Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The fact that Jesus uttered from His cross the words of bitter woe that begin this poem, have given and must ever give it a special interest and importance. It was natural that Christian sentiment should fasten lovingly on it, and almost claim it, not only as a record of suffering typical of our Lord’s suffering, but as actually in every detail prophetic of Him. But the signs of a true Messianic character of prophecy are to be looked for in moral likeness, not in accidental resemblances of situation, or coincidences of language, and in this sense Psalms 22 must ever be considered Messianic.
Nothing in David’s recorded life bears out the title. The identification of the sufferer with Jeremiah, though much more probable, is excluded by the joyous and hopeful tone of the conclusion of the poem. But is it an individual sufferer at all, and not rather suffering Israel whose profound misery in the first part, and whose happy restoration in the second, the poet depicts?
If such an interpretation suits the description of the suffering servant of Jehovah in Isa. Iii., 53, as many critics think (comp. Isaiah 49:3), it suggests itself for this psalm which has so many points of analogy with that passage (see Notes). The herds of wild beasts that surround the sufferer are more appropriate as a figure of hostile tribes than of personal enemies, and the vivid picture of suffering in Psalm 22:14-15 are not less applicable to the material condition of an oppressed nation than the description in Isaiah 1:5-6 is to the moral condition. (Comp. Isaiah 52:14.) Such a view certainly suits the conclusion of the psalm better than any other. The individual sufferer at all events there disappears, and his fortunes merge in those of the nation (notice the change to the plural in Psalm 22:26; Psalm 22:29), and the brilliant prospect of a time when the tale of God’s righteousness shall be handed down from generation to generation is that of the prophet who has mourned his country’s woes rather than his own, and has seen in faith the prayers of Israel heard, and the promises made to her amply performed.
Still, the strong personal tone in the opening of the poem suggests that this prophet was himself closely identified with the sufferings he depicts, and shared them not only in sympathy but in reality, and the great consensus of opinion looks for the author among the sufferers in the exile, and probably among the Levites. (See Note, Psalm 22:26.) The rhythm is irregular, suited to such a dirge.
Upon Aijeleth Shahar.—More correctly, upon Ayyeleth ha-shachar, i.e., upon the hind of the morning, a phrase which at once suggests either an instrument so named, or a particular tune to which the psalm was to be sung, as we might say, “to the tune of ‘As pants the hart.’ ” The latter is the view to which all the best commentators have now unanimously come. It is not worth while even to notice other conjectures.
To the chief Musician upon Aijeleth Shahar, A Psalm of David. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?(1) My God, my God.—Heb., Eli, Eli, lama azavtanî, where the Targum paraphrases sabbacthani, the form used by our Saviour on the cross. (See Notes, N. T. Comm., Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34.) The LXX. and Vulgate insert “look upon me.” (Comp. English Prayer Book version.) For the despairing tone comp. Psalm 80:14. It suits the whole of pious Israel in her times of trouble even better than any individual.
The second part of the verse is obscure from its lyric conciseness, but the Authorised Version has given the meaning, though sacrificing the rhythm—
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,
Far from my aid, from the words of my groaning?”
i.e., far from listening to the words that escape me only in groans.
Roaring.—A word used generally of a lion (Isaiah 5:29; comp. Judges 14:5); but also of a man (Psalm 38:9). Hitzig’s conjecture, “from my cry,” instead of “from my help,” is very plausible, since it makes the parallelism complete and involves a very slight change. The LXX. and Vulg. have “the words of my offences.”
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.(2) And am not silent.—This misses the parallelism, which evidently requires “O my God, I cry in the daytime, and thou answerest not; in the night, and find no repose.”
But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.(3) But.—In spite of his seeming desertion the poet still believes Jehovah is the God of the covenant—still the Holy One in whom His people could trust.
The phrase “inhabiting the praises of Israel,” recalls the more usual “thou that dwellest between the cherubims” (1Samuel 4:4; 2Samuel 6:2; Psalm 80:1; Psalm 99:1, where see Note). But the idea here is more spiritual. The ever-ascending praises of His people become a throne for the Divine King, and take the place of the outstretched wings of the cherubim. Perhaps there is a reminiscence of Exodus 15:11-12. This explanation is at once more literal and better than the Rabbinical, “enthroned as the praises.” (Comp. Aquila: “as the hymns.”)
They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.(5) Confounded—i.e., ashamed.
But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.(6) Worm.—An indication of extreme degradation and helplessness. (Comp. Isaiah 41:14.)
All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,(7) Laugh me to scorn.—LXX., ἐξεμυκτήρισάν, the verb used by St. Luke in his description of the crucifixion (Luke 23:35).
He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.(8) He trusted.—So the LXX. (Comp. Matthew 27:43.) So, too, Ewald among moderns. But generally the form gol (short for gôl) is taken as an imperative. Literally, roll thyself on God. (Comp. Psalm 37:5; Proverbs 16:3, margin.)
But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts.(9) But.—Better, For. Faith that turns to God in spite of derision is the best answer to derision.
Thou didst make me hope.—Better, thou didst make me repose on my mother’s breast.
Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.(12) Bulls of Bashan.—For “Bashan” see Numbers 21:33; for its pastures and cattle, comp. Deuteronomy 32:14, and for the figures, Amos 4:1. Instead of “fat bulls,” the LXX. and Vulgate paraphrase “strong ones of Bashan.” The point of the comparison lies in the wantonness and insolence of pampered pride, displayed by the minions of fortune.
They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.(13) Ravening.—Literally, tearing in pieces. (Comp. Lamentations 2:15-16; Lamentations 3:10.)
Roaring.—Comp. Amos 3:4.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.(14) The state of hopeless prostration into which the victim of these terrible foes is brought could not be more powerfully described. It is a state of entire dissolution. Again Lamentations 2:2 offers a close parallel.
Out of joint.—Perhaps, better, stand out as in a state of emaciation. (Comp. Psalm 22:17.) Literally, separate themselves. In other places, however, “bones” is used in the sense in which we use “fibres,” in such a phrase as “all the fibres of his frame.”
My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.(15) My strength.—The conjecture, “my palate,” instead of “my strength,” improves the parallelism. Others, but not so happily, “my moisture.”
The dust of death.—Comp. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth:”
“The way to dusty death.”
For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.(16) Dogs.—Literally, barkers. (For the wild scavenger dogs of the East, comp. 1Kings 12:19, &c) Symmachus and Theodotion render, “hunting dogs.”
The assembly of the wicked denotes the factious nature of the attacks on the sufferer. His enemies have combined, as savage animals, to hunt in packs. Comp. Virgil, Æn. ii. 351:—
Raptores atra in nebula.”
They pierced.—The word thus rendered has formed a battle-ground for controversy. As the Hebrew text at present stands the word reads kāarî (like a lion). (Comp. Isaiah 38:13.) But no intelligible meaning can be got out of “like a lion my hands and my feet.” Nor does the plan commend itself of dividing the verses differently, and reading, “The congregation of wicked men have gathered round me like a lion. On my hands and my feet I can tell all my bones.” The punctuation of the text must therefore be given up, and a meaning sought by changing the reading. The necessity of a change is supported both by the ancient versions and by some MSS., and also by the Masora; though considerable difference exists as to what the word should be read. If the authority of the ancient versions alone were to decide, some verb in the past tense must be read, but the most reasonable course is to accept the present text, but with a different vowel, treating it as a participle, with suffix, of kûr, whose root-idea, according to Ewald, is “to bind;” but according to most other scholars is “to dig.” It is, however, so doubtful whether it can mean to dig through—i.e., to pierce—that it is better to understand here a binding of the limbs so tightly as to dig into them, and wound them. Render: “The band of villains [literally, breakers] surrounded me, binding my hands and feet so as to cut them.”
They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.(18) They part my garments . . .—i.e., as of one already dead. The word “garment” (beged) and “vesture” (lebûsh) are synonymous terms for the same article of dress—the modern abba, or plaid, the usual outer garment of the Bedouin. The latter is a more poetic term. (See Bib. Diet, art. “Dress.”) The application of the verse in John 19:24, &c, adds a refinement not present in the psalm.
But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me.(19) Darling.—See margin. The Hebrew word is used of an only child, Genesis 22:2; Genesis 22:12, Judges 11:34; of a person left desolate, Psalm 25:16; Psalm 68:6; here as a synonym for “soul” or “life.” We may compare the common Homeric expression, ϕίλον κῆρ.
Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.(21) Unicorns.—See Numbers 23:22; either “buffaloes” or “antelopes.” There is some uncertainty about the translation of the second clause of this verse. It may be (1) “And from the horns of buffaloes hear me,” i.e., hear me calling for help from the horns, &c; or (2) “Save me from the lion’s mouth, and from the horns of buffaloes Thou hast heard me”—a sudden transition from plaintive prayer to exultant faith; or (3), following the LXX. and Vulg., “And from the horns of buffaloes save me, poor and humble as I am.” The first is, on the whole, preferable, as preserving the parallelism better.
I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.(22) I will declare.—For the application of this verse in Hebrews 2:12, see New Testament Commentary.
Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.(23, 24) These verses contain the substance of the poet’s joyful announcement.
The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.(26) The meek.—Better, The afflicted. This term, combined here with so many expressions for the worship of Jehovah, points to the Levites.
Your heart.—LXX. and Vulg., “their,” which carries on the construction better. But such sudden changes of person are common in Hebrew; see even next verse. The feast that was made after a great sacrifice, such as 2Chronicles 7:5, not improbably suggested the figure of the banquet at which all the restored of Israel should meet; afterwards elaborated in the prophets (comp. Isaiah 25:6), and adopted in its refined spiritual sense by our Lord (Luke 14:16).
The prophetic glance reaches further than the immediate occasion, and in the sufferer’s triumphant sense of vindication and restoration he embraces the whole world. (Comp. Jeremiah 16:19.) The interposition of Divine judgment in favour of Israel will warn the nations into sudden recollection of Him, and bring them submissive to His throne.
All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.(29) Shall eat.—The figure of the banquet is resumed from Psalm 22:26, and extended. The mention of the “fat upon earth,” as included in this feast, seems certainly out of place, and injures the parallelism. We must change the text to either (1) “Shall eat and do homage all earth’s mourners,” or (2) “Ah! to him shall be bowed all the fat ones of earth.”
They that go down to the dust—i.e., those on the point to die through their sufferings.
And none can keep.—Better, And he who cannot keep his soul alive. Literally, has not kept. But the parallelism shows that this is not spoken of those actually dead, but of those not able from poverty to keep body and soul together.
A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.(30) A seed . . .—Better, Posterity shall serve Him. About Jehovah it shall be told to the (coming) generation. The article makes for this interpretation. Others, as in Psalm 87:6, understand a reference to the census; but the parallelism is against this reference. The next verse repeats the same thought in another form.
They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.(31) They shall come—i.e., the generation just foretold: it shall announce His righteousness to a still younger generation (literally, to a people born) that He wrought. The tale of Jehovah’s goodness to Israel would be handed on from age to age,
“His triumphs would be sung
By some yet unmoulded tongue.”