Why Have You Forsaken Me?
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The Bible does not explain why there was darkness in the land for the last three hours of Jesus’ life. Some think Matthew’s statement was a kind of literary flourish representing the mood of Jesus’ disciples. This is doubtful, given that the darkness ended at the point of Jesus’ death, the point at which the disciples would have been most despondent.
One thing is sure: the darkness was strange. The counting of hours in Israel began at sunrise, so that the first hour of the day would correspond to the first hour of daylight. This means that darkness covered the land starting at noon and lasting until 3:00. The darkness occurred at the time of day that is usually the brightest.
All the people observing the crucifixion would have experienced the darkness and would likely have connected the two events, though they wouldn’t necessarily have understood the connection. Even Matthew doesn’t try to explain it.
One way to think about the darkness is that it was part of a series of strange events that accompanied the crucifixion. The curtain of the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple was mysteriously torn from top to bottom. There was an earthquake. People came out of graves and, after Jesus’ resurrection, entered Jerusalem, where they appeared to many people. A centurion—presumably one of those who had rolled dice to see who would win Jesus’ cloak—was so overwhelmed by the events that he proclaimed, “Truly this was the son of God!”
A lot of weird stuff happened. Stuff that would distinguish this particular crucifixion from the thousands of others the Romans had inflicted on the Hebrews. As much as anything else, Matthew is pointing out that the crucifixion of Jesus was a historical, bizarre, and unique event. Matthew was saying, “This was front page news; you can’t pretend it didn’t happen, no matter how much of an inconvenient truth it may seem to be.”
I see the darkness as an act of the Father, a kind of expression of his gloom and sorrow. Nature was brought in to assist. Does nature have feelings? The Bible doesn’t have much to say on the subject, though it freely assigns anthropomorphisms to nature. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy. – Psalm 98.8. The apostle Paul has what might be called a “high view” of nature: “In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited—yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!” – Romans 8.18-21.
On the land was darkness and, seemingly, there was darkness in Jesus’ soul. On the cross Jesus cried out the words of a dying, desperate man. Did Jesus truly feel abandoned? The answer is, yes…but also no. Let’s look first at the yes part of the answer.
A fundamental teaching of the Gospel is that Jesus died as a substitute, offering up his life in place of those who had earned the death penalty. The Bible teaches that, starting with Adam and Eve, all humans have earned the death penalty. Being a sinner does not mean that everything people do is sinful; it means that everything is tainted by sin. For example, a person may decide to give generously to the poor—a very good thing. But that person’s actions will be somehow spoiled. Perhaps he imagines that the giving makes him wonderful, or she imagines it will make her worthy of salvation, or he imagines he is now deserving of accolades and rewards. Perhaps she now feels free to live self-indulgently with her remaining wealth. We are incapable of pure behavior. More fundamentally, being sinful means having a disposition that is in rebellion against God. This rebellion is a posture that says, “I’m the master of my life. I will do what I think is best. I will do what makes me happy. I don’t take orders from you, God.” Even Christians, who consciously aim to obey God in all things, struggle with the desire to remain lords of their own lives.
God is not the Grand Narcissist. He demands obedience, not because it flatters his ego, but because he is wise. What he demands is right and good. Obedience to Him calls for people to love one another. Obedience to him results in human health and flourishing. Sin, in contrast, causes damage, always leading to destruction. Sin causes relational breakdown and physical breakdown. The Gospel says that Jesus came to set people free from the bondage of sin and death.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they created a big problem. God could have simply killed Adam and Eve on the spot. Problem solved. He could have gone back to the drawing board (this is speculative) and created a different, better creature. But he didn’t do either of these things. While Adam and Eve were cursed with the sentence of death, as they were warned before the Fall, God was also not willing to give up on them.
God provided a solution to the problem—the relational breakdown between the creature and the Creator. God’s solution was to die himself, as a substitute, to satisfy the need for purity in humans. God could not just proclaim us pure; he had to make us pure. God, as Jesus, died. Because Adam & Eve’s sin was passed on to the entire human race, Jesus’ sacrifice addressed all human sin for all time. This was his purpose on the cross, to sacrifice himself for our sins. It was no easy task. Not only did he endure physical pain and suffering and death, he endured separation from the Godhead. God the Father had to look away from God the Son at the point when Jesus became sin. In this sense, when Jesus called out, “Why have you forsaken me?” he was expressing something quite real.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5.21. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— Galatians 3.13
Within the Temple in Jerusalem, there was an inner room called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place. A thick curtain, or “veil” separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. The word “veil” in Hebrew means a screen, divider or separator that hides. What was the curtain hiding? It was shielding the holy God from sinful man. Whoever entered into the Holy of Holies was entering the very presence of God. In fact, anyone except the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies would die. Even the high priest, God’s chosen mediator with His people, could only pass through the veil once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. – Hebrews 9:7
Jesus, when he became the Sacrificial Lamb and took on the sin of the world, substituting himself on our behalf, at that moment he came into the same predicament that afflicted the rest of humanity—he was separated from the Godhead. He called out in agony.
But the despair and disorientation which, were as real as his miserable death, were not the full story. The other side of the story begins by recognizing that it came as no surprise to Jesus. He spoke of it numerous times with his disciples (which they found distressing.) As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to deathand deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” – Matthew 20.17-19
If we read through the Gospels, thinking about the escalating conflict that was going on between Jesus and the religious leaders, it seems that even the disciples could have predicted, even without Jesus’ repeated prophecies on the matter, that the conflict was not going to end well for Jesus.
So, knowing that Jesus knew he was going to be crucified, it remains a bit of a puzzle as to why Jesus would call out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” The answer to the puzzle is found in Scripture. Was Jesus knowledgeable of the Old Testament? Certainly so. We know this because there is evidence everywhere in the New Testament. Here are some examples:
Jesus remained behind at the temple when he was 12 years old. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. Luke 2. 46,47
Early in Jesus’ ministry he was tempted by Satan. Each temptation was dressed in a quote from Scripture. But for each of the temptations Satan put to Jesus, Jesus responded with another quote from Scripture. His first response, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God,” Was a quote from Deuteronomy 8.3. His second response, “Again it is written, you shall not put the Lord, your God to the test,” is taken from Deuteronomy 6.16. And his third response, “You shall worship only the Lord your God,” is taken from Deuteronomy 6.13,14.
Jesus’ most lengthy sermon, the one we refer to as the “Sermon on the Mount,” is essentially a commentary on Old Testament Law. In fact, the Gospels record Jesus quoting the Old Testament 78 times. He quoted from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah, and Malachi. Jesus’ framework of thought was the teachings of the Old Testament. Is it possible this framework had something to do with what he was thinking while on the cross? Of course.
Let’s turn our attention to Psalm 22, a psalm of David. This Psalm has been identified as a “Messianic psalm”, which means, from a Christian perspective, that the psalm is prophetic, looking forward to the Messiah, or the Savior, Jesus. The following verses of the Psalm have been associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. If you read the accounts of the crucifixion it’s easy to see why.
1: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
7,8: All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
14-18: I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.
Now let’s read 22.1-21a. This portion of the Psalm reads like an internal debate. In this portion Jesus experiences in his body the slow, painful ebbing of life; in his spirit he experiences the weight of God’s anger and his distancing from the sin that Jesus has taken to himself. But he continues to remind himself of the heart of God and the wisdom of God.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and 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 my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog!Save me from the mouth of the lion!
After the struggle of the first two-thirds of the Psalm, the language turns to triumph.
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
The Psalm begins with the speaker agonizing about why God has forsaken him, but in the concluding section he makes it clear that God has not hidden his face but, rather, he has heard the cry of the afflicted one. This section further explains that God is ruler over all and that all nations will come to recognize him as Lord. Posterity will serve him. In the end the writer proclaims, “He has done it!” The one line of lament of Jesus on the cross cannot be understood unless it is recognized as a reference to the Twenty-second Psalm.
It is not enough to say that Jesus went to the cross willingly in obedience to his Father. A better understanding is that Jesus willed himself to go through the shame, the pain, the punishment, and the death of the crucifixion. He did not have to remain on the cross. When Jesus was betrayed by Judas and turned over to the religious leaders in the garden of Gethsemane, initially Peter pulled out a sword and began to battle. But Jesus told him to put his sword away. “Do you think I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” – Matthew 26.53. Jesus could have slaughtered his enemies at any time—and he would have been justified in doing so. But he was seeing human history from a much fuller perspective, and his objective was redemption and life for many. He willed to die so we could live.
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” – Hebrews 10.10-18
The cross appeared to be the end of Jesus. It was the Great Defeat of God. But the process of the events—victory out of the jaws of defeat—is one of God’s fingerprints. He routinely achieves victory through weakness…and righteousness. The tearing of the veil in the Temple was not merely a freak accident that helped to make the crucifixion memorable—it was a sign that Jesus had conquered the sin that had for so long separated God from humanity. The separation between God and man had been brought to an end. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words were, “It is finished.” It is much like the conclusion of David’s Psalm: “He has done it.” Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s worthwhile to pull back and see the big picture. Take the time to know the context. The cry, “Why have you forsaken me?” was, in fact, a fierce howl of victory!