A Psalm for Burial
When is the last time you thought about the burial of Jesus Christ? It seems to me that in our eagerness to move beyond the sorrow of crucifixion we quickly jump to the victory of resurrection forgetting the interval between death and life. In one of the most detailed and public announcements concerning his work Jesus said: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:4). The emphasis of Jesus falls not on his death or even his resurrection but on the length of time between the two – on his burial.
The burial of Jesus isn't peripheral to his work. In fact, the Apostle Paul names it as one of those things of first importance (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). But, as Bernard Northrup once suggested: “The portion of time in the life of Messiah that lies between His death and His resurrection is undoubtedly the most obscure period in the life of the Messiah. It is a period of darkness because it is so little considered by believers. It is not that we do not have revelation in the Scriptures on the subject. Seldom do we give attention to the three days and the three nights during which the Savior's body lay in the grave. Those three days and three nights lie in the shadow of the cross.”
So where can we go to understand something of the burial of Jesus? Obviously the gospel accounts tell us something about the history and circumstances – important little details that mean so much. But it seems to me one of the most vivid and instructive places is in the Psalms. While the gospel authors wrote as historians or even eyewitnesses to the details of Jesus' life, the Psalmist wrote as a prophet led by the Holy Spirit to write concerning the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. At times the Psalmist did so by reflecting on his own experience and prospectively on Jesus'. For instance, such is the case in Psalm 22 when he sings “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus claims these words for his own suffering on Calvary's hill (Matthew 27:46). At other times the Psalmist did so without any reference to himself as in Psalm 16: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” About this song Peter said: “[David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Christ” (Acts 2:31). It shouldn't surprise us that David – everywhere in the Psalms – wrote of the one he called Lord (see Matthew 22:45).
In this way the Psalms give us not only what John Calvin called the “anatomy of the soul,” but a full and stunning portrait of Jesus' person and work – his incarnation, life, suffering, death, resurrection, exaltation, and even his burial. When we begin to understand the Psalms as they've been given to us by the Holy Spirit we get a captivating and unparalleled commentary on the whole Christ.
Personally, I have often thought that there's good reason to sing Psalm 40 – a Psalm of rescuing help and deliverance – as a song that anticipates resurrection from the position of the grave. The Psalm begins with an agonizing wait and concludes with a prayer for deliverance from what is called in the song “the pit of destruction.” As one commentator summarized: “Messiah uses a complex linguistic way of emphasizing and reemphasizing the earnestness of His wait for resurrection.” This song gives us the words not of a third-party bystander, but of one who is patiently expecting resurrection (verses 1-4), one who will proclaim resurrection in the great congregation (verses 5-10), one who's preserved for the purpose of resurrection (verses 11-12), and one who's praying for resurrection (verses 13-17).
I know there's a lot of debate surrounding the answer to the question of where Jesus was and what he did in the interval between his crucifixion and resurrection. But, if this Psalm can suggest anything to us it is this: as his body was laid in the tomb Jesus waited, hoped, and prayed for the reunion of his soul and body and his glorious triumph over the grave. This Psalm paints a picture that in the time between his crucifixion and resurrection Jesus was singing – singing of that moment when death would be subdued under his feet and the power of his resurrection would magnify the greatness of God.
But here's the thing. When we sing this Psalm (the Psalms were written to be sung after all) we do so as those who have been buried with him in baptism. And it connects us to the very words of him who is the firstfruit of the resurrection, of him who bore our sins, and of him who was in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. We get to sing with Jesus about his burial in anticipation of our own resurrection with words given by the Holy Spirit. "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:57).