Playing Psalms — An Advent Series, Act 2

The brief intermission over, we’re ready to get back to Playing Psalms. We settle in our seats, perhaps a little less eager than we were before the start of the show because we’re realizing this Christmas production isn’t all about snowflakes and sugar plums. It’s much more about the King who came to save His people and redeem them back to His Father.

Nevertheless, we feel drawn to the stage. We anticipate learning more about this Messiah born in a meager manger.

We look to our playbill and read that Act 2 depicts our next Royal Psalm — Psalm 22. 

Stillness falls over us as the curtain rises.

Act Two, Scene One

The spotlight pierces the darkness to focus on a small section of stage, illuminating a wooden manger, bits of hay hanging over its sides. We smile. We know. This is Baby Jesus’ bed.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

Suddenly, the spotlight moves to a much larger set — that of the cross. Jesus’ cross. Our foreheads furrow in confusion when a booming voice shatters the silence:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Psalm 22:1a

In one movement of the spotlight, we’ve covered the journey of Jesus — birth to death. Both significant. Interconnected. Inseparable.

These opening words of Psalm 22 were some of Jesus’ final words as He hung on the cross. Our brains try to work out why a Christmas production looks and sounds more like Easter. We look to the manger then back to the cross. 

None of us move in our seats, eyes wide. We realize we’re witnessing the truth of who our Savior is — how He entered the world and how He exited. 

Matthew 1 describes the birth of Jesus. Matthew 27, His death.

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” –which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 27:45-46

The perfectly woven story of our Messiah didn’t begin in a manger. But in heaven. We recall how John described Jesus, as the Word, in his first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2).

The reality of who this tiny baby is sinks to the depths of our very beings. What He did for us becomes bigger. It far exceeds our expectations. There would be no cross if the Lamb of God hadn’t left His throne to be born in a lowly barn filled with sheep.

The narrator’s voice begins again:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
    “let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
    since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
    you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
    from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
   for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

Psalm 22:1-11

The story of this Psalm picks up a bit as we recall that King David wrote this Psalm at a time when he felt forsaken by God. He was crying out for help. In his lament, David remembered God’s faithfulness and how trustworthy this enthroned, Holy One is (verses 1-5).

But David’s reality was harsh. His critics mocked him, hurling insults, even taunting his faith in God (verses 6-8). These words captured David’s experiences and his cries to God, and they foreshadowed a day when the Holy One would be taunted, insulted.

As we look upon the manger, we remember the One who came to be among us. We move our gazes to the cross and remember the horror of Jesus hanging from it, enduring the insults and mockery of those who saw Him hanging there in humiliation and pain (Matthew 27: 29, 31).

In a few verses, this Royal Psalm brings together the history of a king and a prophecy of the King. We release the breath we didn’t even realize we’d been holding.

The scene ends as David pleads again for help, clinging to the hope that God created him and put a deep trust of God in him for a reason (verses 9-12). And we whisper, amen.

Scene Two

David’s voice, spoken by our narrator, haunts of desperation as Scene Two opens:

Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
   and cast lots for my garment.

But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
    You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
    my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
    save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

Psalm 2:12-21

Vivid images flow forth from the mouth of this king-poet — bulls and dogs surround him, lions come at him, and villains encircle him. David feels so bad it’s as if his very life blood has been poured out and his bones are out of joint (verses 12-16). 

We feel his pain. Some of us know his pain. David’s desperate cries become our own:

Does God hear us?

Then we hear the words — “pierced my hands and my feet” — and our eyes dart back to the cross, remembering the stories of what crucifixion is like. Nails. Hammered. In His hands and feet. Something like a sob rises in our throats.

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash

King David, the poet and prophet, may have felt as if his hands and feet were pierced (verse 16), but the Holy One’s actually were. Those who gloated and stared at King David (verse 18) were but a foretaste of those who would literally divide Jesus’ garments and cast lots for His clothes (Matthew 27:35). 

Just at the point we think we can’t handle any more of this crucifixion scene, David pivots with a cry to God to be his strength, and we make it our own.

Scene Three

Relief floods our souls as we hear music and see the choir enter between the manger and cross. We relax in our seats and allow the familiar tune to pour over us.

What child is this, who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing
Haste, haste to bring Him laud
The babe, the son of Mary

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and donkeys are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading
Nails, spears shall pierce him through
the cross he bore for me, for you
Hail, hail the Word made flesh
the Babe, the Son of Mary

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh
Come, peasant, king, to own him
The King of kings salvation brings
Let loving hearts enthrone him
Raise, raise a song on high
The virgin sings her lullaby
Joy, joy for Christ is born
The babe, the Son of Mary

The last echoes of the song reverberate in our hearts while our brains catch up to the lyrics. “Nails, spears shall pierce him through, the cross he bore for me, for you?” One moment we wonder if we’ve sung those words before; the next we decide it doesn’t matter — they have new and deeper meaning now.

The choir remains on stage, even as we await our final scene.

Scene Four

 As the words of the final stanza of our kingly Psalm resound, the tone has changed. No longer desperate, David’s words of praise fall on our hungry ears.

I will declare your name to my people;
    in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
    Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
    the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
    but has listened to his cry for help.
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
    before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek the Lord will praise him—
    may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
    will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
    will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
    and he rules over the nations.
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
    all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
    those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
    declaring to a people yet unborn:
    He has done it!

Psalm 22:22-31

By the time the Psalm comes to an end, we’re all on our feet. He has done it!

The dirge becomes delight; the petition turns praise! Worship blossoms among us as the choir leads a carol of celebration:

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth, and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King

The third stanza still ringing, Act Two closes on this good news. We remain standing, awestruck and amazed, and once again feel excited. It’s Christmas!

No matter what our despair or discouragement or doubt, Jesus has done it! He has covered all of it by coming to earth, dying on a cross, and rising to life — all so we can have life. Yes, life in eternity one day, but also life now. Today. 

Jesus came to free us from all the things that hold us captive. He deeply desires us to live life fully, in freedom and service, with confidence and humility, in grace and truth, and for His glory. 

He came here so that we would.

Still standing in awe, Shelley Johnson

PS — Read ahead for Act Three: Psalm 110.

Header photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

4 thoughts on “Playing Psalms — An Advent Series, Act 2

  1. I’m loving this! It’s amazing!! Love how you’re showing us that “red thread”; connecting the dots!! Oh I have missed in reading Psalms by David (paraphrase: why God have you forsaken me), etc!!

    Look forward to your next post!! 🥰

  2. Wow! This was very powerful! I think I looked at the words of these Christmas hymns different than I ever have. Thank you for sharing Shelley ❤

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