Literary Analysis of Psalm 22

Two visions create Song 22; one perceives the present and one, the future. Each describes an extreme state of being and each is the polar opposite of the other.

The song opens with the voicing of an anguish so intense that, more than a cry, it is, in the singer’s words, “roars”, the image suggestive of a lion (v. 2). Yet no aggression, but rather despair, issues such sounds; the singer’s terror at being abandoned by God: “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” His roar of words receives no answer, its noise diminished by an invasive silence:

My God, I cry out all the day, but You do not answer, and all the night, but no quietude for me. (v. 3)

The image is bleaker in Hebrew than in English, for while “quietude” suggests “respite” in English, the Hebrew root of דּוּמִיָּה connotes paralysis, a freezing of the blood. However, in both languages, the singer’s despair is made more acute as he remembers God’s aid to his forefathers (verses 5 and 6) and, indeed, his own safe haven in God in his infancy (verses 10, 11).

His distress he pictures in a series of metaphors that span, first, the hierarchy of creatures –from lion (v.2) to worm (v.7)– descending into the terrifying description of his own dissolving flesh and bones: he images his foes encircling him as a pack of scavengers (verses 17-19),  waiting to devour their carrion (their only sign of being human, and not actual curs, their division of spoils even before they attack); his terror at their impending assault, with no protection accorded him by God, turns his flesh into water, until, his bones and organs having dissolved, he is emptied of vitality, left as the mere dust of death (verses 15, 16):

Like water, I was spilled out, and all my bones came apart;
my heart was like wax, melted in my bowels. (v. 15)

              Dried up like clay is my strength, and my tongue cleaves to my palate,
and You will set me in the dust of death.
(v. 16)

The singer has stripped himself not only of his human form but, indeed, his humanity; without God’s favour, he becomes, in his own eyes, less than human. Just as his foes, anticipating their triumph over him, act savagely; their inhumanity turning them into marauding beasts, “a ravenous, roaring lion” (v. 14). Thus the singer’s vision of his own vulnerability begins with his words, roaring, and ends with men whose baseness destroys their humanness. Even their taunting of him denigrates and profanes the singer’s trust in God: “Roll your way to Adonai” (v.9) – their goading imagining him somersaulting, like a child, or, worse, and inanimate object whose movement can only be impelled by another. Accordingly, God’s favour becomes, for them, not a benediction but a jeer: “He will rescue him, He will save him, for He desires good for him” (v.9).

At the very moment when the singer’s voice would seemingly be still, and his enemies’ roars the only sound to be heard, he calls out to God to aid him (verses 20,21). Into the vision of a world devoid of any human beings, the human emerges. In the space between the first line of verse 22 –“Deliver me from the mouth of the lion”–and the second –“from the horns of the bull You did answer me” –something unknowable occurs. The bleak vision of the song’s first half gives way to exultation.

In asking to be rescued, the singer is certainly referring to his enemies as ‘”the mouth of the lion” (v.22), but the image echoes his description of his own cries in the song’s opening verse –“the roars that I utter” (v.2). The singer is asking, that is, to be freed from his own roars, from his own desperate point of view. And, indeed, that is exactly what occurs. The analogy to Isaac, saved from sacrifice by the appearance of the ram (bull) sent by God (v.22), makes clear the singer’s sense of his own miraculous escape from death, from his deathly vision. And yet the change in the tense of the two verbs, from present to past, within the same verse, adds a puzzle –the singer has been rescued even before his plea:

Deliver me from the mouth of the lion; from the horns of the bull You did answer me. (v. 22)

It would seem that the singer, then, is, from one moment –one line– to the next, recognizing that God has answered his plea in the past, and that he finds, in that instant of recognition, the very answer he has, throughout that space of time comprising verses 1 to mid-22, been waiting for.

His humanity reclaimed, the singer is now able to do just as his fathers had done –to, as verse 4 declares, enthrone God “in [by means of] the praises of Israel”.  His vision in verses 23 to 32 is of a world redeemed. Not only does he acknowledge God’s compassion to all you who are “the seed of Jacob” (v. 24), and God’s awareness of “the pleading prayer of the needy” (v. 25), but he envisions a time when

One end of the earth to the other will remember and return to ADONAI
and all the family of nations will bow down before You.
(v. 28)

Moreover, God’s rule will extend not just to the nations of the world, but to “all those who will go down to the dust” (v. 30); indeed, even to those yet to be born, “to the generations to follow” (v. 31). Thus all humankind –past, present, future– will unite to praise and acknowledge God; a people, reborn, without want –“The humble will eat and be satisfied” (v. 27)– proclaiming God’s bounty, their praise songs surely David’s own.

The second, the exultant, vision within the song answers the first, the despairing one and transforms its images: thus verse 20’s beseechment to God, “be not distant”, resounds verse 12’s “Do not distance Yourself from me”; yet rather than simply echo the earlier verse, the later one leads, not to the fearful cry, “for torment is nearby”, of verse 12, but to the declarative “You did answer me” of verse 22. The surety of that declaration denies, as well, verse 3’s assertion, “but You do not answer”. Similarly, verse 25’s avowal, “For He did not despise and did not detest” the prayers of the needy refutes verse 7’s depiction of the singer as reviled and disgraced. Even the creature of dust, with palate “dried up like clay”, of verse 16, is given its revitalized and opposite form in those multitudes of verse 30 who have gone “down to the dust” but who kneel, with the living, before God.

Two words and their variants –“praise”, as both verb and noun, and three variations of verbs of speech (“speak”, “tell” and “declare”) – repeat throughout the second part of the song, promoting its vision’s exultation: “praise” occurs in verses 23, 24, 26 and 27, ensuring the enthronement of God suggested in verse 4. “Speak”, verse 23, “tell”, verse 31, and “declare”, verse 32, make stronger, in their various forms, the sense of mere telling or repeating. Praises, spoken, become chorus.

Even the one repetition in the first section –‘trust”– is a subversive comment on the singer’s despair;*  the fathers’ trust, emphasized twice in verse 5, again in verse 6, becomes the overwhelming, central quality of the nations in the song’s conclusion. The trust of the singer as an infant taken out of the safety of his mother’s womb (verse 10) has its fulfillment in the concluding “a people being born” (v. 32). The assertion that generation after generation will hear of God’s righteousness takes the song back to its opening line, both completing and explaining it. “Ayelet haShahar” may refer to a musical instrument – this is, in fact, the usual assumption – but the Hebrew words translate literally, “deer of the sunrise” or “radiant deer”. The radiance, then, is God’s righteousness; the time of day, sunrise, an apt metaphor for generations to be born into the words of their people’s praises.

*The Hebrew word for “declare”, אֲסַפְּרָה , transforms the spectre of the singer’s despair by its connotation of creativity: the root of the Hebrew for “declare” is the same as the root of the verb “count”, ס.פ.ר.

foresaken photo

Photo by TheMarque