Follow Me – Biblical Practices for Faithful Living

Sing a New Song: Sing Tribulation

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

February 5, 2023



Psalm 22

Our Follow Me curriculum reminds us that “music draws out what is deep down, allowing us to access and experience emotions that may elude words alone. Music assists us in navigating life passages or coping with traumatic events… people report that certain hymns and songs have helped them get through times of trouble… Whether singing or listening, our bodies (heart, mind, and spirit) respond to and resonate with  the music we hear.”  (p. 17, “Sing a New Song” Adult Reflection Guide)

Consider the many songs that tread the path of suffering.  

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows but Jesus

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Glory, Hallelujah

Sometimes I’m up, Sometimes I’m down, Oh, yes, Lord, Sometimes I’m almost to the ground

Oh, yes, Lord, Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen 

1n 1962, Louis Armstrong recorded that old song.  He was among several famous artists to do so. The song had appeared in 1867 as “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Had”; it was included in a compilation called “Slave Songs of the United States”. The collectors of the songs were abolitionists who had come to recognize the power and importance of these uniquely African American songs of tribulation.


In 1972, Don McLean released a song called “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie.” “American Pie” has been described as “one of the most successful  and one of the most debated songs of the 20th century.” In 2015, McLean finally revealed some of the meanings found in the song’s lyrics:  “Basically in ‘American Pie’, (McLean points out that) things are heading in the wrong direction.  Since the end of the 1950’s, [life] (in the United States) had become less idyllic… it is a morality song in a sense,” McLean said.

The repeated phrase “the day the music died” refers to the plane crash in 1959 that killed early rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens… The theme of the song goes beyond mourning McLean’s childhood music heroes, reflecting the deep cultural changes and profound disillusion and loss of innocence of his (entire) generation – the early rock and roll generation –  that took place between the 1959 plane crash and late 1970.

But February made me shiver With every paper I’d deliver, Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step

I can’t remember if I cried, When I read about his widowed bride But something touched me deep inside, The day the music died 

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie, Drove my Chevy to the levee But the levee was dry, Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye

Singing, “This’ll be the day that I die”, This will be the day that I die…

I met a girl who sang the blues, And I asked her for some happy news

But she just smiled and turned away, I went down to the sacred store

Where I’d heard the music years before, But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

And in the streets, the children screamed, The lovers cried and the poets dreamed

But not a word was spoken, The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most, The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost

They caught the last train for the coast, The day the music died

Recorded and released in 1971, the song struck a chord. 

 It was the number-one hit in the US for four weeks in a row in 1972.

Every time I hear that song, I am reminded of a troubled young man on my hall during the spring of my junior year in college. Every single weekday afternoon, when my roommate and I would return to the dorm after classes, that 8 minute song would resonate loudly from behind the closed door of that young man’s room. We heard later that he would not be returning for his senior year. 

In 1987, Irish rock band U2 released the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.  This song has been acclaimed by many critics as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Bono’s lyrics about searching for personal spirituality resulted in a “unique marriage of American gospel and Gaelic soul”, as one author wrote.  The “human perspective he brings to this sentiment rings” true…

“The song has the power of spiritual conviction delivered from the perspective of the desert sojourn rather than the comfort of the Promised Land.”

I believe in the kingdom come, Then all the colors will bleed into one Bleed into one, But yes I’m still running You broke the bonds, And you loosed the chains, Carried the cross, Of my shame, Oh my shame You know I believe it, But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for


Those who love classical music will recognize that such classics as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “’Requiem” or Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Come, Sweet Death”; these works of art search the depths of human emotion and tribulation. 

A google search on “songs to battle depression” will result in a list that includes “Unwell” by contemporary group Matchbox Twenty: 

But I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell, I know, right now you can’t tell

But stay a while and maybe then you’ll see A different side of me

I’m not crazy, I’m just a little impaired, I know, right now you don’t care

But soon enough you’re gonna think of me, And how I used to be, me

Some years ago, fans noticed that the fifth song on any Taylor Swift album tended to be the most emotional or devastating or vulnerable on the record. Taylor Swift fans, of which I hear there are many, will recognize the songs: “Looking at you”, “Dear John” and “All Too Well”. 

Songs of tribulation, of suffering and pain and heartache, are an important part of our shared human experience. 

Of course, our hymnbook includes a number of songs of tribulation. Later in the service, we will sing “Were You There?” when they crucified my Lord.  Another song of tribulation goes like this: 

Sometimes I feel discouraged, And deep I feel the pain

In prayers the holy spirit, Revives my soul again

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole

There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul

To be honest, for some, the typical worship service does not dwell long enough in the depths. Thus, Blues music has endured as a significant form of emotional expression. Some Blues lyrics may not be easy or even polite to speak about in normal conversation, but blues can carry the musician and his or her listeners through the emotional depths and back again. 

In Memphis, Tennessee, during my college years, I can remember sitting in an establishment on Beale Street, listening to music that I could not fully understand. I had not lived through enough suffering, at that time in my life, to relate to the blues ballads emanating from the saxophones and trombones, and from those shaking, yet powerful voices offering heart-wrenching lyrics of pain and tribulation.

Have you seen the “He Gets Us” commercials? If you pay attention during next week’s Super Bowl, you’re sure to see one. These commercials seek to communicate that Jesus understands the depths of our human experience. 

No matter how deep our suffering; no matter how deep our despair, God knows.   God has suffered with us in Jesus of Nazareth. We are not alone, even in that moment when we feel the most alone we could possibly be. 

I read an article this past week about middle aged white males.  The author claims that the rise in “deaths of despair” among middle aged white males can be directly correlated with the decline in participation in worship and religious activities. 

We have not fully understood the importance of worship and the music of the church to assuage the common trials and tribulations of human life. 

Our Scripture reading for today is Psalm 22, a song of tribulation. Tribulation is the state of being in great trouble or enduring much suffering.  The context in which Jesus quoted Psalm 22 was the cross. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 27, Jesus quotes psalm 22 while hanging in pain. 

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

 Hebrew scholars have taught us that any faithful Jewish person hearing those words in Jerusalem in the first century would have immediately recognized its source – Psalm 22.

Now, I don’t think they called it “Psalm 22” in those days, but the psalm itself would have been recognized. For example, if I were to say “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”, many of you might respond “He makes me lie down in green pastures.”

If I were to say “I lift mine eyes unto the hills; from where does my help come?” Many of you might respond “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

To quote the first line of a psalm is to recall to mind for the listener the entire psalm. So, when Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Elio, lema sabachthani?”, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, those gathered around the cross would have recalled the entire message of psalm 22. 

The disciples, Jesus’ mother, the women who supported his ministry, the Sandhedrin who sent him to Pontius Pilate to be crucified, the bystanders who had come to watch a crucifixion. 

From the agony of the cross, in the midst of great suffering, enduring taunts by the crowds, and being mocked by the religious leaders, Jesus cries out a prayer to God. Weak and bloodied, sharp thorns sticking into his skull, his back torn open from being whipped,barely able to breathe, Jesus could barely speak at all. But he could utter the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm that continues for thirty more verses, a psalm that communicates the depth of suffering and the feeling of forsakenness, but ends on a far different note. 

Read Psalm 22:1-2

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

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

Our human response in the midst of great suffering and despair is to cry out to our God, to ask why, to seek help, to seek an answer. Having prayed throughout his ministry, having just cried out in the garden: “Abba, Father, remove this cup from me. Not my will, but thy will be done.” Now, in the midst of seemingly endless agony, drinking the dregs of the cup that could not pass from him, Jesus cries out his final prayer.  The prayer comes at 3 o’clock, the ritual time for afternoon prayer. His final prayer, the prayer he is calling for others to recall, begins in the depths,  utterly abandoned and alone.

 Enveloped by darkness, abandoned by friends, Jesus hangs in pain and utters this desperate prayer.

 Read Psalm 22:1-5

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

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

This is not the prayer of one who has lost all hope. This is the prayer of one who, even in the most desperate of situations, still cries out to the Abba, the Father, whom he trusts. Jesus knows the salvation stories.  He knows of God’s deliverance in the past. He trusts in God’s will to which he has submitted his body. And yet in the meantime he endures the agony of his condition.

Psalm 22 continues – 6-8

But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;

‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

 Crucifixions were most often done on main thoroughfares.  Those who passed by on the road derided him, wagging their heads and taunting him, “If you are the Son of God…save yourself.” And the whole Sanhedrin is pictured as being present – the chief priests, scribes, and elders. They too taunt Jesus:  

  “He said ‘I am God’s son, let him save himself.”

Even the criminals who were crucified with him taunted him in the same way. 

Psalm 22:9-18

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;

my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;

my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws;

you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me.

My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones.

They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves,

and for my clothing they cast lots.

The chief priests spat in his face and slapped him. The crowds shouted:  “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”

Pilate had Jesus flogged, beaten on his bare back with a leather strip studded with pieces of metal or bone.  The Roman soldiers stripped him and forced a crown of piercing thorns upon his head. They spat on him and took a reed and struck him again and again on the head. Then nailed his wrists into a crossbar, lifted him up, and hung him on a post where they nailed his feet to secure him.

Perhaps too often we have skipped from Palm Sunday to Easter,  not fully acknowledging the events of Holy Week and the horrors of the Friday that only faith can call “good.” 

When Matthew puts the first sentence of Psalm 22 in Jesus’ mouth, the horrors of the cross and its shame are recalled.  This last prayer of Jesus recounts for all posterity the agony in the way he died.

But the psalm does not end in pain. “But” is a key word here in the psalm, a key turning point. 

At verse 19, the psalm turns from agony to affirmation, from pain to promise, from the depths of despair to the heights of worship. 

Psalm 22:19-24

But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!

Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!

Save me from the mouth of the lion!

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;

in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;

stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;

he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

Ultimately, God did not hide his face forever from the Son, but heard his every cry.  Even though Jesus endured great pain and agony,  even though he suffered even to the point of death, the Lord was never far away.  God did not turn away from the affliction of his beloved. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways. In the inscrutable nature of God’s will,  the crucifixion of Jesus accomplished that which God intended.

And so Jesus implies from the cross these words from Psalm 22:25-31.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;

my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

May your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;

and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;

before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,

and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 


The story of Jesus’ death, recalled in Psalm 22, does not end in forsakenness, but in affirmation.  The story of Jesus did not end on the cross, but with the empty tomb. No matter the depth of our trials and tribulations, we are not without hope in this world. Even death has been defeated, and a story of deliverance may yet be told once more. Perhaps it is only through the despair and agony of God-forsakenness that the unspeakable joy of resurrection can be fully known.

The psalms are the hymnbook of humanity. Even when not set to music, these prayerful poems can guide us through darkness and into light and hope once more. 

Friends, let us also read and sing the songs of tribulation. Let us express our deepest feelings in poetry and music.  And let us also cling to the promise that the dark days will pass and the light will come again, for the light of Jesus Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall never put it out.



Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Decatur, Georgia