"My God, My God
Why Have You Forsaken Me?"
In Matthew 27:46, page 1555, Jesus cried out: "ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?" that is, "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?" In our study today, we shall look at the Old Testament context of this quotation. We will see that God the Son was never divided in essence from the God the Father nor from God the Holy Spirit. God the Father never cut off God the Son. Let us start with a review of Psalm 22:1, page 874.
Psalm 22:1, Page 874
"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning."
In Psalm 22:1, page 874, David wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The exact words recorded in the text make a difference and convey special meaning. As you read through the Psalm, the crucifixion of the Messiah emerges prophetically from the text. In Psalm 22, David, writing hundreds of years before the virgin birth of Christ, vividly described the sufferings of Christ Jesus hanging on the cross, with His hands and feet pierced. Therefore, many people refer to this Psalm as a Messianic Psalm, because it depicts the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Savior of the world. David wrote about Messiah being forsaken by His God, and Jesus uttered the same words about being forsaken by God as He hung on the cross.
Forsaken by God
Therefore, we may ask the question: "In what sense was Messiah forsaken by His God?" The short answer to that question appears right in Psalm 22:1, page 874. Forsaken in this case means that God the Father forsook Jesus in that God the Father did not deliver His only Son from suffering and death. When Jesus talked about His deliverance being far from His groanings in Psalm 22:1, page 874, He meant that His groans would not result in deliverance from the suffering of the cross and ultimately death. The answer to that question will have strong implications as we try to understand what Christ meant when He quoted this same verse on the cross, expressing that, in some sense, God had forsaken Him. So, let us start with a closer examination of Psalm 22:1, page 874.
In Psalm 22:1, page 874, David wrote about Messiah, because Jesus quoted this verse in Matthew 27:46, page 1555. Therefore, I will treat the Psalm as primarily Messianic in this discussion. Messiah questioned: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" The Hebrew term "forsaken" used in Psalm 22:1, page 874, means to leave, abandon, depart, leave behind, leave over, or let go. The exact meaning of the term depends upon the context. In Psalm 22:1, page 874, we see a type of Hebrew parallelism. Messiah lamented in the same verse: "Far from My deliverance are the words of my groaning." If we take the two phrases in Psalm 22:1, page 874, as roughly parallel, then Messiah likened "My God" to His "deliverance," and "forsaken Me" to "the words of My groaning." Messiah meant then that God had not delivered Messiah from His groaning, and particularly that His "words" of groaning did not produce deliverance from His sufferings. Therefore, the term "forsaken" in Psalm 22:1, page 874, means that Messiah was forsaken in the sense that God did not deliver Him from crucifixion and sufferings. I will explain this concept more fully below. David used the same or similar term "forsaken" in several other places.
In Psalm 27:7-14, pages 879-880, David recalled his confidence in God as he faced his enemies. God had delivered David previously, and then David explained how he triumphed over fear. He knew that enemies would again arise against him, but he relied upon God to deliver him. David cried out to God and requested grace and an answer to his prayers. David sought the face of God because his enemies were around him. As David prayed, he spoke in the first person, making specific requests of God: (1) do not to hide your face from me; (2) do not turn me, the servant of God, away in anger; (3) do not abandon me; and (4) do not forsake me. David even lamented that His mother and father had "forsaken" him. He then declared:""But the LORD will take me up." David meant that his physical parents had "forsaken" him in the sense that they could do nothing to deliver him from his enemies. David had transitioned from a child-like trust in his physical parents to a mature trust in God delivering him from his enemies in ways his physical parents could never do. All believers would do well to rely upon God to overcome their enemies. David counted upon God to lift him up. In Psalm 27:12, page 879, David again plead for specific help from God: "do not deliver me" up to the desires of my adversaries. This constant theme of crying for help to be delivered by God from adversaries characterizes David's faith in the LORD to save him. In Psalm 27, page 879, David sought deliverance through God from the aggression of his enemies. David counted upon seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of living (Psalm 27:13, page 875). The term "forsaken" in Psalm 27:10 means the same thing it means in Psalm 22:1: David sought deliverance from his enemies, and prayed that God would not deliver him into the hands of the evil ones intent upon making him suffer. David used the same or similar term "forsaken" in several other places.
In Psalm 119:87, David surveyed the attacks of his enemies, but then declared that he "did not forsake" the precepts of God. David emphasized the relationship between attacks and sufferings in Psalm 119:87. He counted upon God being faithful to him, and delivering him, especially because he steadfastly followed the precepts of God, even while his enemies assailed him.
In Psalm 9:10, page 863, David followed that same theme of trust in God. David there proclaimed that God does not forsake those believers who put their trust in Him.
Similarly, David also observed in Psalm 37:25, page 890, that he had never seen God "forsake" the righteous, or his descendants begging bread. David had observed the righteous over the course of his lifetime, and concluded that God never abandoned the righteous, and always provided food for them.
In Psalm 37:33, page 891, David declared that God "will not leave" the righteous in the hand of the wicked enemy. This use of the term "forsake" indicated that God delivered believers from the grasp of the enemy, as well as keeping believers out of the grasp of the evil ones.
In these examples, David described the activity of God in delivering people from evil and troubles. He also focused upon his trust in God acting as a deliverer in contrast to a forsaker. God delivered him from the wicked plots and schemes of his enemies. I find it particularly interesting that even when David stumbled spiritually, he still expected that God would never forsake him. The wicked aroused indignation through their evil actions, but David trusted the LORD to deliver him. David never expected the LORD to forsake him permanently to his enemies, because he maintained steadfast trust in God for deliverance.
Ultimately, the best guide to the meaning of this term "forsaken" in Psalm 22:1, page 874, must be the immediate context. We can focus further upon the separation between David's prayers for help and the deliverance David sought.
The Distance between
Deliverance and Groaning
As I mentioned above, I will treat Psalm 22 as primarily Messianic. Messiah groaned as He sought for His God to deliver Him, but God did not deliver Messiah. God had a trusting relationship with Messiah. In Psalm 22:1, page 874, the words "far from" played a critical function in helping us understand Messiah's meaning here in Psalm 22:1, page 874. We can examine the use of this basic term in other passages to appreciate Messiah's use of the term in Psalm 22:1, page 874.
In Psalm 119:155, page 982, we see the term "far from" used to describe "salvation as far from the wicked, for they do not seek Your statutes." This sentence structure explained that the spiritual distance observed in the first clause ("salvation is far from the wicked") originated from the second clause ("they do not seek your statutes"). We gain insight in this verse into the spatial spiritual thinking of the Psalmist in describing the great distance between salvation and the wicked. The wicked have not been abandoned by salvation, but rather the Psalmist emphasized the large space between the wicked and salvation. In this case, the failure to seek God's statutes resulted in distance between the wicked and salvation. In a second sense, seeking God's statutes resulted in the the presence of God's salvation. The second clause illumined the cause of the first clause, in a very similar way to Psalm 22:1, page 874.
Proverbs 15:29, page 1023, also illustrates the spatial concept of wickedness. We learn from the proverb that "The Lord is far from wicked, but He hears the prayers of righteous." In this case, the second clause ("He hears the prayers of the righteous") provided a consequence of spiritual spatial distance between the wicked and the LORD Himself. The LORD does not hear them because they are "far away," a consequence of their wickedness.
Joel 3:8, Micah 4:3
The prophets Joel and Micah used the word "distant" to describe geographically removed nations in Joel 3:8, page 1433, and Micah 4:3, page 1456. This use of the term appears purely geographical, and not a matter of spatial spiritual distance.
Similarly, in Psalm 22:11, page 874, David again used the same basic term to urge God not to be "far away" ("תִּרְחַק") from Messiah because trouble is near Him.
In Psalm 22:19, page 875, Messiah again plead that the LORD would not be "not far off," but rather that He would be the help of Messiah, and hasten to Messiah.
These verses describe the concept of the spiritual spatial distance between groanings for deliverance and the help provided by the LORD. They reveal two aspects of God's help. In the first instance, as shown in Psalm 22:1, page 874, Messiah called for deliverance from suffering, so that He would not be subjected to suffering. In the second instance, Messiah underwent intense suffering, and in the midst of that suffering, relied upon the LORD'S help to endure that suffering. For everyone who believes that God cut off (in the sense of ontological unity or fellowship with the Father) Messiah during His suffering and death, they should seriously ponder, among many important aspects, how Messiah could endure such suffering spiritually without the full power of God at work in the God-Man. Even though Christ uttered the words of "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" after hanging on the cross for hours, we should keep in mind the pictures of Psalm 22, and the continued belief that God would help Him endure the suffering, even if the LORD did not prevent Messiah from suffering. The timing of Matthew 27:46, page 1555, seems particularly important because it was the ninth hour, and Jesus immediately gave up the spirit after this prayer. We see in the progression of Psalm 22 an initial call for deliverance, followed by intense suffering, continued appeals for help, and then praise and glory to follow after death. We shall see all of these events unfold as we look briefly at the flow of Psalm 22, and how that flow helps us understand the confidence of Messiah in the LORD.
The Context of Psalm 22
Now let us look at the balance of the Psalm 22, pages 874-875. Let me reiterate that Messiah felt separated from divine deliverance, but not separated in spiritual unity from the Godhead. Messiah groaned for deliverance, but God did not send deliverance. In Psalm 22, Messiah described His pleas for deliverance from His enemies. In large measure, David spoke prophetically of Messiah and His sufferings.
Psalm 22 opened with Messiah speaking about God forsaking Him, and the distance between His groanings on the one hand and the deliverance He sought on the other hand. In Psalm 22:2-3, page 874, Messiah spoke of His cries by day and night, but God did not answer. Yet, Messiah remained steadfast in belief that the LORD deserved to be enthroned on the praises of Israel. In Psalm 22:4-5, page 874, Messiah recalled that His fathers sought deliverance and God delivered them. Essentially, David wrote predominantly in Psalm 22 as the Messiah's scribe.
David, in Psalm 22:6, page 874, speaking of Messiah, allowed us to look through the eyes of Messiah. Messiah described Himself as a worm and not a man, because people looked upon Him as a reproach of men and despised by the people. In Psalm 22:8, page 874, David related the sneering jousts of Messiah's enemies: "Commit yourself to the LORD; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him."
In Psalm 22:9, page 874 Messiah remembered God bringing Him forth from the womb, and trusting upon God as Messiah suckled. In Psalm 22:10, pages 874-875, Messiah indicated that He was "cast from birth" upon God, and God has been His God since birth. Because of this life-long relationship, Messiah appealed to His God to be with Him now in this time of distress, because God had brought Him forth from birth and had always been His God.
In Psalm 22:11, page 875, David plead for God not to be far from Messiah, for trouble was near; for there was none to help. Notice that David consistently identified the nearness of God with help from God. At this point, the Messianic quality of this Psalm grows very intense. Messiah's enemies have surrounded Him as strong bulls, opening wide their mouths, like a ravening and roaring lion (Psalm 22:12-14, page 875). David then portrayed the bodily torture of Messiah. Messiah's heart was like water poured out, with all of His bones out of joint, and His heart melted like wax within Him (Psalm 22:14, page 875). His strength had dried up, and His tongue cleaved to His jaws, as God laid Him in the dust of death (Psalm 22:15, page 875). David exclaimed that Messiah's hands and feet have been pierced by a band of evildoers (Psalm 22:16, page 875). Messiah could count all His bones, which stared at Him (Psalm 22:17, page 875). In this section, we see a vivid description of suffering, which came upon Messiah, even though He sought to avoid suffering by groaning to God for help. Even while pierced, Messiah still counted upon God to be near Him, even though no one else was there to help Him. His enemies divided His garments, and cast lots for His clothing. The purely Messianic flavor of these comments indicates that much of this section pertains exclusively to Jesus Christ crucified. Throughout the ordeal of crucifixion, Messiah expected God to be near Him to help Him endure the agony.
After expressing both Messiah's internal torture and his bodily injuries at the hands of His enemies, David refocused upon the LORD, requesting that He not be far off. In Psalm 22:19, page 875, Messiah pleads for the LORD not to be "far off." In Psalm 22:20, page 875, David besought God to "Deliver my soul from the sword."
In Psalm 22:22, page 875, Messiah anticipated that He would tell of the LORD'S name in the assembly to His brethren and praise the LORD. In fact, all people who fear the LORD will then be commanded: (1) to praise Him; (2) to glorify Him; and (3) to stand in awe of Him (Psalm 22:23, page 975). The LORD has not abhorred the affliction of the afflicted and has not hidden His face from Him (Psalm 22:23, page 875). This beautiful revelation of the LORD'S love certainly encompasses Messiah and His sufferings, but also everyone who suffers affliction. The very nature of God shines brightly here in looking upon the affliction with loving kindness, in contrast to the enemies who hid their faces from Messiah, despised Him, and did not esteem Him (Isaiah 53:3, page 1155). While the mockers encircled Messiah, the LORD never hid His face from Messiah and never cut Messiah off. Even after being forsaken by the LORD to suffering, which was unavoidable to secure the salvation of all believers, Messiah still cried to the LORD and the LORD heard and helped Messiah endure the suffering and shame (Psalm 22:24, page 875).
The totality of Psalm 22 illustrates the theme that God allowed Messiah to suffer at the hands of His enemies, and specifically did not deliver Messiah from such suffering, even after Messiah groaned for such deliverance. Ultimately God never separated Himself from Messiah in any sense except in the singular sense of allowing Messiah to suffer. Messiah, along with all the nations, praised God in the end, even after suffering. Glory followed suffering. Throughout the remainder of the Psalm, Messiah proclaimed that God would still receive His praise in the midst of the assembly, and all the families of the nations would worship the LORD (Psalm 22:22-27, page 875). Furthermore, Messiah declared that the Kingdom is the LORD's and He will rule over the nations, and all the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship (Psalm 22:28-29, page 876). Psalm 22 concludes with a wonderful picture of God ruling over His people, as they prosper upon the earth and declare the great God's righteousness to all generations, both present and future.
Psalm 22 portrays the suffering Messiah experienced as God did not deliver Him from His enemies. His antagonists sneered while mocking Him, and they also inflicted bodily harm upon Messiah. His heart melted within Him. These poignant descriptions personified the truth that God did not deliver Messiah from suffering and groaning, but ultimately Messiah would stand before God in the great assembly and praise God. Indeed, the triumph of Messiah by the power of the LORD would be told to all generations. Again, nothing in Psalm 22 depicts a separation of Jesus and the Godhead, but rather shows that God separated His deliverance from the groaning cries for help by Messiah. Even then, and although Messiah would die, Messiah would still triumphantly proclaim the righteousness of God. So also glory and proclamation of victory would follow the suffering of Jesus, whom God did not deliver even when Jesus groaned in pain upon the cross. God separated Jesus from deliverance, not from the eternal unity with the Godhead. In summary, David described the separation Messiah felt between: (1) the LORD'S deliverance from suffering and death; and (2) His groaning cries for help. Psalm 22:1, page 874, does not teach that the G odhead separated from Jesus, or that God turned away from Jesus at any time. God forsook Messiah in the sense that God did not deliver Messiah from groaning and suffering. In the same sense, Jesus as God was never separated from God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. Any notion of ontological separation in the Godhead remains contrary to many truths of Scripture affirming the unity of God.
The Essential Unity of the Godhead
Many Scriptures teach the essential unity of the Godhead (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit). In Deuteronomy 6:4, page 297, Moses declared: "Hear O Israel! The LORD is one! Likewise New Testament authors make the same declaration concerning the unity of God. As Jesus approached betrayal, arrest and crucifixion, He declared that He was never alone, because the Father was with Him, and that Father had not left Him alone because He did the things pleasing to Him (John 8:29, page 1671). The role of the Holy Spirit plays an important part in the work of Jesus the High Priest, offering Himself once and for all as the perfect sacrifice for sin. Can you seriously imagine that Christ performed His work as Priest while being separated from the Godhead? Hebrews 9:11-28 provides a careful description of the atoning, high priestly work of Christ. More particularly, in Hebrews 9:14, page 1878, God reveals to us that Christ offered Himself "through the eternal Spirit without blemish to God . . . ." The work of the Holy Spirit indwelling Christ as He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin must compel us to realize that Christ had not been separated from the Godhead during the work of atonement, which entailed His death on the cross. Therefore, the essential unity of God, and especially the work of the Holy Spirit in the offering of Christ as the perfect sacrifice, precludes any notion that Jesus was separated from God at any time related to the atonement or the high priestly ministry of Christ.
The Garden of Gethsemane
Jesus confronted this issue of groaning for deliverance in the Garden of Gethsemane just before His arrest and crucifixion. Jesus prayed specifically that "if it is possible, let this cup pass from me (Matthew 22:39, page 1551). Jesus pictured the removal of the cup of suffering, and prayed for it in agony, with His sweat becoming like great drops of blood, falling to the ground (Luke 22:44, page 1646). The groaning cries of Messiah parallel the fervent prayers of Jesus offered in agony. Jesus, in perfect concert with the Father's will, drank the cup of wrath, so that God's justice and condemnation of sin would be poured out on Jesus, and not believers. Therefore, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane revealed that Jesus sought deliverance from suffering with groaning prayers, but God forsook Jesus to suffering and shame on the cross.
The Christological Controversies
The Christological controversies within the early church also help us avoid error concerning the person of Christ. Particularly, Nestorius (c.386 A.D. – c. 451 A.D.) Archbishop of Constantinople, erroneously taught that God did not die on the cross. Although Nestorious affirmed that Christ had two separate and distinct natures (one human and one divine), Nestorious also declared that the human nature in Christ could die, but the divine nature in Christ could not die. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 A.D. – 444 A.D.), Patriarch of Alexandria, opposed such views, and taught that Christ had both a human nature and divine nature, united in one hypostasis and one prosopon. Cyril emphasized that God died on the cross in the Person of Jesus Christ. The First Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) condemned the views of Nestorius. Later, the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) elaborated more fully a Christology of two natures, not commingled or confused, united in one hypostases and existing as one prosopon. Therefore, although many theologians throughout the centuries have doubted that God could die on the cross, the Bible clearly presents Jesus as laying down His life and taking it up again (John 10:17-18, pages 1675-1676). Some people argue that Habakkuk 1:13, page 1467, means that God cannot look upon sin and so God could not look upon Christ as He was laden with our sin. The argument then continues that God had to forsake Jesus when Jesus became sin for us on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21, page 1809). Such a view misses the fact that God in Christ died on the cross, and so God in Christ not only looked upon sin, but fully experienced sin and death.
Everyone who teaches that Psalm 22:1, page 874, means that Jesus was cutoff from the Godhead as He made atonement for sins must carefully avoid the Nestorian heresy that God did not die in Christ. We read in Scripture that "God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19, page 1809). The hypostatic union of the human and divine natures in Christ means that both the human nature and the divine nature in Christ experienced death and sin. Christ died and death was master over Him for a time (Romans 6:9, page 1766). Christ particularly died to sin once for all, "so that the life He now lives, He lives to God" (Romans 6:10, page 1766). The fact that Christ died to sin establishes the truth that every believer follows Christ in living a resurrected life in Christ to God. The essence of salvation rests upon Christ dying for our sins with the resurrection of Christ and glory to follow (Luke 24:26, pages 1651-1652).
In this study, we have seen that Messiah was forsaken by His God. As we examined the meaning of this term "forsaken" in Psalm 22:1, page 874, we saw there that "forsaken" means that a great distance separated: (1) the cries of Messiah for deliverance and (2) the actual deliverance of God. So, the entire verse reveals to us that God "forsook" Jesus in the sense that God did not deliver Jesus from suffering and crucifixion, even though Jesus groaned for such deliverance. Everyone who argues that Jesus was cut off from the Godhead because God cannot look upon sin, or be touched by it, must consider the essential unity of the Godhead. Because Christ remains inseparably united to God forever, Jesus cannot be separated from the Godhead and still remain God. Furthermore, to argue that the divine nature in Christ did not die on the cross would be tantamount to falling into the Nestorian heresy condemned by the Council of Chalcedon. The hypostatic union of the divine and the human natures of Christ demands that God died on the cross, or to put it another way, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Finally, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in Christ empowered and sanctified Christ to offer His body and blood, through His ministry as high priest, as the perfect, once and for all, atonement for sin. We should rejoice that God, in His infinite grace, mercy, and wisdom, gave us His Son, so that we might die to sin, and live to righteousness. To Him be the glory always!