As Jesus hung on the cross, He cried out the agonizing words that tear into the heart of anyone with a tender heart: “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” It is painful to hear God’s only begotten Son, beloved of the Father, proclaim that He has been forsaken by the Father He adores.
Often this passage is read and the comment is made that because Jesus bore the sins of the world, God had to turn His face from Him and the darkened sky represented the abandoned Son on the cross. But did God really turn His back on His Son and forsake Him as He hung between heaven and man? If God could not look at His Son on the cross due to the sins of the world, will He turn his face from me, the sinner I am, in my darkest hour?
Understanding Psalm 22
Jesus quoted a passage from Psalm 22:1 that Biblical scholars know as a Psalm of the Messiah providing a view of His suffering from the cross. Beyond the description of the Messiah’s suffering, the Psalm is a lesson in trust. Let’s look at the message of Psalm 22.
- Verses 1-3 includes the mournful cry of our Savior on the cross. It appeared that God was not listening because the Psalmist (and our Lord) suffered at the hands of enemies. He cried out day and night and, though there was no apparent answer, did not doubt God’s rule on His throne.
- Verses 4-5 contain a key passage to understanding the Psalm: our Fathers trusted and you did not forsake them. God answered their cry.
- Verses 6-11 notes that the enemies of the Psalmist mock him saying that God has forsaken him (remember this point). The Psalmist affirmed his trust in God from the time he was a nursing child. He begged for God to stay close since trouble was near.
- Verses 12-18 describe the enemies surrounding him with harsh words and cruel treatment.
- Verses19-21a is another call for God to save Him.
- Verse 21b, in the King James and New King James says “You have answered me.” The ESV says “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen (described early as opposing him).” The cry for help was heard.
- Veres 22-24 are triumphant verses proclaiming that God did not forsake His Son as the enemies falsely charged and appeared to be the case from His cry when oppressed. In fact, Psalm 22 specifically teaches that the Father did not forsake His Son nor did God hide His face from Him! This is the opposite of what many Christians conclude today from this passage.
- Verses 25-31 proclaim the glories of God and His righteousness and His care for His people. This incident is one of a history of incidents where God heard the cry of His faithful children and delivered them.
Why Did Jesus Say It?
So why would Jesus say “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross? Again, the context is the key. In Matthew 27:37-44 the thieves, chief priests, scribes and elders are mocking Jesus and His claim to be the Son of God (playing the part of the bulls of Bashan from Psalm 22), daring Him to leave the cross and prove His divinity. The key verse in Matthew 27 is verse 43:
He trusts in God; let God deliver him now , if he desires him. For he said, “I am the Son of God.” (ESV)
The apparent logical conclusion of the enemies is either Jesus is not the Son of God or that Jesus is the Son of God but has been abandoned on the cross since He is not being rescued. Jesus does not have the breath or time to give a dissertation of the necessity of His death on the cross: He is God’s Son but He must remain on the cross for the salvation of man–God did not abandon nor forsake Jesus but He cannot rescue Jesus from physical death without destroying their plan.
Though He cannot argue this from the cross, He can yell out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” which points to Psalm 22. Wise members of the Jewish audience would have known the message of Psalm 22 and realize the events described in the Psalm were taking place before their eyes. They would also know that Psalm 22 teaches that the suffering servant was not forsaken on the cross, that God heard him and did not turn His face from Him, and ultimately many would rejoice for the act of the Savior. Psalm 22 reveals the heavenly perspective of the events on Golgotha that Jesus was not abandoned and God heard His cry.
When my son was very young he had to endure a painful examination to test for a disease. The nature of the test and his young age did not permit anesthesia for pain and at his very young age he was confused about why the doctor was hurting him and I didn’t stop him. I was with him during the examination. Parts of the test were very painful and he is squeezing my hand, crying loudly, and looking at me helplessly. I could have stopped the doctor and taken him from the room but we wouldn’t know his true health condition. I had the power to free him but because of his greater health need, I did not. I did hold his hands, look him in the eye, and constantly assured him that I was there and the pain would be over soon, then comforted him when the procedure was over. I could not stop his pain and he had to endure the suffering but I never abandoned him while he was going through the pain. Taking Matthew 27 and Psalm 22 together, I see such a relationship between the Father and His Beloved Son: He allowed Him to suffer for the salvation of man but did not turn His face from Him.
Can God Not Look At Sin?
Some say that God turned His back on Jesus because He cannot look at sin. God is always looking upon man and sees our sin. While looking on the earth in Genesis 6 He was sorry that He made man. In Job 1 His eyes were going all through the earth. In fact, the vision of God’s all seeing eye is that He looks upon sin and godliness in man. Besides this, looking at Jesus would not be looking at sin but at the sacrifice for sin determined from eternity. Jesus bore our sins in that He received the penalty for our sin but He was an unblemished sacrifice, the sinless Son of God! There was no sin on the cross: there was a sin offering.
But The Sky Was Dark For Three Hours!
Matthew 27 notes that the sky was dark during the day for three hours before Jesus cried out the saying we have been considering. If you read the accounts there is no divine commentary on why the sun was darkened or obscured! I have heard people say that God could not look at sin or look at His Son suffering so the sky was dark. That has to be read into the text because no such thing is said! Only the fact of the darkness is reported. First, considering God is an infinite being, He can only “symbolically” choose not to look at something because the nature of infinity is that He is omnipresent and omniscient. Secondly, perhaps something else is intended. In the Old Testament, the darkened sun symbolized the fall of kingdoms and historical turning points. Perhaps, drawing on the symbolic darkness of the Old Testament, God was obscuring the sun in reality to signify the coming conquest of the kingdom of darkness through the Son’s victory and the historic nature of the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. Remember, only the fact of the darkness is recorded and there may be reasons beyond attributing humanistic reactions to the Father.
Though the thought of God turning his back on His Son as He bore the sins of the world on the cross sounds deeply moving and profound but the clear teaching of Psalm 22 is that it did not happen. God was with His Son in His darkest hour as he bore the sins of the world and died on the cross. God will not forsake you in your darkest hour and will be with you when you transition from this life to eternity.