Why Hast Thou Forsaken?
Perhaps the most puzzling words Jesus spoke are those embodied in his cry when on the Cross and at the point of death "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt.27.46; Mk 15.34). The idea that Jesus should think that He had been abandoned by the Father at his hour of severest trial seems difficult to accept. The celebrated writer H.G.Wells in the early 20th Century referred to it in one of his books as "that eternal enigma to the faithful" and an enigma it has proved to be. What inspired our Lord to utter the words and what was in his mind when He spoke them?
An explanation favoured by commentators is that since Jesus is said to have taken the sinner's place, and sinners by reason of their sin are separated from God, it was necessary that Jesus should, if only for a moment, feel that his Father had turned away from him. Otherwise, it is argued, he could not properly be said to have taken the sinner's place.
It is possible that this argument has not been properly thought out. In the first place it is unthinkable that the Father should actually abandon and turn away from the Son at the culminating point of his life, when from the human standpoint He stood in greatest need of assurance from above. Jesus claimed that He was always and at all times in complete communion and unity with the Father. This oneness with the Father that He declared did subsist. However we understand that oneness, it forbids the idea that there could ever be a rift within the eternal unity and mutual understanding between the Father and the Son. The wonderful words which Jesus spoke only a few hours previously and recorded in Jn.16, 17 can hardly be reconciled with the idea of a break, even a momentary break, in that relationship. "I came forth from the Father, and go to the Father"; "I am not alone, because the Father is with me"; "Now, O Father glorify me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was"; "Now I am no more in the world, and I come to thee"; "Thou, Father art in me, and I in thee". If, a few hours later, Jesus could be conceived as having renounced that confidence to the extent that He thought the Father had deserted him, that could only mean that for a moment He himself had lost faith, that his death after all was in vain. Such a conclusion is inconceivable ‑ many a Christian martyr in past ages has gone to his death amid excruciating torments without losing faith, and it is impossible for the servant to be greater than his Lord. Whatever the explanation of this on the surface puzzling phrase, it can hardly be that.
Reference back to the Old Testament suggests another and much more rational explanation, one which bears witness to the unswerving faith of
Jesus and his sense of unity with the Father throughout his ordeal. These identical words appear in the first verse of Psalm 22.
Now Psalm 22 is a very significant Psalm. Written by David, probably at the time of his flight from Saul, it contains a number of allusions which were definitely not true of David himself. He was never without friends and helpers, contrary to verse 11. Verses 7-8, 17-18 cannot be applied to David, although reminiscent of the experiences of Christ. The conclusion reached by most scholars is that the Psalm is a fore-view of the experiences of Christ, brought to David by the Holy Spirit against the background of his own experiences. Several allusions in the New Testament bear this out. And the remarkable thing about the Psalm is that although it commences on a note of apparent despair at the seeming failure of God to deliver, it closes on the opposite note of certain triumph because God has in fact delivered. Verses 1-19 tell of the anguish of the sufferer, his imminent certain death at the hands of his enemies, with God apparently unheeding. But in verse 19 there is a change of tone, a plea to God to come to his help; "Be not thou far from me, Lord, Haste thee to help me" leading on to the cry of certainty in v.22 "I will declare thy name unto my brethren" and to verse 24 "He hath not. . . hid his face from him, but when he cried unto him, he heard". So to the climactic end in v.31, where all is well, for the kingdom is the Lord's and all men declare his righteousness.
It is said that during the savage persecutions of the Jews by the Greeks and later by the Romans in the immediate centuries before Christ, it was the custom for Jewish warriors, hemmed in by their enemies and knowing they were doomed to certain death, to shout out, as they died, the opening words of this Psalm. It was an indication of their faith that they would rise again and stand before God triumphant at the Last Day. Utterance of the first verse was a symbol of the entire Psalm and implied faith that God had not abandoned them and that triumphant life was to follow apparently hopeless death. Hence the cry did not signify loss of faith or separation from God, it did on the contrary signify faith that all was well and God would certainly deliver.
Was this our Lord's motive when He uttered the same cry? Was it his last message to the bystanders and witnesses at the Cross, that although He was going into death He would surely rise again and all would be well? Did his hearers interpret his words, not as a personal cry of entreaty to the Father, but a reminder to them of their own Psalm and what it meant?
There are several indications that this may well have been the case. Verse 24 of the Psalm contains the phrase, referring to the Father, "neither hath He hid his face from him". That expression alone invalidates the suggestion that the Father did for a space hide his face from the Son and so provoke the cry. And there are considerations arising from a critical examination of the New Testament text itself. The "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani" of both Matthew's and Mark's versions are in the Aramaic language and it would seem that Jesus uttered the words in that tongue. (Aramaic was the language evolved from the fusion of Hebrew with other tongues which the Jews developed during the Babylonian captivity. After their return from Babylon Hebrew became a dead language so far as the ordinary people were concerned). Both Matthew and Mark say that "some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, he calleth Elias" (Elijah). Native Jews standing by would not have made that mistake; they knew the Aramaic word for God. But there were also the Roman soldiers attendant on the Crucifixion, and these, drafted in from other parts of the Empire to serve a spell of duty in Judea, would be familiar only with the common Greek of the day and their own Latin tongue. It seems evident that these are the "some of them that stood by" who offered Jesus the "sponge filled with vinegar" (old wine) and this would certainly have been one of the soldiers who alone had the authority to approach the Cross.
John was the only one of the twelve disciples to have been at the Cross. The others had gone into hiding. John does not record the saying, although he does record the later word "I thirst". At least three of the women were there, perhaps more of them. And Mark the son of one of the other Marys, a teenager at the time, was almost certainly there, just as he was probably the "young man in a linen garment" present in Gethsemane at the time of Jesus' arrest. Matthew probably got his account from Mark. But there is a significant difference in their respective accounts. Whereas Matthew gives in his translation the literal Greek "why hast thou forsaken me" Mark gives the Greek for "to what hast thou forsaken" (or abandoned) "me". This is the Targum rendering of Psalm 22.1. (The Targum was the Aramaic version of the Old Testament in general use at the time and the one normally read in the synagogues on the Sabbath day.) Mark, most likely unable to read Hebrew, would know the Psalm only in its Aramaic version. Although he heard and recorded the Hebrew word "lama" actually used by Jesus, his familiarity with the Targum of Psa. 22 led him to use the Greek equivalent eis ti (to what) instead of hinati (why) as used by Matthew. The logical inference is that both Matthew and Mark recognised that Jesus was actually quoting the 22nd Psalm, the one from his knowledge of the original Hebrew, and the other from his familiarity with the Targum.
If this supports the conclusion that both these writers understood the cry to be, not a personal appeal to the Father by Jesus, but Israel's traditional cry of faith and triumph in the face of inevitable death, there is good ground for concluding that Jesus entertained no thought that the Father had forsaken him. He was, on the contrary, telling the observers at the Cross, and all who heard or read of the story afterwards, that in his now certain and imminent death he had in fact triumphed over his enemies and would certainly rise again from the dead "in the power of an endless life". As with those valiant warriors of Israel in times of old, that cry and those words betokened faith that the moment of death was the moment of triumph.