About 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?”
These words that Jesus cried out as he was hanging on the Cross have been a source of much confusion and debate among Christians through the years. Some teach that Jesus became sin, God cannot look on sin, and thus God forsook His Son. Others, citing the following verses, say that God did not forsake His Son when he needed Him the most:
“I and my Father are one.”
“You [disciples] will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.”
2 Corinthians 5:19
“To wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”
By His very nature, our heavenly Father could not turn away from His only begotten Son, especially at the moment for which God has been preparing him all of his life. Jesus Christ was the crux of history, the one on whose shoulders the salvation of mankind was riding, the one who trusted his Father step by step all the way to this defining moment of His-story. And then God forsook him? That just doesn’t make sense. More importantly, it is not what the Bible says.
Many Bible commentators and teachers have promoted the idea that Jesus became sin for us and therefore the holy God had to forsake him because God cannot stand sin. This idea comes from 2 Corinthians 5:21, which in the NIV reads, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” But an accompanying note indicates that another way to translate the phrase “be sin for us” is “be a sin offering.”
The NIV translators recognized that because of the semantic range of the Greek word for “sin,” hamartia, it can be used (by the figure of speech Metonymy) to mean “a sin offering.” Thus, they translate hamartia in Romans 8:3 as follows: “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.”
Hebrews 10:5 and 6 are especially relevant: “Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased’” (See also 6:8 and 13:11). These verses show that the Old Testament sin offerings, the best God could do for His people at that time, simply pointed to the coming of the only one who could sacrifice his own body as a once-and-for-all sin offering. [For further study read How can a man atone for the sins of mankind?]
Scripture is all about the great truth that by his genetic perfection (God’s choice via his virgin birth) and behavioral perfection (his choice to always obey God), Jesus, the Lamb of God, was the perfect offering (sacrifice) for all the sin (nature) and sins (behavior) of mankind. The righteousness Jesus “earned” paid the price for all men’s sins and made possible the “gift” of righteousness (Rom. 5:17) to all who believe in his work on their behalf.
It is significant that the first Adam did sin—royally—and yet God did not forsake him. Cain sinned, and God did not forsake him either. The truth is that God has never forsaken His people because of their sin, so why would He do so with His own Son? There is no way (and no verse saying) that God forsook the Last Adam after he had walked a perfect walk all the way to the Cross.
There is another piece of evidence showing that God did not forsake Jesus in his final hours, and it has to do with the prophecy (see Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12; Ps. 34:20) quoted in the following verse, which comes right after the record of the Roman soldiers breaking the legs of the others crucified with Jesus, but not breaking his because he was already dead:
These things happened so that the Scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”
Think about the beating and torture that Jesus endured. And think about the fact that spikes were pounded into his hands and feet, each of which contains many bones. How was it possible that not one bone was broken?
We assert that it was as if God drew a line in the sand and said, “No more than that!” That prophetic promise must have given Jesus assurance as he went through his horrible ordeal. He knew that his Father was right there with him, and God’s keeping that promise was a forerunner of His greater promise to raise Jesus from the dead. [For further study read The Last Week of Christ’s Life.]
If God forsook Jesus on the cross because he became sin, what will God do when you and I sin? He would have to turn His face away from our sin, and from us, but that is not how our heavenly Father is, nor what He does.
When Jesus was arrested, and Peter pulled out his knife to fight the soldiers, what did Jesus say? “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). It appears that Jesus and His Father were quite close, and that Jesus was counting on God to be there for him with whatever he needed.
And so, when we read Matthew 27:46—“Why have you forsaken me?”—we must ask ourselves if we really understand what Jesus said and why. Without going into depth about the Aramaic words Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, suffice it to say that Eloi means “My God,” lama means “why,” and the root word shabak, while usually translated “forsake,” is also translated “kept” or “reserved.” Thus, the context is important to determine its meaning.
We assert that Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, verse 1, not in a cry of despair at being forsaken by God, but rather a cry of proclamation to those Jews gathered at Golgotha that what was taking place before their eyes was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, and that he really was who he said he was. As for the idea that Jesus believed that God had forsaken him and thus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” one problem is that verse 24 of Psalm 22 specifically says that God would not forsake the suffering Messiah. But before we go to Psalm 22, let us consider two other verses regarding the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the crucifixion of Jesus:
“This happened that the Scripture might be fulfilled which said, “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”
(41) In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.
(42) “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.
(43) He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.”
Keep that in mind that Jesus repeatedly referred to Old Testament prophecies to substantiate that he was the Messiah to Israel, and, if you want to follow along in your own Bible, look at Psalm 22.
As you picture the scene at Golgotha, remember that Jesus had been beaten and tortured for about 40 hours prior to his death, and that he was covered with blood. Besides Mary, Jesus’ mother, and others close to him, no doubt many of those gathered around were people Jesus had healed, people who believed, or at least hoped, that he was the promised Messiah. What did that horrible sight on the center cross do? It assaulted their faith. Don’t you think that what they saw happening to their hero might have caused them to doubt whether or not all Jesus had said was true?
And so, as his manner was, Jesus Christ reached for their hearts with God’s Word. He did so by quoting a section that they all knew, one that vividly sets forth that which was vividly being enacted right in front of their eyes. With some of his last breaths, he spoke the Word. He spoke to comfort those who believed on him, and at the same time gave those who did not believe, including those who were crucifying him, one more opportunity to believe that he was who he said he was—the Son of God, the Messiah.
Have you ever heard of the twenty-third Psalm—maybe even before you were a Christian? Did you ever memorize a part, or all, of it? Would you agree that the twenty-third Psalm is one of the most famous sections of the Bible? You know, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And we’re in the twenty-first century. What about 28 A.D.—in Jerusalem? Do you think the Israelites, to whom the Psalms were written, might have known it?
Have you ever wondered why Psalm 23 is so well known, but not Psalm 79, for example, or 32 or 57? One of the reasons is that Psalms 22, 23 and 24 form what you might call a “Messianic Trilogy,” one that virtually every Israelite knew by heart. Keep that in mind as we look at Psalm 22.
Old Testament prophecy often had both a current and future application, and here we are concerned with the future application of what is written in Psalm 22. As we read it, we will see why Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Later, in John 19:30, he said, “It is finished.” And what we will see is that Jesus quoted the very first phrase in Psalm 22—and the very last phrase, which, properly translated, should read, “…it is finished.”
Have you ever been listening to the radio and heard even one line from an old song that is one of your favorites? Doesn’t the whole song run through your head? Sure, because it is in your memory. Maybe you even start singing it. Well, Jesus quoted the beginning and the ending of one of the most famous, most well known, and most memorized sections of all of the Old Testament, one that vividly set forth what was taking place right in front of their eyes. No doubt for many of them who had ears to hear, the verses we are about to read flashed through their minds.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
As we read on, we will see that these are basically rhetorical questions, because after verse 18 the theme of the psalm changes radically from death unto life. But to many standing around at the scene, their attention riveted by the horror of it all, it certainly appeared as if God had forsaken this man who had claimed to be His Son.
(2) Oh my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
(3) Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel.
(4) In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them.
(5) They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
To whom did Jesus come? Israel. To whom was this Psalm written? Israel. Look how he is reminding them of their spiritual heritage, which included the Messiah.
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people.
The word “worm” here is very interesting; it is the Hebrew word tola, which is not the ordinary word for worm. Rather, this was a worm from which crimson or scarlet dye was obtained. Why is this word used? Because Jesus was covered with blood, and was the color of scarlet dye.
Psalm 22:7 and 8
(7) All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
(8) “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
Didn’t we read something like that in Matthew 27:41-43? Yes, that very prophecy was unfolding right in front of their eyes, and Jesus was trying to call their attention to it.
(9) Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast.
(10) From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
(11) Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Remember? “All of you are going to leave me,” Jesus said.
Many bulls surrounded me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
“Bashan”? What does that mean? If you look it up you will find that Bashan was the chief cattle-raising area of Israel where the biggest, best, strongest bulls came from. Figuratively, Jesus is referring to the religious “top brass” of Israel. It was the Pharisees who had inspired, cajoled, and manipulated the Romans to pound the nails. As such, they were the ones responsible for Jesus’ death.
(13) Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.
(14) I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.
(15) My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Using metaphorical language, these verses clearly describe a person dying. “All my bones”—we say things like that: “Every bone in my body is tired.” That doesn’t mean all 216 or however many there are. It is a figure of speech. In regard to Jesus, crucifixion dislocated a number of his bones, and no doubt it felt like all of them. His heart, the most critical organ in his body, “turned to wax.” A “potsherd” was an old piece of pottery dried by the sun—Jesus’ strength had ebbed away. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth—from the cross he said, “I thirst.”
(16) Dogs have surrounded me, a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
(17) I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.
(18) They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
When the Romans crucified someone, they formed a cordon of soldiers around the cross to keep the people away. And the Jews referred to uncircumcised people like the Romans as “dogs.” “I can count all my bones.” That’s another figure of speech meaning that in his many beatings and floggings, Jesus’ skin had been flayed to the bone. People spit on him, taunted him, and gloated over him. “They divide my garments among and cast lots for my clothing.” This could not more clearly describe what later happened at Golgotha in fulfillment of this prophecy.
And it is at this point that the thrust of Psalm 22 begins to shift from death unto life.
(19) But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
(20) Deliver my life 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.
The Messiah calls upon his God, Yahweh, to save him. How? Not by taking him off the cross, but by raising him from the dead in accordance with other Old Testament prophecy. Look at these next verses:
Psalm 22:22 and 23
(22) I will [in the future] declare your name to the brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.
(23) You who fear the Lord, praise him. All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
How is the Messiah going to praise God in the future when it is clear that he was to die? Only if God keeps His Word and raises him from the dead. And the next verse indicates that God had not forsaken him and would do just that!
For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
And this magnificent psalm, a vivid portrait of the death and resurrection of the man we now know as Jesus, the Messiah, ends with a crescendo of praise and promise pointing to some of the Millennial Kingdom blessings for God’s people:
(25) From you comes my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I fulfill my vows.
(26) The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the Lord will praise him—may your hearts live forever!
(27) All the ends of the earth will remember and will 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.
(29) All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—those who cannot keep themselves alive.
(30) Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.
(31) They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it.
The last clause of verse 31 should be translated a bit differently. In the KJV you can see that the word “it” is in italics, indicating that the translators added it. The pronoun “he” should be “it,” so that the psalm closes with the words, “for it is finished.”
Jesus Christ knew that, and in the final agonizing moments of his life had the presence of mind and the love for all men, including those who were killing him, to once again hold forth to them the Word of Life. He quoted the very first clause and the very last clause of a section of Scripture that they knew very, very well. With his dying breaths he affirmed one more time that he was who the Word of God said he was—the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the Redeemer of Israel and all who in the future would believe on him. What a man! What a Savior!
No, God did not forsake His Son, and He proved it three days and three nights later when He raised him from the dead. What a mighty God we have! Let us walk in Christ’s resurrection power and make known his life to a dying world. Amen.