45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 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?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”
When the late Richard John Neuhaus pastored in Brooklyn, a 12-year-old inner city kid named Michael commented on Christ’s death on the cross by saying, “I don’t say it wasn’t real bad, but he did what he wanted to do, didn’t he?”
That is a very interesting thing to say, and no doubt the young man who said it did not mean anything particularly sinister by it. However, it could almost be read to mean that while the horrors of the cross were indeed horrific, they were at least lessoned a bit by the fact that Jesus willingly entered into them, that Jesus was presumably still in control, and that Jesus knew that in the end He would emerge victorious in the resurrection. Again, it is very unlikely that Michael was trying to lessen the very real agonies of the cross, but it is a bit of a qualification nonetheless that carries with it some potentially unhelpful notions.
I do not deny that there is a kind of logic to that statement. I would simply point out that it is a logic bound to the finitude of our own understandings. I would further point out that the reality of what was happening on the cross was a deeper reality on a higher plain of understanding than any of us can reach this side of heaven. Thankfully, the scriptures have revealed much about what was happening there, but it is nonetheless the case that human reasoning always stumbles over the cross.
In particular, the fourth word from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is problematic for our own minds. Stanley Hauerwas, speaking of the fourth word, wrote this:
Our temptation is to try to explain, to protect Jesus from this abject cry of abandonment…We seek to explain these words of dereliction, to save and protect God from making a fool out of being God, but our attempts to protect God reveal how frightening the God of Jesus Christ is. That God rightly frightens us.
That is well, if provocatively, said. As a result of this “embarrassment,” many people have tried to explain away the fourth word from the cross. For instance, Craig Blomberg mentions “the docetic or Gnostic view that Jesus’ divine nature actually departed at this time because God could in no way suffer (found as early as mid-second century in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter).” This type of aberrant theology is clearly assumption-driven instead of text-driven.
A.T. Robertson, speaking of the darkness that verse 45 tells us fell upon the land at the crucifixion, wrote, “One need not be disturbed if nature showed its sympathy with the tragedy of the dying of the Creator on the Cross (Rom. 8:22), groaning and travailing until now.” Indeed. And neither does one need to be disturbed at the fourth word from the cross for its refusal to fit nicely into our theological categories. We should be disturbed about what the fourth word reveals concerning our own sinfulness, but we should see the first word as an opportunity for us to grow deeper in our understanding of the nature of the Father and the Son and the reality of what was happening on the cross. We will do this by consider three grammatical components of the fourth word and what they mean for us.
A proper noun that reveals a suffering, abiding hope.
A proper noun is repeated at the beginning of the fourth word, and it is a noun with great significance.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The fact that Jesus refers to His Father as “God” instead of “Father” in the fourth word is striking for two reasons. First, it is striking that He says “God” instead of “Father” in the fourth word when, in the first word, He said, “Father forgive them…” Does this shift in how Jesus addresses the Father suggest the struggle and agony of the cross? Perhaps it does.
On the other hand, the second striking aspect of this terminology is that it is a direct quotation of scripture, specifically Psalm 22. This is significant. For one thing, Jesus’ quoting of this psalm may suggest that the cry of dereliction is actually a cry of victory, for the psalm goes on to proclaim precisely that. Consider the entirety of Psalm 22.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises. 4 In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 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 on 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. 12 Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. 13 Roaring lions that tear 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 within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. 17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. 18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment. 19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. 20 Deliver me 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. 22 I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly 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! 24 For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows. 26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him—may your hearts live forever! 27 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, 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, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!
Any reading of this text will have to conclude that it begins with a cry of dereliction but ends with hope and trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God. Was Jesus, in quoting the first words of this psalm, speaking of the whole? Was He seeking to commend the entirety of the psalm to the watching crowds (then and now) in an effort to say that God had indeed not abandoned Him.
That is an attractive thought. First of all, it is indeed very important that Jesus, in quoting these specific words, is quoting from a psalm of ultimate victory. Of all the psalms He could have quoted, He quoted Psalm 22. Second, if this is what Jesus is doing, it removes the awkwardness of having the second Person of the Trinity asking the first Person of the Trinity why He had forsaken Him for, in this way of thinking, the words Jesus said were really a nod to a much larger statement, namely, the remainder of Psalm 22.
Even so, while acknowledging that this may be what is happening in the fourth word from the cross, there are reasons to be cautious. For one thing, Jesus could have just easily quoted a portion of the psalm that spoke of victory, but He did not. It is true that He specifically quoted from Psalm 22, but it also true that He specifically quoted the first verse: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
William Barclay has offered another caution against reading the fourth word as a somewhat veiled suggestion of victory.
That is an attractive suggestion; but on a cross a man does not repeat poetry to himself, even the poetry of a psalm; and besides that, the whole atmosphere of the darkened world is the atmosphere of unrelieved tragedy.
Indeed, the physical manifestation of darkness coupled with the cry of dereliction does suggest agony at that point, not victory. Regardless of how we choose to understand Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22, it should not be employed as a way to minimize the agony and horror of the moment.
It is telling that this word is so very enigmatic, so very difficult to understand, for we are specifically told that the gathered crowd misunderstood it as well.
47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”
Craig Keener points out that watching, misunderstanding crowd “knew that rabbis in distress sometimes looked to Elijah for help (as in b. ‘Aboda Zara 17b; p. Ketubot 12:3, 6).” That is interesting, but, for our purposes, it is also interesting to note that the fourth word from the cross remains the most difficult to understand. To this day, we struggle to understand this word.
But something else needs to be seen in these opening words of the fourth words. We see the proper noun “God” and all that it potentially means in this moment, but we also see the pronoun preceding it, “My.”
“My God, my God…”
It is a suffering hope, but it remains an abiding hope! Jesus speaks of God as “My God.” Whatever distance He might feel in the moment, He knows that He still stands in relationship with the Father.
A verb that reveals a separating horror.
The most unsettling word of the fourth word, however, is “forsaken.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
To begin to understand what is happening here, we must come to terms with two very uncomfortable truths about what was happening on the cross and our own sin. The first of these truths is that on the cross Christ became our sin. That is a most unpleasant thought, to be sure, for all of us know at least something of the ugliness of our own sins and all of us know at least something of the pervasiveness of sin in the world at large. We know also the Bible’s clear proclamation that “all have sinned.” Thus, in some sense, Christ becomes the sin of the world on the cross. Paul said precisely this in 2 Corinthians 5.
21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The clear implications are unnerving but also awe-inspiring. On the cross, Christ becomes the sin of the world. He took onto Himself every sinful act, every sinful word, and every sinful thought that humanity had or would commit, speak, or think. Every act of greed, every act of lust, every act of violence, every profane word, every profane thought, every act of child abuse, every act of spousal abuse, every act of theft, every punch ever thrown in anger, every word ever used like a dagger, every act of betrayal, every act of adultery, every act of fornication, every lie ever told, every crude joke every told, every act of self-righteousness, every act of hypocrisy, every act born out of self-serving ego: Christ took all of this upon Himself on the cross!
The second uncomfortable truth arises naturally from the first: that in becoming our sin Christ became cursed. He was cursed in the moment of receiving our sin because God will not abide sin. So in taking our sin, Christ took the curse that came with it. Thus, in Galatians 3 we read:
13 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”
Let us be very clear: whatever is meant by the verb “forsaken” in, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” it is somehow bound up with the fact that at that moment Christ Himself took human sinfulness upon Himself. Traditionally, this had lead Christians to conclude that the fourth word from the cross coupled with the darkness that fell upon the land at this point means that God the Father “turned His back” on God the Son.
Perhaps that can be said if it is properly defined and nuanced, but the simplistic way that people often say that is profoundly problematic and it is doubtful that this is a helpful way of speaking of it. I say this for a few reasons.
First, Jesus quotes from Psalm 22, a chapter that includes these words:
24 For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
Most Protestant Christians today tend to speak of the Father “turning His back” or “turning His face away” at this point. This, then, is seen to be the explanation of the verb “forsaken.” Yet it must be recognized that the psalm Jesus quotes explicitly says that God “has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” Perhaps it could be argued that verse 24 is speaking of the resurrection of Jesus and the fact that God did not forsake Him indefinitely. Perhaps, but the psalm’s rejection of the idea of God turning His face away should at least give us pause.
Furthermore, we should be careful that we do not define “forsaken” in such a way that it suggests a reality that would challenge God’s omnipresence. However we understand “forsaken,” we must remember that God is indeed everywhere. In Psalm 139:8, the psalmist writes, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” If by “God turned His back” we mean that the Father somehow spatially separated Himself from the Son, we should think long and hard about what such an idea would truly mean concerning the immutable character of God.
What is more, we must remember that the Father sent the Son for precisely this moment and that, in a very real sense, this moment on the cross is the moment in which the Son fulfills His difficult calling. In so doing, He stands in the very center of the Father’s will at this moment particularly. Frank Stagg put it nicely when he wrote:
God did not turn his back on Jesus, as some theology has it. God was never nearer than at Golgotha as Jesus gave himself in full obedience to the Father’s will…God was there! “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
I do not say this in an effort to explain the fourth word or the difficult verb “forsaken.” I am merely saying that we should be careful in reaching our conclusions.
But what of that verb? What does it mean? I think that two further truths will be helpful here.
The first is that Christ had two natures, divine and human, in one person. There are times when it seems that Jesus speaks out of His human nature, speaks, that is, as a man. Perhaps in the agony of this moment this is what we are seeing: Jesus the man speaking. If this is the case, then He is crying the cry of all suffering human beings who wonder, in their moments of greatest agony, where God is. Seen in this light, the cry of dereliction is a powerful example of substitution, of Christ offering our cry for us.
And the second truth is bound up with those two uncomfortable truths mentioned earlier. While we certainly must be careful with our language of God “turning His back” or “turning His face away,” it is undeniable that sin does indeed bring a rupture or a fissure in our relationship with God. Sin is an agent of division between us and God. It does create a chasm, a gulf between us in terms of our relationship.
Surely this horrifying moment when Jesus became our sin and became our curse carried with it a kind of rupture in the perfectly harmonious relationship between the Father and the Son. I would propose that our finite minds cannot begin to grasp much less explain this, but it seems clear enough that something like this happened. Thus, the cry of dereliction is the cry of agony and horror in the moment when Christ opened Himself to receive our curse-bringing sin onto Himself.
A pronoun that reveals forgiveness and life eternal.
These are difficult and painful things to ponder, for we cannot ponder them dispassionately or theoretically. We are speaking, after all, of our sin and of our Savior, Jesus. As a result, this “forsakenness” cuts us to the quick. Yet the fourth word ends with a word that gives us hope. I am speaking of the pronoun “me.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Here we approach a truth that is as sublime as it is flabbergasting. The sin, the curse, the forsakenness were all willingly embraced by Christ Jesus. That sin, that curse, that forsakenness was by all rights and accounts my sin, my curse, and my forsakenness. It certainly was not naturally His! It was mine! My sin! My curse! My forsakenness!
Yet Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And, in truth, we cry out the same! “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Him?! He has done no wrong! The sin is not His! The curse is not His! The forsakenness is not His! It is mine, mine, mine! I committed the sin! I committed the crime! The curse should fall upon me! My God, my God, why have you forsaken Him?!”
To which the word of God comes to us in the beautiful truth of the gospel: “Because, my child, this is why I sent Him and this is why He came. He came to bear your sin, your curse, your forsakenness. And He came to do this because you are loved by the Father and the Son and the Spirit. You are loved! And now you are forgiven! You are forgiven because He was forsaken. He took the curse. You get the grace. This is why He came.”
Our hearts and minds reel at such a display of love!
I earlier quoted Stanley Hauerwas’ observation that there is something in us that is embarrassed by the fourth word from the cross. Let me share the rest of his thought.
Our temptation is to try to explain, to protect Jesus from this abject cry of abandonment…We seek to explain these words of dereliction, to save and protect God from making a fool out of being God, but our attempts to protect God reveal how frightening the God of Jesus Christ is. That God rightly frightens us. Yet God is most revealed when he seems to us the most hidden: “Christ’s moment of most absolute particularity – the absolute dereliction of the cross – is the moment in which the glory of God, his power to be where and when he will be, is displayed before the eyes of the world” ([David Bentley] Hart)…Hear these words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and know that the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the abandonment that our sin produces, so that we may live confident that the world has been redeemed by this cross.
Yes! Yes! God has taken our place! Richard John Neuhaus has aptly expressed what this means for us.
God is present in his apparent absence…God is present in the forsaken so that nobody – nobody ever, nobody anywhere at any time under any circumstance – is forsaken.
Do you see? The fourth word from the cross is the very heart of the gospel: Jesus was cursed in our stead. Jesus paid the price for my sin and your sin and the sins of the whole world. Jesus took the suffering and gave us instead eternal life.
The cry of dereliction is really the cry of salvation. It is the cry of our only hope. And it is a beautiful hope indeed.
Have you come to the Son who died in your place?
If not, would you come now? He is waiting with open arms.
 Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), p.124.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p.240-241.
 Craig Blomberg, Matthew. The New American Commentary. New Testament, Vol. 22 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.419.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. II (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.234.
 William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew. Vol.2. The Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1967), p.406-407.
 Craig S. Keener, Matthew. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Vol.1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p.390.
 Frank Stagg, “Matthew.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Gen.Ed., Clifton J. Allen. Vol.8 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.246.
 Stanley Hauerwas, p.240-241.
 Richard John Neuhaus, p.142.