A lot has been said about the last words of Jesus, spoken from the cross. He asked his Heavenly Father to forgive all those responsible for his suffering and death and promised a place in paradise to a thief at his side. He arranged for the disciple whom he loved, to take care of his mother. And at the end, he announced the completion of the work for which the Father had sent him – before audibly yielding his spirit to Father’s care.
But in the middle of these seven statements, Jesus cried out “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”. These words perplex and challenge us as more than all of the others.
Did Jesus really think that his Heavenly Father had abandoned him? And did the Father in heaven actually do so?
Since Jesus could not possibly have been mistaken, it seems to many, that God actually did leave him – all alone. They explain that this is what the Apostle Paul referred to in 2nd Corinthians 5:21 when he wrote: ““God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”. Thus at that moment, God forsook Jesus – ‘turning his back on him”.
Sometimes the inferences that we draw are not necessary. They do not exhaust the range of possible explanations nor are they consistent with other scriptures. In an effort to understand what Jesus meant, let’s review the scene at the cross in light of its immediate context and the larger setting for the life and ministry of Jesus.
The scriptures teach that the Son of God came to earth for the express purpose of going to the cross. Very early in his ministry, Jesus began to talk about the certainty and manner of his execution. Luke 9:51 marks a pivotal moment beyond which Jesus thought of little else…all future action brought him consciously to his appointment with death. He understood that God required Him to die on ‘a tree’ as an atoning sacrifice for our sins and He did all in his power to make it so. And while Jesus did not have a death wish, the petitions that he made to the Father in Gethsemane, always ended with “not my will but yours be done”.
Does it seem likely – that in the final moments and having suffered so much at the hands of his tormentors, that the Father should abandon him or that He should think that God had done so? When Jesus voiced these words, the successful completion of divine plans laid in eternity was only moments away.
Had our heavenly Father who had sent an angel to strengthen Him at Gethsemane now withdrawn all support? Had God walked away and cut all ties…moments before his Son’s death? And were this so, is it likely that Jesus would have been surprised, given his foreknowledge of what God had ordained should take place?
To see if this is so, let’s return to the cross and allow the gospel of Matthew to set the stage (Mt. 27:38-44)
- “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself!
- If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
- In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself! He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He has trusted in God; let God rescue Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
- And the rebels who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him in the same way.
Once on the cross, Jesus was beyond the physical reach of the Jews, but they were not finished with him. They wanted to rub it in and in the process, spin a narrative that would discourage further belief in Him. What they said was disingenuous and ignorant.
- They knew that he had spoken of his resurrection when he promised to raise up ‘this temple’ in three days. That prophecy required his death, or there could be no resurrection. To prevent that, the authorities did all that they could to secure his grave.
- Having rejected all of the miracles that proved his deity, they promised to become his disciples if he just did one more.
- And adding theological weight to their mockery, they quoted Psalm 22:7-8, where the Psalmist wrote: “All who see me deride me; They sneer, they shake their heads, saying, Turn him over to the Lord; let Him save him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.”
It was then in response to these accusations and with divine assurance that the Father approved of his sacrifice, that Jesus interceded for his killers and pardoned a crucified sinner. And having done so, He too quoted from Psalm 22.
The 22nd Psalm played a pivotal role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Not only is it messianic but it is filled with specific references to things that happened during his execution.
Consider what the psalmist wrote:
A reproach of men, and despised of the people. Psalms 22:6
They … laugh me to scorn. Psalms 22:7
They shake the head. Psalms 22:7
Let him rescue him. Psalms 22:8
Seeing he delighteth in him. Psalms 22:8
For there is none to help. Psalms 22:11
Many bulls have surrounded me. Psalms 22:12
I am poured out like water. Psalms 22:14
And all my bones are out of joint. Psalms 22:14
My strength is dried up. Psalms 22:14
My tongue cleaves to my jaws. Psalms 22:15
And You lay me in the dust of death Psalms 22:15
For dogs have surrounded me. Psalms 22:16
A company of evil doers have encompassed me. Psalms 22:16
They pierced my hands. Psalms 22:16
And they pierced my feet. Psalms 22:16
I can count all my bones. Psalms 22:17
They look, they stare at me. Psalms 22:17
They divide my garments among them. Psalms 22:18
And for my clothing they cast lots.. Psalms 22:18
When Jesus cried out “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”, He was quoting Psalm 22:1. He pointed his detractors to the opening line where it seemed to the psalmist that God had forsaken him…only to conclude a few verses later, that God had not.
Consider the first five verses of this psalm along with the final three. This psalm begins as a lament but quickly turns to thanksgiving and praise for divine deliverance
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Far from my help are the words of my groaning.
My God, I cry out by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest.
Yet You are holy, You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You rescued them.
To You they cried out and they fled to safety; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.
After describing that scene on the cross, Verses 19-31 return to God’s deliverance in verses 22-24.
“I will proclaim Your name to my brothers; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You. You who fear the Lord, praise Him; All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him,
And stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel.
For He has not despised nor scorned the suffering of the afflicted;
Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.”
And because God heard His cry: (vs 27-28)
So it is that in Psalm 22, God delivers the one who is set upon and abused with the result that the nations turn to the Lord and are saved.
A synecdoche, is a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole. Let me suggest that when Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22, He wanted his hearers to remember the whole psalm. He knew how it applied to his crucifixion and how it all turned out in the end. Far from declaring doubt or abandonment, Jesus sent the crowd back to the beginning of that passage to get the whole story. He let the scriptures that they abused, speak on his behalf.
As it had been with David, so it was with Jesus. It may have seemed that God had forsaken him, but He had not. Psalm 22 allowed Jesus to express how he felt at that moment while holding firmly to what he knew. It was both a cry for help and a confession of faith.
Months earlier, Jesus had spoken to the religious leaders who wanted to stone Him (John 8:59). He stated very clearly that God the Father would not forsake him on the day when they would crucify Him.
“So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am, and I do nothing on My own, but I say these things as the Father instructed Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” John 8:28-29.
And that is what happened. God made his presence known through miracles, signs and wonders. Darkness set in at high noon and lasted for three hours. An earthquake shook the city, saints rose from the grave and the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. The presence and power of God was on such display that even the Roman centurian at the foot of the cross confessed that “…surely this man was the Son of God”.
In a more private setting Jesus had foretold, that at his arrest the disciples would abandon Him. Yet in their absence, He would not be alone (John 16:32). “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me”.
It is in the context of these statements by Jesus, that we should understand his final words.
As He breathed his last, (Luke 23:46) Jesus quoted Psalm 31:5a where the psalmist wrote: “Into Your hand I entrust my spirit” before adding “You have redeemed me, Lord, God of truth”. Jesus was speaking to God the Father who was present still, having never left.
Coming from the cross, Psalm 22:1 and Psalm 31:5 were our Lord’s answer to those who crucified Him and mocked. He appealed to scripture as he fulfilled it, so that in the days to come, others might also fulfill the scriptures by calling upon His name.
Nowhere in scripture do we find that God rejected his Son – least of all at the very moment when all was ‘finished’.