A brother asked this question of me, and I think it is an excellent question: “What did Christ mean when he cried out upon his death, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’ (Mt. 27:46).” It is an excellent question biblically, and it is also an excellent question because of modern interpretations of it–some of them helpful and true, and others just plain strange. And the question boils down to two interpretive questions: Was Christ making some sort of commentary upon his crucifixion by crying out those words, or was he crying out a reality that was true of the time when he was crying it out, namely that God the Father had in reality forsaken him?
Before we seek to interpret what Christ was meaning when he spoke his famous last line before his death, it is important that we understand the words themselves and how a witness to the crucifixion (either at time of Christ’s crucifixion or through the lens of Scripture) who knew his Bible well would understand the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is interesting to note before we begin that when Christ spoke those infamous words many in the crowd misunderstood them. Some in the crowd responded to his cry, “The man is calling for Elijah” (Mt. 27:47). Are we to conclude that Jesus was mumbling or that he was speaking so softly that the crowd could not understand his words? Matthew answers this question to the negative, testifying that Christ cried out those words with “a loud voice” (v. 27:46). I think that this misunderstanding of the crowd is comparable with that of the crowd’s misunderstanding of the Father speaking from heaven in John 12, where the Father, in response to Christ’s pre-crucifixion petition, “Father, glorify thy name,” says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (Jn. 12:28). Those who heard the voice of God audibly were the same people who surrounded Christ at his crucifixion, viz. the unbelieving Jerusalem inhabitants, and they who did not believe thought the voice of God was thunder or an angel speaking to Christ. The only ones who understood what the Father had said were those who had believed in Christ, and to them Christ says, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine” (Jn. 12:30). Therefore, I believe that the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” of Christ was spoken and comprehended for the benefit of the believing ones since not all who heard him understood his words.
If then we presume that Christ’s cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” was a cry that was a benefit to those who had believed on him, how then is that cry a benefit to the believing ones? Getting back to the actual words that Christ spoke in his cry, a majority of those who had believed on Christ at the time of his crucifixion were Jews and thus were well-steeped in the Scriptures. And since they knew the Scriptures well, having been taught from them their entire lives, when Christ cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the first thing that their minds would rush to is Psalm 22. Why? Because Psalm 22 begins with the very phrase, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).
Granting that these were Jews who were raised in the Scriptures and also that it was very likely that they sung Psalm 22 along with the other Psalms at their synagogues, it is likely that Christ’s speaking those words to the believing Jewish onlookers had the same effect on them as a speaker would to us who in his discourse simply said, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” or, “A mighty fortress is our God,” namely that it would bring to mind the text of the entire song.
So then, what words were brought to mind when Christ cried that first line of Psalm 22 that would be of elucidating benefit to the believing onlookers of his crucifixion? Well, a casual reading of Psalm 22 would highlight a great deal of Christ’s crucifixion and the Plan of it, even before the foundation of the world, and would further show forth Christ’s desire, even to the end, that his followers would understand that he had to go “to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt. 16:21):
Mt. 27:39-43: “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, “I am the Son of God.”‘”
Ps. 22:6-8: “But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads [saying],
‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!'”
Mt. 27:35-36: “And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there.”
Ps. 22:16-18: “For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones–
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
Now it is clear by the way that Matthew constructs his narrative of the crucifixion that Psalm 22 was a clearly in the backdrop. In both passages we see God’s Afflicted One being mocked, having heads wagged at him, mockers deriding him saying, “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him,” his clothes being divided up and distributed by the casting of lots, evil men surrounding him, and most significantly, his hands and feet being pierced. Thus by crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” Christ declares that he has fulfilled Psalm 22 and thus edifies his believing listeners. Though it is clear from later in the narrative that the followers of Christ did not grasp what all of these things entailed, Christ’s testimony upon his death concerning Psalm 22 has greatly encouraged believers in the Church for two millennia after the pouring out of the Spirit.
Now that we have surmised the intention of Christ in his cry and Matthew in his writing the narrative of Christ’s crucifixion, how are we understand the literal meaning of the words, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Are we to simply conclude that Christ was merely referencing Psalm 22 and the words had no literal, present meaning with respect to the event of Christ’s crucifixion, or are we to forget Psalm 22 altogether and focus only on the words of the cry of Christ?
Now, I have posited the latter of the two questions, viz. “Are we to forget Psalm 22 altogether and focus only on the words of the cry of Christ,” because I cannot count how many times I have heard this done in Sunday School lessons and in Easter sermons. Far too many times have I heard explanations and theories as to what “Christ’s being forsaken” means without a thought at looking at Psalm 22. I think it is foolish to even attempt such, for, as we have already seen, the parallels between the two passages can in no way be considered mere coincidence. Matthew was quite intentional when he wrote his crucifixion narrative, and to miss his heavy allusions to Psalm 22 is to miss his meaning entirely.
Furthermore, to ignore Matthew’s references to Psalm 22 has consequently led to some strange, if not heretical, doctrines concerning the nature of Christ’s crucifixion. One such doctrine that is drawn from looking at Christ’s words alone is a doctrine that states that God forsook Christ when he took upon himself the sins of the many because God, being holy, cannot look upon sin. In other words, when Christ became sin on our behalf (cf. 2Cor. 5:21), God literally turned his back away from Christ, and Christ looked up into heaven and saw the Father’s back and cried, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” While it is preposterous to think that Jesus looked up into heaven and saw the back of him who has no back (for God is Spirit), it is more preposterous to say that a holy God, because he is holy, cannot look upon sin. If this were true, how in the world can we explain the rest of Scripture? Was it not God who sought out sinful Adam? Was it not God who called out the idolater Abram? Was it not God who spoke with the murderer Moses face to face? Was it not God who spoke to Satan, the father of sin, and restricted his authority in the narrative of Job? Was it not God Incarnate who took on the form of sinful flesh and lived among sinful men, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, calling them to himself? And will it not be God who at the Judgment looks face to face with reprobate and casts them into Eternal Fire? To say that God cannot look upon sin out of some fear of tainting his holiness is totally false and contradicts Revelation itself. If this were somehow true, we must conclude that God is like the god of the Deists, who set the universe into motion and after the Fall disappeared for his holiness’s sake, and not Emmanuel–God with us, who holds every particle together (even the sinful particles), by the Word of his power.
A second strange doctrine that is imposed upon Christ’s words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is that at the cross there was an ontological separation between the Father and the Son. In other words, at the cross, a unique and God-jarring event took place that never took place before and will never take place again in that the Son was in some way separated from Father in such a way that the One became Two, or, in Trinitarian thought, the Three became Two and One. Now, nowhere in Scripture will you find such a conclusion about the event of the crucifixion in the apostles’ writings, nor you will not find such in Christ’s words except from crass assumption. In addition to the lack of clear textual support, to affirm the possibility of such a division in the Godhead has all sorts of negative ramifications, the most significant being that God who has, who is, and who will ever be eternally One is able not to be that way at the Cross. It is simply a faulty assumption by poor students of God’s Word, and it should never again be spoken of.
Furthermore, to conclude that the Father literally turned his back or face away from Christ when he poured his wrath upon his most Beloved Son is tantamount to saying that the Father was at one point displeased with the work of the Son. While it can be rightly said that Christ became sin on our behalf and was accursed for us who were accursed, can we ever come to the conclusion that there was ever a point in Christ’s work where the Father did not say, “This is my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased? Furthermore, to conclude such a reality at the event of the crucifixion contradicts the declaration of Psalm 22–the aforementioned text from which Matthew draws much of his parallels. There the psalmist writes:
For [the Lord] has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the Afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him (Ps. 22:24).
In other words, the psalmist declares the very same truth that the Resurrection declares, namely that God was pleased with the work of his Son. The Father did not literally turn his face away from the Son in disgust or abhorrence, but he poured his wrath on him who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (cf. 2Cor. 5:21). Therefore, God raised Christ up, vindicating the Righteousness of his Son, who, in three glorious Days, defeated both sin and death.
A Mediating Position
How then are we to interpret Christ’s words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? First, as I have already contended, we need to understand Christ’s declaration in light of Psalm 22. It is clearly the Gospel author’s intention that we be drawn to this gloriously prophetic psalm to further elucidate and validate Christ’s crucifixion. Secondly, we need to look at Christ’s cry in the light of the other Scripture that teaches Christ’s work. We do not need to assume anything of the words alone, but we need to test our conclusions against the testimony of the apostles. Was Christ accursed for our sake? Yes, for the apostle Paul declares, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (Gal. 3:13). Did Christ in some way become sin on the cross? Yes, for the apostle declares elsewhere, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21). Did Christ bear God’s wrath for our sake? Yes, for the apostle writes again, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as gift from the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith” (Rm. 3:23-25). All of these things we can affirm by Christ’s words and by the teachings of the apostles, therefore these things can be concluded of the text.
However, we need to avoid such conclusions that are clearly speculative. Did God in some way actually turn his back on Christ? This is no where stated in the text, and therefore we should not draw this conclusion from it. Did God not look upon Christ because of his holy nature that cannot look upon sin? This also is not in the text and is clearly refuted by the whole of Scripture and redemptive history. Did the Father turn his face away with some sort of displeasure in his Son? No, because Psalm 22 declares contrarily that the Father has not turned his face away from his Afflicted One. All these speculative assumptions simply need to be cast away and never spoken of again in Sunday School classes or Easter sermons, because they miss the clear purpose of the author and they raise all sorts of unneeded questions with respect to the nature of the Triune God. Safe are those who hold fast to the analogia fidei, and treacherous are those who devise strange doctrines. Soli Deo gloria. Amen.