The Haunting Question from the Cross

By Wayne Jackson

During the six hours in which he hung upon the cross, the Lord Jesus uttered seven sayings. Surely the most perplexing of these was his plaintive question, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

As one might suspect, the critics appeal to this passage in an attempt to suggest that it highlights a moment of weakness in the Son of God. Supposedly, his faith “cracked,” and he gave way to the pressure. Such a view is totally at variance with the facts and reveals the desperation of those whose personal faith is ruptured.

The passage is not without its difficulties, however, and a careful consideration of this intriguing text is entirely appropriate.

Fulfilled Prophecy

First, it should be noted that when Christ called out to God in this manner, it is obvious that he was conscious of the fact that he was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. Consider another of the Lord’s sayings while on the cross: “After this Jesus, knowing that all things are now finished, that the scriptures might be accomplished, said, I thirst” (John 19:28). The integrity of Old Testament prophecy must be preserved. Later the Savior would declare, “All things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44).

Here is the point: the exclamation, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” is taken from Psalms 22:1. We believe Psalm 22 is totally and exclusively a Messianic psalm. The case for such could be made from several vantage points:

(1) The New Testament quotes from it and gives it that application. In addition to the citation of Matthew 27:46 by the Savior himself, there is the testimony of the apostle John. That inspired writer, in discussing how the Roman soldiers cast lots for the seamless tunic of Jesus, declared, “They said therefore one to another, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be.” The apostle adds that this was done in order “that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, they parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots” (John 19:24; cf. Luke 23:34). The quotation is taken from Psalm 22:18.

Moreover, the writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 22:22—“I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the congregation will I sing thy praise”—and makes the application to Christ (cf. Hebrews 2:12).

(2) A number of ancient Hebrew rabbis conceded that the psalm referred to the Messiah.

(3) The early Christian writers were virtually of one voice in asserting that this psalm was fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.

Psalm 22 divides itself into five sections which may be described as follows:

  1. God’s rejection of Christ (vv. 1-5) – In this section, the Messiah asserts that in some sense (which we will discuss later) he has been rejected by God; nevertheless, he still trusts the Father, and is confident that his faith will be vindicated.
  2. Man’s rejection of the Messiah (vv. 6-13) – Here, the Lord describes the contemptible treatment which he will receive at the hands of rebellious men. He is despised and treated with great reproach.
  3. The agony of Calvary (vv. 14-18) – In this section the physical suffering of the Lord, and several events connected with his death are carefully set forth, e.g., at the piercing of his hands and feet and the gambling for his garments.
  4. A prayer for deliverance (vv. 19-21) – Here the Savior prays that God will sustain him and deliver him from his enemies.
  5. Christ’s thanksgiving for his deliverance and his confidence in the triumph of God’s kingdom (vv. 22-31) – In this final section, the Messiah praises Jehovah for his deliverance (implied is his resurrection from the dead), and he rejoices in the universal scope of the kingdom of heaven, a prophecy fulfilled with the establishment of the New Testament church.

We have no doubt, therefore, in view of our Lord’s utterance, “My God, my God,” that as he hung upon the cross he was reflecting upon the glorious truths of Psalm 22.

A Divine Acknowledgment

We do not believe, as some critics have alleged, that Christ, in this exclamation, reproached his heavenly Father.

First, that is contrary to the spirit of Psalm 22, where confidence in Jehovah is repeatedly affirmed, as, for instance, verse 10b: “Thou art my God since my mother bare me.”

Second, such a view is antagonistic to the language of this very utterance. Though the Son of Man may have been agonizingly identifying with us in his suffering, he nevertheless confesses that the Father is his God—it is, “My God, my God.”

There is, as an interesting sidelight here, a point to be made regarding the divine nature of our Lord. Whenever Jesus referred to his personal relationship to God, he always employed a singular number pronoun, thus demonstrating the uniqueness of his relationship in contrast to that of others.

For example, when the Jewish leaders criticized Christ for commanding the healed cripple to “arise, take up thy bed, and walk,” because it was the Sabbath day, Jesus appealed to his relationship with the Father. He declared, “My Father worketh even until now, and I work.” The Jews were enraged because the Lord “called God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (cf. John 5:17-18). They caught the significance of that singular pronoun, and sought to kill him. They knew he was claiming a nature-identity with God!

Similarly, note how carefully the Lord Jesus chose his words when, in his conversation with Mary (as she clung to him following his resurrection), he said, “[G]o unto my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God” (John 20:17). A clear distinction is being drawn between Christ’s relationship to God and that which other human beings sustain to him. And so, when the Lord cries, “My God, my God,” he continues to assert his special role as the divine Son of God.

The Forsaken Christ

Was Jesus forsaken by the Father as he hung suspended upon the cross? Yes, in some sense, most assuredly he was. That is what the Savior’s question implies. Certainly no one will suggest that Christ said what he did, knowing such was not true. But just what is the meaning of the expression?

Perhaps the solution lies in recognizing an idiom (expression of speech) that was common to the Hebrew language. The respected scholar James Macknight has noted that “active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do” (1954, 29). Consider the following examples:

(1) The book of Ezekiel quotes the Lord as saying, “I gave them also statutes that were not good” (20:25). Surely the prophet is not suggesting that the holy God actually gave bad laws. No, rather, he is really saying that when stubborn Israel determined that they would not submit to Heaven’s law, Jehovah permitted them to follow the wicked statutes of their pagan neighbors!

(2) Jeremiah addressed the Creator thusly: “Lord God, surely thou hast greatly deceived this people” (Jeremiah 4:10). Since deceitfulness is a form of lying, and as God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), it is clear that this passage cannot mean that the Lord actually deceived his people. What Jeremiah is saying is this: the Lord will allow the rebellious to follow their own path of self-deceit, and to eat the bitter fruit thereof.

(3) In the New Testament, Paul contends that when men disdain a love for the truth, God will “send them a working of error, that they should believe a lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:11). It is not that Jehovah actually and actively sends error—never; rather, he allows men to believe error when they are so rude as to reject his truth. They will give an account, though.

With this method of expression in view, let us take a fresh look at Matthew 27:46. In what way did God “forsake” his Son? Perhaps this: he allowed him to die, to drink the full measure of suffering upon the cross, in order that humanity might have a sacrificial offering for sin. Could the Father have intervened and rescued Christ from the cross? Surely so; but then all of mankind would have been forever lost. Because of his love for us, therefore, he abandoned his Son to the fate of Calvary. Of course, as we have noted already, that abandonment was temporary, and the heartache of the cross was soon turned into the victory of the resurrection!

The Haunting Question

The most difficult feature of this entire matter, however, is the fact that the Lord’s utterance was in the form of a question? “Why?” the Savior asked. Did he not know why he was suffering upon the cross? Certainly so. It was Christ himself who said, “[T]he Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). That brings us back to that mysterious “Why?” Why did our Lord ask, “Why?”

I must honestly say that I do not have an absolute answer. I believe there is more in that anguished cry than any mortal person can hope to fathom. When we have analyzed it a dozen different ways, we will come away feeling empty. Nevertheless, I am going to venture a speculation, recognizing that I must do so with great caution.

While it is a very precious truth that Jesus Christ, as he lived upon this earth, was deity in the flesh, i.e., he shared the very nature of God, it is also true that in becoming a human being he voluntarily limited himself in the exercise of his divine prerogatives.

Paul addresses this matter in Philippians 2:5ff. In becoming man, Jesus emptied himself of the independent use of his heavenly powers. A part of this involved the fact that on occasion the Son of God limited his own knowledge with reference to certain things. By this we mean that, in his identification with us as a brother (cf. Hebrews 2:12), he chose not to know certain matters. Let me illustrate this point from the Scriptures:

At times Jesus would penetrate the thoughts of men; he would read their minds (cf. Matthew 12:25); and yet, on other occasions, he chose not to know their thoughts, hence, “marveled” at their faith (Matthew 8:10), or their lack of it (Mark 6:6). He did not go about constantly exercising miraculous knowledge.

When the Lord approached Jerusalem near the end of his ministry, he saw a fig tree afar off, and he came, “if haply he might find anything thereon” (Mark 11:13). He obviously did not know, until he approached the tree, that it was barren of fruit.

Jesus even chose not to know the exact time of his second coming (cf. Matthew 24:36).

I said all of that to suggest this: since the Lord knows that we frequently suffer without fully comprehending exactly why, is it not possible that in his identification with us as our merciful and faithful high priest (cf. Hebrews 2:17, 18), he also might have chosen to briefly veil his heavenly vision and thereby share with us in the mystery of human anguish? Don’t we frequently suffer and wonder, “Why?” Could this be but another example of his gracious love?

In our own agony, we might say, “Though I am in pain and don’t understand why, I know that the Savior also passed through such an ordeal; therefore, he understands my plight.”

What comfort might be drawn from that. Think about it.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Macknight, James. 1954. Apostolical Epistles. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.