Both Matthew and Mark tell us that, just before He died, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) It is one of the most poignant and meaningul moments in the Gospels, yet it is also widely misunderstood.
The key to appreciating the full depth of this passage lies in Psalm 22, one of the few psalms that is truly prophetic. We must know the psalm, in fact, as fully as the audience before the cross, who were largely Jews thoroughly familiar with it. So stop for a minute and read it through, carefully, trying to grasp the overall meaning.
The first thing we notice is that the psalm is not a static description, but a dramatic work. It begins with a cry of anguish from a man who feels that God has forsaken him, and ends with a song of praise for a God who has saved him. This is a common form of psalms. The pithiest example might be the short Psalm 13, a mere 14 lines, which is almost a simplified model upon which 22 is based. It begins “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?”, which it expounds in verses 1-4. In verse 5, it then declares that the poet trusts in God, reversing the tone of betrayal at the beginning. It then ends, “I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.”
It is this same theme followed, in much more detail and depth, by Psalm 22. The psalm begins asking why God has forsaken the poet, who cries but gets no answer. But he remembers that his fathers had trusted in the Lord, and He had delivered them. (22:4-5) Next, the poet returns to his own pathetic state, this time adding that others sneer at him, saying that if he trust in the Lord, let the Lord deliver him from his predicament. (22:6-8)
This is, of course, exactly the scene given to us by the evangelists, just before Jesus’ death. “In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, . . . He trusts in God; let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him.” (Matthew 27:41-43)
At this point, Psalm moves from the initial plaintive cry to a plea that God be with him. This section includes a prophetic description of Christ’s last moments:
Be not far from me, for trouble is near;
For there is none to help.
Many bulls have surrounded me;
Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.
They open wide their mouth at me,
As a ravening and a 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 me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
And You lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs have surrounded me;
A band of evildoers has encompassed me;
They pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
They look, they stare at me;
They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots. (22:11-18)
It is nearly impossible not to understand that this is prophetic of the crucifixion, because of the details. Christ is surrounded by “ravening lions” in the form of the high priests, who have insisted He be crucified over Pilate’s objection. “My tongue cleaves to my jaws” seems to be understood by one of the sympathetic watchers in the crowd, for “Immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. ” (Matthew 27:48)
Most obvious, of course, are the references to the piercing of His hands and feet in verse 16, and the dividing of His clothing, and casting of lots for it in verse 18. But the most heart-rending aspect of this middle section is the overall feeling of a man being crucified, his bones and organs failing him.
At this point, we enter the resolution phase of the drama. The poet gives us another prayer for deliverance, but the tone has shifted completely: rather than a cry of despair, it is a song of hope. The poet will praise God and tells Israel to stand in awe of Him, for “God has not hidden His face from [the afflicted man]”; rather, “when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” (22:22-24)
The final six verses are triumphant. Again, it is hard not to see a specific Christ prophecy in them, for the psalm speaks not of the restoration of Israel, but rather, the victory of righteousness throughout the entire world: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, And all the families of the nations will worship before You.” (22:27)
Christ is at the point of death. The theory of crucifixion is that the victim slowly suffocate. After hanging on the cross for two days, Christ has finally become unable to breathe and will die. The opening verse of Psalm 22 is cried out with, probably, Jesus’ last full breath; we can imagine Him summoning his final bit of strength to say it. It is, literally, his last gasp.
He uses it to reference Psalm 22, for in Psalm 22 we see the exact parallel, told prophetically a millennium before, of the drama of His victory. Yes, He is telling the crowd, I will die; but my death is not the end of the story, not a final defeat, but rather the beginning of the story of God’s triumph over death — exactly as foretold in the psalm.
As Matt Slick puts it, “Jesus is pointing to the scriptures to substantiate His messianic mission.”
You sometimes hear from people who insist that the words be taken out of context. That is, at His death, Christ felt that God had abandoned Him. Even more oddly, you will hear the theory that God turned His back on Christ, because Christ had taken on the sins of the world and God cannot look upon sin.
You might want not to argue with someone who says this. “[A] harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:18) But if you should find yourself wondering whether there is any merit to it, consider these points:
1) Christ is God. He cannot turn His back on Himself!
2) The idea that “God cannot look upon sin” is contradicted in Scripture dozens of times. God looks upon and deals with sinful people constantly in the Old Testament and, in some parts of both Old Testament and New, speaks directly to demons or even Satan himself. Christ has a long conversation with Satan in Matthew 3 and chats with several demons while casting them out. God the Father talks to Abraham, Jonah, Moses, and many others who, although often righteous Jews, are clearly not free from sin. God the Father also talks to Satan. See Job 1:6-12.
3) If examples of God talking to sinful beings is not sufficient, the principle is stated outright, repeatedly, e.g. Proverbs 15:3, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good.” Or Jer. 16:17 “For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my face, nor is their iniquity hidden from my eyes.” How, in fact, does God know Adam and Eve ate the apple?
You will find people quoting a line from Habakkuk as “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.” (Hab. 1:13)(NIV) (Making fine points of diction using the NIV, or any other dynamic equivalent translation, should be discouraged in general, for obvious reasons.) Let’s read the same line from the best widely-available literal translation, the New American Standard Bible: “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil; And You can not look on wickedness with favor.” Or better yet, let’s look at the Hebrew. The first verb in question, transliterated, is nabat. Here is Strong’s definition of nabat (#5027): “a primitive root; to scan, i.e. look intently at; by implication, to regard with pleasure, favor or care.” The line from Habakkuk is simply mistranslated in the NIV and many other Bibles, although the basic meaning of nabat is indeed “to look” (as the NASB and Strong’s Lexicon both note).
So, the place in the Bible where one finds support for the notion that “God cannot look upon evil” is a line from a minor prophet that actually means, “God does not look favorably on evil.” Any other reading would render the verse self-contradictory anyway, for the very next line reads “wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously?” (KJV).
I am afraid I’ve over-argued the point, so let’s move on to #4:
4) This actually might belong in the #1 spot, for our starting point is to recognize that the issue is one of interpretation. The first principle of Biblical interpretation is, “What does the Bible actually say?” And nowhere in the Bible does it say that God would abandon, did abandon, or had abandoned Christ on the cross. It cannot be inspired Scripture. See 2 Peter 1:20-21. (This assumes that the reader has a firm grasp on the difference between a positive statement and a human inference from an ambiguous statement.)
I would encourage anyone, no matter what their view of this, not to become so argumentative as to say Christ “stopped being God”. I would rather not contest the issue than lead a person to say this.
5) If someone wants to tell you that God the Father turned His back on God the Son, you might want to consider how many gods Christians worship. “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30)
And if you really want to entertain the notion that one person of our single God can turn His back on another person of Himself, consider this: What Christ said was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Nowhere in the entire Bible does Christ refer to God, the Father, as anything except Father: “my Father”, “the Father”, “my Father in heaven”, etc. Again, even if were possible for God the Son to be forsaken by God the Father, which is unthinkable, it would still be impossible for Christ to be forsaken by “God”, because Christ is “God”.
Also, Christ does not say “Father”. See #1. He says “My God, My God, etc.” Why would He choose this one moment, if He wants to distinguish between Himself and the Father, to start calling the Father “My God”? The answer is, of course, because He is not calling out to “God”, but rather quoting the first line of Psalm 22, verbatim.
6) One might ask, why do Matthew and Mark render every word Jesus said in Greek, but write this one phrase in Aramaic? And why does Christ choose to phrase His cry in the exact words of Psalm 22, if He doesn’t mean to quote it?
7) The best argument against the notion, though, is not quite so neat and clean, because it requires judgment based on reading the whole New Testament. Sin is not an entity; it is an abstract noun, referring to an action taken in violation of God’s law. It cannot be gathered up in baskets and swallowed, as in a cheesy horror movie. When we commit a sin, we become guilty and liable to punishment. Which makes more sense: Christ, who is God, became actually guilty of sin? Or Christ paid the price for sins He was not Himself guilty of committing?
There is a line at the end of 2 Corinthians 5 that reads, “God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 15:21) I have left the footnote there on purpose, because here is what it says: “b. Or be a sin offering” At any rate, Christ could not literally become sin, because sin is not a concrete noun, any more than we could become righteousness. Paul is using figurative speech here; I suppose you would call it reification.
8) And, finally, Psalm 22:24 itself directly contradicts the “God turned His back” idea. To paraphrase, it says “God has not hidden His face from him.” If the psalm is prophetic — and, with Christ using His final breath to quote it, one would have difficulty saying it is not — the explicit prophecy is that God will not forsake the suffering Messiah.
Well, I spent a lot more time arguing than I set out to do. There are actually other arguments pointing out holes in the “abandonment theory”. A sacrifice to God must be perfect. (Lev. 22;21) Why would Jesus, who had told the Pharisees that they would recognize Him as God when he was lifted up, tell them while they mocked Him on the cross, “Gee, you’re right, God abandoned me.” But enough is enough.
It would be a shame to lose the wonderful message that Christ sends to world when, with His last breath, He sends the mockery of His onlookers right back into their faces. “I have won,” he announces, at the very point when they are about to pop the champagne bottles open.