. Certainly the Lord would know that the Holy Spirit power, bestowed upon him at the commencement of his ministry, would leave him at the end. God’s Spirit cannot be associated with death which is the penalty laid upon mankind because of sin. He must die as a representative of man, alone.

There could be no reprieve from this battle. Sin needed to be conquered in a sinless bearer of our nature with its impulses to sin, even under the most severe provocation. This was obedience, even to the death of the cross! (Phil 2:8). It was not the first time that Jesus had expressed feelings of foreboding and loneliness. He had “set his face toward Jerusalem” and had told his disciples of how he was “straitened” till his sacrifice had been accomplished (Luke 12:50).

“Strong bulls of Bashan have beset me around”

When he entered the Garden of Gethsemane, Mark tells us that he was “sore amazed” and “began to be very heavy” and he told Peter, James and John that he was “exceeding sorrowful unto death” (Mark 14:33,34). These words mean “frightened” (see example Mark 16:5,6), “desolate”, and “depressed” and we should not be surprised. How would we feel if we were in the same position and knew the explicit details of the ordeal that he was soon to face? It was no sin for him to think like this, as the flesh was to be subjected to pressures to the limit of endurance. We know that his mind was controlled by his Father’s Word and faith in his Father’s power to raise him again to life, and so this prevailed in the end.

In Psalm 22 we hear of his trust in Yahweh based on the experience of the patriarchs:

“Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them” (Psa 22:4). He had been born for this purpose and the hour had come. “I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly” (Psa 22:10). The Lord had been kept in safety in the angels’ charge (Psa 91:11,12). He had not been subjected to brutality to this point, despite previous attempts to cast him over a cliff at Nazareth (Luke 4:29) and an attempt to arrest him (John 7:44,45).

Now, however, all the brutality which Jew and Gentile could muster was unleashed upon him.

In the Psalm he describes them, in verses 12,13 and 16, as wild bulls, lions and dogs surrounding him, bellowing and roaring against him. There is a rising intensity in verses 20, 21 describing them as lions having him in their jaws, the bulls having impaled him and the dogs tearing at his flesh

The actual moment of nailing him to the stake is described, in verse 16, as his hands and feet being pierced. At this point Brother Roberts in Nazareth Revisited (page 508, 3rd Ed) exclaims:

“O Lord … help us to conform to the example he has left us. Our hearts break for love and pity. Help us to do his commandments.” May we be similarly moved and affected by what the Lord has done for us.

The Psalm goes on to describe his torments of searing pain in flesh and bones, cramping agony, suffocating difficulty in breathing and thirst. Amazingly his mind, however, is still in tune with the prophetic Word. The very words of verse 8, which are thrown up at him in derision, would provide comfort in their unintentional fulfilment. “All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him” (Psa 22:7–8). As the soldiers gambled for his seamless outer garment (v18) he would know that his Father was in control.

Psalm 69:9 would also be on his mind, “For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.” In quoting this passage, Paul shows that “even Christ pleased not himself”, so we also should think of others and build them up and bear their infirmities as Christ bore ours (Rom 15:1–3).

The last Scripture to be fulfilled on the cross also comes from this Psalm: “They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psa 69:21). In John’s gospel we are told that he asked for his thirst to be quenched specifically to fulfil this Scripture before dying (John 19:28). The vinegar was passed up on a rod with hyssop tied to it (perhaps with scarlet thread?). With its association with the red heifer in the Law of Moses as the offering which removed the defilement caused by human death, Jesus would know that indeed, “it is finished”. Sin had been conquered and, with it, the inevitable resurrection would swallow death up as well.

Having us in mind

Psalm 22 then takes a dramatic turn and we are told, with certainty, what really sustained the Lord during the whole ordeal, as every base characteristic of flesh had been hurled at him.

“I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee” (v22) and, “My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him” (v25).

It is the thought of saving his brethren and seeing the great perfected ecclesia in the Kingdom which was the motivation of our Lord to endure the cross, as Paul proves in quoting Psalm 22:22 in Hebrews 2:10–12. He writes, “For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the ecclesia will I sing praise unto thee.” Note in verse 12 that it is “him”, that is Jesus, who is saying this, proving that the Psalm is indeed Messianic. The coming Kingdom is mentioned in verses 27,26,30 and 31. Thus we can be sure that this was in the Lord’s mind on the cross. “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the Lord’s: and he is the governor among the nations” (Psa 22:27–28).

The Psalm finishes with an expression very similar to the Lord’s last words, since they can be rendered, “it is done”. “A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation. They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this” (Psa 22:30–31). In their ignorance the mob had cried out, “He saved others himself he cannot save” (Matt 27:42). They missed the point entirely. He was there to save others not “himself”, though in the process he would be saved as well, as three days later he would rise from the grave and be clothed with immortality, because of God’s righteousness. Our sins were being condemned, not his. Isaiah, in that wonderful chapter 53, portrays him as being stricken for our transgressions, the iniquities of us all laid upon him and healing us with his stripes. The last verse of Isaiah sums this up: “he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa 53:12).

The Apostle Peter’s magnificent exposition of Isaiah 53 tells us how his death, as our representative, is meant to be lived out in our lives as we follow in his steps: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet 2:24). Isaiah tells us that Yahweh was near, in fact right alongside him, pronouncing him justified and righteous even whilst they were flogging him (ch 50:7).

“They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh”

Pilate who handed him over to his torturers pronounced three times that he had found “no fault” in him (John 18:38; 19:4,6) and the Centurion in charge of the execution was forced to declare, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matt 27:54). This, the worst of deaths, condemned sin, and declared the nature, in which sin is enthroned in the human race, fit for destruction. The worst of deaths – to save the worst of sinners, if they turn in repentance to God, as the Apostle Paul confessed: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim 1:15–16).

Thus the language of the awful death the Lord suffered comes through in the Scriptures like Psalm 22 to remind us that we are called to a life of sacrifice which, at times is painful, but has to be endured. We recall also his great example of self-control under extreme provocation. This was his great victory over sin: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Rom 6:6). The same point is made in, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal 5:24). And again, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. (Gal 6:14).

Let us echo Brother Roberts’ words, “Lord …

help us to do his commandments” and remember the Lord Jesus’ words, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”