The Agora
Tragedy And Triumph (Psa 22)

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"Into The Dust Of Death" (vv 12-18)

The sufferings of Christ were both mental and physical, as the following outline will show:

Vv 12,13: Mocking by rulers

V 14: Complete exhaustion, excruciating pain

V 15: Agonizing thirst, the sorrow of death
V 16: Enclosed by assembly of the wicked
V 16: Pierced hands and feet
V 17: "They stare upon me"
V 17: "All my bones"
V 18: Loss of all possessions, nakedness

Why was it necessary that Jesus undergo such sufferings? Could not sin be covered by something less? These are the questions that come to us when we force ourselves to look closely upon Calvary's terrible scene. But God had decreed these very agonies of His only-begotten Son to be essential; nothing else would serve the same purpose. Jesus must be "the lamb slain from the foundation of the world". The measure of the sufferings of Christ is the measure of God's hatred of sin; our natural estimation of these things must be molded by long meditation and experience, so that God's mind may be in us. The cross tells us what God thinks of unredeemed man, of how far even sinful flesh removes us from His full communion. Between God and us there is a great gulf fixed, and the cross of Christ is the only bridge.

We contemplate Christ on the cross. Others may have suffered more physical pain, or at least for a longer time. But no man has ever been as sensitive, as intelligent, as loving as Christ: consequently, his mental anguish must have been horrible!

Verse 12: "Strong bulls of Bashan surround me" (RSV): Bashan signifies "fruitful"; this very fertile area east of the Jordan was noted for its excellent herds (Eze 39:18; Amos 4:l). Livestock were sent there for fattening; there the bull attained its full power and vigor (Deu 32:14). These brutes are remarkable for their proud, fierce, and sullen manner; they are fitting symbols of the antagonists of our Lord. Well-clothed and fed, pampered with all luxury, stout and strong, they gazed with contempt upon the poor and naked and weakened frame of Jesus.

Thirty pieces of silver was the legal price of a slave gored by an ox (Exo 21:32). It was also the price of Christ (Mat 27:3), the "slave" of God (Isa 42:1), "gored" by the strong bulls of Bashan.

Verse 13: "They opened wide their mouths" (RSV)..."as a ravening and roaring lion"; Literally, "ravening" means "tearing to pieces". Compare the figures of speech in Lam 2:15,16; 3:46. The lion's deceitful crouching, sudden spring, fearful roar, and rending of the prey give another representation of the bestiality of Christ's enemies:

"My soul is among lions... even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword" (Psa 57:4).
The "tearing to pieces" reminds us of the cruel and inhuman Roman lash, totally different from the Jewish whip. One authority writes:

"The Roman lash was often multi-thonged and inserted with pieces of lead, brass, or pointed bones -- so that when wielded with force, it tore away large chunks of flesh, exposing veins, inner muscles, and sinews."
Strong men often died under the Roman scourge, even before they reached crucifixion. For others, it was called the "halfway death".

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Crucifixion probably originated in Asia Minor, being adopted by the Persians and Phoenicians who also impaled, speared, stoned, strangled, drowned, burned, or boiled their victims in oil. Crucifixion reached Europe in the third century BC and was adopted by the Romans, who believed it would be a strong deterrent to crime or rebellion. It is significant that this Psalm 22 was composed 700 years before crucifixion made its appearance in the Roman world!

The cross on which Christ was crucified was not, as is often depicted, a single structure. It was in two parts, the upright "stipes" and the horizontal "patibulum" which was hinged on the "stipes" at the time of execution. Christ probably carried the "patibulum" (which would alone have weighed about 100 pounds) to Golgotha.

"For our sins he groaned, he bled,
Beneath the accursed load."
The "stripes" was already fixed in the ground; permanently erected stakes punctuated the landscape of Roman-occupied Jerusalem.

When Jesus arrived at the scene of execution he was laid on his back upon the crosspiece and nails were driven into his wrists. (The Roman nail was a spike, approximately 11 inches long and 3 inches broad at the head.) Then he was raised to his feet, backed against the stake, and lifted into position. The legs were bent and spikes transfixed the ankles to the stake.

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Verse 14: "I am poured out like water": "My life-blood is worth no more to these men than so much water; see how casually they pour it out!"

"All my bones are out of joint": "Bones" may signify "fibers" -- in the wider sense of ligaments and muscles and bones. When the beam to which the victim's hands were nailed was lifted and affixed to the upright stake, the sudden jerking would shake the body with terrific violence. The ligaments would be torn and even separated; the muscles stretched and weakened and cramped. An excruciatingly painful weight would be thrown upon the hands and wrists and shoulders.

"My heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my "bowels": Now came the ultimate in physical exhaustion; here was the reason that crucifixion was considered the most agonizing form of death possible. The strain on the heart was tremendous, for the enormous traction of the arms fixed the chest in full inspiration (that is, in-breathing). The only way the crucified man could exhale was by taking his weight on his feet, pressing down with his legs to raise the body. Muscular cramps and exhaustion finally made this impossible, and the man died.

Verse 15: "My strength is dried up like a potsherd": Christ feels himself to be a broken, useless, and scorched vessel of earth -- filled with impurities. While the "potsherds" of the earth strive together and with their Maker (Isa 45:9; Pro 26:23), for all men are no better than common earthen pots, this singular "potsherd" strove to the end against his inherent weakness to gain the victory over sin on behalf of his fellows.

"My tongue cleaveth to my jaws": As a result of loss of blood, exposure, heat, and fever, the sufferer had by now become severely dehydrated. "I thirst", he cried (John 19:28). Those who have lived through grueling deprivations testify that extreme thirst is the most intolerable of all sufferings. The dryness of Christ's mouth and lips and tongue was such that his speech was practically unintelligible (v 1).

"Thou hast brought me into the dust of death": Still, as in the earlier Part of his prayer (vv 3,9,10), Christ fully and firmly acknowledges that his Father and no one else has brought him to these straits, and that his Father is holy and just in doing so.

"The dust of death": The great counterpart of Psa 22 says of the suffering Messiah:

"He poured out his soul (life-blood) unto death" (Isa 53:12).
Other psalms enhance our understanding of this moment:

"The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish" (116:3, RSV).
(This, from a Psalm that formed part of the traditional Passover ritual -- which had been on his lips only the previous night.) And again:

"The terrors of death are fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me" (55:4,5).
Verse 16: "For dogs have compassed me": In the bulls and lions of vv 12 and 13 we may detect reference to the "mighty ones" of Israel, the secular and religious leaders who held Jesus in contempt and engineered his execution. But here we see reference made to the Gentiles, and commoners at that -- the Roman soldiers who mocked and scourged him, and led him at last to his death. The dogs of the ancient world were no better than wolves or jackals, wild canines that ran in packs and defied domestication. Dogs were contemptible and cowardly; they were "fierce" only when their prey was cornered and helpless, ravenous in their appetites, and above all vile and abominable.

"The assembly of the wicked have inclosed me": The word "edah" means an "appointed meeting", perhaps the Sanhedrin. Does Christ see the Gentile dogs as only the ignorant instruments of his real enemies on the Great Council of Israel?

"They pierced my hands and my feet": This is the primary figure of speech, it would, appear, upon which crucifixion is based. The psalmist feels himself to be a helpless victim of a vicious dog pack; they are encircling him, sinking their sharp fangs into his exposed limbs, tearing and rending his flesh while his life-blood flows out like water.

So it is with Christ, but the "fangs" are not teeth; they are iron spikes and the staff of a spear (2Sa 23:7).

"And they shall look upon him whom they have pierced" (Zec 12:10; John 19:37; Rev 1:7). This is true not only of the Jews, but also of all men. We have crucified Christ! Our personal sins were not literally laid upon Christ, causing him to pay the penalty of death as popular theology teaches. Nevertheless, there is a sense, more general perhaps, in which it may be rightly said that we have "pierced" Christ: Had there been no sin in the world, and were we not as we are, there would have been no need for a representative sacrifice. Although the logic of the orthodox "substitution" theory is invalid, nevertheless the guilt must be ours; it is certainly not Christ's! And we must mourn fervently for our weaknesses that lead us into sin; our need has brought Christ to the cross. What a sobering thought!

Verse 17: "I may tell (count -- RSV) all my bones": The several months and especially the last week before his crucifixion were times of most intense activity. No doubt he had always been very busy, but at the end of his public ministry there was the last great national appeal as he proceeded from Galilee throughout the land, finally arriving at the Holy City. And the last week he probably obtained no rest other than the solace of nightly prayer and communion with his Father. The days were spent warning the city, the nights in solitude as the shadow of the cross loomed even larger.

"My knees are weak through fasting, and my flesh faileth of fatness" (Psa 109:24).

"My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning, my bones cleave to my skin" (Psa 102:4,5).
The man who went to the cross was a man who had already begun his sacrifice. By this time he had no form or beauty that might lead natural men to desire him. The flame of his life flickered low; his zeal for his Father's "house" had consumed him (Psa 69:9). He had willingly spent all; there was no need to hold any strength in reserve.

His emaciated condition, his extended position upon the cross, and his nakedness all contrived to bring from his tortured lips the pitiful observation -- "I may count all my bones!"

This is the sad arena to which we must come if we would enjoy the fellowship of the Father and the Son. The cross is the meeting place. Let the love of Christ constrain us to live no longer for ourselves, but unto him that died for us. Do we relax in our comfortable homes, enjoying as though it were our right all the abundance of God's blessings? Can divine desires arise within our pampered flesh? Can the mind find unity with God that grovels after earthly gratifications? Are indolence and worldliness and self-pleasing the means of amassing spiritual and eternal riches? Are we "soldiers of Christ" who never fight? Is there a race set before us, and we cannot budge from our reclining chairs to run it? Is there a cross to bear, and we have never even tested its weight? Look here at the dying Lord of all mankind, worn to a shadow in God's service! Let us consider carefully our ways and our thoughts, before we even dare to suggest that we might be called followers of Christ.

"They (the evil men -- vv 13,16) look and stare upon me": The man whose intelligence and purity must have made him the most modest among men, here becomes a public spectacle, a laughing-stock to thugs and bullies.

Verse 18: They part my garments among them" (John 19:24): Here was the SUM total of Christ's wealth -- his few modest garments, and even these must be rudely stripped from him:

"For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out" (1Ti 6:7).
This is the second hint (cp v 17) of Christ's total nakedness -- a great shame. Nakedness is a readily-recognized symbol of sin (Rev 3:17; 16:15). Christ was cursed by the Mosaic law in being hanged upon a tree (Deu 21:23) Gal 3:13); the public nakedness to which he was subjected may also be seen as a part of that curse. It is one of the echoes of the early scenes of Genesis to be found in Christ's death: in many respects, Christ became the "last Adam" to remove the curse brought by the sin of the first.

They cast lots upon my vesture": The normal Roman custom was to consider the criminal's personal effects the property of his executioners; it was part of their wages. The division of his few garments was begun, but at last the four centurions came to the most valuable garment, Christ's tunic. It was seamless throughout (John 19:23), like the robe of the high priest (Exo 28:31,32) to rend it would be to destroy it. Its seamless unity mirrored his blameless life. They cast lots and Christ's last possession passed into the hands of a nameless sinner. He now faced death with nothing but his holy character and his indomitable spirit.

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