Jesus suffered horribly. To his followers and foes alike, it was unthinkable that the Messiah descended from David should suffer so. And yet his followers came to believe that this Messiah of David's stock was not only destined to recapitulate King David's glorious reign, but first to suffer as David suffered: abandonment, rejection, and, yes, even thirst.
Two Psalms of David recorded particularly rich parallels to Jesus' sufferings (numbers 22 & 69), and they both mention the thirst of a desperate man. It was not just the fact of Jesus' thirst that grabbed the attention of Jesus' followers. That was unremarkable. Rather it was the drink he was offered.
The Psalmist wrote: "They gave me vinegar for my thirst," showing how his enemies scorned him. But in the hands of Jesus' executioners, this mixture of sour wine and myrrh was actually a small mercy designed both to quench thirst and to dull pain. And to the Gospel writer, this small charity was also a divine sign.
28 Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips.
Jesus' thirst is laced with irony:
- His executioners' act of mercy is connected to a Psalm about scorn and rejection.
- His body's compelling sense of thirst says, Drink and live. But Jesus knows that he will die.
- The one who said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. … streams of living water will flow from within him."—that person is now dying of thirst.
The life and death of Jesus are full of the most painful ironies. And so is God's world: It is riddled with contradiction. But it is also permeated with hope for a future in which all contradictions will be resolved, a future made possible by the one who endured the supreme contradiction for the sins of the world.
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Additional helpful background on Franz Joseph Haydn's The Seven Last Words can be read in the liner notes of the Vermeer Quartet's two-CD recording and Eugene Drucker's notes for the Emerson Quartet's recording on the Deutsche Grammaphon website.
Click here for information about the Wednesday, April 7, performance by the Vermeer Quartet at Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel. The concert will be broadcast on Good Friday, April 9, at 8 p.m. Central Time by fine arts radio station WFMT.
Also posted today is an article on the communal remembering of Christ's passion and Haydn's Seven Last Words