The final words of the crucified king in Matthew are these: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? What did he mean?
Is this the dark night of the soul, the road ending in utter despair, all his hopes dying with him? Or should we ignore his emotion and seek a theological reason, like Jesus took on the sin of the world so his Father couldn’t stand him and rejected him? Was the trinity falling apart if Father and Son split up? Did Jesus lose his faith in the end? People raise all kinds of questions to try to make sense of Jesus’ cry of dereliction. Few of those ideas are supported by the context.
These words are not unique to Jesus. He was repeating the words of others who felt abandoned too. These are the opening words of Psalm 22. If you’ve ever found comfort in the words of the Psalms as you faced abusive treatment, you’ll understand what Jesus was doing.
That’s the irony. He feels abandoned, forsaken, cast aside by God. But he’s not alone with that feeling. It’s how the people of God have felt for centuries. It’s the unresolved story of his people, the anguish of their history and songs.
The story of Psalm 22
The nation itself felt abandoned by God. It was meant to be his kingdom, but God handed them over to the nations. The Davidic kingship had failed, and they had been under foreign rule for centuries.
Actually, the feelings began long before the kingdom fell. The despair of Psalm 22 was the voice of David crying, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
In Psalm 22, the Davidic king was facing defeat at the hands of his enemies (vv. 12-13), with resentment and ridicule from his own people (vv. 6-8). The king believed that God reigns (vv. 3-5) and that he was called to represent God’s kingship (vv. 9-11, 22-31), but at the heart of the Psalm are David’s feelings of failure, defeat, his approaching death, with the vultures ready to take what he has (vv. 14-18). His desperate cry is not merely his own looming death, but the demise of his people.
David’s kingship represented the reign of the heavenly sovereign on earth. If the king fell, the nation fell, and with it the hope of the Abrahamic project to bring the nations back under God’s reign. So, “Why, God, have you abandoned me?”
Did Jesus understand it this way?
Reading in its historical context like this is not a modern invention. This is precisely how each king of Judah would have understood Psalm 22, all the way down to Josiah — the last good king who was killed in battle so the nation became part of Egypt and then Babylon. The entire Book of Psalms is structured around this story.
And this is the story Matthew is telling. He begins his narrative of the anointed Son of David (1:1), making sure we’re familiar with the rise of King David, the demise of the kingdom, their enduring captivity (1:17), and birth of the Davidic king (2:6).
This is how Jesus hears the Psalms. Recognizing the Davidic voice is essential to how his understanding of the Psalms and how they speak of his role (compare Matthew 22:43).
That entire story is assumed when Jesus (the son of David in his generation) echoes the words of the Davidic king from Psalm 22, words that describe not only his own demise but the experience of his people. It’s the familiar story: shepherd struck, sheep scattered (Matthew 26:31, echoing Zechariah 13:7).
Jesus knew he would feel this abandonment. Even before this quotation, Matthew has echoed multiple phrases from Psalm 22 (in 27:35-36, 39, 43).
Did his hearers understand it this way?
Probably not. The soldiers who mocked the king of the Jews would not have recognized the Davidic quotation. For them, it was just the voice of disillusionment.
Other bystanders also missed the point. My God in Aramaic is Eli, so some thought he was calling Elijah (27:47). In prophetic tradition, the prophet Elijah was expected to return, removing animosity from the hearts of the Abrahamic family so that the great day of the Lord’s reign could finally come instead of total devastation (Malachi 4:5-6). They wondered if there might yet be a last-minute reprieve, a miraculous intervention that turned the hearts of the people towards their king.
This really was borderline timing. The high priests already made the point that God would need to act quickly if Jesus was the son he wanted installed as king (27:43).
Elijah doesn’t come. There is no reprieve. It’s all over: Jesus again cried out in a loud voice and let go of his spirit (27:50).
The king abandoned to die with his people
It’s eery when the midday sun fails, when darkness takes over, when God’s anointed is left to die:
Matthew 27:45–50 (my translation, compare NIV)
45 From noon, darkness came over the whole land for three hours. 46 Around 3 pm, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (Translation: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”)
47 Some of those standing there heard it and were saying, “He’s calling Elijah.” 48 Instantly, one of them ran and got a sponge filled with cheap wine, holding it up on a stick for him to drink. 49 But the others were saying, “Hold on; let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
50 Jesus again cried out in a loud voice, and released his spirit.
So, was Jesus’ faith misguided, his expectation for God to install him as the Son reigning with heaven’s authority on earth? Were the temple leaders right to get rid of him and ensure their authority? Death seems so final. But this is not the end:
27 51 And look: the partitioning curtain of the temple was split from above, all the way down, into two pieces; and the earth was shaken, and the rocks were split, and …
More on that next time.
What others are saying
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 1207–1208:
Matthew has already echoed language from Ps. 22 in Mt. 27:35, 39, 43. So the quotation here is well prepared for. But where the earlier allusions deal with what is done to Jesus (elements of the suffering inflicted on the righteous person of Ps. 22), now we are given the insider’s view: what Jesus understands himself to be experiencing through this whole crucifixion drama is God-forsakenness, and in particular that God-forsakenness which is the subject of Ps. 22. Perhaps as Jesus approaches death we are to think of the final clause of Ps. 22:15: ‘you lay me in the dust of death’.
Since not to abandon his people is one of the promises of God’s covenant with Israel (Dt. 4:31), any occasion on which they or one of them find themselves abandoned must raise questions. And so we have the question form in Mt. 27:46. The normal answer to the question about why God has forsaken is that God’s people have failed to keep the terms of the covenant (e.g., Je. 7:29: ‘Yahweh has rejected and forsaken the generation that provoked his wrath’; cf. 12:7–8). But Ps. 22 is an example of a far more puzzling form of abandonment: the situation where the righteous are at the mercy of their enemies with no help in sight. This is a form of abandonment which the OT readily acknowledges as common enough and to which the only answer seems to be that found implicitly in Ps. 22: the abandonment is only temporary. If one will continue to look to God, he will come through with deliverance. Jesus’ situation is being identified not as that of an abandoned sinner but as that of a rather special instance of what is outlined in Ps. 22.
There has been no end of Christian embarrassment about Jesus’ questioning of God in this way and of Christian theological reflection about the place of his being abandoned by God his Father in the atonement wrought by Jesus on the cross. The theological reflection goes beyond anything in which Matthew demonstrates an investment. But Matthew is sensitive to the puzzle of how the one who is not only righteous as in Ps. 22, but beyond that the faithful Son and Messiah of Israel, should find himself in such a situation. In various ways he has sought to throw light on this in terms of the special role of the suffering of Jesus in the will of his Father.