A number of skeptics have claimed that there is evidence to suggest that Jesus really wasn’t divine, such as His cry of abandonment on the cross. Did Jesus cry out in despair or was there something more?
One of the more controversial phrases Jesus spoke on the cross comes from Mathew 27:46, which records Jesus crying,
“….My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
A number of theories have been posited concerning this verse. Christians have claimed that since Jesus was carrying the sins of the world God abandoned Him because He cannot be in the presence of sin. Those of a more cynical orientation claim that Jesus was crying in anguish because He had realized His delusions of divine favour had been shattered. Neither of these theories is supported by any kind of Biblical evidence, so then where does this phrase come from?
Scholars are on the mark when they claim that Jesus is actually quoting a Psalm. Psalm 22, to be precise, which is one in a series of “Righteous Sufferer Psalms.” In an oral culture, the way to remember certain passages or Psalms was to cite the most memorable part, which for them was the first words. We do a similar thing today when we quote a film, for example. If I ask you, “Why so serious?” you’ll probably know that I’m quoting The Dark Knight. The same principle applies.
But why would Jesus be quoting a Psalm of all things? The answer is one of vindication. In effect, Jesus is saying that He is the fulfilment of Psalm 22, which Jews believed to be a Messianic Psalm. The first words of that Psalm are,
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
What’s more is that the Psalm concludes with a note of triumph and vindication,
“For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard. My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him. The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the Lord that seek him: your heart shall live for ever. All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the Lord‘s: and he is the governor among the nations. All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation. They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.” (Psalm 22:24-31)
And this isn’t the only Psalm quoted. Throughout the Gospel narratives, we find plenty of allusions to similar Messianic Psalms. I’ll list a few of the more well-known allusions below, beginning with the Gospel passage and the associated Psalm below it.
John 15:25 (Being hated without a cause).
Psalm 35:19 and 69:4.
Mark 14.45 (Mt 26.49; Lk 22.47-48) (deceitful kiss).
Psalm 38:21 and 41:6.
Mark 14.61 (silence before the accusers)
Mark 15.24 (the division of garments)
Luke 23:46 (“in your hands, I commend my spirit”).
And on we can go. There’s a vast amount of evidence to conclude that our phrase in question is of the same nature.
We may anticipate a response that asks if it weren’t the cry of a victim, why say it as if it were? Elsewhere in the Bible, a loud cry was seen as an eschatological sign (John 5:28, 1 Thess. 4:16, Rev. 10:3) and in relation to the rendering of the veil, the earthquake, and the darkness, it’s clear Jesus’s cry signified a sort of apocalypse, so to speak. Another piece of evidence that connects it to the entirety of Psalm 22.
Finally, and most importantly, Jesus explicitly states these allusions after the resurrection,
“And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” (Luke 24:44, additional emphasis and bold mine).
So there we go. Critics who interpret this passage as if it were a cry of weakness and despair or that Jesus did not understand why God had forsaken Him are off the mark and fail to place Jesus’s words in their proper context. He may have been suffering but He also knew of the triumph to come.