1-1-11 "Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?"
38 Darkness is often associated in the OT with mourning. Am. 8:9,10 speaks of earthquake and darkness at noon because " I will make it as the mourning for an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day" , i.e. a funeral. The darkness was a sign of Almighty God mourning for His Son.
40 The Greek seems to mean " Why didst thou forsake me" , perhaps implying that He had already overcome the feeling of being forsaken. Mark records " Eloi" ; Matthew " Eli" . Why? There is a difference. Did He say " Eli, Eli, Eloi, Eloi" ? Four times calling upon God?
The Sayings From The Cross (4):
" Why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46)
We are going to suggest that these words indicate a crisis in the mind of the Lord Jesus. We would wish to write in almost every sentence of this study that the Lord Jesus was utterly sinless. Yet as one tempted to the limit, He must have come close to the edge. One of the superlative marvels of the Lord in His death was the way He never seems to have lost His spiritual composure, despite every physical and mental assault. Yet in these words we have Him perhaps nearer to such a breakdown of composure than anywhere else. Another example of His being 'close to the edge' was when He was in the Garden, asking for the cup to be taken away from Him. Compare those words with His clear understanding that He would have to die on a cross and later be resurrected. The clarity of His understanding is to be marvelled at. He went to the cross “knowing all things that should come upon him" (Jn. 18:4). He not only foresaw His death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, but many other details besides. Thus He spoke of how He was like a seed which would be buried in a garden (as He was) and then rise again (Lk. 13:19). But compare all this with His plea for another way to be found in Gethsemane, and also the cry " Why hast thou forsaken me?" . There is only one realistic conclusion from this comparison: those words indicate a faltering in the Lord Jesus, a blip on the screen, a wavering in purpose. One marvels that there were not more such occasions recorded.
The first blip on the screen was in Gethsemane. The second one was when He cried " Why hast thou forsaken me?" . We should remind ourselves of the chronology of events around the crucifixion (1) :
| 12p.m. || Arrest |
| 9a.m. (" the third hour" ) || Crucifixion |
12a.m. - 3p.m. (" sixth to the ninth hour" )
| Darkness |
3p.m. (" the ninth hour" )
| Death; Passover lambs killed |
| 15th Nissan || 9p.m. ||
Israel eat Passover
| 16th Nissan || 6p.m. ||
Passover Sabbath ends
| 5a.m. || Resurrection? |
| 6a.m. || Women at the tomb |
| 3p.m. || Walk to Emmaus |
The fact is, Christ died " at the ninth hour" . It was at the ninth hour that he cried " It is finished" and " Father into thy hands I commend my spirit" . Yet it was also at the ninth hour that He said " My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:34). The conclusion is that at the very last moment our Lord faltered. It was 11:59, and He faltered. Enter, please, into the sense of crisis and intensity. This is the only time that he prays to God as “God" rather than “Father" / abba. This itself reflects the sense of distance that enveloped Him. For He was your Lord and your Saviour hanging there, it was your salvation which hung in the balance. There is a very telling point to be made from Mt. 27:46. There we read that at " about the ninth hour, Jesus cried" those words about being forsaken. Mark says it was at the ninth hour, and we know it was at the ninth hour that Christ uttered His final words of victory. Yet it must have been only a few minutes before the ninth hour when Christ faltered; hence Matthew says that it was " about the ninth hour" . What is a few minutes? Only a few hundred seconds, only moments. Only moments before the sweetness of the final victory, " It is finished" or accomplished, the Son of God was faltering. The more we appreciate this wavering at the last minute, the more fully we will appreciate the power and sense of victory behind Christ's final two sayings on the cross (2) , uttered only moments later.
And so we come to the crux of the problem. How and why was Christ forsaken by the Father? Ultimately, of course, the Father did not forsake the Son in His time of greatest need and agony. I would suggest that Christ only felt forsaken; although if you feel forsaken, in a sense you are forsaken. The prototype of Christ feeling forsaken was in David feeling forsaken by God when he fled from Absalom (Ps. 42:9; 43:2; 88:14); but clearly he was not actually forsaken. But why did our Lord falter like this, at 11:59, one minute to twelve, at this agonizing last moment? Seeing the Father did not forsake the Son, there seems to have been some kind of intellectual failure in the Lord’s reasoning. In the terrible circumstances in which He was, this is hardly surprising. Yet such genuine intellectual failure, a real, unpretended failure to correctly understand something, usually has a psychological basis. The Lord, it seems to me, feared death more than any other man. He knew that death was separation from God, the wages of sin. Different people have varying degrees of fear of death (e.g. the unrepentant thief was totally resigned to it). It would seem that the Lord had the highest conceivable level of unresignation to death, to the point of being almost paranoid about it- even though He knew He must die. Two prototypes of the Lord had similar experiences. Abraham suffered “an horror of great darkness" (Gen. 15:12), in an event rich in reference to the crucifixion. And Job’s sufferings were the very things which he “greatly feared" (Job 3:25). The Lord stood as a lamb dumb before His shearers; and the lamb is struck dumb with fear. This all makes the Lord’s death for us so much the more awesome.
Desire For Deliverance?
We have elsewhere commented concerning the possibility that Christ felt that although He would be tied to the cross as Isaac was, yet somehow He would be delivered (3). Gen. 22:22 LXX speaks of Abraham not withholding his son- and the same word is found in Rom. 8:32 about God ‘not sparing’ His own son. Clearly the offering of Isaac is to be understood as prophetic of the Lord’s sacrifice. The Lord's growing realization that the entangled ram represented Him rather than Isaac would have led to this sense of panic which He now expressed. There is more evidence than we sometimes care to consider that Christ's understanding was indeed limited; He was capable of misunderstanding Scripture, especially under the stress of the cross (4). Earlier, in the garden, He had panicked; He was " sore amazed" (Mk. 14:33, s.w. " greatly wondering" , Acts 3:11).
This desire for personal deliverance from the cross would have been there within our Lord throughout the six hours He hung there. And yet His only other earlier utterances which are recorded are all concerned with the welfare of others; us, the Jews, the thief, His mother. He supremely mastered His own flare of panic and desire for His personal salvation and relief, subjecting it to His spiritual and practical concern for others.
A study of Psalm 22 indicates deeper reasons why Christ felt forsaken. He had been crying out loud for deliverance, presumably for some time, according to Ps. 22:1-6, both during and before the unnatural three hour darkness. He felt that His desire for deliverance was not being heard, although the prayers of others had been heard in the past when they cried with a like intensity(5). The Lord Jesus was well aware of the connection between God's refusal to answer prayer and His recognition of sin in the person praying (2 Sam. 22:42 = Ps. 2:2-5). It is emphasized time and again that God will not forsake those who love Him (e.g. Dt. 4:31; 31:6; 1 Sam. 12:22; 1 Kings 6:13; Ps. 94:14; Is. 41:17; 42:16). Every one of these passages must have been well known to our Lord, the word made flesh. He knew that God forsaking Israel was a punishment for their sin (Jud. 6:13; 2 Kings 21:14; Is. 2:6; Jer. 23:33). God would forsake Israel only if they forsook Him (Dt. 31:16,17; 2 Chron. 15:2). It may be helpful to summarize the two strands of Bible teaching concerning being forsaken:
God will not forsake His people if they are righteous
" When thou art in tribulation...and shalt be obedient unto his voice...he will not forsake thee" (Dt. 4:18,19)
" The Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee" (Dt. 31:6)
" The Lord will not forsake His people for his great name's sake: because it hath pleased the Lord to make you his people" (1 Sam. 12:22)
" If thou wilt walk in my statutes...and keep all my commandments to walk in them...I will not forsake my people" (1 Kings 6:12,13)
" Blessed is the man (Messiah) whom thou chastenest...for the Lord will not cast off his people, neither forsake his inheritance...all the upright in heart" (Ps. 94:12-15)
" When the poor and needy seek water...I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them" (Is. 41:17); i.e. God not forsaking was shown in His answering of prayer (cp. Ps. 22:1-11).
God will forsake His people if they sin
" Now the Lord hath forsaken us" because of Israel's disobedience at the time of the Judges (Jud. 6:9,13)
" Because Mannaseh hath done these abominations...I will forsake the remnant of mine inheritance, and deliver them into the hand of their enemies" (2 Kings 21:14)
" Therefore thou hast forsaken thy people...because they be replenished from the east, and are soothsayers and they please themselves" (Is. 2:6)
" I am against the (false) prophets...(therefore) I will even forsake you" (Jer. 23:33)
" If ye seek him, he will be found of you; but ye forsake him, he will forsake you" (2 Chron. 15:2)
" This people will rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the land...and will forsake me....then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them" (Dt. 31:16,17)
Knowing all this, He cried out: " Why hast Thou forsaken me?" . He felt forsaken by God, and Biblically, without a doubt, being forsaken by God means you are a sinner. " Why (oh why) hast Thou forsaken me?" is surely the Lord Jesus searching His conscience with desperate intensity, finding nothing wrong, and crying to God to show Him where He had failed, why the Father had forsaken Him. It may be that initially He assumed He had sinned (Ps. 69:5), going through the self-doubt which David went through at the time of Absalom's rebellion (Ps. 3:2). As David had felt then that God had cast him off, even though " my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail" , so the Lord felt (Ps. 89:33,38). But then with an unsurpassedly rigorous self-examination, He came to know that He really hadn't. This means that once over the crisis, our Lord died with a purity of conscience known by no other being, with a profound sense of His own totality of righteousness. Again, this enables us to better enter into the intensity of " It is finished" .
Bearing Israel’s Sins
The Lord understood His death as drinking a cup from God. But that cup was, in Old Testament language, the cup of God’s wrath against a disobedient people. The Lord knew that His death was a bearing of their judgment- which is not to say, of course, that the Lord’s murderers, as any sinners, have to also answer for their sins. He so wished to gather the “chicks" of Jerusalem under His wings, but they would not, and thus the house of the temple would be left desolate. The image seems to be of a farmyard hen in a fire, gathering the chicks under wings as the house burnt down, so that afterwards, beneath her charred and destroyed body, her brood would be found alive. The Lord so wished the burnt offering of the cross to result in the salvation of the Israel of His day- but they would not. This was His level of love for those who baited Him, irritated Him, dogged His every step.
Christ knew from Isaiah 53 that He was to bear Israel's sins, that the judgments for their sins were to fall upon Him. Israel ‘bore their iniquities’ by being condemned for them (Num. 14:34,35; Lev. 5:17; 20:17); to be a sin bearer was therefore to be one condemned. To die in punishment for your sin was to bear you sin. There is a difference between sin, and sin being laid upon a person. Num. 12:11 brings this out: “Lay not the sin upon us… wherein we have sinned”. The idea of sin being laid upon a person therefore refers to condemnation for sin. Our sin being laid upon Jesus therefore means that He was treated as if He were a condemned sinner. He briefly endured within Him the torment of soul which the condemned will feel. It seems that even our Lord did not appreciate the extent to which He would be identified with sinful Israel, the extent to which He would have our sins imputed to Him, the weight of them, the degree to which He would be made sin for us, although knowing no sin (2 Cor. 5:21). And if He found this hard to come to terms with, no wonder we do too. The fact that the judgment for sin is sometimes equated with the sin itself was doubtless appreciated by the Lord (cp. 2 Kings 15:23); but the extent of this principle was what seemed to have been unappreciated by Him until the cross. Likewise, He would have meditated upon the way righteous men had taken upon themselves the sins of their people. Thus Jeremiah speaks as if he has committed Israel's sins; Ezra rends his clothes and plucks off his hair, as if he has married out of the Faith (Ezra 9:4 cp. Neh. 13:25; the Lord received the same sinner's treatment, Is. 50:6). Moses' prayer for God to relent and let him enter the land was only rejected for the sake of his association with Israel's sins (Dt. 3:26). But the extent to which the Lord would bear our sins was perhaps unforeseen by Him. And indeed, through His sin- bearing and sin-feeling, He enabled God Himself to know something of it too, as a Father learns and feels through a son. Thus God is likened to a man who goes away into a far country (Mt. 21:33)- the very words used by the Lord to describe how the sinner goes into a far country in his departure from the Father (Lk. 15:13). “My servant" was both Israel and the Lord Jesus; He was their representative in His sufferings. Which may well explain why in an exhibition of prisoners art from the Auchwitz death camp, there were so many crucifixes and ‘stages of the cross’ drawn by Jews, even in the wood of the huts, etched with their finger nails. They saw then, and will see again, the extent to which Jesus of Nazareth, through His cross, identifies with the suffering servant of Israel. Isaiah brings this point out Biblically- early in his prophecy he speaks of how “my servant" Israel will be wounded, bruised, tormented with “fresh stripes" (Is. 1:6 RVmg)- exactly the language Isaiah later uses about the sufferings of the Lord Jesus in His death.
Christ died to save Israel rather than everyone in the Gentile world (Is. 49:5; 53:8; Gal. 4:4,5), He was “a servant to the circumcised" (Rom. 15:8), " the consolation of Israel" , unto them was born a saviour (Lk. 2:11,25), and therefore He had to be exactly representative of them. For this reason it was theologically necessary for Jesus to be Jewish in order to achieve the work He did. We are only saved by reason of becoming in Christ and therefore part of the Israel of God (Gal. 3:27-29). The Jewish basis of salvation is absolutely fundamental to a correct understanding of the Gospel. Consider the following evidence that fundamentally, Christ died to save Israel:
" For unto us (Israel) a child is born, unto us a son is given" (Is. 9:6)
" The Lord formed me in the womb to be His servant, to bring Jacob again to Him" (Is. 49:5)
" For the transgression of my people was he stricken" (Is. 53:8)
" God sent forth his son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law" (Gal. 4:4,5)
The good news of Christ’s birth was for “all the people" of Israel, primarily (Lk. 2:10 RV).
The Lord laid down His life “for the sheep" of Israel (Jn. 10:15,16).
Both Peter and Paul appealed to the Jews to repent because it was for them that Christ had died: " Ye are the children...of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying....And in thy seed shall all the kindreds (tribes) of the earth (land) be blessed. Unto you first (i.e. most importantly) God, having raised up his son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities...God raised unto Israel a Saviour…men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham...to you is the word of this salvation sent...we declare unto you glad tidings (the Gospel), how that the promise (of salvation in Christ) which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children" (Acts 3:25,26; 13:23,26,32,33).
" For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision (Rom. 15:17) has reference to Isaiah’s Servant prophecies of the crucifixion. But it is also, as so often in Paul, a reference to the Lord’s words; in this case, Mt. 20.26-28: " It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" . The ‘becoming a servant’ refers to His death; and He became a servant, Paul says, to the Jews above all.
Because of all this, the sufferings of Christ on the cross have connections with the punishments for Israel's sins (e.g. being offered gall to drink = Jer. 8:14; Lam. 3:5). Israel were temporarily forsaken by God because of their sins (Is. 49:14; 54:7), and therefore so was Christ. Christ was chastened with the rod of men " and with the stripes of the children of men" , i.e. Israel (Is. 53:5; 1 Pet. 2:24; Mic. 5:1), in His death on the cross. But punishment with rod and stripes was to be given if Messiah sinned (2 Sam. 7:14). Yet Christ received this punishment; because God counted Him as if He were a sinner. His sharing in our condemnation was no harmless piece of theology. He really did feel, deep inside Him, that He was a sinner, forsaken by God. Instead of lifting up His face to Heaven, with the freedom of sinlessness, He fell on His face before the Father in Gethsemane (Mt. 26:39), bearing the guilt of human sin. There are times when we may feel that the righteousness of Christ makes Him somehow inaccessible to us. Even among contemporary brethren and sisters, there are some who I feel somehow distanced from, simply because I know they are far more righteous than I. And I know that there are many of us who feel the same. We feel that they just don't know what it feels like to be spiritually down and out, to feel and deeply know the dirt of our own nature. And if we have this problem with each other, we will surely have it with the Lord Jesus too. For this reason many of us lack the dynamic, close personal relationship with Christ which we should have.
And yet here on the cross, we see our Lord with all the panic of the sinner who knows He is facing judgment and death, feeling every bit, right throughout His very being, the alienation from God which sin brings. He knew the agony of separation from God because of sin. He was a sin bearer (Is. 53:11); and the idea of sin bearing was almost an idiom for being personally guilty and sinful (Num. 14:34; Ex. 28:43). The Lord was our sin bearer and yet personally guiltless. This is the paradox which even He struggled with; no wonder we do, on a far more abstract level. Is. 63:2,3 explains how in the process of obtaining salvation, the Lord’s clothing would be made red. Red clothes in Isaiah suggest sinfulness that needs cleansing (Is. 1:18).
The Greek word translated " forsaken" occurs also in Acts 2:27, where Peter quotes from Psalm 16 concerning how Christ was always aware of His own righteousness, and therefore confidently knew that God would not " leave (forsake) his soul in hell" . In Ps. 22:1, our Lord was doubting His previous thoughts, as prophesied in Ps. 16:10. He now feared that God had forsaken Him, when previously He had been full of confidence that God would not do so, on account of His perfect character. Because Christ felt such a sinner deep within Him, He even doubted if He really was the Messiah. This is how deeply, how deeply, our Lord was our representative, this is how thoroughly He bare our own sins in His own body on the tree, this is how deeply He came to know us, to be able to exactly empathize with us in our spiritual weakness; this was how He became able to have a fellow feeling with those who are out of the way, who have lost the faith, " for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity" (Heb. 5:2).
Fear Of Forsaking
The greatest fear within a righteous man is that of sinning. There are many Messianic Psalms in which David, in the spirit of Christ, speaks of His fear of being forsaken by God:
" Leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation" (Ps. 27:9; cp. " My God, Why hast thou forsaken me" )
" Forsake me not, O Lord: O my God be not far from me" (Ps. 38:21)
" Hide not they face from thy servant...hear me speedily" (Ps. 69:17)- implying that a lack of response to prayer (as He experienced on the cross) was perceived by the Lord as rejection
" Forsake me not...O God, forsake me not" (Ps. 71:9,18)
" I will keep thy statutes: O forsake me not" (Ps. 119:8)
" Forsake not the works of thine own hands" (Ps. 138:8)
This points forward to how our Lord had this lifelong fear of being forsaken by God as a result of sin. Under the extreme pressure of the cross, amidst His constant self-examination, it is understandable that Christ's greatest fear, perhaps almost His paranoia, appeared to become realized. The crowd had been trying to brainwash our Lord with the idea that He had sinned; and because of His humanity and sensitivity of His personality, the Lord Jesus was perhaps subconsciously influenced by all this. He was no hard man, insensitive to the jeers of men. Remember how He was laughed to scorn both on the cross and in the home of Jairus, and how He did not hide His face from the shame which He was made to feel by men (Mt. 9:24; Ps. 22:7; Is. 50:6). Job's sufferings were another type of Christ's, and his sufferings (cp. Christ's experience on the cross) was the thing which He had greatly feared all his life (Job 3:25). The thing which Christ greatly feared, according to the Psalms, was being forsaken by God. And true enough to the Job type, this came upon Him.
Because Christ truly felt a sinner, He felt forsaken by God. This is to me the explanation of one of Scripture’s most enigmatic verses: “Hear, ye deaf; and look, ye blind, that ye may see. Who is blind, but my servant? Or deaf, as my messenger that I sent? Who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the Lord’s servant?" (Is. 42:18,19). The Lord Jesus, as the servant, was to share the blindness and deafness of an obdurate Israel. He identified with us even in our sinfulness; and yet He was the blind who was perfect; and this is the very thing that empowers the spiritually blind to see. When God made His soul sin on the cross [AV “offering for sin" is not in the Hebrew text- it’s an interpretation], then He saw [Heb. to perceive / discern] His seed (Is. 53:10). This all seems to mean that it was through this feeling as a sinner deep within His very soul, that the Lord Jesus came to ‘see’, to closely identify with, to perceive truly, us His sinful seed / children. And He did this right at the very end of His hours of suffering, as if this was the climax of His sufferings- they led Him to a full and total identity with sinful men and women. And once He reached that point, He died. The total identity of the Lord with our sinfulness is brought out in passages like Rom. 8:3, describing Jesus as being “in the likeness of sinful flesh" when He was made a sin offering; and 1 Pet. 2:24, which speaks of how He “his own self…in his own body" bore our sins “upon the tree". Note that it was at the time of His death that He was especially like this. I believe that these passages speak more of the Lord’s moral association with sinners, which reached a climax in His death, than they do of His ‘nature’.
In every other recorded prayer of His in the Gospels, the Lord addressed the Almighty as “Father"; but now He uses the more distant “My God", reflecting the separation He felt. But therefore His mind flew to Ps. 22:1, and He quoted those words: " My God, why hast thou forsaken me" . But the fact His mind went to the Scriptures like that was His salvation. There is reason to think that in His last few minutes, the Lord quoted the whole of Ps. 22 out loud (6) . Thus He asked for a drink " that the Scripture might be fulfilled" , or finished, and then His words " It is finished" followed- which are actually an exact quote from the Septuagint of the last verse of Ps. 22. Psalms 22 and 69 can be clearly divided into two halves; the first half speaks of the confused thoughts of the Lord Jesus as He hung on the cross, but then there is a sudden rally, and His thoughts become clearly more confident and positive, centred around the certainty of our future salvation. As Christ quoted or at least thought through Psalm 22, He came to the glorious conclusion: Of course this is how Messiah must feel, He must feel forsaken, as Ps. 22 prophesied, but He would go on to save God's people! Just because Messiah would feel forsaken didn't mean that He Himself had sinned! We can almost sense the wave of reassurance that swept over our Lord, that deep deep knowledge of His own good conscience. And therefore how desperate He was, despite that ravaging thirst, to utter to the world that cry, " It is finished" ; to show to us all that He had achieved God's work, that He had perfectly manifested the Father, and that thereby He really had achieved our redemption.
(1) This chronology is my preferred one. Yet it presents the problem (for some) of reading " three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mt. 12:40) as an idiom rather than a literal time period. This problem is well handled in H.A.Whittaker, 'Three days and three nights', in Studies in the Gospels.
(2) See " It is finished" and " Into thy hands I commend my spirit" .
(3) See Abraham and Isaac.
(4) See The Humanity of our Lord.
(5) See Psalm 22.
(6) See H.A.Whittaker, Studies in the Gospels.
41 They were confusing " Eliyahu" with " Eloi, Eloi" . With teeth loose or missing, throat parched from the fever induced by the iron nails in the blood stream, the difficulty of speaking because of being suspended by the arms...this confusion isn't surprising.