Why Jesus Cried "My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me"
In the most critical moment of the entire Bible, the moment when Jesus dies on the cross, he shouts from the cross a phrase that can be puzzling to those of us reading the account so many centuries later: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
The phrase is found in both Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. The English Standard Version of the Bible relates it like this: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’
Forsake means to turn away from or withdraw from. Why would God do that to his own son? As it is something that we would not do to our own children, it is odd that the source of all love would turn away from his own son, yet this is exactly what has happened in this moment. It was necessary for the fullness of God’s love for humanity to be realized and it tells us how much God values us.
Verse Context in Psalm 22
When Jesus cries out this phrase, it is a reference to Psalm 22. This Psalm is held to be a messianic psalm and one where the author (King David) appears to be sharing in some vision of what will happen to the Lord’s Messiah. Jesus only shares the first verse of the Psalm, but because of the scriptural literacy of Jesus’ day, most people would have assumed he was referring to the entire Psalm. We can examine it and find tie-ins to the crucifixion narrative.
In Psalm 22:6-8, it says that David’s enemies are mocking him, specifically because he trusts in the Lord that the Lord would rescue him. Matthew 27:35-44 and Mark 15:29-32 both say that the people mocking Jesus claimed that if God loved him so much, then God should save him in that moment.
Psalm 22:18 states that the clothing of the author was divided up and the oppressors were “casting lots” (a game of chance) for the possession of it. Matthew 27:35 tells us that Jesus’ garments were divided up and the new owners were decided by casting lots. How amazing is it that across the approximately 1,000 years difference between King David’s vision—recorded in Psalm 22—and the recorded actions of the death of Jesus, should be so similar?
But wait, there’s more. Psalm 22, though a Messianic Psalm, is also classified as a lament (another category of Psalm). Laments are notable in that not only do they describe an unbearable situation in which the author finds himself, they also declare a universal dependence upon the Lord and gratitude is offered for the grace of God. When Jesus cried out the first verse of this Psalm, he was also calling out his dependence upon God and his gratitude for the benevolence of God (Psalm 22:3-5, 9-11, 19-31). He recognized the desperation of humanity that suddenly hung upon his shoulders and even in that agonizing moment, his voice called out to show that only God can deliver us.
Verse Context in Matthew and Mark
Matthew and Mark share the same verse in the same way (almost word-for-word). Yet they are doing it with different goals. Matthew stresses throughout his writings that Jesus is the Messiah that was predicted in the Old Testament. This is highlighted by his emphasis on Jesus’ roles of teacher and king. Keeping that in mind, Matthew would have likely connected in his mind the author of Psalm 22 (King David) to Jesus and thereby making Jesus the one who was anointed to complete the work, save his people, and rule in eternity.
Mark had a different focus. While he did understand Jesus as the Son of God, he typically made sure that people understood his humanity as being a part of the unique personhood of Jesus. Jesus is not half human and half God. The human part was as important as the God part. For him Jesus was fully God and fully human, not some less powerful demigod as the Romans or Greeks would have understood. He has the attributes of God and humanity fully expressed and fully powered.
Jesus’ cry of the Psalm would have been of a suffering Savior facing death for the most noble cause. This was different than most people’s notion of God. For them, God was unkillable. Here, God has become truly vulnerable for the sake of his creation and now the moment of death arises.
The verse in question arises at a very specific point in the story of Jesus’ death. They are his very last words. Prior to this, Jesus was suffering not only the physical pain of his torture and the implementation of the crucifixion, but he was suffering the psychological pain of ridicule by those whom he was saving by his actions. Both Matthew and Mark share that after he gives his life, the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom and the Roman Centurion watching Jesus die exclaimed that he was surely “the Son of God.”
In the Temple of Jerusalem, the curtain that the Bible speaks of is the one that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. The Holy of Holies was the place where the Ark of the Covenant had been placed (though it had been lost by this point) and it was the physical location where God would meet with the representative of his people (High Priest). If we interpret the actions leading up to this moment, it leads us to the conclusion that the humiliation, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ removed the barriers between us and God.
The theological term for this is “justification.” There was no longer a need for a blood sacrifice every year for sin—Jesus’ sacrifice dealt with sin once and for all. No longer do we need a High Priest to speak on our behalf, Jesus has assumed this role (Hebrews 7: 22-28). The relationship that we were created to have with God is now possible again.
Why Does Jesus Cry "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me"?
Ultimately, it comes down to an exchange or substitution. We were given the covenant ideas and language to be able to understand in some way the need for God to demand justice for the offense of human sin. We despised the goodness of God when Eve took of the forbidden fruit and because of the first offense, we have all lived under its curse. It is an imperfection in the good thing that God created us to be.
The language of sacrifice allows us to begin to comprehend our need and the remedy for that imperfection: a sacrifice of blood. However, the question does present itself, how effective is a sacrifice that has to be renewed continuously? Is there some way to pay the price forever? God had this very thing in mind from the beginning. The early sacrifices were in place to help us to understand what Jesus would do when he came to walk among us.
You see, sacrifices had to be perfect animals. Humans are not perfect from birth. He would be able to satisfy the demand for a perfect sacrifice because he was perfect from before conception. Only Jesus could pay our price, only Jesus could suffer in our place.
When Jesus hangs on the cross, despised, suffering, and dying, he has upon himself the entirety of all sin. God cannot look upon sin, so he turns his back and withdraws his favor. The burden is now fully upon his Son and the reality of God’s wrath for sin reveals itself in full. Here is where Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In this moment there is the despair of death, but in the words of the Psalm that he references, there is also hope for deliverance. Jesus still has trust in the God of the Universe. He has submitted to God’s will to that very last moment. There is a terrible beauty in this death in that it shows us that God loves us by taking our place on the cross and dying in our stead.
What Do Other Translations Say?
How much does translation impact the interpretation of this verse? Has anything been lost over the generations? Let’s take a look at a few different English translations:
ESV: 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?”
Holman Christian Standard Bible: About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
KJV: And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
The Message: From noon to three, the whole earth was dark. Around midafternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
NIV: About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
As you can see in the different English language translations, this passage has been translated with a great deal of confidence in its meaning for a long period of time (the King James version is from the year 1611).
What Do Jesus' Words Mean for Us?
Jesus’ last words are not a pleasant phrase; they are full of despair. It was misunderstood by those close by when he said it and today it can be difficult to understand without placing it into its appropriate context of Psalm 22. You cannot leave it by itself. Jesus was calling us to the full Psalm just as he knew that his followers would understand when they figured out what he had said. Yes, that was a moment of ultimate pain and loss as only the burden of sin could cause.
But also, there was still hope in the promise of God’s deliverance and that there would be resurrection on the other side of death. Psalm 22 shows us Jesus’ utter dependence upon God, even when he could not feel anything but the weight of the sin of the world. We are invited to do the same in our lives. To depend on God, trust in his love, and believe that eternal life is offered to us through the sacrifice of Jesus his son.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/mbolina
Larry White is the Pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Marathon, FL and is also an Adjunct Professor at Florida Keys Community College teaching courses in World Religions and New Testament.