THREE IMPORTANT ‘BUT’S’
(A Comment on Psalm 22)
John H. Paterson
THE twenty-second psalm of David is generally regarded by Christians as “messianic”; that is, as looking forward in a way which David himself could never realise to the experiences of the Lord Jesus Christ. The prophetic notes are dramatically obvious. On the cross, the Lord spoke the opening words of the psalm, just as we have them here: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The detail of the later verses finds its amazing counterpart in the narrative of those awful hours, centuries later; for example, “They part my garments among them, and upon my vesture do they cast lots” (verse 18).
So close, in fact, is the parallel that we may well find ourselves imagining that these actual words went through the mind of the Lord Jesus following His lonely cry on the cross. Perhaps they did, and if they did I want to suggest to you that, in a remarkable way, they trace for us a proper response — indeed the only proper response — to the situation in which the Lord Jesus found Himself as He hung, abandoned, between heaven and earth.
For you will notice, I am sure, the greatest problem He faced — and which we in our measure may also face. It was the problem of how to react, and the most difficult part of it was not caused by His enemies, the men who had put Him there on the cross. In a dreadful sense, that was the least part of the problem, for He can have had no doubt about the proper response towards them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But ifGod forsook Him: what could possibly be The ‘right’ response to that? Blame? Reproach? Anger? All three were impossible for the Son of God: all three are equally out of the question for us as believers in our times of trial. How then ought we to react?
As I read this psalm, I find a short chain of clues to the answer to this question, each of them marked in the Authorised and Revised Versions of our Bible by the word ‘but’. This is, of course, only the work of the translators of the original Hebrew: there are actually no ‘buts’ in it! Nevertheless, I feel that they give a structure to the text. They mark a succession of thoughts which seem to have occurred in sequence to the writer, as he tried to reason his way out of the dilemma into which he had been thrown by his apparent abandonment by God. They mark, if you like, stages in his return to confidence, a return culminating in verse 22 and onwards: “I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee”.
There are, of course, different kinds of ‘but’ that we use in our speech and writing. We probably all know people who use ‘but’ mainly as an objection. They use it to interrupt your story, or to refuse you help, or to foresee obstacles in your path. This kind of ‘but’ can be very vexatious! There is, however, another kind of ‘but’ such as mathematicians and scholars use, which is a help and not a hindrance. It says, “But we already know that, so we don’t need to go over it again: we can move on from here, because what lies on the other side of that ‘but’ is common ground, or common knowledge, and we don’t have to argue about it a second time.”
This is the kind of ‘but’ which the translators have given us in Psalm 22:3, 6 and 9, the ‘but’ of a man climbing logically out of an apparently impossible situation step by step. Here are three statements:
But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel …
But I am a worm, and no man …
But thou art he that took me out of the womb …
These are the words of a man who is seeking an explanation of the fact that God appears to have forsaken him; who has been tempted to think ill of God. All the explanations that spring to his mind in his sorrow are critical of God: [111/112] they put the blame on Him. And each ‘but’ represents a shake of this man’s head as he rejects the too-facile explanation that it is somehow God’s fault.
Explaining the Forsaken Feeling
Let me suggest to you how this works out. A person — be he David, or the Son of God, or you, or I — who feels that God has forsaken him might well be tempted to jump to the conclusion that this is because God has in some way changed. It God is capricious — like, say, the old Greek gods who were always playing tricks on each other and on men — then He may change from one moment to the next. He may be interested in a man one day, and turn His attention elsewhere on another. He may demand something of a man one day, and the next day demand the opposite. So the simplest explanation for that feeling of forsaking is: God has changed His mind about me.
How simple — yet how dangerous! For if we allow that conclusion to take hold of us we are impugning the character of God, and that will never do. Whatever may be the explanation of this position in which we find ourselves, the right answer can never be that God has somehow changed. And this brings us to our first ‘but’, the subject of which is, precisely, the character of God: “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.”
If there was one thing more than another which David and his ancestors had learned about God, it was that He is consistently, unchangingly holy. A moment’s thought, the briefest review of Israel’s history (and you will find David making just such a review in verses 4 and 5 of this psalm) would demonstrate beyond doubt God’s absolute consistency to His own divine character. So what David tells himself is this: To argue that I am now forsaken because God has somehow changed would be to suppose that, after centuries of that consistency God has suddenly, in my case, made an exception. How preposterous! Surely this can be eliminated from my explanation right away!
No: it is not that God has ceased to be holy, or just, or anything else that He has always been. But just supposing that the incredible has happened and He has changed (and here we move on to the second temptation), why should he pick on me to be made the exception? I am no worse than anyone else. My ancestors — Israel — were a terrible lot, and somehow He kept faith with them! They disobeyed Him times without number, and yet He seems to have let them ‘get away with it.’ Compared with them, He surely can’t complain about me?
Do you see what has happened? We have rebounded from one false position — that God is inconsistent — to another: that I deserve better treatment than He is giving me! This, too, is a temptation that needs to be countered, so notice the psalmist’s response: “But I am a worm, and no man.”
David, in other words, is taking exactly the opposite position from the one I have just described as a temptation. He is arguing not that he deserves treatment from God every bit as good as that accorded to his ancestors, but that he deserves nothing at all. It is not that God is being unfair to him personally by singling him out for this treatment, but that he is in a category — “a worm and no man” — which does not qualify for any treatment at all!
Verses 6 to 8 of the psalm dwell briefly on the treatment that men accord to worms. Human worms are the object of scorn and reproach: they have no claim upon the kind of consideration that might be accorded to people . The worm has no claim upon life at all. There is here no ground for complaint against God. It is not that His love or care have failed at a critical moment of trial, so that He can be accused of unfaithfulness. There was never any way of qualifying for that love or care in the first place. As Paul was later to ask, rhetorically, “Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why didst thou make me thus?” (Romans 9:20)
This second ‘but’ may avoid the temptation of thinking ill of God, but it leaves the psalmist in very depressing circumstances! If his first ‘but’ gave him some encouragement, his second leaves him with little ground for hope. And so we come to the third, the balancing, ‘but’: “But thou art he that took me out of the womb.” [112/113]
The psalmist, as he looks about for some ground of reassurance, realises this: that God has shown His interest in him over many years already. It would make very little sense for God to bring him into life, watch over him, and instil in him a feeling of trust (verse 9b), only now suddenly to abandon him at a later date. David’s argument here is one that he may — and certainly could — have taken straight out of Israel’s history. It is this: God is a God of purpose, and we can rely on Him, once He has declared a purpose and committed Himself to it, to see it through and not to abandon it half-way.
Where might David have got this idea from? Why, from Moses, of course! Do you remember those occasions when God said to Moses, “These people are impossible. I am going to abandon (forsake) them right here and now, in the wilderness, and start afresh”, and Moses said, “You can’t do that!” (Exodus 32:11-13: Numbers 14:13-16)?
The perceptive man of God realised that what was at stake in these cases was not simply the completion of an important part of God’s purpose but also His reputation; “And Moses said unto the Lord, Then the Egyptians shall hear it … then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying, Because the Lord was not able …” (Numbers 14:13, 15).
Behind God’s purpose, then, stands God’s reputation: He acts, as the Old Testament so often expresses it, “for His great name’s sake.” And this, to judge by the use made of the knowledge by Moses and David, is the most powerful argument that can be advanced before God to move Him to act. It is therefore also the most powerful assurance that can be offered to anyone who, somewhere along life’s way, feels that God has finally given them up: “No, He has begun something in me, in you, and I am sure that, if He begins, He will finish what He has once begun.”
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
Let me now summarise what we have here. The believer feels himself forsaken by God. Searching for an explanation of why this might be so, he thinks of three possibilities:
i. God has changed;
ii. God is being unfair;
iii. God has abandoned His purpose.
But his knowledge of God and his experience of Him immediately counter these three hypotheses with three rebuttals:
i. God could not change without ceasing to be God;
ii. Someone who owes you nothing cannot be unfair;
iii. God could not abandon His purpose, once begun, without jeopardising His very reputation as God.
Therefore, with the psalmist, we can praise Him, for whatever may be the real explanation of our circumstances, it is certainly not one of these three!
That is great but it does not tell us, of course, what the true explanation actually is. I believe, however, that even to know what it is not may be helpful to us. The ‘explanation’ of that feeling of abandonment which the Lord Jesus experienced on the cross involved a purpose which was, and is, cosmic in scale and which, in some senses, remains a mystery to this day. It may be that the explanation of our own trials and testing will have to await the fuller light of another world:
I’ll bless the hand that guided,
I’ll bless the heart that planned,
When throned where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land.
But at least, for the present, let us boldly reject and eliminate the false explanations. Let us not for a moment accept, even in our deepest distress, the calumnies upon the name and character of the Lord which their acceptance would involve. This, if you recall, was what Job had to do, and he had to keep it up through 40 long chapters of our Bible! His friends came to him and offered a dozen or more explanations of the disasters which had befallen him, and Job rejected them all. To every one of them he replied, “No. I have no idea what the right explanation is, but I know it’s not that one!” [113/114]
If the record of Scripture shows us Job following this course, can we not with the utmost reverence imagine these ‘explanations’ of God’s conduct flashing into the mind of that lonely and suffering Man on the cross, and being instantly rejected just as, once before in the wilderness, we know that He had instantly rejected the temptations put before Him by the devil? Can we not imagine Him being distantly aware of them and, weak and dying though He was, slamming the mental doors shut upon them to keep them out? Our own reaction to them is likely to be less immediate or perceptive but, once we see them for what they are, shall we not also bar the door to ‘explanations’ such as these, and rather join with the psalmist in his declaration of faith (verse 24)?
“For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him he heard.”