Psalm 22: Forsaken?

‘Be not far away, my strength’ (19)

Good Friday is traditionally and appropriately a minimalist quiet moment of reflection. This psalm text, a harbinger of the dark moments in the story of Jesus, captures the mood perfectly. It seems permanently consigned to this moment by virtue of Jesus’ quoting it on the cross: ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ Then also the predictions:

They pierce my hands and my feet (16) They divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing (18)

Admittedly, it’s a dark day and there is plenty of angst running through the song. However, it only takes two verses before David, to whom the song is attributed, turns to recognise the holiness and greatness of the divine spirit. He flings out declarations of the many ways in which this eternal love has protected the psalmist against all sorts of evils — the sword, wild bulls, lions, even packs of dogs.

‘Deus, Deus meus, respice in me: quare me dereliquisti?’ Psalm 22:1 in the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1330. British Library Add MS 42130 folio 42r. Note the tiny ’21:’ at margin left of illuminated capital D, indicating Psalm 21 in the Vulgate numbering.

Positive thoughts also appear, spirited reverence for divine sway over the creation and all nations, and a call to praise, not only for this understanding but also that this is the same God who: … did not despise the suffering of the afflicted one (or the poverty of the poor); nor turn away from me, but heard when I cried (v. 24)

Written largely in the first person, Psalm 22 is a personal or individual lament, rather than a community tale as in Ps.44. Quite long, but it’s worth reading through all 31 verses, not only in association with the events of the cross, but as an independent personal experience. The quiet waters and greener pastures of Psalm 23 are just over the page. This is part of the answer to that lamenting question when feeling forsaken.

Gloom in the Canal St Martin tunnel

Entering Paris by barge on the River Seine rewards with a great view of the Tour Eiffel and city highlights. But after razzle-dazzle come cooler airs; the barge turns into the narrow Canal St Martin, running north through the Marais area which was, after all, a marshland and thus suitable allegorical fare for any pilgrim’s progress.

The waters disappear under the boulevards and fashionable houses for a couple of kilometres through a dark, damp tunnel. The sun disappears. The noise is silenced. Quite a change from the brilliance and bustle of the City of Light.

Tunnel vents

Then from somewhere a few rays of light appear. The barge slides slowly under circular vents in the old stone and brick roof, through which — surprise; a view of the sky and leafy trees in the streets around the Place de la Bastille. These vents glide overhead in pairs until the light at the end of the tunnel appears. Glimpses of the world above, promises, without access to the higher plane itself.

It’s quite a strange experience, somehow rekindling a sense of wonder, of hope and some kind of connection between the worlds of still darkness and vibrant liveliness. We are still in touch with life.


A setting by Christopher Willcock in TiS No 9 is an easy choice for the Good Friday occurrence. Then or at other times, a refrain from Psalms for all seasons 22D (the alternate refrain and tone) might be preferred, since it does not use verse 1 and the famous forsaken quote. Instead, the refrain forms a response to the comfort expressed in verse 24 above: All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord. (27)

Incidental music could include My God, look upon me, a lovely setting of Ps.22:1-3 by John Blow (1649-1708). Basses enter first with the theme tune, followed in turn by T, A then S for 60 bars of classic restrained imitation.

Incipit to SATB motet on Psalm 22:1-3 by John Blow (1649-1708) Listen>

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