Feeling Forsaken

In Soul Food on January 5, 2012 by The Spillover

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? — Psalm 22:1

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?” — Matthew 27:46

In my current cover-to-cover journey through the Word, I find myself in the Psalms. The Psalms are an emotional roller-coaster. The highs fly through the clouds and the lows dig under the canyons.

Psalm 22 stopped me as I was reading through. I’ve read it many times, but it’s never struck me as it did today. In all the high highs and the low lows, what could be more desperate than crying out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? It’s pitiful. The writer feels as though God Himself has utterly left him to destruction.

And what a picture it paints when God in the Flesh, Jesus Christ, echoes those same words while hanging from a Roman cross, beaten, bloodied, tortured, and dying. He was bearing the punishment for the sins of the world. God the Father – HIS Father – was crushing Him under the full force of His wrath. Christ cried out to the Father, with Whom He had eternally existed in the most perfect harmony, revealing that He was utterly alone. Forsaken. The weight of the sin of the world ground him to powder. The cup of the wrath of the Father was poured on Him like Niagara Falls onto an ant.

The Psalms are a gift from God, for wretches like you and me. They allow us comfort and empathy, they relate to us in our spiritual and emotional highs and lows. And as we read and relate to them, our Savior is in the background, saying to us, “I understand how you feel. I’ve been there.”

It’s not by accident that the Savior would repeat some of the lowest lows of the Psalms. He came not only to triumph over death, but also despair and hopelessness – by tasting the worst of it Himself.

8 Responses to “Feeling Forsaken”

  1. When Jesus quoted this Psalm on the cross, I always struggled with the idea. On the one hand, it seems to show us the complete picture of the sacrifice he was making for us. But on the other, why would Jesus “call out” God for something Jesus was expecting? Why would he cry out in the loud voice, rather than in a personal appeal to the Father? It seems that doing so would undermine his message to his disciples by planting doubt in them as to the awesomeness of the Father.

    But then I learned something, historically speaking, that completely changed what this means. In the day, Rabbis would frequently make a single quote of a well-known piece of scripture to convey the meaning of the whole passage to his students. If they were as learned as they likely were, having studied under him and/or simply by nature of being Jewish, the students would gather the meaning of the entire passage from a single phrase.

    That’s exactly what Jesus was doing here. He wasn’t actually crying out to God the Father, but crying out to his disciples all of Psalm 22. It was his way of telling them that he was experiencing something worth praising God for. He wasn’t saying God has forsaken him, but that God the Father is faithful and worthy to be praised EVEN in this moment.

    His disciples would have known Psalm 22 from memory. They would have heard this cry and not heard despair, as we tend to presume today, but heard a call to courage and to hope. It was his way of telling his followers what it says later in Psalm 22:

    All the ends of the earth
    will remember and turn to the LORD,
    and all the families of the nations
    will bow down before him,
    for dominion belongs to the LORD
    and he rules over the nations.

    Even in his pain and suffering, Jesus knew the bigger picture. There is a lesson in that for us, of course. When we are “down and out”, praise God! That’s what Psalm 22 is about. That is what Jesus was telling his disciples on the cross.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ryan. I understand the doubts you mentioned in your first paragraph; most Christians have wondered about that, I think. I must take issue with this, however:

    “He wasn’t actually crying out to God the Father…”

    God’s elect are not saved because Jesus was beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross. We’re saved because in all of these things, Christ was absorbing the full wrath of the Father on the behalf of those who would trust in Him for their salvation. I think Jesus *was* crying out to the Father in despair, enduring His furious wrath, and experiencing the essence of Hell; that is, complete absence of the love of the Father. He was forsaken by the Father, on our behalf, and crying out because of it.

    And wouldn’t this idea of yours (by implication) call into question much of what we know about God and Jesus?

    “But on the other, why would Jesus “call out” God for something Jesus was expecting?”

    By this logic, why did God ever do anything, especially create human beings if He knew about the fall beforehand?

    I appreciate your knowledge and don’t doubt the bits about rabbis, but I fail to see the logic behind an argument that Christ was not crying out to the Father in despair, and see this scripture as important in allowing us to attempt to comprehend the sacrifice of the Son.

  3. I’m not suggesting that Jesus was not “forsaken” by God the Father, nor that he didn’t experience the separation meant for us. Rather, the REASON he spoke these words was quite different from the reason we typically assume. In fact, in Orthodox Christianity, the idea was Jesus spoke these to fulfill the prophetic words of David in Psalm 22. It becomes almost paradoxical: David wrote the Psalm prophetically, but Jesus fulfilled them intentionally. So, which came first? But both were part of God’s great plan. The words of David would henceforth be encompassed the declaration made by Jesus. Jesus could have cried out ANYTHING in despair. “Help me, Father!” or just “Why?” But he chose those words of David because of the inherent meaning held behind them…not just the declaration of the first line of the Psalm.

    Once I learned about this, and how this followed rabbinical practice, it all made so much more sense and brought even more power to the words he spoke, not less. It shows his love and concern for us even at the lowest moment of his life was preeminent.

    As a side, we actually don’t see Jesus praying out loud in scripture much at all. Almost every instance of Jesus praying in scripture, aside from the time he actually teaches his disciples to pray, was done privately. In fact, it was Jesus who suggested prayer should be done in a closet. There are a few places where scripture indicates Jesus MAY have prayed in front of others, but those same places in scripture can be read otherwise as well.

  4. The first two that come to mind are “let this cup pass” and “they know not what they do” (each directed toward the Father).

  5. Nice discussion! These words from Jesus on the Cross have been and continue to be difficult for readers, both ancient and current, to fully understand, for the reasons you both articulate (and more)! Interestingly enough, in the Book of Mark, which is all about being on a fast track toward passion week and Jesus’ crucifixion, these are the *only* words from Jesus on the Cross. Neither Luke or John include this call/cry/prayer/quote. Most contemporary scholars/commentators think that this is not simply the crying out of one who is experiencing complete and total abandonment, but the prayer of an actual sufferer who is also genuinely righteous. As Jesus is quoting the 1st line of Psalm 22, (which does “fit” his predicament completely), he really does have the entirety of the psalm in mind, which does speak of the sufferer’s assurance of a persisting divine protection, and his own eventual vindication. As we interpret the event & prayer in this manner, however, we should not miss a key factor in this drama of suffering and death. For Mark especially (again, recording only this cry), this is a graphic picture of a deeply-held belief (one shared by Christ-followers today!): At his crucifixion, Jesus has thrown himself into humanity’s complete “lostness,” where all of the earthly helps and aids have left him/them wanting…still incredibly needy. But – Jesus is saying, “I will not let God go, nor will I let go of God.” Somehow, this cry seems to explore two ends of a continuum: doubt/questioning (Why?) ……………….. faith/confidence (My God; words of dominion & rule). Another beautiful and powerful paradox from the fully divine, fully human Son of God & Son of Man!

  6. Beautiful Dave. Thank you.

    • In addition to that single line in Mark, there is the similar quote in, I believe it is, Luke. There, Jesus says just before dying, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” This is a direct reference to another of David’s Psalms: Psalm 31. Which means we can gain further insight into the heart of Jesus in this final moment by reading that complete Psalm!

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