The Seven Last Words of Christ
The Fourth Word
Matt. 27:45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus’ cry, quoting the first words of Psalm 22, is perhaps one of the most challenging passages in the Bible. Not only is the entire scene gut-wrenching, Jesus, beaten, stripped, hanging from the cross with his mother and friends standing beneath him watching his anguish in anguish of their own, but this great cry of despair should penetrate our very souls. We see and cannot comprehend the physical suffering and then we question even the theology of it.
How is it that God could have forsaken himself? How could he forsake his Son? The short answer is that God did not and would not. Just as we are human, Jesus was fully human and in his humanity experienced both the physical and spiritual horrors of this moment. And in that moment he did not utter a simple cry of doubt, as it may seem, asking if God could have forgotten him. Rather Jesus was invoking the entirety of that psalm.
Psalm 22 begins
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
But it continues
Psa. 22.3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
It is, in fact, a rather long psalm and is a psalm of complaint or lament where David calls upon God to hear his cries of suffering and to see the pain and hardship he is enduring for the sake of his faithfulness to God. Such psalms often begin with a “calling out” of God, a demand that God listen or a statement that God has rejected his people. It is jarring and often causes Christian readers to feel that the psalmist is impertinent if not heretical. Who are we to challenge God? And yet far from being blasphemous or the sign of faithlessness, it shows the depth of confidence that the psalmist has in God that they can call to him and he will respond.
What such psalms teach us, that I think we have often forgotten, is that we can and indeed must be honest with God. Our prayers should not be filled with platitudes and flowery language, but rather we our deepest needs and concerns, even our complaints against God. Consider Jesus’ own example when he went to the Mount of Olives, shortly before he was betrayed.
Luke 22.39 He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” 41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
In his prayer Jesus gives us permission to be honest with God, to ask God to spare us the difficult times. “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Jesus utters this imperative to his disciples twice in this one passage and it is, of course, the same prayer that we utter in the Lord’s prayer. “Lead us not into temptation/trial, but deliver us from the Evil one.” We are allowed to ask God to spare us trials, tests, and difficult times.
We are not being “spiritual wimps” when we pray for his grace to ease our lives since not only does Jesus command the disciples to pray for this deliverance, he himself prays for God to spare him the trials that he knew were to come. The vital element of such prayer is our willingness to accept such trials if God so desires. We must be honest with God even, and especially, in our darkest and deepest moments of fear and doubt and we must subordinate our own wills to God’s, just as Jesus did.
And in these final moments of his earthly life, when Jesus invokes this powerful psalm, he continues to show his faithfulness to God and his confidence in God’s faithfulness to him. Within the heart of this psalm is the assertion
Psa. 22.9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
He declares and knows that it is God who will deliver him, the very God who has cared for him since birth, and has guided his life. And the psalm concludes with the confident assertion that God is ruler of all and will deliver him and his people.
Psa. 22.27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.
29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
This is the what Jesus is declaring, not a doubt as to whether God is still with him, but the honest declaration that he suffers and that only God can bring his deliverance. And with the psalmist he declares that at the last he will raise up his son and all those who call upon his name.
…future generations will be told about the Lord…
…saying that he has done it.