Jesus on the Cross (Psalm 22)

What was Jesus doing on the cross? What were his emotions? He was suffering, of course, but in the midst of his suffering he was also rejoicing! Grab a Bible and let's dig in.

OK, so, besides talking to the two criminals beside him, and talking to his mother and to John, and a few other bits, we don’t seem to know much about what Jesus was doing on the cross. In the Gospels there are 7 things listed that Jesus said. That’s not much. But I think we actually know more than this.  His words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then his last words “it is finished” give us a marvelous clue as to what else he was doing on the cross.

I think that among other things Jesus was praying what we now call Psalm 22, in its entirety. And if he didn’t have the strength to sing or even speak, he would have prayed the words silently. That Psalm is a lament, but finishes with rejoicing and triumph.

OK. So first let me address why I think this. Then, we’ll walk though the Psalm and see what it says about Jesus.

Why do I think Jesus was praying Psalm 22? To start with, we know he said the first line of the Psalm. Matthew 27:46 says “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” And likewise Mark 15:34 indicates the exact same. Now, this is the first line of Psalm 22. It is not just coincidental that Jesus’ words match the Psalm. Jesus was clearly reciting Scripture. He was praying!

Further, the context of Mark and Matthew may suggest that he said the whole Psalm. Matthew and Mark had just a few verses to tell of the entire ordeal of the crucifixion. The narratives were condensed, with just the most important and representative pieces mentioned. So reporting Jesus saying the first line could have denoted that he said the whole thing. Keep in mind also that when these Gospels were written, the unofficial title of the psalm was likely the first line—that’s what everyone would have known it by. In this case then the text could well be giving the title of the Psalm, indicating that Jesus recited the whole Psalm.

Also The Gospel of John lends support to the view that Jesus said the whole Psalm. John 19:30 says that Jesus’ last words were “It is finished.” This matches a loose translation of the last line of Psalm 22!

So Jesus recites the first and last lines of the Psalm. What about all the stuff in the middle? The context of the situation strongly implies that Jesus was praying the entirety of Psalm 22 while he was on the cross. First of all we know who Jesus was, his person, his character, his personality. He would have been praying! (And we know he did pray for his executioners from Luke 23:34.) The only question is what would he have been praying? Well, there was a prayer written about the crucifixion. He would probably pray that! That prayer is…Psalm 22! Jesus, the Word, wrote Psalm 22 through the Spirit and through David. He wrote it to prophesy about his own death.

He wrote it also, I think, for this very moment in time, that of his crucifixion. For himself to pray in this moment! And think about it. As soldiers are casting lots for his clothing (Matthew 27:35), why wouldn’t he be praying the Psalm that tells of soldiers casting lots for his clothing? What else would he be praying at that moment? As onlookers are sneeringly saying, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him” (Matthew 27:43), why wouldn’t he be praying the Psalm that describes the exact same thing?

Now, there is an additional reason I think the Psalm was written: To give us a window into what Jesus was thinking and feeling on the cross, so that we could get a clearer picture of who he is! Let’s walk through Psalm 22, to access this. The translation I am using is the ESV.

First, note that the Psalm may work on two levels. On one level it is written by David and may describe, in hyperbole, an unspecified personal odyssey of David. But we know of no experience in David’s life that fits this text. On the other level, underlaying the Psalm, in the prophetic, are lots of verses, and arguably every verse, that deal directly with Jesus’ ordeal. The prophetic meaning is shielded by the thin veil of David’s earthly experience or story.

The Psalm starts with that great cry of anguish: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! This is a deeply personal cry. In the Psalms, the term “My God” is equivalent to “My Father.” In his humanity, Jesus is suffering mightily. Of course physically—Jesus has been beaten to within an inch of his life and then nailed to a cross and is painfully struggling to keep himself from suffocating to death. But also psychologically. He has been abandoned by his Father, for the first and only time, forsaken, ignored and left to die with no help given, suffering for our sins. The Father has withdrawn from Jesus. And yet Jesus reaches for his Father, who he knows loves him, even though he can’t feel it at all at the moment. In the rest of verse 1 and in verse 2 there are two more cries of anguish, making this a triplet for emphasis.

Next, verse 3. “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.” In the midst of despair, Jesus praises his Father, and affirms the Fathers’ sovereign rule.

Verses 4 and 5. “In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.” Just like the Father delivered Israel in the past, Jesus would be delivered from this abandonment, this forsakenness. Israel was not put to shame, and ultimately, Jesus would not be either.

And verses 6–8 show us what a shameful situation Jesus was in! “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me.” All his human dignity is lost. He is the lowest of the low, like a worm who lives in dirt. In the Jewish culture, to be hung on a tree was considered the most shameful way to die. And here he was, beaten, bloodied, broken, likely stripped naked, completely exposed in every way, hanging on a tree on a hill for all to see. And he is scorned, mocked, sneered at. The indignity of the King of the Universe mocked by men whom He created! No one has ever been brought lower.

Now, Verses 9–11. Jesus doesn’t have God with him, on the cross, but he comforts himself by remembering how his Father had been with him since even before birth. “On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”

Now skip ahead to verses 14–15. “I am poured out like water, and all of my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted away within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” Jesus’ focus shifts to his body, which is failing and on the point of death. These things he describes are things that happen, by the way, to a body when it suffers blood loss and dehydration and is crucified. He is in extreme distress. And, he acknowledges that he has been put there by his Father. He is literally being sacrificed by his Father.

In verses 16–18 things get even more intense. In these verses his persecution, rejection and shame are now mixed and jumbled with his physical torment, as his life is slipping away. Look at verse 17. Sandwiched in between telling of others persecuting him and gloating over him, he interjects a painful lament over being able to see all his bones. And he is probably struggling to lift his head at this point, so he is staring down at his body. His physical and emotional distress are merging together now, and mentally, he is likely struggling with disorientation. Indeed, I think he is struggling to maintain his mental sharpness at this point, as death is near and brain function may be failing—he has lost a lot of blood, his blood pressure is low, and his heart, weakened and stressed from the crucifixion, is having trouble pumping blood up to the brain. He is at his breaking point.

So in verse 19 he makes a final plea for help, which needs to come quickly to avert death. “O you my help, come quickly to me aid!”

And then in verse 21b we get the climax, the turning point. “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!” Jesus, in his abandonment, and now resigned to death, nonetheless knows with certainty that his Father will rescue him. But it will not be a rescue from earthly death! No, it will be taking Jesus from this lowest of low points, this worm, shamefully despised and scorned and mocked, and raising him to sit at the right hand of the Father, to rule in Glory! Jesus, at the lowest point imaginable, and while abandoned, he KNOWS, trusts fully, that his Father will turn his earthly defeat into great, cosmic Victory.

And so in verses 22–26, the focus shifts. Jesus, about to die, rejoices! He looks ahead to the great feast, the great and continual praise and worship of the kingdom of Heaven, where, see verse 26, where the saints, who share in his afflictions here on earth, “shall eat and be satisfied,” and their hearts live forever! What a wondrous vision.

So that’s a view of heaven. What will happen on earth? Look at verse 27. “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” Jesus’ name will be proclaimed throughout all the earth, and there will be believers in all nations.

Finally, we get the final verse, 31. “they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn.” “They” is us, it is you and me. Jesus, in his last moments of life, is rejoicing that we, his children, will be spreading the Gospel today, proclaiming his Glory today! As you sing praise and worship with your congregation, know that Jesus, on the cross, rejoiced that you are doing so. As you share Jesus with your neighbor, your friend, or on a mission trip, know that Jesus rejoiced with his final breath that you are doing so! You are part of his Victory! And we share a part in this way in his crucifixion.

And so finally, the last line, as the screen cuts to black: “that he has done it.” Well, if the person whom the Psalm is written about is telling it, which is what is happening here on the cross, it would be “that I have done it,” which is equivalent to…”it is finished!” Jesus’ last words were words of triumph, announcing that he had opened the gates of heaven to us, for the Glory of his Father. So now to Him, the victorious one, be all glory and honor and praise, forever!