This entry is part 44 of 101 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
‘At the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”‘ (Mark 15:34; see also Matthew 27:46)
Six hours after he was nailed to his cross, the dying Jesus shouted out these awesome words. They are quoted from Psalm 22, showing that what Jesus suffered is not without some kind of parallel in the lives of others.
As Murray Harris (Navigating Tough Texts) remarks, these words were spoken ‘“in a loud voice,” probably slowly, given the great difficulty of uttering intelligible speech with a parched mouth and swollen tongue at the end of six hours of unspeakable agony.’
‘This is the hardest of all the hard sayings. It is the last articulate utterance of the crucified Jesus reported by Mark and Matthew; soon afterward, they say, with a loud cry (the content of which is not specified) he breathed his last.’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible)
‘The difficulty of accounting for this saying is the strongest argument for its authenticity. Inadequate explanations are that it reflects the intensity of the Lord’s human feeling, that it reveals the disappointment of his hope that in his extremity the Father would usher in the new age, or that he was merely reciting the Psalm as an act of devotion. It can be understood only in the light of the NT doctrine of the atonement, according to which Christ identified himself with sinful man and endured separation from God. (cf. Php 2:8; 2 Cor 5:21) It is a mystery we cannot fathom.’ (NBD)
‘A strange complaint to come from the mouth of our Lord Jesus, who, we are sure, was God’s elect, in whom his soul delighted, (Isa 42:1) and one in whom he was always well pleased. The Father now loved him, nay, he knew that therefore he loved him, because he laid down his life for the sheep; what, and yet forsaken of him, and in the midst of his sufferings too! Surely never sorrow was like unto that sorrow which extorted such a complaint as this from one who, being perfectly free from sin, could never be a terror to himself; but the heart knows its own bitterness. No wonder that such a complaint as this made the earth to quake, and rent the rocks; for it is enough to make both the ears of every one that hears it to tingle, and ought to be spoken of with great reverence.’ (MHC)
Is this a cry of self-pity (“Why me? What have I done to deserve this?”)? Or a cry of protest: the innocent crying out against the unjustness of it all, even though he has lived his entire life knowing that he would thus bear the sin of the world (cf. Mk 10:45)? Or is it the why of incomprehension, as though for a moment he had forgotten the eternal covenant? Or is it, perhaps, the cry of amazement, as, knowing all along that he would face a violent death (Mk 2:2), he now confronts a horror that he cannot fully have anticipated.
There are several possible ways of understanding this ‘cry of dereliction’ theologically:-
1. As an expression of a crisis of faith: he thought that God’s plan had failed, and his expectation that his Father would uphold him (see Jn 16:32) had been dashed. Stott responds: ‘Those who thus explain the cry of dereliction can scarcely realise what they are doing. They are denying the moral perfection of the character of Jesus. They are saying that he was guilty of unbelief on the cross, as of cowardice in the garden. They are accusing him of failure, and failure at the moment of his greatest and supremest self-sacrifice. Christian faith protests against this explanation.
2. As an urgent enquiry. In this case, the “Why?” may be taken literally. Alternatively, Grudem (Systematic Theology) understands this cry to mean: “Why have you abandoned me for so long?” He believes that this is the sense in Psalm 22. Grudem reasons that Jesus knew that he must suffer, but he didn’t know how long he would suffer for. This view appears to assume more than the text itself warrants.
3. As an expression of feeling, not of fact. He experienced ‘the dark night of the soul’. He has not lost his faith, but he has lost all comfortable feeling. He cannot, for the moment address God as ‘Father’, but can still call out, ‘My God’. ‘I have sometimes thought there never was an utterance that reveals more amazingly the distance between feeling and fact’ (Glover).
Steve Chalke has asserted in debate with Andrew Wilson that when Jesus uttered the ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross he was not forsaken by God. Rather, his feeling of abandonment ‘mirrors those of countless millions of people who suffer oppression, enslavement, abuse, disease, poverty, starvation and violence.’ (The Lost Message of Jesus, p185)
In any case, it would be wise not to speculate on our Lord’s psychological state at this time. Hurtado counsels against using this cry of Jesus as a clue to his innermost feelings: ‘Mark’s purpose in giving this statement is to make the allusion to Ps 22:1, so as to portray Jesus as the righteous sufferer who is beset unjustly by his enemies and appeals to God.’
‘It would be wise not to make the utterance a basis for reconstructing the inner feelings which Jesus experienced on the cross. The question “Why?” was asked, but remained unanswered…If it is a hard saying for the reader of the Gospels, it was hardest of all for our Lord himself. The assurances on which men and women of God in Old Testament times rested in faith were not for him. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all,” said a psalmist (Ps 34:19 RSV), but for Jesus no deliverance appeared.’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible)
3. As an expression of robust faith: possibly, he recited the whole psalm from the cross, ending with the words, “It is finished (accomplished)!” So Garland (on Mark).
Or, even if our Lord did not quote the whole of Psa 22 from the cross, it is reasonable to see Jesus as identifying himself with the message of the psalm as a whole, with ‘the righteous sufferer who endures insult and injury but anticipates divine vindication.’ (DJG)
‘Though commentators often speak of Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross, Psalm 22 as a whole moves from apparent despair of God’s presence to a hope of vindication. Since Mark when quoting the OT normally refers to the larger context of a particular verse, readers of the Gospel are to hear Jesus’ words as those of the suffering just one who dies with the hope of vindication.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)
‘It is not probable (as some have thought) that he repeated the whole psalm; yet hereby he intimated that the whole was to be applied to him, and that David, in spirit, there spoke of his humiliation and exaltation. This, and that other word, Into thy hands I commit my spirit, he fetched from David’s psalms (though he could have expressed himself in his own words), to teach us of what use the word of God is to us, to direct us in prayer, and to recommend to us the use of scripture-expressions in prayer, which will help our infirmities.’ (MHC)
This view would be supported by the several occasions when Jesus did express utmost confidence in his ultimate vindication – Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; Jn 2:19. Also in support of this view is the fact that entire psalms were identified simply from their opening sentences; but there is no indication that this ever happens in Matthew’s Gospel or in Jesus’ teaching. The fact is that we do not know that Jesus uttered any more than the first verse of the psalm at this time. As Morris points out, ‘the evangelists do not give the impression that they are recording a pious meditation.’ And Stott asks that if Jesus had quoted from the Psalm’s first verse while actually alluding to its last verse, ‘would anybody have understood his purpose?’
4. As an expression of real abandonment: sin separates us from God, and he experiences that separation as he bears our sins in his person. Vincent Taylor (cited by Morris) declares that ‘it appears to be an inescapable inference that Jesus so closely identified himself with sinners, and experienced the horror of sin to such a degree, that for a time the closeness of his communion with the Father was broken, so that his face was obscured.’ Cranfield: ‘The burden of the world’s sin, his complete self-identification with sinners, involved not merely a felt, but a real, abandonment by his Father.’
‘Did he merely feel abandoned? No, it was a reality attested by the companion darkness that settled on the scene. The great teacher on prayer now finds prayer unavailing. God cannot look upon sin, and now his Son is bearing the sin of the world in his own person, taking the sinner’s judgment. What a terrifying loneliness! Yet his cry appeals to relationship – not “God” but “my God.”‘ (ISBE)
So then an actual and dreadful separation took place between the Father and the Son; it was voluntarily accepted by both the Father and the Son; it was due to our sins and their just reward; and Jesus expressed this horror of great darkness, this God-forsakenness, by quoting the only verse of Scripture which accurately described it, and which he had perfectly fulfilled, namely, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Harris: ‘All active communion between Father and Son was suspended, although God was still Jesus’ God (“my God”). God had actually hidden his face (cf. Ps 22:24) from his dearly loved Son, the constant joy of his heart. Given the fact that constant, undisturbed, blissful fellowship with the Father was the essence of Jesus’ existence on earth, how can humans, even redeemed humans, begin to understand his agonizing spiritual trauma in being abandoned by his Father?’
‘The only recorded prayer of Jesus which does not address God as “Father” is Mk 15:34 (par. Mt 27:46) -“My God, my God, why have you for forsaken me?” But here the words are those of Ps 22:1, and the very sense of forsakenness which they express may well be sufficient explanation of why the more familiar Abba did not come so naturally to Jesus’ lips on that occasion.’ (DJG)
Some have objected that this would introduce a novel element into the accounts of Matthew and Mark: they have Jesus predicting his sufferings at the hands of cruel men, but not any anticipation of abandonment by God. But this objection is not conclusive. Neither is the objection that this interpretation is ‘inconsistent with the love of God and the oneness of purpose with the Father manifest in the atoning ministry of Jesus’ (Taylor, cited by Garland). To be sure, we must give full weight to those scriptures that teach that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ But we must also recognise those that teach that in a very real sense the suffering of Christ (spiritual as well as physical) was caused by his heavenly Father.
We have a number of indications in the Gospels that Jesus’ experience was something that was ‘no ordinary perturbation’ (Morris): his extreme distress in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:33), his reference to drinking the ‘cup’, Mt 20:22f; 26:39; Mk 10:38f; 14:36 (suggestive of God’s wrath), the supernatural darkness that fell over the land. Many have pointed out how cheerfully Jesus’ followers so often face martyrdom. Jesus was no coward, and cannot have been afraid of leaving this life (Morris). It was not death, but this particular death, that he feared so much.
There was, then, an element of uniqueness to his agony, for no-one else could occupy the place that he occupied as the world’s sin-bearer. His was an unspeakable torment; he could find no words within himself to express it, and he had to appropriate the words of the psalmist in order to do so.
If we accept Isa 53 as predictive of the cross, then we note the solemn statement that ‘it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief’. And if we take seriously the apostolic witness to Jesus death, then we must accept that God did not simply ‘give’ Jesus, but ‘gave him up for us all’, that Jesus ‘bore our sins’ (1 Pet 2:24), that ‘God made him sin’ (2 Cor 5:21), and he became a ‘curse’ for us (Gal 3:13). Perhaps this experience forms the essence of his ‘descent into hell’ (so Cranfield, cited by Morris).
MacLeod notes that for once, his address was not to ‘Abba’ (as it was even in Gethsemane, Mk 14:36), but ‘my God’. He stood in the relation not of a son, but of a sinner. He was numbered with the transgressors. He was sin (2 Cor 5:21). He was condemned to bear sin’s curse. No-one could deliver him; God would not spare him. God was forsaken by God.
His sense of divine sonship was restored later, as he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” But, for a moment, he experiences utter abandonment. His beloved Father, with whom he has enjoyed unbroken fellowship since before time began, is out of reach. He is acknowledged as ‘God’, but not known as ‘Abba’. There is no sense of divine love, and no sense of divine approval. He cries out, but there is no answer. He is in trouble, but no help is at hand. No comforting scriptures are brought to mind, no reassuring voice from heaven is heard (as at other times of crisis – see Mk 1:11; 9:7), no strengthening angel, no promise of ultimate victory, no vision of a future redeemed multitude.
McLeod: ‘He hears only the derision of the spectators, the curses of the soldiers and the whispers of the Prince of Darkness. He is on his own.’
And again: ‘Never before had anything come between him and his Father, but now the sin of the whole world has come between them, and he is caught in this dreadful vortex of the curse. It is not that Abba is not there, but that he is there, as the Judge of all the earth who could condone nothing and could not spare even his own Son (Romans 8:32).’
‘The sense of being abandoned by God must have caused unfathomable pain to him whose whole life had been supported by the experience of the presence of God.’ (Goguel, cited by Morris)
Morris connects this with the incarnation. Although we may not speculate on some kind of intra-Trinitarian disruption, nevertheless ‘the incarnation means something. It means among other things that it became possible for Christ to die. And if it became possible for him to die it became possible for him to die the most bitter of deaths, the death of God-forsakenness.’
Harris asks: ‘why would a holy God abandon his dearly loved and holy Son, even temporarily, especially since Jesus had earlier reassured his readers, “I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32)?’ Harris answers:
Two scriptural passages provide an adequate answer: 2 Corinthians 5:21 (see part 2, ch. 27) and Galatians 3:13. In both verses, God’s abandonment of Christ is said to be “for us” (hyper hēmōn). When the Father totally identified his sinless Son with the sin of sinners (2 Cor 5:21) and so abandoned him, and when Christ endured the divine curse that rightly belonged to lawbreakers (Gal 3:13) and so was abandoned by God, the action was both “on our behalf” and “in our place.” Substitution as well as representation was involved.
What, then, does this forsakenness mean?
Negatively, it cannot mean that the eternal communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit was broken. God did not cease to be triune. Nor could it mean that the Father ceased to love his Son – especially now that Jesus was demonstrating the ultimate sacrificial obedience. Nor yet could it mean that the Holy Spirit had ceased to minister to Jesus: it was by that very Spirit that Jesus offered himself to God (Heb 9:14). Again: it does not mean that Jesus was in despair: from the depths of his loneliness and pain, he still calls out to “My God”; he still retains a sense that God is holding him.
Now some would have it that he was expressing the opinion of others rather than his own feeling. This is not at all probable, for his words clearly were drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart. b(a)Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matt. 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isa. 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God.
Matthew Henry notes:-
1. That our Lord Jesus was, in his sufferings, for a time, forsaken by his Father. So he saith himself, who we are sure was under no mistake concerning his own case. Not that the union between the divine and human nature was in the least weakened or shocked; no, he was now by the eternal Spirit offering himself: nor as if there were any abatement of his Father’s love to him, or his to his Father; we are sure that there was upon his mind no horror of God, or despair of his favour, nor any thing of the torments of hell; but his Father forsook him; that is, First, he delivered him up into the hands of his enemies, and did not appear to deliver him out of their hands. He let loose the powers of darkness against him, and suffered them to do their worst, worse than against Job. Now was that scripture fulfilled, (Job 16:11) God hath turned me over into the hands of the wicked; and no angel is sent from heaven to deliver him, no friend on earth raised up to appear for him. Secondly, he withdrew from him the present comfortable sense of his complacency in him. When his soul was first troubled, he had a voice from heaven to comfort him; (Jn 12:27,28) when he was in his agony in the garden, there appeared an angel from heaven strengthening him; but now he had neither the one nor the other. God hid his face from him, and for awhile withdrew his rod and staff in the darksome valley. God forsook him, not as he forsook Saul, leaving him to an endless despair, but as sometimes he forsook David, leaving him to a present despondency. Thirdly, he let out upon his soul an afflicting sense of his wrath against man for sin. Christ was made Sin for us, a Curse for us; and therefore, though God loved him as a Son, he frowned upon him as a Surety. These impressions he was pleased to admit, and to waive that resistance of them which he could have made; because he would accommodate himself to this part of his undertaking, as he had done to all the rest, when it was in his power to have avoided it.
2. That Christ’s being forsaken of his Father was the most grievous of his sufferings, and that which he complained most of. Here he laid the most doleful accents; he did not say, “Why am I scourged? And why spit upon? And why nailed to the cross?” Nor did he say to his disciples, when they turned their back upon him, Why have ye forsaken me? But when his Father stood at a distance, he cried out thus; for this as it that put wormwood and gall into the affliction and misery. This brought the waters into the soul, Ps 69:1-3.
3. That our Lord Jesus, even when he was thus forsaken of his Father, kept hold of him as his God, notwithstanding; my God, my God; though forsaking me, yet mine. Christ was God’s servant in carrying on the work of redemption, to him he was to make satisfaction, and by him to be carried through and crowned, and upon that account he calls him his God; for he was now doing his will. See Isa 49:5-9. This supported him, and bore him up, that even in the depth of his sufferings God was his God, and this he resolves to keep fast hold of.’
‘No further entry of the Supreme God into the tangle and bewilderment of finitude can be conceived. All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience; he has know it all himself. He does not leave this world to suffer while he remains at ease apart; all the suffering of the world is him’ (Temple, cited by Morris).
‘But then, suddenly, it is over. The sacrifice is complete, the curtain torn, and the way into the Holiest opened once and for all; and now Jesus’s joy finds expression in the words of another psalm, Psalm 31:5. In the original, it had not contained the word Abba, but Jesus inserts it: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). We have no means of knowing what intervened between the two cries. We know only that the Cup is drained and the curse exhausted, and that the Father now proudly holds out his hands to the spirit of his Beloved Son.’ (MacLeod)
Harris concludes: ‘Christ was forsaken by God for a temporary but agonizingly long period on the cross so that believers may never be separated from God, either during life or after death (Rom 8:35–39; Heb 13:5–6).’
Murray Harris, Navigating Tough Texts, p35f.
Donald MacLeod, Christ Crucified (pp47-49), and also this article.
Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament
John Stott, The Cross of Christ