The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus – “Why Have You Forsaken Me”
At this point in our study, Jesus has already forgiven His attackers, given comfort to the penitent criminal, and secured care for His mother. He has been upon the cross six hours. Darkness has blanketed the land for the last three hours. Now, Jesus turns upward, and addresses His heavenly Father.
Matthew 27:45-49 says,
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, “This man is calling for Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. But the rest of them said, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.”
Some of the eyewitnesses misunderstood Jesus’ cry. They heard “Eli,” which is similar to “Elijah,” and assumed that Jesus was calling for the prophet Elijah to descend and render aid. Their minds would have drifted this way naturally. They knew the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6, “I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Most of the Jews interpreted this to mean that Elijah the prophet literally would be resurrected, and would have some role to play in the redemption of the nation (see Matthew 16:14, Mark 6:15). Thus, some at the foot of the cross wondered—some sincere, most mocking—whether this might be the moment that Elijah would come. Jesus, however, already had pointed out that Malachi’s prophecy was figurative, not literal. Jesus explained that John the Baptist was its fulfillment, who came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (see Luke 1:17, Matt. 11:14, 17:10-13). The mob’s expectation was misguided.
Instead of calling for Elijah’s appearance, Jesus was addressing God in heaven. He spoke in Aramaic, the language of Palestine in that day. Matthew translates for his audience, so that we may immediately see the connection to Psalm 22.
David wrote Psalm 22 at a time of great suffering and despair. David begins by asking, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.” He goes on to describe the brutality of wicked men who surround him. “All who see me sneer at me ... A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones ... They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.”
It’s easy to see why this is considered a Messianic psalm, with David prophetically speaking in the shoes of his greater son Jesus. David was going through his own trial, but the Spirit of God guided his words, anticipating the crucifixion scene of Christ. Not only does Jesus quote the opening line, but Matthew quotes 22:18 regarding the clothing (Matt. 27:35). We see several other echoes.
Now, this phrase, “Why have You forsaken Me?” requires careful handling. On the face, it sounds like God the Father abandoned God the Son. Surely there is truth to that. Jesus had no sin, but upon the cross He bore in His person the sins of all mankind (2 Cor. 5:21). The penalty for sin is death—not just physical death, but separation from God—and Jesus paid that price in full as our sacrifice, our ransom (Isa. 53:5, Matt. 20:28). Thus, God did “forsake” Jesus as He bore the sins of the world, turning away His countenance from His Son. I don’t presume to know the entire mechanics of this, nor does Scripture tell us. In his commentary, H. Leo Boles suggests we cannot expect to penetrate “the deep mysteries of the atonement, which pertain to the mutual relations of the Father and the Son in those sufferings” (p. 543). Interestingly, it is the only place in the synoptic gospels where Jesus addresses God without calling Him “Father.” Furthermore, the word “cried out” is used only here in the New Testament, indicating very powerful emotion. Mark Stauffer says the cry reveals “the utter horror Jesus felt as the weight of the world’s sins rested on him and the presence of his father was removed” (p. 391). I am convinced that this alienation was the worst part of Jesus’ suffering. Yes, the nails were cruel. Yes, His body ached. But while He bore our sins, He was forsaken, sensing a spiritual divide not experienced before or after.
Still, we need to be careful to remember that Father and Son and Spirit are truly One, and can never be separated. Whatever it was God the Son experienced on our behalf, it is right to understand that it was also experienced by God the Father and God the Spirit, and that the fulness of the Godhead remains unified in securing our redemption. Jesus never stopped being God, and at no point was Jesus a helpless victim; He was in complete control (John 10:18). “Why have You forsaken Me?” it is a deliberate use of Psalm 22, which shows that the suffering of the Messiah is part of God’s eternal and foreordained plan for atoning for mankind’s sin. And if we read the rest of the Psalm, we see that despair quickly turns to triumph and praise. While Jesus was in the depths of the worst suffering, He still looked to his Father for salvation. His cry still began with, “My God!”; even in anguish, Jesus counted on the love and justice of His Father to return, that He would emerge from His ordeal whole. The cross, then, not only displays the awfulness of sin and the punishment it demands, but also displays the love of God (1 Pet. 2:22) who defeated sin and rescued sinners by satisfying that demand through the gift of Himself.