Prev Next

The Suffering Servant, Good Shepherd and Triumphant King (Psalms 22-24) June 17-19

In Psalm 22, David laments his life-threatening circumstances—danger from enemies (see verses 20-21), perhaps in the midst of severe illness (see verse 17) wherein his enemies are jostling around him in anticipation of his death, possibly to be equated with other psalms where David languishes in bodily affliction. Yet here he uses words that directly foreshadow the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. "The language David uses to describe his own predicament is prompted by the Holy Spirit. Thus it could span a thousand years to describe precisely the experiences of the Savior Jesus—both His excruciating death and victorious resurrection" (Nelson Study Bible, introductory note on Psalm 22).

During His crucifixion ordeal, Jesus cried out with the words that begin this psalm, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?" (verse 1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)—as at this point, Jesus bore the sins of all humanity and God sternly rejects sin. It does not seem that Jesus just said these words only to fulfill prophecy. No doubt He really felt them for the moment. And remarkably, He and the Father foresaw a thousand years beforehand that He would feel this way—and inspired David to record these words and thoughts accordingly.

David suffers intensely through his dire circumstances, but he still trusts in God to deliver him (verses 3-5). At present, he is humiliated: "I am a worm, and no man" (verse 6). The phrase "they shoot out the lip" (verse 7) is also translated "they hurl insults" (NIV) and "they make mouths at me" (NRSV). Christ's tormentors mocked and taunted just as David's words portend, even in the specific manner of verse 8 (Matthew 27:27-31, 39-44).

David describes his encroaching enemies as "strong bulls of Bashan" (Psalm 22:12)—Bashan being the northeastern region of Israel "noted for its fine breed of cattle" (Deut. 32:14; Ezek. 39:18)" (Unger's Bible Dictionary, "Ba'shan"). Yet they are not only strong and powerful, but are fierce and raging like lions (Psalm 22:13). Jesus faced the hatred of the Jewish religious leadership and the brutality of the Romans.

Where David says, "My tongue clings to My jaws" (verse 15), we should recall Jesus' anguished words on the cross, "I thirst" (John 19:28).

In a surprising statement in the next verse, "They pierced My hands and My feet," David "explicitly predicts the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. The words are merely a figure of speech for the terrifying experiences of David; but as a prophet (Acts 2:30), David spoke accurately of the sufferings of Jesus" (Nelson Study Bible note on verse 16). It should be noted, however, that instead of "They pierced," the Masoretic vowel pointing gives this as "Like a lion," which is the preferred Jewish translation. Yet this rendering leaves out a verb. The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh fills in with the word maul: "like lions {they maul} my hands and feet." The Expositor's Bible Commentary says: "ka'ari (...lit[erally], 'like the lion') has occasioned much discussion. The [Greek Septuagint translation] reads a verb—'they pierced,' as does the NIV, from karah...or from... k-w-r 'pierce'.... Some suggest a homonym of the root k-r-h ('bind') and read 'they have bound my hands and my feet'.... The text remains an exegetical problem" (footnote on verse 16).

Yet even apart from knowingly or unknowingly prophesying Christ's form of execution, it should not be hard to imagine David thinking of his own body being figuratively nailed up in a shaming display. For penal suspension was known to that era. As an example, the Philistines literally fastened the dead bodies of Saul and his sons to the wall of Beth Shan as a public disgrace (1 Samuel 31:8-10).

"I can count all my bones" in verse 17 would seem to refer to David being able to see his bones through his skin, being gaunt from lack of nourishment because of illness or being on the run. Yet in Jesus' case it may refer to the actual exposure of His bones from the severe, flaying scourging He endures.

David's statement at the end of verse 17, "They look and stare at Me," finds its New Testament counterpart in Luke 23:35, "And the people stood looking on." Indeed, this follows right after the end of Luke 23:34, "And they divided His garments and cast lots." This was specifically prophesied in the next verse of Psalm 22, verse 18. Matthew 27:35 actually quotes from this verse and notes its fulfillment.

Of course, we should recognize that all of Christ's followers become partakers of His sufferings (Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:5; 2 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 1:29; 3:10; 1 Peter 4:3). Therefore, just as David prayed this prayer for himself, so can all of us pray in the words of this prayer when we are faced with severe circumstances.

We should note that the psalm does not end with a focus on suffering. Rather, verses 19-21 call on God to intervene and the end of verse 21 assures us that He has (for David and for Christ), just as He will for us. The verses to follow speak of the ultimate deliverance and triumph that is found in God.

In response to his deliverance, David speaks of declaring the name of God in the congregation of the faithful—publicly to his " the midst of the assembly" (verse 22), "in the great assembly" at the temple (verse 25). The book of Hebrews notes this as the confession of Christ, who is not ashamed to call us His followers His "brethren" (2:12). The assembly of brethren represents the called-out assembly of God today—His Church. And the great assembly would seem to denote what we find in Hebrews 12:22: "Mount Zion...the city of the living God, the heavenly innumerable company of angels...the general assembly and church of the firstborn."

Verses 27-28 of Psalm 22 picture the worship of God in the Kingdom. "All the families of the nations shall worship before You. For the Kingdom is the Lord's, and He rules over the nations." Then, everyone will declare the wonderful works of God and teach the good news from one generation to the next. As Expositor's notes on verses 30-31, "The praise of God will extend from generation to generation. The story of redemption will not only include the nations but also generations yet unborn...each generation will join in with the telling of the story of redemption and of His kingship (cf. vv.3-5) and will, in the process of transmitting it, add what God has done for them."

Psalm 23 is the "Shepherd Psalm"—the most famous, beloved, quoted and memorized psalm of all. It is short and simple but packed with great meaning. "One of the most common descriptions of kingship in the ancient world was that of shepherd" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Psalm 23)—wherein the king metaphorically serves as the shepherd of his "flock," that is, of his people. Consider, for example, the crook or shepherd staff as one of the symbols of the Egyptian pharaoh. The rod was another important symbol of ancient kingship. Yet unlike the other national rulers of his day, David came to the job of king from the background of first actually having served as a literal shepherd of sheep. (It is interesting to recall that Moses too, though having previously been trained in the pharaonic court, tended flocks for 40 years before God used him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness.)

Besides political leaders, the "shepherd" metaphor in the Bible is also used for religious leaders, with some ministers in the New Testament being referred to as shepherds. (The word "pastor" means shepherd.) Yet we should recognize that all of God's people are called to be humble, dedicated servants—leading by example today and preparing to rule with Christ in His Kingdom tomorrow.

The ultimate Leader, King and therefore Shepherd is, of course, God (see also Psalm 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 31:10; Ezekiel 34:11-31; Micah 5:4). God in the person of Jesus Christ is later referred to as the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-30). In Psalm 23, David considers God in His role of Shepherd from the perspective of one who had taken care of his own literal flock. Yet the perspective within the psalm is not of a human shepherd but of a sheep within the flock of God, at least in the first four verses. From his own shepherding work, David well understood the needs, wants and concerns of sheep and drew parallels with his personal needs, wants and concerns. Likewise, a leader should always be trying to understand everything from the point of view of those being led, and try to do what is best for them, not what is beneficial for himself.

With God as his shepherd, David said his life would never be characterized by lack (verse 1). He trusted that all his needs would be met. He would not be left alone to struggle for the necessities of physical and spiritual life because God would provide them—He knows what and where is best for us (verse 2). God would always refresh and revive him, leading Him down the right paths (verse 3)—the literal concept here meaning the right paths for sheep to travel (e.g., so that they don't fall off cliff edges and kill themselves or wander into other danger) but, metaphorically, denoting the proper paths of life (that is, people walking in God's moral laws of righteousness).

Under the care of a competent shepherd, sheep proceed to good pastures without fear. "The valley of the shadow of death" in verse 4 is literally "the valley of death-darkness." It gets very dark in the Judean ravines in late afternoon when the sun sinks below the hilltops. For us, the presence of the Shepherd's rod and staff through any dark valley in life, when it is hard to see where we are going and can be rather frightening, is a reminder that "God's comfort and strength are 'with' us in all kinds of darkness, in times of depression, serious illness, rejection by one's friends, horror at discovering the disloyalty of one's own heart, and so on, as well as the experience of death itself" (Knight, Psalms, comments on Psalm 23:1-6).

Why would the shepherd's rod and staff provide comfort? A rod or club was used to defend against wild predators—just as God defends His people against natural or spiritual forces that seek their harm. It was also used as a disciplinary tool, perhaps even thrown at or near sheep to startle them away from danger (which was ultimately for its welfare and, thus, long-term comfort). A shepherd's staff was used to guide the sheep and to rescue them, lifting them up out of dangerous situations when necessary. Even so does God lead and deliver His people.

With the rod and staff imagery, the metaphor appears to shift in focus from that of a shepherd of sheep to that of a Middle Eastern king or sheik—as ancient rulers of that region used both emblems. The next verse speaks of preparing a table in the presence of enemies (verse 5), as in the tent of a great patriarch or sheik in the midst of roving bands of pursuers. Sheep being protected from animal predators has become people being protected from human aggressors. And this security is found through the hospitality of a gracious host—accompanied by a banquet meal, perfumed oil and an overflowing cup of drink or blessings (same verse). Hospitality was and remains a major focus for such patriarchs and sheiks—as it is even more so for God.

It should be noted, however, that some view the imagery of verse 5 as still consistent with caring for sheep. The "table" is viewed as the highland plateaus, where pasturage is good in the summer. And anointment with oil is seen as a remedy against flies, insects and parasitic infection.

David describes his manifold blessings as goodness and mercy (hesed, "unfailing love") following him—or, as he seems to mean, pursuing him (verse 6). That is, in God's tent or God's green pastures he is safe from enemies and totally secure in every way. The only thing pursuing him is goodness and mercy all the days of his life. The fact that blessings follow obedient people rather than precede them is significant. We must step out on faith and obey God even when we don't see any rewards for a long time. They will come eventually. "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you," we are told (James 4:8). Once God calls us, He wants to see us take initiative.

David anticipates eternal life as he speaks of "dwelling in the house of the Lord forever" (verse 6). The Nelson's Study Bible comments on verse 6, "God's promise for the Israelites was not just for the enjoyment of life in the land of was also for the full enjoyment of the life to come in His blessed presence (16:9-11; 17:15; 49:15)."What an awesome privilege it is to be a sheep in God's fold—to have the lavish invitation to dwell forever in the house of the omnipotent Shepherd-King.

To learn more about being a "good shepherd, read John 10:1-30.

A classic work on Psalm 23 well worth reading is A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller, who examines the psalm from the perspective of one who has actually raised and tended sheep. The full version (1970) is now out of print, but lengthy excerpts from each chapter can be found on the Web at

Psalm 24 is considered a royal psalm. It speaks of God as the Creator and returning King. The psalmist draws on the Genesis account of creation when he states that God "founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters" (verses 1-2)

David asks who is worthy to worship such a great Creator God (verse 3). Who could ascend to the tabernacle—or later temple—in Jerusalem? This recalls the theme of Psalm 15. "Together with Ps 15 it frames the intervening collection of psalms and with that psalm sharply delineates those who may approach God in prayer and 'dwell in the house of the Lord' (23:6...)" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 24).

"It may be that the instructions on moral purity were originally part of a ceremony before completing the last leg of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem [for the annual festivals].... However....the hymn instructs God's people wherever they may be to live in the presence of the Creator King in order to receive His blessing" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 3).

Some commentators believe this psalm was composed by David to be sung by a procession of Israelites when the Ark of the Covenant was at last brought to Jerusalem (see 2 Samuel 6). The mercy seat atop the ark was a physical representation of the throne of God on earth—so that the King of glory in verses 7-10 was represented by the ark. The King of glory here, the one the Israelites knew as God in the Old Testament who descended to the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, was the preincarnate Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:4 and our booklet Who Is God?).

This would mean that the first part of the psalm concerns the preparation of those permitted to accompany the King of glory up His holy hill.

Continuing with a processional interpretation, many propose two choirs singing verses 7-10 as the ark reaches the gates of Jerusalem or the tabernacle. The first choir accompanying the ark says, "Lift up your heads, O you gates!" (verse 7). This addresses either the gates themselves in a personified sense or the gatekeepers—commanding the gates to be roused and at attention, to rejoice (being no more downcast apart from God's presence), or to be lifted out of their locked position and opened. In any case, the gates opening up to receive the King of glory is implicit.

The second choir, stationed at the gates, intones, "Who is this King of Glory?" (verse 8)—to which choir one responds, "The Lord strong and...mighty in battle" (same verse). The sequence is then repeated (verses 9-10). Yet regarding the closing words of Psalm 24:10, George Knight in his Psalms commentary suggests: "Probably the whole concourse of priests and people now joyously shout these last two lines in one voice. 'The Lord of hosts' (meaning the armies both of Israel and of the heavenly beings) 'that God is the King of glory!'"

This song has long been used in Christendom as celebratory "of Christ's ascension into the heavenly Jerusalem—and into the sanctuary on high" (Zondervan, note on Psalm 24). Yet the image of His returning from battle to enter His sanctuary probably better fits, in an ultimate sense, the time of the end—when Jesus Christ will enter the millennial Jerusalem temple following His triumph over His enemies in the Day of the Lord.

Prev Next