Today is Good Friday, the day on which we commemorate the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. On this day, according to Mark 15:1-47, in addition to being abandoned by his disciples, Jesus was condemned by Pilate, scourged and crucified by soldiers, and then mocked by Jerusalem’s religious establishment.
Was he also forsaken by God?
The only word Jesus uttered from the cross, according to Mark, seems to give an affirmative answer:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 34)
To properly interpret Christ’s forsakenness, we must set his words in their proper context. As an observant Jew, Jesus was intimately familiar with the Psalter. He used it, as all observant Jews used and continue to use it, as the prayer book by means of which he interpreted all his experiences, whether good or bad.
In this case, Jesus’ cry of dereliction is the opening line of Psalm 22. In that psalm, David plaintively asked God why he did not answer his persistent, agonized prayers. David went on to contrast God’s silence with the way he had treated Israel in the past and with the way he had treated David himself. But toward the end of the psalm, David offers a word of hope:
For [God] has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help (verse 24).
There are at least two reasons to think Jesus had the entirety of this psalm in mind during his crucifixion, even though he only quoted its first line.
For one thing, he quoted its first line. This in and of itself establishes the point that Jesus was praying Psalm 22 on the cross.
Second, the setting of the psalm almost exactly parallels Jesus’ condition on the cross. Compare these verses:
And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get (Mark 15:24).
They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing (Psalms 22:18).
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” (Mark 15:29-30)
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
“He trusts in the Lord;
let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him” (Psalms 22:7-8).
On two occasion, someone from the crowd witnessing the crucifixion offers Jesus something to drink (Mark 15:23, 36). Psalm 22:15 speaks to this thirst: “my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” Crucifixion involved nailing the wrists and ankles of the victim to the cross. Psalm 22:16 says, “they have pierced my hands and my feet.”
These points, in my mind, establish that Jesus intentionally prayed Psalm 22 on the cross because it so exactly paralleled his situation. But if that is the case, then his cry of dereliction must be interpreted in light of that psalm as a whole. And the psalm – as noted above – ends on a note of hope.
Jesus’ cry of dereliction, then, is not the cry of the damned, who are eternally forsaken by God because of their lack of repentance. Rather, it is the cry of the redeemed who, finding themselves in the grip of evildoers, hope for their eventual rescue by God, whether in this life or the life to come. It is this hope that sustained Jesus on the cross.
Hebrews 12:2 gets the last word: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”