If you’ve felt abandoned, discarded by family and friends, you may understand this:
Mark 15 34 At three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachdthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)
What was Jesus saying?
Don’t read this flatly, as if God did reject Jesus in his time of need. I’ve heard preachers using this text to say:
a) Everybody’s sins were loaded onto Jesus on the cross, and
b) God cannot countenance sin, so
c) God abandoned Jesus.
Pastorally speaking, that’s terrible theology, seriously misrepresenting God.
That’s no different from the old Marcian error where God has a split personality — the angry god of the Old Testament, so different from the god who’s okay with getting his hands filthy. God isn’t schizoid; he was fully engaged in the Christ event. He didn’t reject his son. Truth is, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (1 Corinthians 5:18).
So why did Jesus say this?
I’ve heard others try to explain it as if Jesus needed to say this to fulfil prophecy, because it had been predicted. But there is nothing in Psalm 22 to require Jesus to say these words. You haven’t understood Jesus if you think he’s disassociated from his suffering and wondering, “Are there any other things in Scripture I need to fulfil today? Ah yes, I must remember to say that Psalm 22 thing.” Theology has no meaning when it’s disconnected from human suffering. We call it the passion of Christ because of the intensity of his pain.
So why did Jesus choose David’s words to express his pain? To answer that question, we need to understand what David was saying.
Psalm 2 introduced us to the Davidic kings as God’s anointed (mā·šîaḥ), representatives of the heaven’s rule on earth. When they are attacked by enemies, “the one enthroned in the heavens” has the responsibility to save the son who represents his reign on earth. But since evil is endemic, it didn’t always work out. Psalm 22 is the voice of God’s anointed king when he had lost the battle.
In defeat, David questioned why God had abandoned him (22:1). His own people had turned against him, as they do when a leader loses (22:6). David felt surrounded and crushed by enemies that rejoiced in his defeat (22:16-21). As king, he felt the responsibility for his people. Some of his soldiers were dead, and his people were crushed by their enemies.
Psalm 22 is the raw emotion of a king processing his defeat, asking how this can be for a servant of the higher sovereign, blaming the higher authority who seems to have forsaken his anointed instead of saving him. But interspersed with these expressions of brokenness are declarations that this is not the end, expressions of hope that God will yet come through for the king and his people:
Psalm 22 3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
It’s the intertwining of two truths, so typical of the laments in Psalms: the truth of the present failure and defeat, and the truth that this defeat is not the end for the people of God, that the heavenly sovereign will yet come through and deliver his people from this devastation. The feeling of being forsaken is overwhelming, but it isn’t the last word.
This is exactly what Jesus meant. Crucified by his enemies, pinned down by his hands and his feet, Jesus hung on a cross — the king of the Jews shamed in public defeat. As life drained from his body, it seemed that God had failed to save him, that Jesus could not even save himself let alone his people. It felt like God had forsaken his anointed.
But the cry of dereliction is not the end. By quoting David’s words in his moment of defeat, Jesus identifies himself with the Davidic king. As their king, Jesus’ defeat is, once again, the defeat of God’s people. Their hopes die with him.
But this is not how the Psalm ends. The king who feels forsaken still cries out to “my God,” crying out for God to raise him up out of this deadly defeat:
Psalm 22 19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. …
God rescued his anointed (David) from defeat, saving his life. God did not rescue his anointed (Jesus) from dying; it looked and felt as if God really had forsaken him.
But Jesus was not abandoned! Despite his defeat by the ultimate enemy (death), God had not “abandoned him to the realm of the dead” (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:25-32). God rescued his anointed from death. And since God’s people were in his anointed (“in Christ”), what happened to our king happened to humanity as well (compare Hebrews 2:12).
Despite the agony and lament, the cross is not a shameful picture of a god who forsakes his son. It’s the glorious picture of the God revealed in his anointed, the God who entered the shame and the struggle, rescued his anointed, and is rescuing his earthly realm in him:
Psalm 22 27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.
God is not abandoning us. Don’t turn from him in horror, as if he abandoned his own. In your pain, turn to the God who rescued his son out of death, and is rescuing his world in him.
In the words of King David, Jesus entered the suffering of his defeated people, the demise of the kingship at the hands of the nations. Taking David’s words to himself might be the most overt public messianic claim King Jesus ever made.
What others are saying
Here’s an example of what I’m arguing against:
Now on the cross he who had lived wholly for the Father experienced the full alienation from God which the judgment he had assumed entailed. His cry expresses the profound horror of separation from God. … The cry of dereliction expressed the unfathomable pain of real abandonment by the Father. The sinless Son of God died the sinner’s death and experienced the bitterness of desolation. This was the cost of providing “a ransom for the many” (Ch. 10:45).
— William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 573.
Dick France is better:
Here (for the only time in Jesus’ recorded prayers in all four gospels) he calls him not Father but ὁ θεός μου [my God], and his ‘prayer’ is one of bewilderment and separation. … While ὁ θεός μου expresses a continued relationship with God, it is a relationship which feels like abandonment. …
[Mark] wants us to feel Jesus’ agony, not to explain it.
— R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 652–653.
Hurtado gets it right (though without the force of the messianic claim):
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. This allusion reveals Jesus’ true character in the face of the ridicule and false charges on the lips of the bystanders.
— Larry W. Hurtado, Mark, UBCS (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 276.